In 2015, it was always gloomy in Philadelphia. All four of the city’s professional sports teams finished in last place. The Phillies had gone from back-to-back World Series appearances to the worst record in baseball, and were the last franchise in sports not to hire an analytics department. The cellar-dwelling Flyers were still learning how the salary cap worked. The Eagles were conducting Chip Kelly’s Sports Science experiment, which turned out to be pseudoscience. And all along, Sixers fans were asked to TRUST THE PROCESS.
What is the Process? Here is one fan’s story.
In 1995, I was 9, and I was just becoming a Sixers fan. Before then, like any frontrunning little snot, I loved the Orlando Magic. And the Bulls. Watching Shaq and Penny was like a free trip to basketball Disney World. Michael Jordan was God incarnate. Dennis Rodman taught me the word orgasm. Really—when Rodman said he wanted to change his name to Orgasm, I asked my teacher what that meant. She told me to ask my mom, and that day I found out what love is all about. Thanks, Dennis.
Love was a confusing subject for a kid, but I knew one thing for sure—I was in love with basketball. Between halftime trips to the curb to shoot buzzer beaters, I watched any game that was on. I had little understanding of local broadcasting licenses, but they ensured that more often than not, when I turned on my TV, the ’95 Sixers were on my screen.
They were a terrible team. Featuring fatties Derrick Coleman and Clarence Witherspoon, they looked nothing like the heroes I loved. While Jordan’s Bulls won a record 72 games, they bumbled their way to 18. I openly rooted against them. One night, however, the basketball version of Stockholm Syndrome (Stockton Syndrome?) set in. The stars aligned, and the Sixers came from behind when one of those clowns hit a buzzer beater. As I bore witness, I felt a slight twinge in my heart. I was rooting for them.
The rest of that season would beat it out of me. The Sixers finished with the worst record in the league. With the #1 pick in the draft, they would select a six-foot guard from Georgetown.
Allen Iverson became my favorite athlete of all time. He was a living NO FEAR t-shirt (who smoked weed). He spoke without any filter whatsoever. His brash style drove stodgy executives mad while inspiring a generation of young poggers and future bloggers. He embodied Philadelphia. He played with the same chip on his shoulder that the inhabitants of a city in New York’s shadow lived with every day. Shaq? He was a mythological creature. Iverson stood six-feet in shoes. He made ten year old me think, “Hey, grandpa was like 5’11″. I just need to work on my handle!” And by the end of high school, after a lot of hard work, I could proudly say I was 5’11″.
By 2001, when I was a freshman in high school, Iverson led a ragtag bunch of lovable scrubs to a Game 1 Finals victory over Kobe and Shaq, the only game the Lakers would lose in the entire playoffs. His famous shot and step over Tyronn Lue is the defining moment of my life as a basketball fan. When the Sixers went on to lose the series, I cried.
But Iverson is only part of this story (for more on him, just watch Iverson). His lack of discipline eventually incensed coaches and left his physical gifts diminished. Meanwhile, I frustrated my teachers and ended up dropping out of school. Iverson was traded to Denver on December 20, 2006. I was two weeks into basic training, and received the news in a letter my little brother wrote me. I was beginning my wandering years, and so were the Sixers.
In my time in the military I worked alongside good people, made close friends, traveled, and had fulfilling experiences. Ultimately I came to feel it was not the career in which I could be the best version of myself, and decided not to re-enlist. Meanwhile, the Sixers, led by the new AI, Andre Iguodala, as well as some other Pretty Good players like Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young, took those late 2000s Sixers teams to some Pretty Good seasons. But Iguodala was never the Answer, and stuck with only Pretty Good draft position, the Sixers weren’t very likely to find one. It was the antithesis of what the Process would one day be. They fired their longtime general manager Billy King, and, after interviewing Rockets assistant Sam Hinkie (remember that name!), hired Tony DiLeo. In a well-intentioned attempt to go from Pretty Good to Great, DiLeo and then-coach Doug Collins went for broke, trading Iguodala and a package of players and draft picks for Andrew Bynum. A young, phenomenally talented center who at 25 had already helped lead the Lakers to two titles, Bynum would injure his knee shortly after the trade. He would never play a game for the Sixers. DiLeo and Collins, having paved the road to basketball hell, were fired.
The Sixers and I were entering our creative phase. A deployment to Iraq had served as the devastating knee injury to my belief in the war effort. I completed my service in the military and became, of all things, a stand up comedian. The Sixers were about to become the butt of a few jokes as well. Under new ownership, they decided to hire Sam Hinkie after all. Not a “basketball guy,” but a “stats nerd,” Hinkie came from Houston, where he’d worked under famed analytics guru Daryl Morey. Inheriting a roster with no superstar talent and bereft of draft picks from the Bynum trade, Hinkie took a hard look at things and formulated the plan that would become known as the Process.
The ins and outs of the Process is a story in itself, best told here by Pablo S. Torres. Hinkie, and the inner workings of his brilliant mind, has also been profiled in Sports Illustrated. So without the burden of further research, the Process can boiled down to a few key concepts: 1) It is highly improbable, in fact virtually impossible, to win an NBA championship without a superstar (usually more than one). 2) The surest means of acquiring a superstar is through the draft. 3) Until you have acquired a superstar, the best course of action is to give yourself as many chances as possible to find one.
On draft night in 2013, Hinkie and the Sixers entered with the 13th pick. Not exactly superstar territory, but maybe we could find the piece to push us back into the playoffs, I reasoned. Then, the first domino fell. News broke that the Sixers were trading their best player, Jrue Holiday, to New Orleans for the sixth pick in the draft. Though not quite a superstar, Jrue was a smooth, two-way point guard, still young and on a good contract. At the time, he was my favorite player by default. By all conventional logic we were supposed to be building around him, and just like that he was gone.
It was initially reported (erroneously) that the Sixers were also sending next year’s pick to New Orleans. Panic began to set in. This Hinkie guy had to be an actual moron. But minutes later, we found out we were getting next year’s pick from New Orleans, and the most forward-thinking of fans began to trust. We would miss Jrue, but it seemed we weren’t going anywhere with the team we had anyway. With that sixth pick the Sixers selected Nerlens Noel from Kentucky. Initially touted as the #1 overall pick, Noel had torn his Achilles shortly before the draft, would miss the upcoming season, and his draft stock had fallen. Then, with their own pick at #13, the Sixers drafted Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams as a replacement for Holiday.
On paper, the Sixers looked terrible, but as it turned out everything worked perfectly—for about a week. The Sixers opened the 2013-14 season in October with a surprising victory over LeBron James and the back-to-back champion Miami Heat as MCW lead the way with an unprecedented triple-double in his first NBA game. Three straight wins opened the season before the roof caved in. The (D-League) Monstars stole what little talent they had, and in an excruciating stretch from January to March of 2014, the Sixers would lose 26 consecutive games, tying the Cavs for the longest losing streak in history.
In October 2013, I went to a comedy club and signed up for my first open mic. I had attended a few with a friend who’d been pressuring me to try it, but at first I insisted I was only there to watch. After awhile, though, I realized that most of the people there were pretty terrible at it. Inspired, I went back the next week expecting to fail. Somehow, shockingly, I didn’t. I had a few decent jokes, probably about animals or whatever, and before I knew it I was getting booked for shows around town. One night, a bunch of my friends came to watch, and I bombed for ten straight minutes. In terms of pure agony of the soul, that’s longer than a two-month losing streak. I was coming to find out I had a moderate case of stage fright, hardly any stage presence, mumbled when I got nervous—in short, I was a rookie at comedy, with a lot left to learn.
At the end of the 2013-14 season, the Sixers finished with league’s second-worst record. The lottery gods rewarded them with the third draft pick, as Nick Gilbert and the Cavaliers jumped up to 1st.
Only two weeks before the draft, the consensus #1 pick, Joel Embiid, broke his foot, putting him out for the year. The Cavs and Bucks both passed on Embiid, and for the second year in a row, the Sixers selected a center who would not play all season. After some shrewd maneuvering, Hinkie used the 12th pick to take Dario Saric, who was under contract in Turkey and wouldn’t be eligible to play for the Sixers for at least two more years. Two top 10 picks, and they wouldn’t play a minute. Only months later, the Sixers stunned the basketball world by trading Michael Carter Williams for a draft pick. He became the first Rookie of the Year winner to be traded the following season.
Two years into the Process, Sixers fans were asked to double down on trust. For the second time in two years, we’d traded our best player away for a draft pick. Two years into my career as a stand up, I quit a good day job with benefits to pursue comedy full time. I was willing to bet on myself and on Hinkie and the Process. We would make it—someday.
But it was still the slow, painful present, and the Sixers finished with the league’s second-worst record for the second consecutive year. Once again, the lottery balls bounced badly for the Sixers and they fell to the third pick. Hinkie selected post-up brute Jahlil Okafor, fresh off of a national championship with Duke.
Shortly before the season, the Sixers got a piece of devastating news: Joel Embiid had re-broken his foot. Fans began to doubt whether he would ever play a game in the NBA. Yet with Noel and now Okafor in the fold, the Sixers looked ready to move on from Embiid if necessary. But by March, Okafor would be shut down for the year with a torn meniscus, making it the fourth year in a row the Sixers’ marquee big man acquisition would fail to finish the season with them.
It was all unraveling fast. The Sixers had started the year an unthinkable 1-31. “Trust the Process” was quickly going from a cult catchphrase to a punchline for pundits. National media and league executives were open in their disgust for the Sixers and Hinkie. They were anti-competitive, they were a disgrace, an abomination to the basketball gods—nay, God himself. A draft lottery reform, widely viewed as an “anti-tanking” measure aimed at the Sixers, was brought up for a league vote. Commissioner Adam Silver unofficially-officially forced the Sixers to bring in Jerry Colangelo (head of USA Basketball and former Suns president) as president of basketball operations, spelling impending doom for Sam Hinkie. They would finish the season with 10 wins, avoiding the all-time record for losses (held by the ‘73 Sixers) by one game. Despite all the team’s young talent, Sixers’ ownership were forced to decide if they had the fortitude to continue the Process.
While my basketball team was starved for success, I was just starving. The Sixers had one more win than I had dollars in my bank account. I was living off unemployment. Like the Sixers, I had a few specks of young talent. I’d become a regular at a great comedy club, and put together some successful shows and projects. But much like the draft lottery, your “big break” in entertainment has a lot of luck involved. I had to trust the process of stand up comedy: write, perform, repeat. Hope for the best. If I was being honest, I didn’t know how much fortitude I had left either.
It was already too late for Sam Hinkie. Rejecting a demotion within the organization, Hinkie had little choice but to resign last April. Hinkie’s 13-page “manifesto,” intended to be a private letter to his bosses, was leaked to the public. For those few of us still trusting the process, it was a funeral procession. Hinkie would leave his team the worst three-year record of all time—as well as a bevy of draft picks, the highest odds at the #1 pick in history, and Joel Embiid.
With the cumulative weight of all those ping-pong balls, the Sixers finally won the lottery and selected Ben Simmons, a 6’10 forward with moves like Magic. And Joel Embiid was at long last—could it be—healthy? After seeing nothing but his Twitter game for years, video began to surface of a ripped Embiid swishing threes and throwing down 360° dunks like a 2k create-a-player. Someone had even bumped up his attributes—the tape showed he’d grown two inches, from 7’0″ to 7’2″.
After showing flashes of brilliance in preseason action, Ben Simmons promptly broke his foot—seemingly a tax any Sixer over 6’10″ must pay before suiting up. Fans would once again have to wait to see their new prize.
But Joel Embiid was an immediate panacea. He was a two-way force of nature. Despite a playing time restriction to make sure he didn’t re-injure his foot, he quickly began setting records on both ends of the floor. Jovial off-court and fierce on it, his personality galvanized the team. His highlights trended on Twitter, celebrities hopped on his All-Star campaign. He was the superstar the Sixers had spent all that time searching for. Teams like the Suns, Lakers and Magic—who had done their rebuilding “the right way”—looked on with envy as the Sixers ceiling suddenly became a championship. Embiid, overnight, had become the justification for the whole Process. Fittingly, he adopted “The Process” as his own nickname.
Under the tutelage of the relentlessly positive Coach Brown, the rest of the roster melded around Embiid. Astonishingly, more than half of the 50-plus players Brown coached in his three seasons were now out of the league. But he’d helped those with actual NBA talent grow by leaps and bounds. “What our players, particularly our best players, are in greatest need of— [is] time,” Hinkie wrote in his letter. Now, undrafted Hinkie gems T.J. McConnell and Robert Covington and Kings-castoff Nik Stauskas have blossomed into starters. Dario Saric walked away from more money overseas to come to the NBA. When Embiid couldn’t play, Nerlens Noel stepped in to provide the Sixers with 48 minutes of violence at the rim. TRUST THE PROCESS was suddenly a nationwide trend. The Sixers won as many games in January alone as they had all of last season.
Time was on my side as well. After a couple of years of pure, ugly, dedication to the grind, comedy was starting to pay the bills. At least, like, Netflix and some of the smaller ones. This January, I found myself watching the Sixers on my phone backstage, waiting to open for one of my comedy heroes. After my set, I headed back to the green room. “Great set, man. You killed,” he told me. I had. It felt good. I’d learned to kill, and more importantly, that it didn’t even always matter. There’d be another show to follow. Back to the process.
With the team starting to win not only games but the respect and admiration of their peers, the beauty of Hinkie’s plan continues to unfold from beyond his (basketball) grave. If the Sixers keep winning, their draft lottery odds will fall. But all those trades for picks—once panned as anti-competitive—have left them with multiple lottery picks from other teams, including a suddenly crucial pick swap with the Kings. Meaning they don’t have to be bad, they can let another team do it for them. Suddenly, with Ben Simmons’s debut still to come, we can root for the Process and root for success at the same time.
I’m not famous—yet. And the Sixers aren’t champions—yet. There’s a small chance we never will be. But I’m having fun figuring this thing out while I watch my team do the same. And so can you.