By Bill Gorman, Sports Talk Philly Writer
I was born in Philadelphia and spent the first nine years of my life in the Feltonville section in Northeast Philadelphia, and then we moved to Delaware. I was not raised as a 76ers fan, mainly because my father was not a basketball fan. Baseball was No. 1 in the Gorman household, with hockey and football fighting for second place.
My relationship to the 76ers did not begin in earnest until I started playing basketball with friends in junior high school. We were nearing the end of the Charles Barkley era in Philly – he was traded to Phoenix during the summer after my freshman year of high school – and much like my future basketball career, the 76ers were really going nowhere.
Allen Iverson came in the 1996 draft and ignited things for both the team and its fans, culminating in a magical trip to the NBA Finals in 2001 against the vaunted Los Angeles Lakers, who had swept their three previous series. In an epic performance, Iverson carried us to a Game 1 win, and nearly dragged us to two wins in Los Angeles, were it not for some wobbly free throw shooting from Aaron McKie in Game 2.
The Lakers ultimately won the series because they were by far the better team, but after 18 years of frustration being a Philadelphia sports fan, that gritty 76ers team brought me back in a way that the 1993 Phillies could not. They had a charismatic, if enigmatic, superstar in Iverson. They had strong support in guys like McKie, Dikembe Mutombo, George Lynch and Tyrone Hill.
Unfortunately, the 2003 season would be the last time the Sixers won a playoff series until the fated 2011-12 lockout season. The following eight years were marred by bad coaching (four fired after one season), poor drafting and even worse signings (Kyle Korver and Willie Green for six years EACH? Elton Brand for HOW MUCH?) and trades.
The 76ers led the division for most of the season, but fell apart late and just slipped into the playoffs as the 8th seed. The mighty Bulls, No. 1 in the Eastern Conference for the second straight year, were the opponent, but after losing both Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah with injuries, the Sixers took them out in six games. In between Games 1 and 2 of the Semifinals against Boston, my mother lost her second fight with cancer. I spent much of the next two weeks at my parents’ house, commiserating with friends and family over the loss. Mom was never a sports fan, but she was supportive when the Philly teams were good. And with the Sixers taking Boston to seven games, I knew she would be smiling as I carried on conversations about her with a crooked eye towards any television screen I could find.The Andrew Bynum trade was next. A trade that I will defend until my last day, but a trade that ultimately backfired in spectacular fashion and essentially cost Tony DiLeo and Doug Collins their jobs.This all brings us to The Process – Sam Hinkie’s dastardly plan to rip down the Sixers to the studs and rebuild it almost entirely through the draft process. Every player with any trade value was shipped away for whatever draft compensation we could possibly receive. Picks that prior administrations had traded away were reacquired in shrewd moves. Players that would struggle to see time on the average D-League team were getting heavy rotation minutes for my Sixers. A few would stick around, like 3-point bomber and Sideshow Bob hair enthusiast Robert Covington and Hoosiers extra TJ McConnell, but most were here for one reason – they were cheap, they weren’t good, and the team would lose more games with them playing. Teams came calling to us with needs for our cavernous cap space and generously provided picks and pick swaps so that we would take on bloated contracts like Carl Landry, Javale Magee, Andrei Kirilenko and others. The goal was to draft as many players as possible, because to Hinkie, draft picks were like lottery tickets. The more you had, the more chances you had that one or more would hit it big. We took chances on injured players like Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. We took centers in three consecutive drafts. Finally, in 2016, the league stepped in and “requested” that Jerry Colangelo be given an advisory role with the team. A few weeks and a 7,000 word manifesto later, Hinkie was gone, replaced by future Twitter enthusiast Bryan Colangelo. For all intents and purposes, The Process was over. The Process was difficult. Much of the time, fans were left feeling like characters in Major League, saying “who are these freakin’ guys?” over and over and over again. Many fans revolted against The Process. They wanted any and every available free agent. They wanted to trade for any and every available player, in hopes that one of them would be better than Tony Wroten, Hollis Thompson or Henry Sims.
Personally, I struggled with The Process. There was never a clear endgame. I could see Hinkie masterfully moving the pieces around the board like a mathematical Bobby Fischer, but the game would be endless. There were times when it felt like The Process might be a pyramid scheme. Like we were being told “give me three more years and this will all make sense,” after we had spent three years trying to decide whether it was a good idea to spend money to watch Isaiah Canaan play basketball for 35 minutes a night. Ultimately, things appear to have worked out. A combination of Hinkie’s best moves, like drafting Embiid and Saric, along with Colangelo maintaining large swaths of salary cap space and signing medium-sized contracts like Covington, who received a four-year, $46 million contract before he became a 1st team All-Defensive Team performer, helped take the team to a third place finish in the Eastern Conference in 2018 and yet another playoff loss to the hated Celtics. A wild offseason, including a scandal where Colangelo was accused of leaking sensitive medical information about players like Embiid and embattled first-round pick Markelle Fultz, led to Colangelo’s firing.
The 2019 season featured new general manager Elton Brand re-making the team twice, sending Saric and Covington away in exchange for Jimmy Butler, then sending multiple players and picks away to the Clippers for Tobias Harris. They fell short again, this time to the Raptors in a seven-game series ended by a Kawhi Leonard shot that just bounced again. In my eyes, The Process will never be complete. Not until Joel Embiid is lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy over his head after vanquishing LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2020 NBA Finals. It will have been the wildest ride.