‘Tanking To The Top’ Brings Readers Inside The Sixers Process And The NBA’s ‘Culture Wars’

Two things become evident early on in Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. One is that Sam Hinkie, the Sixers’ former general manager who served as the brains behind the entire operation, wasn’t all that interested in talking about his time with the franchise, which abruptly came to an end in April of 2016 by way of a 13-page letter that includes a whole lot of references to things that are not basketball. The other is that the Sixers really didn’t want this book to happen.

“Me inferring, I don’t think they were ready for this story to be put into form,” Yaron Weitzman, the book’s author, told me over the phone prior to its release. “Again, I’m guessing there. I think part of it — I’m guessing, but this is an educated guess — but I think the history with The Process and Sam Hinkie is not necessarily something that they’re proud of, just trying to go away from that, which is funny, because then they’ll trademark Trust The Process, they did that already, so I guess that’s kind of having it both ways, but who am I to say?”

Still, despite the aversions by perhaps its main character and the organization at the center of it all, Weitzman’s book came out last week. Tanking to the Top is the deepest dive into The Process that we have, giving a glimpse inside the years leading up to the team’s controversial tear down, The Process itself, and where the Sixers stand now.

As for whether or not the current iteration of the franchise is at the top, Weitzman — who, in the interest of transparency, used to be a colleague of mine at SLAM and its former football site, TD Daily — admits that the most accurate title would have sounded a bit more cumbersome.

“You can feel free to use my joke that ‘Tanking to Two Straight Second Round Playoff Series’ doesn’t sound as good for anybody,” he says. “I love when people on Twitter respond, ‘The Top? What top did they get to?’ Like, ok, relax, it’s a book title, alright? Come up with a different alliteration.”

If “The Top” means a franchise with legitimate championship aspirations, then the Sixers’ window is open. Weitzman made it clear that defining this exact version of the team as a “contender” might be a bit difficult, and concedes that winning a ring takes a fair amount of luck. But with all that said, Philadelphia has a pair of young superstars who can serve as the faces of the franchise for the next decade. After finding themselves in basketball purgatory for years, and then going through a process that hurt like hell for a while, Philly is in a position where they’re consistently playing important basketball games for the first time in a long time.

“They traded a few bad years for a few more really good ones, and if you’re a Sixers fan, the games matter, and they’re a championship contender, and the Sixers matter,” Weitzman says. “And whether you win or not, that’s a luck thing, it’s about being at this level. From there, it’s a separate conversation.”

Dime caught up with Weitzman prior to the book’s release to discuss some of its main characters, whether or not The Process is over, how the Sixers gave the NBA’s various culture wars an opportunity to play out, and much more.

I’m glad you mentioned what you did about The Process as an experiment. As you went into this and as you did some learning, I’m sure you had an idea of the emotional response people had to this, but what do you think it is about The Process that still touches a nerve regardless of what side people were on?

I think it just came to represent a lot of different things, which I guess makes it a good story. If you’re writing a story, the thing that makes the story good is that the story is really about bigger picture “Why?” And The Process hits that very well. It kind of came to represent … and we’re seeing these arguments still, the nerds vs. the athletes, analytics, what’s the proper way to build a team, blogs vs. old school media, kind of all these different sports/NBA culture wars just became embodied through The Process, I feel like. And then what happens is people get entrenched in their positions and the words, back-and-forth, become a even more inflamed a little bit. So if you’re someone who is anti-Sam Hinkie when he first came in, you’re gonna say even more so now, “Oh, it never worked, you see? We were right.” And then if you’re somebody who thought it was right, you say, “No, look, the Sixers are a contender every year.”

And then Sam was just such a unique personality. I guess it’s the mystique, right? Because people don’t know him and he didn’t speak a lot and he came and he let other people sort of decide what he represented — some probably were, some probably were not so correct. He became this figure in the middle of all of this, and then you mix in a million different things, you throw in Joel Embiid’s big personality, and Ben Simmons just becomes this monster that everyone has an opinion on.

There are six people who I think — outside of [principal owner] Josh Harris, because I wanna keep this on basketball — but six major players in here, for me, who kinda caught my attention, and I wanna know what you learned about them that you may not have known going in. The first one I have to start with is Sam Hinkie.

I learned that he is very much, a lot of the cliches that people have of him, they’re very much true. We’re all three-dimensional, and there’s a story, I think Chris Ballard wrote that great profile and he had some stuff in there about Sam loving basketball. I think he was the first one to describe him this way, Sam loves basketball and he squats 500 pounds, but also, if you speak to Sam Hinkie, if you talk to people about Sam Hinkie, some of the assumptions you make about him without even knowing, they’re true. The way he thinks, the way he talks.

It’s sad, but I did not know his older brother committed suicide when he was a kid. Later on I learned and heard that he doesn’t like talking about that, he’s probably not thrilled it’s in the book, but it’s just one of those things that, like, it sucks, this profession and the stuff that we talk about, I don’t have a responsibility to do it. I have a responsibility to put it in there because it’s an important detail in someone’s life, but it’s not like an altruistic thing to be putting in there. Is it a responsibility to the truth? Yeah, sure, but it’s one of those times that you put something in there that he doesn’t let his kids tweet about, and it’s unfortunate it had to go in there, because I don’t have a good response.

But yes, I learned that, and I learned that in that moment, that basketball — as you see in the book, after his brother killed himself, Sam talked about this once on a podcast or he alluded to it, that a friend’s father brings him outside and brings him to shoot some hoops and he finds some semblance of sanctuary there. And I do think, for all the stuff with Sam, we talk about Sam in terms of being Mr. Analytics and Silicon Valley and all that, I do think he believes in the magic of sports a little bit, I do think there’s something there to that. He’s somebody who truly loves and believes in sports.

Next up would be Brett Brown.

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Brett Brown was a fun dude in high school and college. Brett liked his beer, there’s some good stories, if I may say so myself, about him pranking teammates, I like the one at Boston College where they had something with a cab driver. That, but Brett’s really good with the media and being front-facing, and he’s had to deal with a lot of being the team’s spokesman, and he’s really good at that. Behind the scenes, Brett’s got a little bark to him, whether it’s cursing or temper, things like that.

Joel Embiid.

The eating thing is true. I don’t care what anyone says, he eats a lot. I guess we kinda knew that before, but the Chick-fil-A thing that he tried pushing back on, I don’t buy that. I was most proud of myself about getting the stuff on his backstory about learning more about his story and how he actually ended up here and how he had an uncle who emailed a scout. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Joel Embiid, I think his story has been told often in kind of a fairy tale way — he was discovered, he came, everyone was happy, and there’s some people who feel, like his uncle, a coach, agent, there’s some people who feel like they helped him get there and were left behind. I think that happens with lots of people, it’s hard when you make it to the one percent of one percent, not everyone is gonna make it there with you, it can be difficult. I just like when stories get more human and realistic, and there’s more layers to it. That doesn’t mean Joel did anything wrong, it’s just more interesting when you hear the full story.

Kinda going off of Joel, next up has to be Ben Simmons.

How about this, Ben and Joel, I learned about the relationship between the two of them. I tweeted something today, I saw Michael Rubin at Sloan (Sports Analytic Conference) said it was “bullsh*t” that there was ever worries about their relationship. That’s just patently false, people have worried about it, and they were not best of friends, that’s for sure. But I also think some of it was overblown. My understanding is there was never a screaming match, they never had anything major. I think it was more just like two kids growing up and there’s passive-aggressive stuff.

The thing about their relationship, it’s funny when people talk about it, because it seems like often people on both sides are wrong from the way I read it. People say, “This is a non-story, it’s nothing, how dare you mention it, who can think that these two don’t get along?” when they see a picture of them high-fiving, that’s just being ignorant. But if people think that these two are doomed forever and cannot play with each other — I shouldn’t say play with each other, because I think the on-court question is a legitimate won — but these two cannot be in a locker room with each other, they can’t stand each other, that part is false.

I don’t know how you could have learned something about this guy because we learned about him in a very weird way, and that is Bryan Colangelo.

I learned that the Andrea Bargnani thing was something that hung over him, the missed Andrea Bargnani pick. He thought he was railroaded in Toronto a little bit, and I think I have a quote in there somewhere about somebody telling me he thought the Bargnani pick was actually a good one and he should be proven right in that, that hung over him. Fultz was his big gambit to put his imprint on the Sixers, his own career, things like that.

I think the context of Bryan Colangelo is interesting, some of his background with his father, I found some quotes I felt were pretty interesting about him when he was hired in Phoenix telling local newspapers that the charges of nepotism were something that worried him and bothered him and he wanted to prove them wrong, and I do think all those different whims were what led to him saying, “I’m gonna go for it with Markelle Fultz, that’s gonna be my guy, I’m gonna show that I’m validating myself, I’m not just Jerry’s kid, Sam wasn’t responsible for this, I can build this championship team.” I think that pushed his aggression a little bit.

For me, the most interesting guy in any Process thing, Markelle Fultz.

There’s a lot more to his story than just a simple shoulder injury, right? No matter what he wants to say, doesn’t mean A+B=C. For example, I learned that his mother, two people told me his mother forced him to fire his best friend, who was his trainer, because she was upset about how he was handling him, or that local kids were leaving Chick-fil-A sandwiches at his house in Cherry Hill, I believe, where he lived. And she wanted to send out flyers saying “stop doing this,” and she didn’t like how the flyers were sent out, and she made Markelle, how it was relayed to me, choose between “him or me,” which is not really a choice. And I think things like that, there was just a lot going on for a 19-year-old kid to deal with.

Is there anyone in your reporting on this book who turned into a bigger piece to this entire puzzle than you expected going in?

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The main guys are the main guys, right? Brett and Joel are kind of my main people, and Sam. And then you have Markelle and Jahlil — I guess Okafor’s whole story played more of a role in this than I thought, in terms of him being on TMZ that night essentially was the final straw with Hinkie and being pushed out. In context, how Okafor, it was a combustable situation, this guy who came in and sort of … he saw his mother die in front of him and blamed himself a little bit, which I guess I knew that story, but not really, or I had forgotten it or never connected the dots. That doesn’t mean A happened because of B, because of C, but it’s sort of like the randomness. Jahlil Okafor sort of represents that this person with this backstory was thrown in this situation and that kind of led to the undoing of all of that.

So I’ll say that, and to be honest, Josh Harris a little bit, too. As funny as it sounds, the owner of the team, but I found his arc interesting, how he’s here when he buys the team and at his introductory press conference, talking about how this is a good business opportunity. He’s at Sloan Conference now talking about how he’s an NBA GM, or he’s sitting in the middle of the press conference where they announced Tobias Harris and Al Horford and all those guys, and Josh Harris is there next to Elton Brand explaining why he thinks they’re gonna help from a basketball standpoint. I found that interesting and surprising, and learning about private equity a little bit and what Josh Harris’ business background was, it kind of gave more insight into, yes, Hinkie’s the architect but it’s very obvious he was hired by somebody who wanted him to do exactly that.

I should have thrown Scott O’Neill in there, too. His whole story is interesting in terms of someone who played more of a role than I thought, someone I didn’t really know before.

You mention how Philly served as this basketball culture war in all this, is there anything unique about the city and the fans of Philadelphia that you thought made it possible to go all-in on all of this for as long as the franchise did?

That’s kind of the funny thing, I’ll say this, that’s where they blew it in a way, and not Sam Hinkie. But just that if you’re gonna do a tear down, the hardest thing in sports — I always compare it to the Knicks because I’m a New Yorker, they’ve been losing for 20 years without a plan to lose — in sports, use one consistent plan. They had a consistent plan, and they had actually got a big chunk to buy in, and that’s almost the hardest part when you do a tank, or you do a rebuild, it’s getting people to buy in.

I put it in my book, I do find that the Rights to Ricky Sanchez guys had a really big role in all this, I really do, in terms of being able to galvanize a fan base into one coherent voice, or organize a fan base into one coherent voice, and galvanize them behind this plan. I think that helped, I really do, and they became spokesmen, they were the leaders and people listened to them. It was almost like they were pitchmen for it without being on the team’s payroll. If you’re a team, that’s the best thing you can have, influencers like that. And the flip side is, they were already there and they were so mobilized, the group represented by those guys, when you push out Sam Hinkie, you’re gonna have a loud, organized voice coming against you as well and making everything seem louder.

I don’t know about Philly the city. Honestly, I don’t know, I was an interloper there. I was in Philadelphia a lot, but it was mostly the Marriott, the arena, or Camden at the practice facility, it’s not like I was walking the streets. I can’t pretend to know a city like that, but I do think that the way this played out with the fan base, it did make things louder and more intense on both sides for sure.

Would you say that The Process is over or is it something that, as long as Embiid, as long as Simmons, as long as those links to the absolutely garbage Sixers teams are there, they’re always going to be in The Process?

I don’t know. I mean, yes, no. I guess if I were to do it, it’s a three-part play. Part one was the tanking, part two was from Simmons’ rookie year to now, and now where do you go from here, this is the first dip in it. Yes and no, how about that? How’s that for a clear answer?

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity, and was made possible by Dime receiving an advanced copy of the book.