Professional basketball is about more than just baskets and balls and sneakers and fame and points and championships and money. Actually…it’s totally about money. But bear with me for a second. At its best, pro ball is about a feeling.
That feeling, to be more specific. That feeling Bulls fans get when they see the clip of Jordan hugging the championship trophy in ’91. That feeling Raptors fans get when they watch Vince Carter’s reinvention of the Dunk Contest in 2000. That feeling fans in Miami got when the Heat, down three with only seconds left during Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, saw their prayers answered by Ray “Jesus” Allen’s hairpin trigger equalizer.
There’s a feeling associated with the game that can’t be measured in points or dollars.
For a 76ers fan like myself, the greatest “feeling” of my (relatively) young NBA lifetime happened in 2001 after Allen Iverson — fresh off hitting a fadeaway jumper late in Game 1 of the NBA Finals — disrespectfully stepped over Tyronn Lue for emphasis. It was the only loss the Lakers suffered that postseason. Goosebumps every time.
In the absence of actual game-inspired joy, Sixers fans have experienced something else. Against all odds (and, actually, by working them), GM Sam Hinkie’s losers have unified the city in a way not seen since the Iverson days. While the national media enjoys taking shots at the Sixers’ golden No Limit tank job, local fans for the most part have embraced the front office’s long-term plan to rebuild: losing with purpose! Hinkie praised the fans’ surprising level of support himself.
Part of this may be due to the recent success of the team across the parking lot, the Philadelphia Eagles, and head coach Chip Kelly’s scientific and logical rebuild. The Sixers’ approach has a lot in common with his (emphasis on sports science, nutrition, heavy use of analytics, a fast-paced offense, etc.), and fans in Philly have grown sick of the opposite, which we’ve lived through for decades and can see currently failing with the Flyers and Phillies (who’ve resisted rebuilding since winning it all in 2008.) Those two clubs have insisted for years that they’re “only a few pieces away” from a championship, when in reality they’re not close at all. Fans in the Delaware Valley have been sold snake oil and, having recently wised up to those lies, are much more willing than expected to accept short-term losing for long-term success.
So the trick for Sixers fans recently has been finding a new feeling to hold onto amidst the record-breaking losing. Michael Carter-Williams chased stats on his way to winning Rookie of the Year last season, but for the most part Sixers fans’ enjoyment only went as far as our imaginations would take us. For most, that was the irrational dream of Andrew Wiggins hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy in a jersey with ‘PHILA’ on the front. But then came the draft lottery followed by news of Embiid’s broken foot, and even though most fans felt okay taking the big Cameroonian third in this year’s draft, none of us had any idea that we wouldn’t have to wait to fall in love with him.
It all started with his pitching free agent LeBron James to come to Philly. One short tweet opened the city’s eyes to the uncensored delight that is Joel Embiid’s Twitter account. The LeBron recruitment quickly turned into blocking LeBron, which turned into acknowledging his own hilarious memes, which then turned into hitting on celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Rihanna and ”The Bachelorette” Andi Dorfman. The newest Sixer became an instant hit by being hilariously cavalier.
Now, Joel Embiid — without ever playing an NBA game — is well on his way to realizing an Iversonian level of connectedness with Philadelphia. Twitter wasn’t around in AI’s playing days (thank Yeezus), but it has allowed the Sixers’ first-round pick to win over some of the coldest supporters in America. An underdog who hits on unattainable celebrities and fucks with the best player on the planet? That’s the type of stuff we’d do! In only a matter of weeks, Joel Embiid — the seven-foot tall African former volleyball player — found a way to connect with a tough, mostly caucasian American fan base.
Face it, since AI the team hasn’t had a lot of players to celebrate anyway. Andre Iguodala. Lou Williams. Jrue Holiday. Thad Young. Evan Turner. None of these guys are players who could energize a franchise. Iguodala, by only the fault of his contract, was a polarizing figure. Evan Turner — by the fault of his personality and inconsistency — was mostly hated. And while Jrue, Lou, and Thad were/are generally liked, that was the extent of the emotion they invoked.
Embiid is already loved.
There are only a handful of people in sports who have the power to say whatever they please with little consequence — your Mike Tysons, Ozzie Guillens and Charles Barkleys. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why these guys get a pass, but for one reason or another they’re allowed to say things that would ordinarily wreck someone’s career. In Chuck’s case, his unfiltered brand of straight talk won over Philadelphians for years and continues to earn him millions in TV dollars to this day. Barkley can/will say anything, and we will forever love him for it.
Joel Embiid doesn’t yet have the forever pass, but he’s disarming, genuinely well-meaning and just plain funny. In a best-case scenario, Joel Embiid will turn out to be well worth Hinkie’s planned sabotage — a jokester who hits on Rihanna and can also casually hit a sky hook from three-point distance. In the midst of the Sixers’ rebuild, one that Adam Silver is attempting to ruin, nobody on the Liberty Ballers’ roster has Embiid’s combination of personality, accessibility, and legitimate potential. All that has a chance to inspire more than just wins.
SOURCE: TRIANGLE OFFENSE