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Tanking to the Top
The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports
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When a group of private equity bigwigs purchased the Philadelphia 76ers in 2011, the team was both bad and boring. Attendance was down. So were ratings. The Sixers had an aging coach, an antiquated front office, and a group of players that could best be described as mediocre.
Enter Sam Hinkie—a man with a plan straight out of the PE playbook, one that violated professional sports' Golden Rule: You play to win the game. In Hinkie's view, the best way to reach first was to embrace becoming the worst—to sacrifice wins in the present in order to capture championships in the future. And to those dubious, Hinkie had a response: Trust The Process, and the results will follow.
The plan, dubbed "The Process," seems to have worked. More than six years after handing Hinkie the keys, the Sixers have transformed into one of the most exciting teams in the NBA. They've emerged as a championship contender with a roster full of stars, none bigger than Joel Embiid, a captivating seven-footer known for both brutalizing opponents on the court and taunting them off of it.
Beneath the surface, though, lies a different story, one of infighting, dueling egos, and competing agendas. Hinkie, pushed out less than three years into his reign by a demoralized owner, a jealous CEO, and an embarrassed NBA, was the first casualty of The Process. He'd be far from the last.
Drawing from interviews with nearly 175 people, Tanking to the Top brings to life the palace intrigue incited by Hinkie's proposal, taking readers into the boardroom where the Sixers laid out their plans, and onto the courts where those plans met reality. Full of uplifting, rags-to-riches stories, backroom dealings, mysterious injuries, and burner Twitter accounts, Tanking to the Top is the definitive, inside story of the Sixers' Process and a fun and lively behind-the-scenes look at one of America's most transgressive teams.
Including exclusive interviews with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Coach Brett Brown, Sam Hinkie, and more.
The architect of The Process1 had no interest in talking to me about, well, The Process. “I’m perfectly comfortable with everyone drawing their own conclusions,” Sam Hinkie told me one evening. This was the second time we’d spoken over the phone. Both conversations could be best described as frivolous. “I don’t have any interest or willingness to quote-unquote shape a legacy,” Hinkie said. “I’m not built that way. It’s just not what I want to do.”
That was back in the fall of 2018, before Hinkie ceased answering nearly every one of my texts, which, of course, was his right. This was also before he began instructing friends, family, and even employees at alma maters to decline interviews with me. Also his right, and something he’d done with countless reporters before me. But frustrating nonetheless.
An example: One morning last September I called a childhood friend of his named Duane Lovett.
“I’d love to talk,” Lovett told me. “Call me at two this afternoon.”
When the time arrived later that day, my call went to voicemail. I texted Lovett. He responded that he was going to have to “pass on that talk.” I laughed and messaged Hinkie. “I’ll say this,” I wrote, “I admire your relentless informing of people from your life to not speak with me.” I added a smiley face at the end because I’m a serious journalist.
“You should admire the depth of our relationships,” Hinkie responded.
I, however, still had a book to write, a story to tell. I still needed to illustrate who Sam Hinkie is as a person. I still needed to explain what he sought to accomplish during his two-plus years as the president of basketball operations for the National Basketball Association’s Philadelphia 76ers. There’s the obvious and simple answer—winning a championship—but it seemed to me that there must be more to it, or at least more to him. Few leaders in the history of sports have ever so willingly and aggressively sacrificed the present in order to chase a better future. Hinkie wasn’t the first to try taking advantage of the warped incentive system found in most professional sports in which bad teams are rewarded with good draft picks, but he did take this plan to a new extreme and in doing so drove the basketball world mad. Hinkie triggered a culture war. To some fans, he and his plan—dubbed by others “The Process,” as in “Trust The Process,” an homage to Hinkie’s belief in focusing on process over results—was the closest thing to religion they’d ever experienced. To others, he was the NBA’s Bernie Madoff. He angered agents, annoyed that one of the thirty teams capable of paying their clients had essentially removed itself from the marketplace, and irritated competitors, many of whom felt Hinkie was violating the first rule of professional sports, summarized so perfectly years earlier by former New York Jets head coach Herm Edwards:
You play to win the game.
If he were to talk about his own legacy, I’m guessing Hinkie would counter that he was playing to win the game, but that the only game he cared about winning was the championship. Still, there was so much more I wanted to know, so much I was curious about, so much I felt I still needed to learn, and so you can imagine my excitement when, a few weeks after the quip about his deep relationships, I discovered the name of a person who I believed could provide me a more substantive answer.
In April 2016, Hinkie officially resigned from his position with the Sixers. Five months earlier, at the behest of the NBA, the team had hired Jerry Colangelo as a special adviser. Colangelo had spent nearly fifty years as an NBA executive. He was as powerful and respected as anyone within the basketball world and not a person interested in letting others dictate. Hinkie understood exactly what his arrival meant.
Hinkie resigned, and did so via letter. But this wasn’t just another resignation letter. Addressed to the Sixers’ equity partners—and quickly leaked to the media—it went on for thirteen pages. It featured a bullet point about a flightless bird from New Zealand called the moa. It had subsections paying homage to famous investors like Charlie Munger. It quoted Abraham Lincoln twice. That neither Lincoln quote was actually spoken by Lincoln is beside the point. (Hey, who among us hasn’t been duped by the Internet?) More important, it offered an in-depth look into the mind of its author.
“Science is about predictions,” Hinkie wrote at one point. A couple sentences later he quoted a man named Tim Urban, who, Hinkie said, “will soon be recognized as one of tomorrow’s polymaths.” Then, in parenthesis, came a piece of advice. “Like many of you,” Hinkie wrote to the Sixers’ ownership group, “he lives in New York—I’d recommend meeting him for coffee sometime.”
This suggestion may not have been addressed to me, but I figured why not take Hinkie’s advice? After all, I too live in New York. Also, and more to the point, Hinkie and Urban had clearly engaged in rigorous scientific and philosophical conversations. Urban, it seemed, was a man who could provide some of the answers I was desperately searching for.
But first I had to figure out who the hell Tim Urban was.
I cued up Google and discovered that Urban was the thirty-something-year-old author of a long-form blog called Wait But Why. One of his essays, titled “How to Pick a Career (That Actually Fits You),” was more than fifteen thousand words and featured friendly-looking graphs and charts. Another fourteen-thousand-word entry was about cryonics and why they “make sense.” The posts were littered with references to Urban’s relationship with Elon Musk.
I found an email address and introduced myself. A few weeks later an assistant, Alicia, replied. “We should be able to set up a quick 15-minute call for this month,” she wrote. I told her that I was actually looking to follow the advice of Sam Hinkie and meet Urban for coffee.
“We stick to phone calls (or virtual coffee meetings over Skype!) as much as possible as it doesn’t break up his writing flow as much,” she replied, “and they’re much easier to schedule ahead of time as Tim’s location can be a bit unpredictable this far in advance.” Not ideal, but I figured harping on whether the coffee was shared in person or virtually was the sort of thing only non-polymaths worried about. I told Alicia that Skype was great.
Two months later, on a Friday morning, I swapped my usual outfit of sweats for jeans and stopped at the Starbucks across the street from my office to pick up a caramel macchiato.
At 10:30 I called Urban on Skype and sipped from my macchiato as the app rang. No answer. I tried again. Still no answer. Finally, on my third call, he picked up. The picture was fuzzy, but he appeared to be wearing a red flannel button-down.
“Can you see me?” he asked.
“It’s a little delayed, let me try calling you back.”
He did. I answered. The picture was still delayed and fuzzy.
“Let’s try one more time,” he said.
He did. No change.
“How about I call you,” Urban said. I gave him my number. We were now stretching the boundaries of “having coffee together.”
I asked Urban how he met Hinkie. He told me that Hinkie had reached out to him a few times via email. “I know about his work, obviously,” he said. “I read his long letter and think he’s a pretty awesome dude.” He scrolled through his computer and cued up Hinkie’s first message, sent March 14, 2016. He read it out loud.
“He said that ‘my name is Sam Hinkie, I’ve become a fan of your writing, we’re headed to New York now because we play the Nets tomorrow night and I wanted to see if you possibly have any time to get together tomorrow, I’d do my best to make it interesting for you.’”
Urban doesn’t follow the NBA, but he said he recognized Hinkie’s name. “I knew the Sixers were doing a really creative and innovative type of rebuilding,” he said. “I’m a fan.” Unfortunately, he had no availability the next day. Hinkie tried again a few months later, after resigning. Once again Urban was out of town. Next, it was Urban’s turn to try. He was scheduled to be in Philadelphia around October. By then Hinkie had moved to Palo Alto.
“And then he wrote back on November 1,” Urban told me. He read Hinkie’s message out loud. “I’ll be in New York much of next week, happy to grab coffee or a meal if your schedule allows. I bet we can find a bunch to kick around.”
Urban paused for a second and tapped on his keyboard.
“Oh, shoot! I never saw this and never responded.” He seemed genuinely upset. “I can’t believe it.”
I laughed. “So you two never actually had coffee?”
“No, we never did. But I think at the time it was so imminent, it was clearly going to happen.”
I was disappointed. Also a bit confused by Hinkie suggesting others do something that he himself never did. Still, it wasn’t every day I got to speak with “one of tomorrow’s polymaths.” I figured there was still an opportunity for me to learn, to maybe gain some insight into the type of thinking Hinkie is drawn to.
I asked Urban why he believes his work appeals to Hinkie. He mentioned an idea he often writes about, which essentially boils down to inventing your own reasoning versus “copying what’s normal to do, normal to think.” He dived into a cooking analogy to illustrate his point. “A chef writes his own recipe, plays around with a bunch of ingredients, and fails often. But sometimes he comes up with something that’s totally different and new and better than we’ve had before.” A cook, on the other hand, “just takes the recipes that have succeeded the most, that are currently being followed, and builds everything around the recipes that have already been proven to work. That’s how you protect yourself from true failure—not how you become an original. The way to actually do something great, something that really surprises people and changes things, is to be more of a science experiment and actually try stuff. That’s going to lead to a lot of failure, and people who are cooks never understand the chef until the chef succeeds. But when the chef does succeed, he creates something truly transcendent.”
By now he was rolling.
“Geniuses are often mocked by society before getting rewarded,” he continued. “In the past they’d sometimes be executed. Society often thinks they’re arrogant, when really what chefs are saying is, ‘I’m more humble about what we know, about, for example, what makes a good basketball team.’”
I told Urban that boasting about one’s own humility seemed sort of oxymoronic and, well, Trumpian. “But in this case it’s really talking about humility,” he said. “The first thing a chef says in a room full of cooks is, ‘I don’t know how to best do this and that’s okay.’”
I texted Hinkie that night, informing him that I followed his advice and “had coffee” with Tim Urban. I also told him that Urban realized he had missed Hinkie’s last email and felt awful about it.
Hinkie used his iPhone to “like” the text.
* * *
Sam Hinkie wasn’t the only one who wouldn’t talk to me for this project.
“The Sixers are terrified of your book,” one former team employee told me in the fall. This was back when I was young and naïve and thought I was writing the NBA version of Moneyball, not a tale of palace intrigue more akin to Game of Thrones. This employee, like many of his former colleagues, had recently received a call from the team reminding him of the nondisclosure agreement he’d signed as part of his severance package.
I had notified the Sixers of my book contract over the summer, to let them know that I’d be reporting around the team and to see if they wanted to be involved. About a month later a public relations official called to notify me that the team would not be participating. This was fine, and sort of expected. I still possessed the credential that came along with my day job as an NBA reporter for Bleacher Report, which the Sixers allowed me to use throughout the 2018–2019 season. But my relationship with the team often felt strained. For one, current employees were told to stay away from me because I was writing this book. Sources were called by higher-ups and asked to strike quotes. Players were instructed not to have book-related conversations. At one point I had broached the idea of an in-depth interview with a Sixers player with whom I had a strong professional relationship.
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll give you an hour whenever you need.”
I approached the player a couple months later about officially setting up a time.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve been instructed not to do any interviews for the book. There’s nothing I can do. They’re my employer.”
Officially, I had a cordial relationship with the team the rest of the year. They even helped with one or two stories. But behind the scenes the Sixers did almost everything they could to prevent me from telling this story. Only at the very end, after I sent them a list of specific questions and offered them the opportunity to comment, did they participate in any book-related discussions. These were limited to a few off-the-record conversations with Sixers public relations officials and a quick off-the-record chat with Sixers head coach Brett Brown.
I write all this to set up the context and framing of the pages ahead. For this book I conducted interviews with about 175 people. I spoke to current and former players, basketball staffers, and business employees. I spoke to these people’s friends. I spoke to player agents. I spoke with opposing executives. Some individuals were willing to go on the record, but most of these interviews were conducted on background, meaning I could use the information but the sources had to remain anonymous. I discovered early on that to tell this story properly I needed sources who could speak candidly. (After I had started my reporting, I learned that the Sixers were contacting former employees to remind them of their nondisclosure agreements.) They needed to know that no stories or anecdotes would be traced back to them, which is why you won’t see much direct attribution in the pages ahead.
Why no one currently affiliated with the team ever tried selling me on their version of this story, I’m still not quite sure. Something about Sam Hinkie and The Process spooks the team’s ownership and management. But no matter what they do, no matter how hard they wish, The Process will always be a part of the Sixers. It hovers over the organization like a thick fog. All the drama, all the infighting between general managers and owners and CEOs and coaches and stars, all the egos and competing agendas and mysterious injuries and secret Twitter accounts can be traced back to the decision to hand the reins to Sam Hinkie in May 2013. He may be long gone, but in Philadelphia The Process lives on. This is its story.
1 A Google search reveals that all profiles about said architect must begin this way.
Six years before hiring Sam Hinkie in 2013, the Sixers were led by another general manager who considered going down a Process-like path.
Billy King had arrived in Philadelphia a year after the Sixers had taken Allen Iverson first overall in the 1996 draft. He’d watched him grow into an MVP and seen the ways he’d energized both the city and the team. But now the time had come to move on. The Sixers were no longer winning, and Iverson’s presence was doing more harm than good. In December 2006, Iverson demanded a trade. King, weary of his star’s malcontent ways, was more than happy to oblige. This, he believed, was an opportunity. Iverson was still one of the league’s premier scorers, still the sort of player who could fetch all sorts of different offers. Trading him would allow King to remake the Sixers any way he wanted. And what King wanted was to build through the draft.
He had two options. One was to tear everything down, to punt the rest of the 2006–2007 season, and maybe even the one after that, and to find a suitor willing to surrender draft picks and young players. This was King’s opportunity to take advantage of the NBA’s aspiration for parity. Every year the best college and international basketball players enter the league through a draft, whose order is determined via lottery. The worse a team’s record the previous year, the better its chances at receiving a high pick. It’s a way to throw a life vest to sinking teams but also offers an incentive to lose. If King wanted to, he could gut the team, and the Sixers would likely wind up with one of the top players in the 2007 draft.
Then there was the second option. King could try threading the needle: He could target young players, and draft picks, but also try recouping a veteran or two to help keep his team afloat. This would bridge the gap between the Iverson era and whatever came next, which, in theory, would help the team’s bottom line, which, in theory, would please ownership, which, in theory, would allow King to remain secure in his job.
King agonized over the choice. On December 19, the Denver Nuggets called with a take-it-or-leave it offer. King considered his options and spoke with his mentor, Hall of Fame head coach Larry Brown. Finally, he made up his mind.
That afternoon he called Iverson. “You’re going to be a Denver Nugget,” King told him.
Six years later, The Process was born.
* * *
Brown had brought King with him to Philadelphia nine years earlier. The Sixers were coming off six straight losing seasons, and the days of all-time greats like Wilt Chamberlain, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Moses Malone, and Charles Barkley captivating fans while donning Sixers uniforms were long gone. Sixteen years had passed since the team’s last NBA title. One of the NBA’s most iconic franchises had somehow faded into an afterthought.
But now there was a hope. The Sixers possessed a young, transcendent star in Allen Iverson. A once-in-a-generation talent, Iverson was a fierce and fearless not-even-six-foot jitterbug who could impose his will in a game typically governed by giants. On the floor, Iverson was a spectacle. But he was also more than that. He was brash. He didn’t care for authority. The ink blanketing his black skin was as much a part of his uniform as his Sixers jersey. He’d stroll into press conferences with his hair braided into cornrows and pants so baggy that you couldn’t make out the outlines of his skinny legs. Players around the league followed his lead. Almost single-handedly, Iverson merged the worlds of hip-hop and the NBA. Mostly as a reaction to him, and in an attempt to soothe its spooked corporate (i.e., white) partners, the NBA instituted a dress code in 2005, banning players from showing up to league events in hats, do-rags, large jewelry, or pretty much any article of clothing or accessory that looked lifted from a rap video.
Iverson had played just two seasons at Georgetown University before being drafted first overall by the Sixers in 1996. He was named Rookie of the Year in 1997, even though his Sixers won just 22 games, at the time the third-worst mark in franchise history. It was the beginning of a trend that would follow Iverson throughout his career: individual accomplishments not always translating into team success.
The team’s new owners at Comcast Spectacor—a subsidiary of Comcast run by chairman Ed Snider—were unwilling to accept such results. The losing especially irked new team president Pat Croce, who was in the midst of launching a massive rebranding project meant to “modernize” the team. He’d soon unveil a new logo, with the team’s name written in gold blocks as opposed to the traditional blue and red, and have the Sixers wearing black uniforms on the road. But he knew winning was what mattered most and that turning the Sixers into a winner meant pairing Iverson with the right coach.
Enter Brown, a former collegiate point guard who as a coach had led the University of Kansas to a title in 1988. Brown had spent the previous decade bouncing around the NBA. He was considered one of the shrewdest, and sternest, coaches in the league. Croce believed Brown possessed the acumen and demeanor to both connect with Iverson as a person and harness all his electrifying talent.
At times, the partnership flourished. The two men had more in common than most knew. Like Iverson, Brown was raised by a single mom. Like Iverson, the 5-foot-9 Brown had thrived on the court despite being undersized. Like Iverson, Brown’s fire was fueled by a compulsive need to win, no matter the cost.
But the stretches of harmony grew shorter as the years went by.
One problem? Iverson knew just one way to play: at full speed, with the ball in his hands. Everything ran through him; his teammates were left to fight for the scraps. There were other issues, too. Iverson often showed up to practices late and smelling of booze. He barely lifted weights or tended to his rail-thin 165-pound frame. He asked out of games. He often loafed on defense. His shoulders occasionally sank when teammates held the ball. He hoisted ill-advised shots, causing the veins in a seething Brown’s forehead to pop. He sometimes hurled curses at Brown when the coach removed him from the game. The root of the warfare was that strain of DNA that all competitors possess. “Larry and Allen had the same goal in mind, they just didn’t realize it then,” King said. This led to constant bickering, with many exchanges growing heated. Neither man was shy about taking shots at the other in the press. “It was like being on a roller-coaster ride,” former Sixers forward Aaron McKie said. “You knew there were going to be some things going on and some things being said in the media.”
In December 1999, during the third quarter of what would be a double-digit loss to the Detroit Pistons, Brown pulled Iverson—and the four other starters—and benched them for the remainder of the game. In the locker room afterward, with Brown standing just ten feet away, a smoldering Iverson addressed reporters.
“I’ve never been done like that in my career,” he said, adding, “If that’s the way it is, something needs to happen. Something’s got to give.”
Two days later, Croce bounded into a practice and summoned Iverson and Brown into a conference room in the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, the team’s makeshift training facility. Both men issued me-or-him directives to the Sixers president. Desperate, Croce prayed that a group therapy session could keep him from having to blow up his core.
Brown and Iverson aired their grievances. “You could hear them yelling, ‘The hell with you’ at each other,” McKie said. He and the rest of his teammates had cut short their pre-practice stretching and sidled over to the thin wall separating the gym from the conference room. “We all had our ear to it, listening,” McKie said. “We did not think it was going to end well.”
Inside, Iverson and Brown sat at opposite ends of the table. Iverson condemned Brown for describing the team as a family one moment and excoriating Iverson in the press the next. Brown explained how difficult it was to position himself as the team’s leader with Iverson often undermining him. Croce pointed out to Brown the similarities between how he, as a coach, was treating Iverson and how police had derided Iverson when he was running around the projects of Hampton, Virginia. That last point in particular struck Brown.
The two promised to be better, to listen to each other more. Iverson walked across the room. The two men embraced.
“And they came out and it was like everything was okay,” McKie said. “Allen came out and clapped his hands and was, like, ‘I’m ready to go.’”
Three months later in Miami, Iverson called Brown to tell him that he wouldn’t be able to make it to that morning’s practice. A night out in Miami had left him hungover and unable to climb out of bed. A few months later the Sixers fell in the second round of the playoffs to Brown’s former team, the Pacers, for the second straight year.
That summer, Brown and Croce, frustrated and angry and feeling betrayed, decided the time had come. They found a taker for Iverson: the Pistons. It was a complex, four-team deal. The Sixers would receive a package featuring All-Stars Eddie Jones and Glen Rice, along with veterans Dale Ellis and reserve power forward Jerome Williams. But the deal fell through when Matt Geiger, a Sixers reserve center who’d be headed to Detroit, refused to waive his trade kicker, making it impossible for the Pistons to complete the trade.1
For now, Iverson would remain a Sixer.
In a few months, Croce and Brown would be thankful that he was.
* * *
- On Sale
- Mar 17, 2020
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing