The World Doesn’t Deserve Philadelphia

LeBron James, possessed of perhaps the most expressive face in any sport, bears the imprint of existential weariness, of having to prove himself once more on behalf of an obscure rationale somehow held in common to fans and players alike, one he has clearly internalized.

NBA Update 2018

Left to right: Joel Embiid, Otto Porter, Ben Simmons. Photograph by Keith Allison.

In Bolivia, they refer to the series of policy transformations wrought by Evo Morales as the proceso de cambio. The German title of Kafka’s novel The Trial is “Der Prozeß.” The Argentine dictatorship’s campaign to eliminate its left-wing opposition was known as el proceso. These and other historical uses of the concept of a “process” have occurred to me as, over the last few years in Philadelphia, a certain phrase that refers to the local basketball team’s reconstruction has crept into everyday life and conversation. I have heard congressional campaign staff, a billionaire heiress, and a public defender ask me, or plead with some broader apostrophic “us,” to “trust the Process.” Like the word “progressive,” it has come unmoored from all referents. “Trust the Process” means that we should pursue radical challenges to the status quo, or that we should learn to endure painful incremental change that would ultimately leave everything the same. It has become as sure a marker of lameness as being the kind of person who loves to talk about “upzoning.”

Over the past year, something happened to Philadelphia, which expressed this mutation of the phrase perfectly. The city converted itself from a place mired in congenital self-doubt and prone to self-laceration into one that believed itself capable of virtually anything. In politics, this spirit was expressed in the successful end to de facto state control of the school district, and the election of Larry Krasner—a leader in the fight against mass incarceration—as the country’s most radical district attorney. In sports, it was the improbable victory of the Eagles over the evil Patriots. Over the last two years, a local pizza place and a South Philly taco joint were rated, respectively, the best pizza in America and among the best new restaurants in America.1 “The world doesn’t deserve Philadelphia,” someone tweeted, over an image of two Eagles fans climbing lampposts to reenact, from the Sistine Chapel frescoes, the touch of fingertips between Adam and God. So many good things seemed to be happening locally that it became suspicious. A friend I ran into at the Art Museum the other day was convinced that this was in fact all a grand conspiracy by the city to make Philadelphia more attractive to Amazon. They had rigged the election to permit Krasner’s victory, strong-armed officials to let local control of the schools return, and paid off the refs in the Eagles game. It was crazy . . . and yet . . . maybe it was all too easy . . . and some of those calls in the Super Bowl were questionable . . .

But it wasn’t easy. The Sixers and their fans had gone through hell. As recently as 2011, Philadelphia had a rough-and-ready playoff-worthy team, helmed by the very physically tough and very Christian Andre Iguodala, and it seemed like things would go on adequately, the team posting one or two series wins before getting knocked out, more or less forever. Then the infamous Sam Hinkie took over and adopted what became known as the Process. It was a crude Stalinism as team policy: “the worse, the better.” Hinkie’s moves were the basketball equivalent of eliminating the kulaks as a class. He bottomed out the team and traded its best assets, in the ultimate pursuit of draft picks. It was a mistake to argue, as some did, that this was akin to a Silicon Valley-style disruption. What companies like Uber and Lyft did was entirely illegal, until, under steady lobbying pressure, it was deemed legal. What Hinkie did was, in basketball rules, legal, and may soon be made illegal: the NBA may begin regulating this kind of piracy. Hinkie is a registered Republican, an insufferable radical, the sort of grandstanding philistine who thinks quoting Elon Musk and Warren Buffett, as he did in his thirteen-page resignation letter, is a mark of culture.2 In all this, he is an emblem of the age, but he deserves lasting credit for bringing the league face to face with its real conditions of existence for the first time: that it would reward teams for being deliberately, utterly shitty. There are versions of Process-trusting taking place now all over the league, thanks to the dialectic that Hinkie helped set in motion.

When the Sixers completed a win streak of sixteen games to end their season—largely against crappy teams, we all had to admit, sotto voce—Philadelphians were in a state of delirium. One, two, many playoff victories, everyone imagined; the Conference Finals, with Ben Simmons, the “Young King,” against LeBron, the Old Pretender to the Throne; the Finals itself, perhaps, against Harden and Paul and the Rockets, or Durant and Curry and the Warriors. Philadelphia had resurrected the old and engineered the new: in Joel Embiid, the most charming man alive, a throwback to the post-up game of spindly Olajuwon; in Simmons, a new physical type, a 6’10” guard, unaccountably swift, ineffably serene. In the game in which the Sixers delivered the coup de grace to the Miami Heat, Meek Mill arrived by helicopter, rang the bell, and in a statement thanked the district attorney, the aforementioned Krasner. One felt bad for everyone that lived anywhere else.

When they lost to the Boston Celtics, the sense of trauma that resulted was overdetermined. It was the country’s best city losing to its worst: unendurable Boston, charmless and suffocating, barely even a city, its roads unnavigable, its food inedible, whose smug university dons and Route 128 tech psychos jostled in the arena alongside serious assholes still exercised about busing. Nonetheless, they had an intelligent and strangely handsome coach, Brad Stevens, who represented the entire series in nuce when he drew up the same amazing play successively against the Sixers, where, in two inbound passes, he managed to pull the distractable Embiid away from the post to open up the key for Al Horford, sealing the last game for the Celtics. The insubstantial pageant faded, most Sixers fans woke up like Seneca’s Hercules emerging from madness. Quis hic locus, quae regio, quae mundi plaga? (“What place is this? What region? What corner of the world?”)

The weeks that followed were odd, as the joy drained from the remaining basketball conferences. Cleveland’s fight against Boston once again brought the world-historic mission of beating Boston to the forefront, and the reliable pleasure of watching LeBron achieve new heights in focus and endurance, but—aside from LeBron—few actual displays of good basketball. The series between the Rockets and the Warriors was especially depressing, as Mike D’Antoni, once the prophet of basketball, watched his team fall captive to their own strange, slow system, as they chucked up one three after another in desperate adherence to a statistical dogma.

In the midst of this, a friend texted me in the afternoon to say that she saw Embiid playing pickup at courts a few blocks from my house. Twitter showed it to be true: there he was, towering over a bunch of middle-aged white guys, throwing the basketball in a guy’s face and then dunking on him. It was a strange display, distinctly unlike the other stories of people seeing Embiid jogging downtown, or hearing that he played tennis on the courts by the Schuylkill River. One could read it as one more instance of his lovability, or—perhaps in the way that comics are always shadowed by depression—the work of a disconsolate man, haunted by the noonday demon, overwhelmed by his greatness and the expectations that had settled on him. “He who the gods wish to destroy,” Cyril Connolly writes, “they first call promising.” That Embiid is ultimately a fragile figure, his joints and ligaments always on the verge of receiving some career-ending injury, must be a fact that dogs him.

It was in this spellbound, gray mood that the now-famous Ringer story about Bryan Colangelo and his alleged burner Twitter accounts first arrived. The Sixers had hired Colangelo as president of basketball operations at once to speed up and mitigate the effects of the Process. It is unclear how long Hinkie would have made Philadelphia suffer; Colangelo wanted to call time. He would be the Thermidor to the excesses of Jacobin bloodlust. Even before he was hired, it was clear Hinkie’s time was up. As with previous instances in which dire radicalism was softened by conservative retrenchment, there were fans who cried foul—though the number of Philadelphians hostile to Colangelo and nostalgic for Hinkie has grown as the Process has borne fruit. Hundreds if not thousands forget how miserable it was at the very nadir of the Process, how few were willing to see it through to the end.

The story, in some sense, speaks for itself: either Colangelo, or someone extremely close to him, has been criticizing and undermining players, management, coaching, in both Philadelphia and Toronto. It is an outrage on its own terms, and fantastic in its gore: one of the Twitter accounts managed to defend Colangelo’s collar size and attack Embiid for dancing at a Meek Mill concert, nearly in the same breath. But it follows a template—that of the Donald Sterling fiasco, in which the Clippers owner was revealed to be an inveterate racist. Both of these scandals are an indictment of basketball capitalism, and the heavy authoritarianism of its management. The 2018 playoffs have in some sense been a footnote to the world created by Philadelphia and its Sixers—the only team with any historic burden placed on them, the only ones appearing to be carrying out the real motion of history. It would be a small sign of growing player-power, of progress, if the management responsible for all of it were exposed and cast out. An essential aspect of the Philadelphia-wide experiment is at stake.

The Finals, meanwhile, arrive as anticlimax. It is difficult not to feel that the Warriors, despite the beauty of their game, are like a startup: operating by the economics of imperfect competition, shielded by venture capital, beneficiaries of unfair advantages rationalized ex post facto as “better service.” Still, since having once predicted fatefully that the Warriors would sweep the Cavs, only to get my comeuppance with the Cavs’ spectacular victory in 2016, I have refrained from all forecasts and will never again bet against LeBron James. Not since Kobe Bryant has a team’s success, or lack of it, centered on the fate of a single player. No one on the Cavs deludes themselves that they are playing for anyone, or in any individual story; they play for LeBron.

For his part, James, possessed of perhaps the most expressive face in any sport, bears the imprint of existential weariness, of having to prove himself once more on behalf of an obscure rationale somehow held in common by fans and players alike, one he has clearly internalized. If it can be articulated, it is the sense that he deserves at least one more laurel—that though he is regularly spoken of as the second best player in history, he has been denied what is owed to him. It will be strange to look back at the MVP awards of the last decade or so, and see those handful—the ones given to Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, even one of the two given to Curry—and wonder why they weren’t given to James. He carries the soul of the league with him. Though the Finals will be played by over a dozen players, once again, it will ultimately have nothing to do with them, and everything to do with him.

  1. An earlier version of this piece erroneously suggested that the taco joint was rated the best in the world. Both the pizza place and the taco joint were named the best in America. 

  2. A previous version of this piece of this piece suggested erroneously that Hinkie quoted Winston Churchill and Andy Grove in his resignation letter. 

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