Loser Takes All: The Philadelphia 76ers, The Process, And Belief
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Loser Takes All: The Philadelphia 76ers, The Process, And Belief

During the lean years of The Process, the Sixers didn't give their fans much more than faith that things would someday be better. It was more than enough.

I first met Larry Website, which is not his real name, when he was pretending to be an old woman on Twitter. He had his reasons, of course, the most salient of which was Being In College At The Time and the most obvious of which was the urge to irritate right-wing people by repeatedly claiming to be a veteran because he'd served in the U.S. Postal Service. Larry was kind to me, though, and could generally be relied upon in his previous guise as @PatriotMom776 to break character and send me photos of chow-chows whenever I was feeling down, or whenever he felt like it. I have never met him, but he is someone I consider a friend in the way that the internet defines that word's definition down, or sideways. And yet, at this particular moment, I was certain that Larry Website was fucking with me.


"Did you say Juju Mandelbaum?" I asked, because that was what I was sure I'd heard him say.

"Yeah," he said, "ChuChu Maduabum." I said nothing. "He's a real guy."

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"Mandelbaum is a basketball player?" Because since when is Juju Mandelbaum a basketball player, for one thing.

"Not, like, he hasn't played in a game or anything," Larry said. "He's…"

He's extended canon, is what Chukwudiebere Maduabum is. He is a real person, a Nigerian basketball player currently playing in Japan's second division who was a second-round draft pick of the Denver Nuggets back in 2011; he was part of the deal that sent JaVale McGee and a protected first round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers at the end of last season in exchange for, more or less, the Sixers agreeing to receive those things from the Nuggets in trade. ChuChu last played in the NBA Summer League in 2012, and has since played in Estonia and Qatar.

Maduabum may or may not ever play in the NBA, although given that there are 450 people with NBA jobs as the season begins and roughly 7.3 billion people on earth you'd have to say that the odds are not great. But ChuChu Maduabum does have something going for him that explains why Larry Website knows who he is. He is a part of the sprawling, ambitious, tragicomic broader story of The Process, which is the name given to the full-spectrum teardown and recently begun rebuilding of the Philadelphia 76ers over the last few years. After years of mediocrity, the Sixers committed to starting from scratch; they traded every player they could, stockpiled draft picks, and took an approach to the present that was, depending on your perspective, either objective or ruthless. Because the Sixers did not even pretend to try to win—not by tanking game by game, but by running out a series of teams so bereft of NBA talent that they would lose despite going all out—and because of GM Sam Hinkie's opaque, high-handed media approach, this annoyed a lot of people. However offensive it was or wasn't, though, it was at least honest: the organization took aim at a point somewhere on the distant horizon, and admitted that the journey between here and there would take several years, and that the team would lose a great many games before all those assets matured. They have most definitely lost those games, and while the Sixers are not quite living in the future yet, they can almost see it from here.


Maduabum is not at the center of this story, but as a part of The Process he is known to the community of people who believe in it, roughly in the same way that the name of the lead singer in the band playing on Jabba the Hutt's barge is known to your harder core Star Wars weirdos. Maduabum is a component part of a bigger story, in other words, and a peripheral cast member in that story's expanded universe.

It's a story that, as so often happens with things like this, is now being told by people with significantly more emotional investment in it than the original credited author. The person who came up with all this was, however idiosyncratically, trying to tell a compelling story successfully through to its conclusion, which is a complicated but prosaic thing. That story didn't really come to life, and so cannot really have been said to work in any meaningful way, until it changed hands, as generally happens to stories that work the best. The story becomes the shared property of people who really care about it; these people have more invested in it, and so pursue it with both a more robust and a more authentic imagination than the story's creator brought to it. The Process is no longer in Hinkie's hands. It belongs, now, to the community of believers that keep it alive, and who care about it for reasons that go well beyond the stated goal of building a winning basketball team or attending some cramped and beery victory parade down Broad Street. ChuChu Maduabum is a peripheral part of that story, but he's part of it. He's Sy Snootles, yes, but he's also a real guy. The Philadelphia 76ers owned his rights for six months, and then they traded them.


The longest shots are worth the most. This is worth 41 points. Photo by Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

They all bring up Chris Webber when talking about the worst years. In the cosmology of The Process, the worst years are not the ones with the fewest wins—the last three, when the team has won 37 of 246 games, or 247 including their opening night loss on Wednesday—but the ones that came before, when the team was stuck in aimless and unshakeable mediocrity, first with and then without Allen Iverson.

They are quick to mention that the awfulness of these years was not necessarily Webber's fault, that there were others like him in the line of decrepit or defective or otherwise insufficient complementary stars brought in to be Iverson's second during the years when that was Philadelphia's team-building philosophy in its entirety, and then to execute the middling systems of coaches like Eddie Jordan and Doug Collins once Iverson left. "It was just that over and over and over," says Kyle Neubeck, the managing editor of the Sixers blog Liberty Ballers. "It's nothing against Chris Webber, he was by far one of my favorite players ever when he was healthy, and those Kings teams were fucking iconic. I love him, but he's like the depiction of what they tried to do, and why they were stuck in that weird lurch for such a long time."

Something I learned in talking to members of The Process Community is that you must not underestimate the depth and darkness of the lurch. There is no Process without the lurch, both in the teleological sense that there is no salvation without sin and in the practical sense that the Philadelphia 76ers would never have let Sam Hinkie burn the organization down if the alternative—an endless future of respectable hopelessness—were not somehow more unappealing. The secretive, gnomic, oatmeal-complected Hinkie, author of an 11-page resignation letter that reads like lorem ipsum filler text comprised entirely of management patois, seems like an odd fit for the role of redeemer/martyr, and strictly in terms of his own charmless and charisma-free pragmatism he absolutely is. But the devotion to Hinkie is not just a devotion to Hinkie, just as Hinkie's role in Process cosmology is more apostle than messiah. The Process, the living faith that things could become better if only they first became significantly worse, is what matters most. Hinkie was simply that idea's vessel on earth.


Or, in less grandiose terms: "the reason why there were so many people who were so gung-ho about supporting the process was that we'd already discussed this exact idea—or not this exact idea, maybe not this drastic—during all those mediocre seasons," Neubeck says. "At Liberty Ballers and the other places where Sixers diehards tend to congregate, we were saying we want to strip this thing down to the nails." This was a clear and simple basketball strategy with clear and simple basketball goals, but it also flows quite naturally into much deeper water. And as the teams that Hinkie put on the floor went about losing, sometimes more endearingly than others, believers in The Process were happy to follow it there.

"What the Sixers were defined by, for years and years, was shortsightedness," says Michael Levin, a television writer and co-host of the Sixers podcast The Rights To Ricky Sanchez. "And then when they added Hinkie in 2013, it was just the opposite of shortsightedness, it was so far in the other direction that it just felt…" Levin checked himself, then continued. "It felt like having prayers answered. The years of pining for that kind of change, and then it's happening, and happening in the way that we'd been talking about, it made us feel…I don't want to say empowered. Maybe I do want to say empowered."

High-percentage shots. Photo by Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

We are, here, at the roaring confluence of several powerful forces, all of which have only an incidental connection to professional basketball or Sam Hinkie. All of them can be applied to those things, of course, and quite easily at that. But The Process is, and always has been, fundamentally more a belief system than a strategy, at least for the people most committed to it. The real world things that we project onto our games are mostly individuated and aspirational; they come back, in the end, to us. We are looking to find, and sometimes do find, various things in sports that we like to imagine are also in us: grace, patience, strength, dignity, faith. If you want to, you can find that in Hinkie's commitment to his approach; if you squint, it's possible to see in him the commitment and sacrifice that Philadelphia prizes in its athletes above all others. Is it a stretch to see Allen Iverson's sublime orneriness and near-pathological defiance in Sam Hinkie? It is maybe a stretch. But it can be done. "If you're willing to risk everything," as the Sixers fan and Chicago comic Patrick McDonald told me, "we've always loved those people. That's what a Philly fan is."


The Process ties in to some deeper and more communal urges, but also to the very specific chip on Philadelphia's shoulder. "After a certain amount of time, if there's enough criticism, Philadelphia fans are really unique in that—even if they're wrong—if they're being told they're wrong by people they perceive as outsiders, they will keep fighting," Neubeck says. "There are elements of real belief in this, but there are also elements of stubbornness, and wanting to prove that we were right and everyone else was wrong. And that's a human emotion, but it's also, as someone who's lived in this area my whole life, it's definitely also a very Philadelphia emotion." On the Rights To Ricky Sanchez podcast, Levin and Spike Eskin—it is one of the more amusing b-plots of The Process that Eskin is the son of regional hot take king and fervent Hinkie-hater Howard Eskin—talk about "Retweet Armageddon," the glorious day of judgment when they will find everyone who ever doubted The Process and expose them via retweet, one falsified anti-Sixers certainty at a time.

This is (hilarious) sports fan pettiness, but it's also worth noting the syntax, and all that heady talk of martyrdom and armageddon. Whatever bloodless spreadsheet practicalities The Process was about to Hinkie and his bosses, it is about something significantly more urgent to the people that believe in it. Strictly speaking, believing in The Process is about revolution, and the urge to burn down a rotten structure both because it no longer feels worth living in and because watching things burn is cool. "Knowing the whole system was broken, for us, it was like 'we're fine waiting, we've waited our whole lives,'" Levin says. "So the idea that we sacrifice a couple of bad years, when we're already having bad years, to have a chance at that sort of sustained, significant success—it was a no-brainer."


Sustained and significant success naturally means different things to different people. For McDonald it means "championships." For Levin, it's more about a sense that the games are meaningful in some way. "If you told me I'd have ten years of what we just went through for five championship contending ones—like, say the Thunder's last five years—I would take it," he says. "I would absolutely take it." But we are talking about basketball, now, and the signal success of The Process has less to do with basketball than belief.

Time to build. Photo by Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It's belief—in the possibility of a future that is better than the present, and also in the belief that it is worth waiting for and working for, together, for as long as it takes—that animates The Process. It's shared belief that binds together the community that has united around The Process; in the absence of any significant or compelling basketball-related reason to watch the team over the last few years, it's shared belief that has sustained that community. And so this community has manifested as a sort of positive, self-supporting youth movement among Sixers fans—"young people have the life-span to be patient," Levin notes—that plainly baffles the organization. "Ownership honestly doesn't seem to know how to deal with us," Larry Website told me. "They're just confused by it, because we're not in it for the money and we're not really spending it on them. We get the worst seats in the world, but it's cheap and it's fun and we just chant 'TTP' from the 300 section."


"To put this in perspective, for a team that won 10 goddamn games last year, we had several thousand people show up at an event for the draft lottery that we had at this bar by the stadiums," Neubeck says of the third annual NBA Draft Lottery party that Liberty Ballers threw in conjunction with the Rights To Ricky Sanchez podcast. "And to see it grow from the first year we're in this small back bar somewhere, to last year where the fire marshall stopped letting people into the Buffalo Wild Wings we were in, to this year where there's several thousand people…it's just a crazy story to me, how many people this has brought together."

After Hinkie, the Sixers have worked hard to make clear that The Process years are over, and that they have gone from #process2progress, as the team's CEO tweeted before the NBA Draft Lottery. This makes some sense, insofar as the team will need to win back fans who opted out of watching several years of world-historically abject teams. But it also makes sense that a professional basketball team—a big brand owned by a hedge fund billionaire, playing its home games in an arena literally bearing the name of a disgraced mega-bank—would struggle to speak the same language used by the fans that never left. In a meaningful way, the team is almost incidental to the real achievement of The Process, which is the creation and sustaining of a community of belief.

Every fan I spoke to discussed the losing years as brutal to watch, but also fundamentally abstract—there were basketball games, and you could watch them if you wanted, but mostly the team and the fans lived in the future. "All the options in the world, all the possibilities," Levin says. "And in the hopeful phase of it, in the planning and preparation and theorizing about it, you have everybody. There was a time when Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid and Dante Exum were all Sixers in my mind. And you think about things that way." By contrast, the present is humdrum and uninspiring, as is generally the case when the actual present is compared to an imagined future. Hinkie is gone, replaced under squicky circumstances by a competent-enough retread, and the dull work of building an actual team—and the gnawing fear that the future might wind up looking like the past—has supplanted the bright abstraction of dreaming about one. There is the real prospect that, after two years lost to injury, Embiid will be a true franchise player; he has recently adopted "The Process" as his nickname. But co-cornerstone Ben Simmons will miss much or all of the season with an injury and the cupboard is otherwise still mostly bare, except for a bunch of talented big men that can't play together; this will almost certainly be another year spent waiting and wondering. At some point the Sixers will have to become something, and they will either win or they won't. Either way, it won't touch the one true miracle of The Process, which is somehow turning all this pragmatic losing into ecstatic, redemptive belief. That work is done, which is to say that it continues.

"I know a lot of socialists that don't give a shit about sports, but buy into the Sixers," Larry told me. In a sideline to his day job, he works as an organizer for the Democratic Socialists of America. "From left politics, I've actually gotten a lot more religion. I end DSA columns by saying 'trust the process' and people know what this means, they get it. Maybe it works out, maybe it doesn't. And if it doesn't work out, fuck it. Same way like as if God doesn't exist, so be it. People want things that give their lives meaning.

"The project of trying to do this, the community that's been built around this, is worth more than any playoff run. People rally around things, candidates or ideas or TV shows or whatever. Ours just happens to be the worst team in the history of sports." He said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world, which it is. And then he laughed, because life is funny.

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