First, a confession.
I was never a big fan of basketball early on in my life, and who could blame me? Growing up in the mid 2000s, my local teams were the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, or New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, hardly teams thought of as Eastern Conference powerhouses.
Nevertheless, I chose to follow the Sixers as a casual fan, mainly because they played in the same building as my beloved Philadelphia Flyers, and because they were a team rich in history that looked poised for an NBA comeback in the near future. However, this was about 2008, right around the time when the Sixers’ dramatic fall from grace ensued. They swapped coaches left and right, losing just about every key player they had in the process, and consistently made poor draft day and developmental decisions.
But times are different in South Philadelphia now. Those same Sixers, the lovable losers and perennial laughingstocks of the NBA for the last 10 years, are now the winners, the toast of the town. Attendance at the (Wells Fargo) Center has skyrocketed, and Philly fans have something to smile about on the hardwood.
Why? Because the Sixers have made watching basketball fun again.
Everything about the Sixers as a team is fun these days, and it’s mainly because they are winning. It is often said in sports that playing the game is only fun if you’re winning, and for the first time in many years, the Sixers finally resemble a respectable team in the NBA.
The Sixers remain well under .500 at 18-30, but they have accumulated 11 of those wins since the new year began. This is the time that patient Sixers fans have waited for all those years. “Trusting the process” has finally paid off, big time.
It all starts, of course, with Joel Embiid. Embiid, a former 3rd overall pick in 2014, had not yet played an NBA game since his draft day due to a chronic foot injury, causing some fans to sour on the top prospect. Embiid also dealt with the loss of his younger brother in a car accident in Africa, and pondered walking away from professional basketball entirely.
Things weren’t going much better for Embiid’s potential frontcourt partner, Dario Saric, overseas. Saric was acquired by the Sixers the day he was drafted by the Orlando Magic. A product of the same draft class as Embiid, the Sixers potentially had a center and power forward combination to drool over at their disposal.
However, Saric carried some baggage all his own. Saric kept things tight-lipped after the draft, leaving the Sixers in the dark about his future plans as he returned to play ball in Europe. Would he ever come to America to play for the Sixers, or was this all just one big tease and a waste of time and resources?
Luckily, things got much clearer for the Sixers this summer. Embiid finally got medical clearance to play again, Saric officially signed his Sixers contract, and the team drafted Australian prodigy Ben Simmons first overall with the expectation that he would become the team’s playmaker of the future.
But of course, things quickly went south for the Sixers yet again. The team lost Simmons and valuable center Nerlens Noel to knee injuries, thrusting young unknowns T.J. McConnell and Robert Covington, as well as veterans Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez, into much larger roles than were previously expected. It looked like the beginning of yet another fruitless season in Philadelphia.
But then the Sixers won a few games. Embiid took over contests left and right with his unstoppable combination of brute strength, delicate long-range shooting, and lockdown defense. Saric struggled at first in his first American basketball action, but the addition of veteran Ersan Ilyasova has helped Saric ease his way into the team’s rotation. Disgruntled centers Noel and Jahlil Okafor have also played their parts in limited time and have both gotten chances to shine, as coach Brett Brown expertly divvies up the playing time.
And as for the unsung heroes? They’ve all played major roles. Covington, an undrafted holdover from the dark days, has regained his three-point touch and has made many clutch defensive stops. Rodriguez has been a versatile option at point guard in his first NBA action in 6 years, and Henderson has done a little bit of everything off the bench, often playing starter’s minutes. And don’t forget about McConnell, Philadelphia’s favorite undersized and undrafted point guard. Since coming into the starting lineup, McConnell is among the NBA leaders in assists and has driven play on the court, including a memorable buzzer-beater against the rival New York Knicks that sent Philadelphia into hysteria. And just wait until Ben Simmons makes his debut.
The Sixers are a team that relies on the contributions of the whole roster rather than just one superstar, which has made them extremely fun to watch. Each game has become a wager on which Sixer is going to have a big game next. My family and I never watched much basketball for many years, but the Sixers have become a staple in our nightly TV lineup.
The Sixers have become a family all their own, and they have become a unit that a diverse fanbase of old and new fans alike can bond around, which is perhaps the biggest benefit of trusting the process for all those years.