Hey, Josh! I came looking for you at halftime the other night at the Sixers game. Your guys had just broken a first-half scoring record against Milwaukee — the same one they’d shattered a few days earlier against LeBron James’ Cavaliers. Maybe you saw me up in Section 114? I was in seats I’d bought with a nice chunk of my sons’ preschool tuition budget. The place was electric with the playoffs in the offing for the first time in six years. You even brought Eagles coach Doug Pederson onto center court before tipoff to juice us with his sparkly Super Bowl trophy.
I’d seen you in a courtside seat near the Sixers bench before heading down to the court to look for you, but missed. Didn’t you see me across the way in the 17th row? I was the one with a notebook in one hand, a pen in the other, and my jaw on the floor.
I was the one feeling that some good old-fashioned penitence was in order.
Four years ago the @sixers were in the throes of tanking. Last night Super Bowl-winning @Eagles coach Doug Pederson riled a full house before tipoff and the team is playoffs bound. #TrustTheProccess indeed. pic.twitter.com/tE7vqsxruG
— Maria Panaritis (@panaritism) April 12, 2018
What was this magical kingdom into which I had ventured Wednesday night? I had to slap myself to make sure it wasn’t a dream. The sign outside said Wells Fargo Center, but the last time I’d been here the place was desolate and the team was a big loser. It was March 2014. I felt like Rip Van Winkle — fell asleep in Philly, woke up four years later on Mars.
Back then, Section 114 was dotted with squatters from the nosebleeds. A squad of unknown players were missing layups and charging into the gutter. The team you’d bought from Ed Snider three years earlier with some of your private equity fortune was in full-on tanking mode. I waddled through the place eight months pregnant, but this time for an Inquirer story about your tactic of controlled carnage that was the talk of the NBA.
Your ex-financial-world general manager at the time, Sam Hinkie, had gutted the roster so the Sixers could lose. He was accumulating high draft picks and a shot at cheap, young talent in the annual lottery. The team was on its way to closing the season with just four wins and 33 losses in its last 37 games. We are talking uglier than ugly.
Your Villanova-Harvard grad CEO Scott O’Neil worked to sell me on the notion that this would deliver dominance to a city long stuck in the mediocre zone.
“You sell two things in our league,” O’Neil said at the time. “You sell winning, and you sell hope.”
All of you urged us to be patient. There was a method to the madness, yada yada yada.
I gotta confess: I didn’t “trust the process.”
And for that, Josh Harris, I am sorry.
You. Were. Right.
Consider this the collective apology you’ve not yet gotten from Sixers fans. The ones who doubted you.
Hope is a relic now and reality looks like an all-star roster of guys so nimble that even bumbled balls manage to stick to their magic fingers: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, JJ Redick, Justin Anderson, Robert Covington, Marco Belinelli, and more. This team is so good, it turns the scoreboard into a nightly fireworks display.
Just getting to our seats Wednesday was like worming through a victory parade on Broad Street. When we got to them, it was shoulder-to-shoulder time with fans eyeing a possible championship ring. The Sixers were working their 16th straight win but already were a lock for the playoffs, which start Saturday.
A couple of Phoenixville dudes to my right were first-time season-ticket holders and beyond stoked. They’d just agreed to re-up their package even at a wince-worthy 20 percent markup for next year, with the Sixers now demanding $150 a pop.
“This is incredible,” said Mike Hogentogler.
Mike and his buddy Dan Sidlo still argue over whether tanking was the way to fix a team that hasn’t won a championship since 1983. Mike, a commercial real estate development executive, says yes. Dan can’t get past the damage done.
“We debate this all the time,” Mike told me, ” whether it was worth it.” Mike is in the Sam-Hinkie-is-a-God camp. Dan is not.
But hey — do you think any of that was on Dan’s mind as a freebie Sixers tee rocketed toward him from a swag cannon? Nope. He grabbed it and kept it. And when Hinkie-draft-pick-extraordinaire Embiid swaggered onto the sidelines in gold shoes and a neon orange jacket over white pants (he was injured), guess who roared the loudest?
“Jo Jo!” courtesy of Dan.
The sports website SB Nation didn’t mince words after the Sixers won Wednesday’s final-season game: The 76ers enter the NBA Playoffs with a 16-game winning streak. Be very afraid.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@P76ersNews) March 26, 2018
Which is why, Josh, I feel so humbled.
Do you remember, a couple of years ago, when I covered a $3.5 million gift you’d given to the Philly Police Athletic League? The team was still in the pits but loaded with picks. Hinkie was a few months away from resigning after you tried to dilute his power.
KYW’s Mike DeNardo asked when fans might expect a winner.
You’d given PAL a five-year plan with benchmarks, I asked, but not the Sixers?
Believe me, Josh. I now believe you. And boy, does it look good on the back end.