For a story as strange as this one, for the sake of grabbing something solid out of 76ers president Bryan Colangelo’s purported use of one or more ghost Twitter accounts to settle scores and lambaste the franchise’s own players and power people, maybe the starting point is a phone conversation that’s now two-and-a-half years old.
The conversation was not with Bryan Colangelo. It was with his father, Jerry, a titan in American basketball who had first become an NBA executive in 1966. Since then, he had scouted, marketed, coached, managed, and owned in the league, and the Sixers, at the apparent behest of commissioner Adam Silver and several NBA owners, had hired him as their chairman of basketball operations. Colangelo’s arrival was the first and clearest sign that Sam Hinkie’s tenure with the Sixers would soon be ending, which it did with his resignation in April 2016. Hinkie’s commitment to the hard years and ruthless logic of The Process had offended and frightened too many traditionalists around the league, and Jerry Colangelo, whose son was a two-time executive of the year who just so happened to be between jobs, was as traditional as an NBA traditionalist gets.
“My journey helped me have a basis or foundation of credibility,” he said from his Phoenix office that day in December 2015. “And then, it’s a matter of relationships. Life is relational. You can be smart as a whip, but if you can’t relate to people, if you can’t look people in the eye and people can’t trust you, you’re going to be limited.”
It sounds, he was told, as if you’re talking about Hinkie. Wasn’t that one of the primary criticisms of Hinkie, after all – that he rarely went on the record with the media, that agents didn’t want to deal with him, that he didn’t build relationships?
“My intention was just to respond to your questions about me,” Colangelo said. “How that translated into what you just said is another story.”
No, it turned out to be the story. Even if Bryan Colangelo himself, as that remarkable report on The Ringer detailed, operated just one of those five mysterious Twitter accounts, even if a Colangelo sympathizer launched those digital fireballs at Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, and Markelle Fultz, a perceptible hatred for Hinkie was at least some of the fuel. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed as much – “Those tweets reflected not only private team biz, but launched personal beefs/jealousies/frustrations that he’s shared inside and outside 76ers” – and the content spoke for itself. There was “enoughunknownsources”: “I have no respect for Hinkie’s martyrdom bcs it is orchestrated by him behind the curtains via all the bloggers he cultivated with leaks.” There was the infamous “Eric jr,” @AlVic40117560, responding directly to Hinkie with a cutting question: “hey…How is the teaching at Stanford going?” And there was “Eric jr” again on Feb. 15, 2017, on Okafor, whom the Sixers were trying to trade at the time: “hinkie knows he drafted a kid with a bum knee that did not fit his system he should feel guilty.”
hinkie knows he drafted a kid with a bum knee that did not fit his system he should feel gulity
— Eric jr (@AlVic40117560) February 15, 2017
When has there been anything like this: an executive or coach who remains such a preoccupation for his successor? Howie Roseman had stopped making passing references to Chip Kelly well before the Eagles won this year’s Super Bowl, and Matt Klentak doesn’t fixate on the fact that Ruben Amaro Jr. was responsible for acquiring several of the Phillies’ most promising young players and pitchers. Yet those posts betray just how much Hinkie’s influence still hovered over the Sixers and how much it must have preyed on Colangelo’s insecurities.
Couldn’t Colangelo just cast that history out of his mind? Couldn’t he just let it go? The cure is probably easier to prescribe than it is to ingest, especially when you’ve lived your entire personal and professional life in the shadow of one of the most accomplished and esteemed men in your sport. Especially when a significant segment of your team’s fan base retains a cultish devotion to your predecessor. Especially when your predecessor is in so many respects your antipode. Regardless of what you think about his performance with the Sixers, Hinkie was the walking, talking manifestation of everything that a basketball lifer like Bryan or Jerry Colangelo abhors: the outsider who believes he has a new and better way of doing things, who is determined to see his strategy through, and who doesn’t give a damn about the charges his critics level at him.
More, once the Sixers became a 52-win team and a force in the Eastern Conference, many Sixers fans weren’t giving Bryan Colangelo any credit for the turnaround. They were still worshipping Hinkie. Worse, so was Embiid, the team’s brightest star. No, Bryan Colangelo just couldn’t let it go, and look around now: Where are the people, either in Philadelphia or around the NBA, rushing to publicly defend Colangelo? Unless this independent investigation that the Sixers have launched clears him completely, what coach or coworker or prospective free agent would ever dare to take him at his word again?
If you can’t look people in the eye, if people can’t trust you, you’re going to be limited. It’s a lesson that Jerry Colangelo meant for his son’s nemesis. It’s a lesson that his son will likely learn in the most painful of ways. At the core of this crazy situation is a truth that Bryan Colangelo would cop to only under the blanket of anonymity that a Twitter burner account could provide: He’s probably going to lose his job, and if he does, it will be because Sam Hinkie got in his head and never, ever left.