The two stars of the show who dominated center stage at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday both wore Philadelphia 76ers jerseys with the number 21 on the back.
Only one of them was playing, though: Sixers center Joel Embiid wore his white home uniform while the team defeated the Miami Heat to win their first NBA playoff series since 2012.
The 7-foot-2 big man has modified his nickname since an orbital bone fracture has required him to don a black mask that’s been compared to the Gucci balaclava his celebrity crush Rihanna recently wore at Coachella. Embiid now calls himself the Phantom of the Process.
The other charismatic figure in a blue Embiid jersey wasn’t an active participant, other than to ring the ceremonial faux Liberty Bell that kicks off the raucous festivities at the South Philly sports arena.
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But he still got the biggest ovation of the night: It was Meek Mill, the Philadelphia rapper who’d been sprung from jail just hours before, released on bail in a drug and firearms case that dates to 2007.
Lately, Mill has been something of a phantom himself.
Since he was sentenced in November to two to four years in state prison for parole violations, he’s been an unseen presence who has nonetheless loomed larger than ever, particularly over the pop cultural cross-section where hip-hop overlaps with sports.
Mills’ incarceration and perceived-to-be-too-harsh sentence made him a cause célèbre whose supporters point to bias against minorities in the nation’s criminal justice system. While in the lockup, his stature grew as a music-maker in absentia whose combative raps were the soundtrack of the national rise of the local sports teams the city so fiercely identifies with.
The Eagles used Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” as entrance music before winning the Super Bowl in Minneapolis in February. The Sixers come out to that same booming title track from Mill’s 2012 album at all their home games. They will continue doing so during their hopefully deep playoff run.
With the Sixers, the connection runs particularly deep. Early on Tuesday, comedian Kevin Hart and team co-owner Michael Rubin, the Fanatics sports apparel billionaire who was a tireless advocate for his incarcerated friend, visited Mill in prison. Embiid and teammates Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz had also visited Mill.
After hearing the news of Mill’s release, Rubin commandeered a helicopter to beat the traffic on I-95 to get Mill to the arena in time to change his clothes and pump up the team in the locker room before being greeted by fans as a returning hometown hero.
“It was like a movie ending,” Rubin said the day after Mill’s release. “Meek said to me, ‘Are we dreaming or is this real?’ It wasn’t that we didn’t expect it. It’s just that it was so perfect and so beautiful. In my 45 years on the planet, it might be the most surreal feeling I’ve ever had.”
Music helps create the party experience at the Wells Fargo Center during Sixers games.
A lot of it is hip-hop: Not just Mill, whose reflective “1942 Flows” from his 2017 album Wins & Losses played along with “Wicked” by Atlanta trap rapper Future while Sixers forwards Ersan Ilyasova and Robert Covington warmed shots on Tuesday. During breaks, the crowd got pumped with old-school staples like Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock’s “It Takes Two.”
A mix of genres keeps the energy high: Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like,” Cheltenham-born rapper Lil Dicky’s “Freaky Friday,” Martin Toungevang’s clattering techno banger “Wicked Wonderland,” and Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual.”
Some of the music is homegrown. After every win, the grinning crowd goes out nodding along to “Here Comes the Sixers,” the beloved throwback disco-era jingle whose recording was commissioned in 1975 by then-general manager Pat Williams.
And if they’re lucky, on their way in to the concourse, fans run into the West Powelton Steppers & Drum Squad — also known as the Sixers Stixers — the kinetic percussion corps who have performed at 25 of the team’s home games this year. “We’re trying to work our way to all 41,” said band director Antoine Mapp.
No local artist is more strongly associated with the team than Mill. “He couldn’t be more connected to the team,” says Rubin.
The fit makes sense because the Sixers have a core of young, hip-hop-loving players, including Simmons, 21, who’s been romantically linked to R&B singer Tinashe, and Embiid, 24. In February 2017, while sitting out due to an injured knee, Embiid couldn’t resist taking off his shirt and dancing on stage at a Mill concert at the Wells Fargo.
Before the controversial team rebuilding designed by former general manager Sam Hinkie known as the Process started to pay off, the Sixers were failures of historic proportions. (The team that won 16 games in a row this year won only 10 in the entirety of the season two years ago.)
It’s no wonder that a franchise with infinite patience would take to “Dreams and Nightmares,” an anthem of indefatigable determination. “I used to pray for times like this, to rhyme like this,” spits Mill, who was raised rugged in South and North Philly and whose father was murdered when Meek was 5. “So I had to grind like that, to shine like this.”
Before his legal troubles began anew, Mill talked to me in July about his affinity for the Sixers. “I’ve been down for the Sixers for a minute now,” the 30-year-old rapper said. “I’m trusting the Process,” adding that he sometimes offered helpful advice. “I try to make sure they don’t make the same mistakes. If I could be 22 again, I would be better than I was when I was 22, ’cause I know more now.”
When Judge Genece E. Brinkley sentenced Mill in November, Rubin says, the first two people he spoke to were Sixers majority owner Josh Harris and NBA commissioner Adam Silver. “I said, ‘Hey, what happened to Meek is really wrong and I think it’s worth it to make a stand and shed light on both Meek’s situation and the broken criminal justice system.’ Josh agreed,” Rubin said. He added that Silver was “also incredibly supportive.”
The Sixers have had Mill’s back since, with players wearing Stand with Meek Mill Hoodies at a Jay-Z concert at the Wells Fargo in December.
That unified stand has drawn criticism: Daily News and Inquirer columnist Christine Flowers wrote that Mill “should be viewing the playoffs from a rec room next to his orange-suited peers. The fact that he has the ability to speak in syncopated rhymes does not give him the right to be treated more leniently than other parole violators.” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins clapped back at Flowers: “If you don’t understand why Meek Mill and his story is more important now than ever you have CHOSEN to close your eyes to problems in our society.”
Mill still faces hurdles. He has a court hearing with Brinkley in June, and he could be retried. But Rubin is confident his friend won’t be going back to prison. “He’s not spending another day in jail,” he says. “It’s not happening.”
What he will be doing, Mill says, is working to change a deeply flawed criminal justice system. In his first post-jailhouse interview this week, he told NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt that he doesn’t yet feel free and said, “Let’s retire #FreeMeekMill and make it #JusticeReform.”
Rubin believes the free Meek will act as a man on a mission. “He wants to change the world. He feels like things happen for a reason. … He’s excited about not making just a difference, but making a major difference. I believe he is going to be the symbol of criminal justice reform in this country.”
And how soon will he be back on stage?
“He’s going to be super-strategic about it. I don’t know if he’s going to rush out and do it in the next several weeks. But he loves performing, so he’ll be out there.”
Because Mill is “a son of Philadelphia,” as Jay-Z referred to him in his Instagram message congratulating the rapper on his release, wouldn’t it make sense for Mill to be the headline act at this year’s Made in America festival (he performed as a guest of Jay-Z’s last year)?
“Since Jay owns the show,” says Rubin. “I think that’s a good suggestion and a great idea.”