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Twenty-Seven Losses

"My favorite basketball team's success or failure is not a reflection of my value as a human being."

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

"My favorite basketball team's success or failure is not a reflection of my value as a human being."

That's what I've been repeating to myself over and over for the past few months, trying to balance my faith in The Process with an unexpected detour to rock bottom in The Process itself. It's an important thing to remember at times like these, when you're investing more emotional and intellectual capital in the Sixers than should ever be invested in a team that starts Jerami Grant, bless his heart, at small forward.

Forgetting that mantra is, in short, why we're so cultish. Because we've planted our flag in a basketball team that's bet the house on a hyperrational amoral Late Capitalist social experiment. Most of us defend it not for any normative reason, but because our parents, for whatever reason, decided to live in the Delaware Valley at some point in the distant past, and that's how sports fanaticism works--it's a bond of one-sided loyalty sworn by young people who don't know any better, and who sublimate their own identity into a larger one in whose direction and fortunes they have no say. It's like taking holy orders or joining the Marines.

That's why we bristle at Hot Takes and stock our bomb shelter for Retweet Armageddon. Not because we chose The Process, but because our fealty is demanded by The Process. And an attack on The Process is an attack on us.

"My favorite basketball team's success or failure is not a reflection of my value as a human being."

I think about Taylor Swift's cats from time to time. Taylor Swift has two cats, and I often wonder what life must be like for them, compared to normal cats. These cats treat the biggest musical star in the world the way my cat treats me, just because they have no way of knowing that their owner is special. It must be an incredibly bizarre life for a cat to lead, and yet, if a cat has no frame of reference, there's no way for it to know that its existence is exceptional.

I thought about that from a seat in Section 419 of the Toyota Center tonight, between a manspreading Rockets fan with a comically large bowl of nachos and a hyperkinetic grade school-aged child with a temporary Rockets face tattoo, a "Let's Go Rockets" sign and less chill than any other human being I've ever met in my life.

I went to the Sixers-Rockets game not only because it's the only chance I'll have to see the Sixers in person this year, but because they had the chance to do, tonight, in Houston, something that's never been done in basketball history: lose 27 games in a row. In fact, it's worse than that. Before tonight, the NBA, NFL and MLB records for longest losing streak all stood at 26 games. The NHL record is 17, though the 1980-81 Winnipeg Jets managed to string together 30 games (including seven ties) without a win.

The Sixers' last win was on March 25, 2015. When the Sixers last won a game, I worked for Bill Simmons at Grantland. The Phillies were a week away from starting a regular season that's been over for eight weeks now. The Eagles were more than a month from not drafting Marcus Mariota. I haven't seen a Sixers win since I was 27 years old, and I turned 28 more than eight months ago.

No team has ever, in the history of major league professional sports, lost this many games in a row, and because I had the chance, I wanted to see it in person.

But it's normal for us. The Sixers lost, after playing hard and doing their best and still being outclassed by a team that just has more an better NBA-quality players. T.J. McConnell chickened out instead of shooting open layups. Jahlil Okafor would collect the ball and immediately forget that a timeline could unfold in which there'd be something better to do with the basketball than dance the tarantella and toss up an eight-foot leaner over Dwight Howard. Nik Stauskas exuded fear in the face of open corner threes, like a teenager working up the nerve to ask a girl to prom. I didn't learn anything from those things--humiliating as they were to behold in person--because I've seen it all before. It's normal.

But to everyone else in the arena, there was a novelty in seeing Jerami Grant airball a three-pointer or watching Phil Pressey toss a lob past his target, the backboard, the first five rows of seats and the dragon on the map that tells you you're going to sail off the edge of the world if you keep going. They gasped or laughed. This isn't normal for normal basketball fans.

"My favorite basketball team's success or failure is not a reflection of my value as a human being."

It took an astounding confluence of events to get to this point, as you'd expect considering nothing like this has happened in the past 130 years. An amoral Wall Street hedge fund baron had to buy a team that had been run purposefully at a contretemps with industry best practices, then hire a general manager with the desire to burn down the existing structure (such as it was), and empower him to do so. And not only was it a wholesale rebuild, but an unprecedented one. Most sports teams are run not only on rational grounds, but on a web of norms--one of which is that you make at least a token effort to compete every year--that keep the industry moving.

But that's why the Sixers are such a prefect team for modern capitalism--they reject the norms in favor of squeezing every last ounce of utility out of the rules, according to rational self-interest.

The problem with bounded rationality, however, is that it assumes that the actors in a system have incomplete information, and cannot predict the future. That's how Sam Hinkie could have made, by this point, as many as seven lottery picks in three drafts, but his team currently enjoys the fruits of only two. Michael Carter-Williams turned into a protected pick that didn't convey, nor did the pick the Heat owe the Sixers. Dario Saric is still in Europe, Joel Embiid is still on the mend, and the lottery balls shook out in such a way that while the Sixers could've had, say, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Emmanuel Mudiay, they have Embiid, Okafor and another year of waiting.

And after two years of prioritizing athleticism, speed and length and playing up-tempo offense and press-and-switch defense, the Sixers, by drafting the best player available, have had to adjust on the fly to work around a traditional center who, gifted and skilled though he may be, could not have been a worse fit for the team's previous direction.

Twenty-seven losses in a row doesn't happen unless you get all of that, add in some bad performances, some bad officiating luck, injuries to their starting point guard (Kendall Marshall) and their only backcourt player capable of creating his own shot (Tony Wroten) and you still need a full-energy steel-toed boot in the karmic balls to get to 27 in a row. Which is not to say that they didn't earn every bit of this ignominious distinction, but it took an extraordinary set of circumstances, all of which just seem normal now.

"My favorite basketball team's success or failure is not a reflection of my value as a human being."

It's easy to say, but after lining up all of those dominoes, it's hard not to feel persecuted, as if God is punishing me for some previous transgression by visiting these Sixers, like a plague, upon me. They fell behind early in this game--as they often do--only to stage a comeback after I'd checked out emotionally. Comebacks are no longer in service of victory. They're in service of making defeat that much more painful. Toyota Center was a tomb tonight until the Sixers went to their 2006 Villanova lineup and the Rockets stopped giving a shit on defense. It was hard work to come back from 15 down in the third quarter to up seven in the fourth, but once they did, it only served to make James Harden angry and whip the partisan Rockets crowd into a frenzy. It's like experiencing an agony so acute it makes you pass out, and then being revived for the express purpose of experiencing more pain.

I wonder how many of the people in the Toyota Center tonight were aware that they'd witnessed something unique and historic. The losing streak was never mentioned on the arena PA, and though I'd planned to take a selfie in front of the scoreboard as evidence of having witnessed a historic event in person, they changed the graphic on the Jumbotron seconds after the final whistle, so I never had the chance.

It's a reminder that while we feel personally afflicted by this team and the alluvium of bullshit it disturbs wherever it goes, we in particular and the Sixers more generally are trivial. What is of earthshaking importance to us, such things as cause us to use the words "cultish" and "armageddon," are so unimportant they're imperceptible to other NBA fans. We are, in the public consciousness, contemptible marks whose pain is not only deserved but not worth discussing.

Maybe that's another reason we're so cultish. Trusting The Process is by this point an act of profound faith, a rite of self-abnegation, of deferring gratification spectacularly for the promise of a better world that might not ever come. We cling to that promise because considering that it might not would render everything that's come before a waste. And not only that, we'll have spent our last full measure of devotion defending the indefensible.

The wins will come. Our faith and perseverance will be vindicated someday. All other possibilities are too bleak to contemplate, even as we drift farther away from historical precedent, and the road from rebuilding to contention veers farther and farther from its expected path.

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