Premature death is beautifully depressing. When you lose something before you're prepared for it to disappear, you cling to the best parts tight as you can, until eventually that's all you can remember holding. So it goes with breakups, failed ventures and the passing of our loved ones, different and the same all at once.
The last three years of discussion have centered so heavily on debate -- Prokafor vs. Nokafor, Trusting vs. Hating The Process -- that it seems surreal for the spine of it all to vanish into the night. In true Sam Hinkie fashion, he slipped out the back door a day after speaking to one of the NBA's pre-eminent writers.
Before Hinkie arrived in Philadelphia, tearing it down to the screws seemed impossible and unpermitted. The Sixers I grew up with had long been the secondary priority in their own building; Josh Harris and Co. may have bought the team from Ed Snider, but they couldn't erase their past. When you run a basketball franchise like a hockey team, content as long as you're hovering on the fringes, you are hustlin' backwards from the start.
The execution of the Jrue Holiday trade in 2013 was a statement of intent more than the Bynum deal could ever be. Swinging and missing on Bowl-O was commendable to be sure, but it wasn't the first time Philadelphia tried to burst out of mediocrity with a splash. Count the *big names* they stuck next to their AI's, Allen Iverson and Andre Iguodala alike; from (the washed-up) Big-Dog Robinson to (the late) Chris Webber to (the hobbled) Elton Brand, there was never hesitation to splurge on sub-stars in one way or another.
This was different. Ownership and management finally seemed to recognize that treading water wasn't enough. I've watched this team (and Philadelphia teams generally) my whole life, and being "good enough" doesn't wash. You can only acquire players in the Kenny Thomas tier so many times before it's time to call shenanigans and start over.
Even at the highest level of execution, professional sports management is based heavily on unknowable future value -- upside, assets and the like. I can't sit here and pretend I know how the Sixers would have turned out if this plan, under this executive was able to continue for one more, three more or even 10 more years.
Neither can detractors, no matter how loudly they yell. It is a point Hinkie himself reiterated again and again through the years -- show me a man who tells you with certainty what the future holds, and I'll show you a fool or a liar.
Rebuilding the Sixers and restoring them to some semblance of prominence was always going to be bigger than one guy. The dream does not necessarily have to die with Hinkie; The Process is an idea, and those aren't killed as easily as careers.
Throughout this downturn for the franchise, I've thought often about a quote from the end of Metal Gear Solid IV, delivered from a father to his son:
Everything has its beginning, but it doesn't start at one. It starts long before that, in chaos.
The world is born from zero; the moment zero becomes one is the moment the world springs to life. One becomes two, two becomes 10, 10 becomes 100. Taking it all back to one solves nothing.
For a long time, I applied that within the context of a superstar to lead the Sixers into a new dawn; after acquiring one, the rest follow. In San Antonio, David Robinson bequeathed Tim Duncan, who later spawned the likes of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard.
But zero is the important part. Zero is understanding having nothing is still something. Zero was drafting David Robinson knowing he had service to fulfill for two years.
The genesis of success and fortune isn't material, it is ideas and hope and wonder and study of the things we might one day have. It is having the boldness to be content with your zero short-term, in playoff appearances and the win column, in all the tangible ways we measure success in professional sports, knowing that eventually one and two and 10 will come.
That is the hallmark of Hinkie's tenure. No, the Sixers don't have gaudy possessions to drape themselves in, no sure-fire superstar. But he leaves his perch flocked by outlines and ideas capable of powering the building of their platform. A fool comments on how hard it is to fill an empty house, a wise man has already begun shopping for furniture deals.
For a brief stretch of my life, I felt empowered to dream about what the Sixers could be, rather than miserable and nihilist about the basketball franchise I've followed my entire life. Today, a lot of people are mourning the loss of someone they didn't expect to disappear on a random Wednesday night in April.
Me? I'm just happy I was able to dream at all.