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Sixers Tinder: Tiago Splitter, a Hero Without a Cape

Splitter will never be forgotten in Philadelphia.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I was signing up for a new savings account at my local bank last week and the online questionnaire asked me a security question in case I ever forget my password: “Give the date of a significant day in your life.”

Would I put my birthday? My parents’ anniversary? The day the Sixers hired Sam Hinkie? None of those could top my choice, as I typed in “02/22/2017” and hit enter. My answer was set. For those unaware, that’s the day the Sixers franchise changed forever, the day they traded for Tiago Splitter.

The early reviews for the deal were predictably fawning in praise of Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo:

“An unprecedented shift of power in NBA history.” - The Wall Street Journal

“The NBA championship comes through Philadelphia.” - Rolling Stone

“Two thumbs way up!” - Roger Ebert

The amazing thing about the Splitter acquisition is that despite all of the hype the trade brought upon his broad Brazilian shoulders, he carried all of that weight and then some, putting the city of Philadelphia on his back and exceeding all expectations along the way.

Splitter scored 39 points in eight games in Sixers red, white and blue, a feat I don’t expect to be matched during my lifetime, nor my children’s for that matter.

This summer, however, is scary for the Sixers. Splitter is an unrestricted free agent and it’s not clear whether the Sixers will be able to afford the big man. The Sixers have a nucleus of young talent that will soon need second contracts and they may be priced out of the near-certain max contract Splitter will receive for his dominant play.

A basketball world where Splitter is no longer a Sixer is not one I care to live in, so I am making a plea to Colangelo and the Sixers brass. Bring back Splitter. At all costs. Don’t do it just for me, but for this entire city, a hard-working, blue-collar town that deserves sports heroes in the Splitter mold.

Over the last week, two encounters I had in Philly reminded me about the power of sports in our great town and why it’s pertinent that Splitter remains a Sixer for life.

Last Saturday, I was a little under the weather. I typically would’ve went out downtown or along Passyunk Avenue in Philly, grabbing drinks until last call with my gang of friends, but I wasn’t feeling up for that. I was physically worn down by this cold I couldn’t quit. I think I was actually mentally worn down at the thought of losing Splitter though.

As the night progressed, however, and the slate of first round NBA playoff games continued well beyond sundown, I got the urge to be a bit social and watch these games in a public setting. Around the start of the Clippers and Jazz game at 10:30 p.m., I threw on a kelly green Eagles hat and ambled over to my corner bar and usual neighborhood watering hole, Taproom on 19th.

As I walked up the front steps of the establishment, the door in front of me swung open. The look on my face was probably akin to what I would’ve looked like if Dario Saric was standing right there in front of me. While he wasn’t Croatian, this man did at one time did occupy a similar place in my heart as Saric. It was Nicky Ricci, an old childhood friend who had moved to Atlanta about a decade ago.

I was walking in. He was walking out. We went back inside, sat down and had a few drinks, but all he kept talking about was Tiago Splitter. Despite leaving Philly at the end of the Allen Iverson era, he had never stopped caring about his Sixers. It’s what bonded us as a kid, pretending we were Iverson and stepping over opponents while playing on the milk crate net attached to a telephone pole on my little row home-filled block.

Splitter had spent last season in Atlanta with the Hawks, where Nicky got a great view of a franchise-level player, as Splitter averaged 5.6 points and 3.3 rebounds per contest in the 36 games he played for the team. When “The Trade” happened back in February, he knew it was time to return home. It was meant to be.

He was visiting his aunt’s for Easter weekend. It was his first time back in Philly after all of these years. We felt as happy as we once were one we were 10 years old, sitting in his basement and playing as Jason Richardson in the Slam Dunk Contest in NBA Live 2005. Nick was having a rough time in his life now though. He had dropped out of Georgia State after his freshman year. “College just wasn’t for me,” he says after taking a sip of his Miller High Life. He had started running through a series of odd jobs he couldn’t keep to appease his parents. His girlfriend Amanda had just dumped him after a three-year relationship.

I could see my friend was hurting. It pained me too. Inside the confines of this gastropub, the only comfort I could think to give him was some brown liquor. I ordered two shots of Jack Daniels from the bartender. He lined them up for us. We raised our glasses.

“To Splitter,” I yelled.

“To Splitter,” he said with a grin, as we each gulped down a shot.

He didn't stop smiling the rest of the night.

I was walking down Chestnut Street yesterday on the east side of Broad Street. The foot traffic was massive in the midst of a lunch hour rush. Most of Center City’s yuppies, showered and blue-blazered, were lost in their phones, had their earbuds in or were staring at the back of the head in front of them in a daze. I can’t say I was much different than them, as I was listening to the latest episode of Pod Save America on my walk. One way I differed from all of them all though was that I saw a man plopped down sheepishly on the corner where Chestnut intersected with 12th Street.

No one noticed him, or at least they pretended he didn’t exist. He looked a little rough, bruised and battered. We made eye contact. We were locked in and we couldn’t look away. It was obvious why we felt this connection: I had a blue Sixers hat pulled down low on my face and he had a beat up, dusty, Iverson-era Sixers hat on. That hat had seen some incredibly incompetent management over the years. That hat had seen some shit. I’m sure this man had too.

As I got closer to him, I pulled out my wallet. I said, “Trust the Process,” as I dropped a couple of bucks into his empty Dunkin’ Donuts cup. His eyes lit up. He was incredulous. Something so insignificant to me made this man’s day. He couldn’t have been more appreciative. He couldn’t stop smiling. As I turned to continue down Chestnut, he looked up and asked me a question.

“Do you think they’re gonna keep Splitter?”

I chuckled.

“They better, man. They better!”

We went our separate ways. The more I walked, the more my emotions overwhelmed me. My eyes welled up. There was a lump in my throat. This just illustrated the perfect nature of sports and how they can unite people and communities. I will forever share a connection with this man, who I had never seen before and likely will never see again, because we were both lucky enough to catch the Halley’s Comet that was a player of Tiago Splitter’s caliber taking the court in Philadelphia.

That man thought I had made his day, but, in reality, Tiago Splitter had made both of ours.


What would you do with Tiago Splitter?

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