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A Sober Process

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‘The Process’—a phrase Philadelphians and the wider NBA community have come to know as the 76ers polarizing rebuild from 2013-16—was a seminal moment in my life, and stood in tandem with my own personal rebuild as I tried desperately to recover from alcohol/drug addiction. This is my story—one of pain, confusion, comedy, jubilation, and growth.

The frosty January wind came whirling through the doorway as a group of elderly gentlemen stepped outside for a morning cigarette. A few feet away, I stood hovering over top a coffee table rifling through a messy pile of newspapers—USA Today, New York Times, Wall Street Journal.

I kept sorting through the scattered papers, eyes darting from headline to headline. Still nothing. I’d gone, give or take, the better part of two years having not read a single newspaper headline. Yet, here I was, standing hunched over a heap of words, desperately in search of one headline in particular.

Finally, I found it: “Jrue Holiday Earns his First All-Star Selection.”

I grabbed the Philadelphia Inquirer, ran over to the door (nearly throwing it off its hinges when I opened it), and relayed the news to the gentlemen still enjoying their cigarettes outside. In near-unison, they exclaimed, “the Sixers suck!”

It was around 8:00 AM, and Mirmont Treatment Center was beginning to bustle with activity. I placed the newspaper back on the table and headed down the hallway towards the cafeteria for breakfast.

I’d been in rehab for seven days. My mind was hazy, my limbs were restless, my feelings were still largely in a state of dormancy. Nine days earlier, I had accompanied a group of wary-minded friends to the Wells Fargo Center to watch the Sixers take on the Pelicans, the team Holiday would be traded to five months later.

I remember finding our seats and settling in. I remember ordering several rum and cokes in succession, followed by a 16-ounce Miller Lite. After that, I remember nothing. I literally had to look up the score of the game before writing this article. The Sixers lost—not a shocker.

The team was in the midst of their middling 2012-13 campaign. Iggy was gone, Bynum was bowling, and Doug Collins was coaching an underwhelming roster to yet another underwhelming record.

At 20-years-old, there were two things I cared about: getting inebriated and watching the stuck-in-neutral Sixers. Truthfully, it was a miracle I cared about anything besides the former. I’d been dismissed from college a year earlier, was becoming a professional bridge-burner, and slept until 6:00 PM most days. The only reason I didn’t sleep later was because I had to be up in time to watch the Sixers lose...and to satisfy my addictions. It’s natural to suspect that my Sixers masochism was a trigger for my drug/alcohol abuse. That wasn’t the case. In fact, in my darkest hours, it was the only thing that gave me any sense of livelihood.

Strangely, the months leading up to my admission into Mirmont were not unlike the post-Iverson, pre-Process Sixers—I didn’t have a plan. Everyday was Groundhog day, with no end in sight. As the Sixers clung to false playoff hopes, I clung to false hopes that my addiction would miraculously fix itself. We were both passengers on a journey heading nowhere.

Rehab, in the most genuine sense, saved my life. Had I not gone, there is a chance I would not have been alive to experience what occurred five months later, an event that spearheaded the Sixers’ ideological transformation, and in turn would become a major part of my recovery.

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I sat in the backseat of my mom’s Honda Odyssey, my left thumb hastily scrolling through the contents of my Twitter feed. My sister sat directly in front of me in the passenger seat, every so often urging my mother to check the ETA on her phone’s GPS. It was June 27, 2013—opening night of my sister’s musical. June 27th also happened to be the night of the 2013 NBA Draft. My sister and I were both noticeably anxious.

It was 8:15 PM. I’d just spent the last half hour—knees pressed against my chest—scouring every corner of the internet for a working video stream of the draft, but was unable to find one.

This was a peculiar situation for me. Had it been a year earlier, I would have shouted expletives at my mom and blamed the streaming problem on my sister. No, that’s not true—I wouldn’t have been in the car. Instead, I would have been camped in my basement, beverage in hand, as I drank myself to sleep with a David Stern lullaby playing in the background.

Oftentimes, early sobriety ushers in a sudden transformation in behavior. Imagine this: You spend years of your life consumed by your own selfish desires, never once considering the wishes of others. Then, suddenly, you give a shit.

So here I was, missing out on one of my favorite television events of the year, all so that I could watch a musical I’d never heard of. The craziest thing is that I felt content.

Finally, my thumb stopped scrolling as my eyes fell upon a tweet at the top of my feed. Being the lunatic that I was (yes, people in early sobriety are usually lunatics, whether they realize it or not), I dropped my phone in my lap and shouted “Jrue is gone. We got Nerlens!” To my recollection, I said it a few more times, almost as if saying it out loud would make it feel real.

A minute passed. I remember my sister quietly asking my mom if I was drunk. It didn’t hurt my feelings. She had every right to ask that question. I was five months sober, not five years. Suddenly, I blurted out, “And a 2014 draft pick!”

As my mom pulled up to a stop sign, she turned around in her seat and asked me who Nerlens Noel was. I tried explaining to her that, had Noel not torn his ACL in college, he might have been the #1 pick in the draft. She nodded politely as I rambled on about shot blocking and rim running for another thirty seconds. My sister rightfully interrupted my rant and asked to see a picture of him—both my mother and sister loved his flat top.

Here I was, on my way to a musical, enjoying an important Sixers moment with two people I loved. They had no idea what was going on, but still showed their support as I daydreamed about the Sixers’ new center.

That’s one of the beautiful things about sobriety. During my active addiction, I would sit and watch games by myself, rotting away as I hid my Sixers fandom behind a locked basement door. Today, I have people to share it with. I want to share it with them. What good is being a fan if you can’t experience wins and losses with other human beings?

My initial excitement for Nerlens Noel was quickly met by a wave of sadness. Jrue Holiday was my guy. When Allen Iverson was in his prime, stepping over Tyronn Lue, I was nine-years-old. I was too young to fully appreciate his Sixers tenure. Holiday, on the other hand, was the first Sixers player I loved. Before I had a chance to say goodbye, he was gone.

With Holiday’s departure, and Iguadala’s the year before, the Sixers were signaling their intentions to start anew. Sam Hinkie, who was hired as the team’s General Manager and President of Basketball Operations a month earlier, was ready to put his rebuilding blueprint to the test.

I felt an immediate affinity with the franchise’s decision to reboot. Only several months earlier, I had made a similar decision. Sobriety is, in many ways, a reboot. My addiction had run its course, and a fresh start was the only remaining path forward. I cannot properly express the comfort I felt when I first learned my favorite team would be starting over alongside me.

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I sat on the edge of my living room couch, hands pressed against my cheeks. My friend sat in a rocking chair to my right. The Sixers had just lost to the defending champion Golden State Warriors in heartbreaking fashion. I watched as Warriors players surrounded Harrison Barnes, congratulating him for hitting the game-winning three.

My friend turned to me and said, “the Sixers will never be as good as the Warriors.” I instinctively told him he was wrong, stood up, and went outside to smoke a cigarette. He followed close behind as we started heading towards his car. We planned on hitting a late night AA meeting.

It was January 30, 2016. Two weeks earlier, I’d celebrated three years of sobriety. Along the way, I became the lead singer in a band, re-enrolled in school, made new friends, and rekindled friendships with people I thought would never forgive me.

During those three years, the Sixers managed to win 58 of a possible 247 games. They traded away the Jrue Holidays and Thaddeus Youngs of the world for draft capital, young players, and expiring contracts. Dario Saric still hadn’t come over. Joel Embiid, who was in the process of missing his second consecutive season after an injury setback the previous summer, was prepping for a trip to Qatar. The national media, at large, took every chance it got to deride the Sixers’ team building methodology. The local fan base was engaged in a three-year civil war that took place on bar stools, over the internet, and through sports talk radio.

With my personal life finally beginning to regain stability, and in many ways flourishing, the Sixers were losing at a historic rate—and I fully supported them.

As a person that has experienced the living hell that is addiction, I understand what it feels like to be doubted, to be categorized as a failure. Even in recovery, it’s difficult to shed the inferiority complex that has been implanted in your psyche for years.

Beyond regular fandom, I felt an emotional connection to The Process. Every scathing article criticizing the franchise reminded me of my own experiences, of the trials and tribulations that come with feeling marginalized. I cheered when Isaiah Canaan took 25-footers—not every time, but sometimes! I watched the team lose by 53 points to the Mavericks, and only changed the channel once. I was committed to supporting a group of castoffs because I, too, had felt like a castoff.

Most importantly, I believed the Sixers would eventually triumph. I trusted in Hinkie’s rebuild, and was offended when others didn’t understand it. Give me those Canaan ball threes. Embiid is going to get healthy and Dario is going to come over.

Did the losing suck? Yes, it sucked. It really sucked for me. Most people were able to chase down the losses with beers and liquor. I chased them down with Marlboro cigarettes and AA meetings. Imagine being completely sober for The Process. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

The Sixers had been my lone companion in my darkest hours. I wasn’t going to abandon them in theirs.

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The waiter took our menus and walked towards the entrance to the kitchen. Sitting across from me, running her fingers lightly across my forearm, was Maddy. We were on our first official date, and I was extremely nervous. A minute earlier, I had told her that I was sober. I prayed she wouldn’t think lesser of me, or assume I had too much baggage to deal with.

She didn’t. I asked her if she thought it was weird, to which she laughed and said no. Thank god. Recovering alcoholics and addicts have a habit of expecting the worst. Imagine my surprise when nothing bad happened.

Every few seconds, I looked at my phone, which I had placed to the left of my silverware face down on the table. It was May 17, 2016—the night of the NBA Draft Lottery.

I looked up at Maddy, who was looking back at me, and had probably been watching my eyes dart back and forth like ping pong balls for the last few minutes. I knew the Lottery had already started, and desperately wanted to check my phone to see the results.

Suddenly, my phone began ringing. “Can I answer this really quick?” I asked. She smiled and said yes.

It was my friend Ben. Before I could get a word in, he screamed, “We got the number one pick! We’re getting Ben Simmons!” He was at XFinity Live for The Rights to Ricky Sanchez Lottery Party. I could hear hundreds of elated Sixers fans celebrating in the background.

For the next five minutes, I remember muttering “oh my god” and “holy shit” repeatedly as a gigantic grin spread across my face. I’m still dating Maddy, but would have totally understood if she’d never gone on another date with me after that.

Only a Sixers fan would understand how I felt in that moment. The team had just recently finished a 10-72 season—but none of that mattered. Ben Simmons was on the way, Embiid was going to get healthy, and, once again, Dario was going to come over.

My life was at an all-time high. I was doing well in school, had a family that loved and trusted me, and was sitting across the table from a girl that didn’t judge my sobriety or Sixers fanaticism. And now, finally, the Sixers were inching closer to success as well.

Sobriety is a nonlinear progression. With newfound love comes unexpected heartbreak. With satisfaction comes unparalleled frustration. The Process was also a nonlinear progression, characterized by its highs and lows. With high draft picks came injuries. With Sam Hinkie came Bry...Nope. Not going to write it.

The point I’m trying to make is that, in life, nobody reaches a worthwhile destination without enduring a bumpy journey. I had certainly experienced a bumpy journey. The Sixers had, too. There would undoubtedly be more bumps to come. But for that night, I planned on enjoying our good fortune.

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As I write this, the Sixers are on the brink of falling to the Milwaukee Bucks, which would be their third straight loss. They would need to win their final three regular season games to match last year’s 52-30 record.

[Side note: Imagine reading that last sentence a couple years ago. You would probably think it was copied and pasted from an Onion article.]

The Sixers have emerged from The Process as a true Eastern Conference contender. To Process Trusters, this is what we dreamed of, what we believed would happen. To everyone else, well, we told you so.

However, as I watch the final seconds tick off the game clock, I can’t help but feel frustrated. With expectations raised higher than they’ve been in nearly two decades this season, the team’s success has never felt more imperative.

In the moment, it’s easy to forget what it took for the Sixers to get to this point. You forget about the Canaan 25-footers, the Embiid injuries, the 50-plus point losses.

A moment ago, I went to the kitchen to pour myself a glass of water. As I was walking back to the living room, I saw my six-year sobriety coin on top of the microwave. I paused for a second to look at it. I remembered the blackouts, the hangovers, the lies I manufactured to get what I wanted, the look on my mother’s face when she said I needed rehab.

As I sat back down in front of the computer, I couldn’t help but laugh. Here I was, a person that experienced sobriety and The Process at the same time, getting mad about a regular season loss to the Bucks. When you put it in perspective...Who gives a shit?

I’ll leave you with this. On the morning I found out Jrue Holiday was named to the All-Star team, I smiled for the first time in over a month. My mind was hazy, my limbs were restless, my feelings were still largely in a state of dormancy. I was bewildered by this unexpected sense of joy. I did my best to hold onto it the rest of the day.

Have you ever heard the saying “life is bigger than sports?” I could never relate. I’m not sure I would have a life if it wasn’t for the Sixers. If you’ve been through what I’ve been through, keep trusting whatever process works.