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Triumph, Dejection and Recovery: 120 Hours in Philadelphia

A celebratory blowout, a soul-crushing shot, a revitalizing lottery party — How a city experienced the cruel volatility of playoff basketball, only to arise rejuvenated in its aftermath.

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

“That was unbelievable... what a night,” I exclaimed over the roar of “Trust the Process” chants echoing throughout the Wells Fargo Center.

My younger brother and I turned the corner and made our way to the escalators, Phila Unite rally towels draped over our shoulders. As we descended the escalator amid a sea of red, white and blue, he turned to me.

“That was the best Sixers game I’ve ever been to.”

He wasn’t being hyperbolic — it was that good. On the heels of their demoralizing Game 5 blowout loss, the Sixers responded emphatically in Game 6. Ben Simmons’ two-way prowess was on full display. Jimmy Butler looked every bit the max-contract-level player Philadelphians dreamed of when he was acquired in November. Mike Scott put on for his Hive. Joel Embiid was a +40... that is not a typo.

With very little time to develop chemistry after acquiring Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Scott at the February trade deadline, the Sixers had occasionally looked like a team in search of its identity during the playoffs. Not that night. Not in front of an electrifying home crowd desperate to see at least one more win. They relentlessly attacked the basket, disrupted Kawhi Leonard’s rhythm with timely double-teams, took advantage of their transition opportunities and answered every Raptors run with a run of their own. It was a masterclass performance, the kind that inspires a fan base to dream of Sixers basketball in June.

Who could blame them, really? Despite the Sixers’ glaring lack of rotational depth and ineptitude at the backup center position, their star power was dazzling enough to support such lofty expectations. Embiid, while still not fully healthy, looked exponentially better than he did in Game 5. If Simmons could maintain his newfound aggression on the offensive end, Embiid could overcome his bouts of sickness, and Jimmy could keep getting buckets, anything was possible.

#SixersIn7 became the Sixers Twitter rallying cry after Game 5 (well, at least the optimistic corner of Sixers Twitter). After Game 6, it was no longer a niche hashtag — it was a citywide belief.

As my brother and I walked toward my car, the sea of red, white and blue now beginning to disperse across the lots, I turned for a moment to look back at the Wells Fargo Center. It is a place that has always felt more like a second home than a sports arena. I’ve experienced soul-crushing losses and triumphant victories there. I’ve hugged complete strangers and mocked opposing teams’ fans there. I’ve experienced the truest sense of communal spirit there. If that was going to be the last night I spent in the Wells Fargo Center during the 2018-19 season, I was at peace with it.

“Imagine not being from Philadelphia,” I said to my brother.

“Sounds awful,” he responded.

Kawhi Leonard’s fadeaway corner jumper clanked off the right side of the rim and ricocheted upward. As the ball made its ascent toward the Scotiabank Arena rafters, my mother, who was sitting to the right of me on our living room couch, exclaimed, “No way!” The ball came back down, bounced softly on the right side of the rim, twice again on the left side, and fell through the hoop. Ball game.

The living room was silent, save for the TV remote hitting the carpet after it tumbled out of my left hand. I stared blankly at the television screen. Embiid — who had only moments earlier made a great contest on Leonard’s walk-off shot — was being consoled by Toronto center Marc Gasol as tears began trickling down his cheeks. My father slowly stood up from his chair, the gravity of defeat seemingly weighing him down. “Unbelievable,” he said as he let out a disheartening sigh before walking out of the room.

I looked down at my hands — my knuckles were practically white from clenching at my shorts. I hadn’t said a word. As my mother stood up, she turned to me.

“I’m sorry,” she said gently before walking toward the doorway.

“Of course it went in,” I muttered to myself.

Leonard’s game-winner — the first Game 7 walk-off shot in NBA history — was, without a doubt, the most “of course it went in” shot I’d ever seen. I watched Emmanuel Mudiay hit an off-the-dribble half-court prayer to beat the Sixers during their lowly 2015-16 campaign. I watched Devin Harris make a game-winning half-court heave against the 2008-09 Sixers after being stripped by Andre Iguodala half a second earlier on his initial shot attempt. They are both quintessential “of course it went in” shots. Yet, neither compare to the absurdity of Leonard’s make.

With that shot, Sixers fans let out a collective expletive as the weight of the basketball world came crashing down on top of them. #SixersIn7 became a depressing internet artifact. The Eastern Conference Finals were no longer a potential destination. The only thing the Sixers would be doing in June is drafting college players.

Kawhi Leonard sunk the Sixers, and an offseason of questions now awaited them. The fate of head coach Brett Brown was still unclear, after Marc Stein reported that he “has little chance of surviving a second-round exit” on the eve of Game 7. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris — both of whom are set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1 — could take their talents elsewhere this summer. The only Sixers players currently under contract for the 2019-20 season are Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jonah Bolden and Zhaire Smith. While most championship-contending rosters are bolstered by familiarity and chemistry, the Sixers could once again be tasked with integrating a host of unfamiliar faces if they fail to re-sign their key free agents.

Things looked bleak for a large portion of the fan base in the 24 hours following Game 7. As always, Joel Embiid’s long-term health became a raging topic. Max Kellerman of ESPN’s First Take argued that the Sixers should trade Embiid (so it is clear, virtually no Sixers fans agree with this). Ben Simmons, undoubtedly the most polarizing Sixers player, was once again being lambasted by internet provocateurs and sports talk radio callers. A Ben Simmons-for-Lebron James rumor even surfaced. Rajon Rondo’s comments on Butler’s upcoming free agency re-entered many fans’ minds.

This isn’t to say every Sixers fan dove headfirst into a pit of despair. The Sixers had gone toe-to-toe with a team many felt they had little chance against prior to the series. Simmons flashed All-Defensive team potential, which was an incredibly encouraging development. Despite Butler’s uneven Game 7 performance, he proved his mettle much of the second-round. There were plenty of positives to take from the seven-game series. Still, in the moment, no matter how optimistic you were, it was impossible to escape the demoralizing feeling that comes with a loss of that nature. The Sixers — a team that was essentially reconfigured three times during the regular season — had finally started to find themselves. With one shot, their season ended.

“Of course it went in,” I once again muttered before turning off the television.

“Run it back!” fans chanted as Spike Eskin of the Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast held out a microphone to the crowd gathered in attendance at Xfinity Live! Philadelphia. I sat in a round booth with a group of Liberty Ballers writers and my girlfriend, who was experiencing the full scope of crazed Sixers fandom for the first time. Eskin stood on an elevated platform performing spoken word poetry about Sixers players as we delightfully soaked in the brilliant weirdness of it all.

Two nights earlier, the Sixers season had ended in excruciating fashion. That didn’t stop countless fans from attending the sixth annual Rights to Ricky Sanchez Lottery Party (dubbed “The Final Lottery Party”). For years, the lottery party has been a Process oasis, a place where Hinkites could gather to talk hoops, experience a live podcast and pray for lottery balls to bounce favorably. Those three elements were still instrumental to this year’s event, but for the last two years, the lottery party has served a fourth purpose: a way to forget about the goddamn playoffs.

What better way to forget about Leonard’s shot heard round the world than to passionately cheer for Chukwudiebere “Chu Chu” Maduabum — the Process legend and Final Lottery Party guest of honor who never actually suited up for the Sixers — when he joined Eskin and Mike Levin on stage during the live podcast? A couple years ago, the Sixers weren’t playing in big playoff games. They weren’t playing in the playoffs at all. During the peak Process years, when the wins were few and far between, loyal fans needed other things to cheer for. They embraced the tank like their lives depended on it. Las Vegas Summer League became must-watch television. They lionized players like Chu Chu because why the hell not? The Final Lottery Party reminded me that it’s not all about wins and losses. It’s about communal spirit. It’s about shared experiences. It’s about getting a Mike Scott Hive tattoo because you ain’t no bitch.

When Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum — who was booed earlier in the night because of his last name — opened the envelopes that revealed the Knicks and Lakers would be selecting third and fourth in the 2019 NBA Draft, respectively, we celebrated like the Sixers had just won a Game 7.

There is nothing quite like this fan base.

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