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On Liberty Ballers and Imposter Syndrome

Diving into the world of the Sixers as an outsider

New Orleans Pelicans v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

I still remember where I was when Kevin Love DMed me to ask if I wanted to write for Liberty Ballers, which was standing in line at Dollar Tree. It was the end of a summer in which I’d been trying my best to read as many basketball pieces as I could from as many sites as I could, meaning I read a lot of Liberty Ballers even though I wasn’t a fan of the Sixers. I knew Jackson Frank and Tom West through some group chats, so it started by reading their work, but I ended up just reading all the work.

So, it felt like a kind of spooky coincidence when, the same week that I lost my part-time second job and was trying to find whatever small sources of money I could, Kevin’s message hit my inbox. I liked watching this 76ers team and had a longstanding admiration for The Process, so even though I wasn’t well-versed in the language and lingo of Sixers world, I said yes.

***

I’ve always had a bad case of imposter syndrome. I feel it most acutely when I’m teaching.

I grew up in rural Texas. My father worked at the Phillips plant for 40 years. So did his father, and so did his brothers, and my other grandfather didn’t work at the plant, but he did work in an oilfield. Most of my cousins build pipelines. I’m not supposed to be a college instructor. I’m not supposed to write about sports on the Internet. My blood runs thick with red dirt and petroleum.

So, standing in front of a classroom, fumbling for the right words to say here’s how to write a complex thesis or here’s what that rosebush represents in The Scarlet Letter, I often hear this voice in my head that says Justin, what are you doing here? I’ll have a student ask me a question and my brain will shut down for a moment. I’ll spend the entire semester stressing over how bad my course evaluations will be, and then they’ll be fine, and then I’ll spend the time between semesters stressing about how I’m sure the next semester will be the one where everyone realizes I know nothing.

***

I also feel that imposter syndrome when I’m here, at this site, writing about the 76ers. Again, I grew up in rural Texas, an hour south of Houston in a town of 3,000 people. Down there, people did two things for fun: drank Bud Light and watched Houston sports teams. Because I was too young for the Bud Light part, I just spent all my time watching the Astros and the Texans and, of course, the Rockets.

But I’ve always had a soft spot for Philadelphia sports, in large part because I’ve always disliked Dallas sports. The Eagles got to play the Cowboys twice a year and seemed like the NFC East team with the best chance of consistently beating them, so I rooted for them. Then, the Sixers hired Sam Hinkie away from Houston and I started feeling a kind of admiration for what this team was doing too.

***

It’s weird to write for a fansite about a team of which you’re not a long-time fan. Coming into the season, I knew I was approaching things from a position that was light years behind where other people were in terms of knowing things about the Philadelphia 76ers.

I still am, really. I still see jokes on Twitter and don’t understand them. Just the other day, Adam Aaronson said something in a group chat about when the Sixers worked out Grayson Allen and Bryan Colangelo was there and I had another one of those moments where I felt completely out of my league, where I realize I’m fumbling in the dark here.

I mean, I still have to Google how to spell Anžejs Pasečņiks. I just tried to type it and it came out looking like this: Anzeljs Pasecnicks.

Sixers Twitter is such a welcoming place. It’s full of so many fun and smart people. And yet, there’s this certain level of fear I feel when I’m tweeting about the team, when I make a joke about a player, when I run the site’s account during games and someone replies to something with a reference that I don’t get. What if I don’t know the right thing about this team? What if I can’t name all the second rounders of the Hinkie era?

What if everyone realizes I’m a fraud?

***

Maybe the thing is that it’s fine to be a fraud as long as you’re actively working to be less of a fraud.

***

I’ve talked about sports online for a long, long time. In high school, I joined a high school football message board to talk about my school’s team with fans and parents and players from schools all around the state of Texas.

Sometimes, I was critical of the team, like when I called out the head coach for playing an assistant’s son at quarterback when the other quarterback was better. Of course, that got back to the team, and one of the defensive linemen approached me one day to tell me that I didn’t play for the team, and I didn’t know anything about the team because I didn’t play for the team, and I needed to stop talking about the team.

I still think about that.

***

But maybe it’s fine to be a fraud as long as you’re actively working to be less of a fraud. I remember, when I first joined Liberty Ballers, getting really invested in Furkan Korkmaz, to the point that I found a Turkish television station airing the Turkish National Team’s games, which I watched so that I could better understand Furkan Korkmaz.

It seemed, at the time, that the best way to enter the world of the Sixers was to take one of the fringe players on the team and get really invested in him. I knew one of our other writers had already claimed Jonah Bolden, so I went with Korkmaz.

At first, there was something artificial about that choice, something that felt so inauthentic. And then, halfway into the first game of watching that Turkish game, I found myself really rooting for Korkmaz, really wanting him to make the rotation, to keep developing his shot, to be a key piece of a 76ers playoff run.

That’s one way to feel more like you belong somewhere: You get sincerely and earnestly invested in that thing. For me, spending the end of the summer thinking about and tweeting about and writing about Furkan Korkmaz was a way of staking out a space, of finding a way of belonging in that space.

***

The word “essay” has a lot of different meanings, but one that’s always stuck out to me is that “essay” means “to try.”

In my PhD, I did my secondary qualifying exams in the field of the lyric essay, a genre that, when boiled down to its essence, is about trying. Trying, failing, trying again.

Basketball is, in its own way, an essay. An attempt. A try. The team fails and then tries again. The essay is written, rewritten, forever in flux.

***

Even now, writing this, I worry. What if the readers think I’m over-intellectualizing this? What if they see that I like the Rockets and don’t want anything to do with me?

What if?

What if?

What if?

But it’s important to say the things you feel, to speak the things that worry you, and to hope that people understand these worries.

***

It’s been a long year here at Liberty Ballers. There’s an offseason ahead, another season after that, and over and over I’ll keep doing this: trying and trying and trying.

Trying to understand this team, to understand this game. Trying to make sense of it all.

And through this all, there’s one constant: the support of the writers and fans here who read these pieces I write, who share them, who tell me how they liked them. All these people who look at me and don’t see an imposter.

Thank you.

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