As my younger brother and I walked up the steps toward our nosebleed seats for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, I paused for a moment and looked down at the Wells Fargo Center court. My eyes immediately locked on Jimmy Butler, who was standing near the back of the Sixers’ layup line chatting with a member of the coaching staff. What was he saying? Where was his head at? Why did he and Ben Simmons stop wearing matching headbands months earlier?
“Yo,” my brother, who had already located our seats, called down to me. “You coming?” I turned and walked the final few steps to join him.
It’s difficult to articulate how I was feeling — anxious, exhilarated, overwhelmed, distracted... I was a mess. One thing was clear, though: there was a real possibility that, three hours from then, I could be saying goodbye to a roster I’d only just met. It had been three months since Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, Boban Marjanovic, James Ennis III and [sighs] Jonathon Simmons arrived in Philly. I watched their Sixers debuts, blinked, and here they were, warming up for an elimination playoff game. Butler was traded to the Sixers in November, but “Rental?” may as well have been tattooed across his forehead, whether Sixers fans wanted to admit it or not.
As I sat next to my brother, fidgety and speechless, devouring a Campo’s cheesesteak to keep my hands and mouth occupied, I scanned the court in search of Joel Embiid. He was standing near the baseline waiting to rebound a missed shot. I turned to my brother, who was taking a picture of the court to post on his Snapchat story.
“Joel’s gonna kill it tonight. That’s my guy,” he said.
Embiid is our guy. We chant “Trust the Process” at him until our voices are hoarse, defend him on Twitter like he’s our son, let him posterize us on South Street, have near-heart attacks when he falls awkwardly, and audibly exhale when he gets up. He’s the heart and soul of Philadelphia, a lion-killing, windmill-dunking, shit-talking superstar who redefines what From Here means.
As I stared admiringly at our Cameroonian cornerstone, Tobias Harris came into my periphery; he was standing in the right corner launching 3s. What did I know about Tobias Harris? Ostensibly good teammate, candid postgame interviewee, fun headband, good shooter, one half of Bobi + Tobi... What else? I felt a frustrating disconnect as I racked my brain for more Tobi facts. Former Tennessee Volunteer, Long Island native, kind of looks like J. Cole... Was that it? Most of that information can be found on Wikipedia or Basketball Reference. Did he ever kill a lion, or ask Rihanna out on Twitter, or jog through the streets of Philly like a mega-sized Rocky Balboa? I had no clue. We were minutes away from the start of Game 6, and the most interesting thing I knew about the Sixers’ starting power forward was that he was best friends with fellow newcomer Boban Marjanovic. There were probably so many fun facts I didn’t know — if the Sixers lost that night, would I ever learn of them?
Thankfully, they didn’t lose. Ben Simmons and Butler went supernova, Sixers fans ruthlessly booed Patrick McCaw for taking his warm ups off too slowly, and the newest installment of the new-look Sixers was one win away from the Eastern Conference Finals.
Three nights later, it ended. It would be cruel to recount the details of Leonard’s fateful shot. You’ve seen it, again and again, on Twitter or in your mind. It sent shockwaves across a grief-stricken city that was growing accustomed to 2019 playoff what-ifs (we love you, Alshon). Immediately following the game, I sat motionless, slumped over on my couch for what felt like hours. I finally came out of my stupor and turned on SportsCenter to watch the game highlights — sports masochism is endemic in Philadelphia. I didn’t make it to the Kawhi shot, though. The play before — a run-out, game-tying layup by Jimmy Butler over the outstretched arm of Serge Ibaka — prompted me to turn off the TV and go on a walk around my neighborhood.
As I walked, my mind wandered. Will my lasting memory of Jimmy Butler’s Sixers tenure be the shot before the shot? Will Tobi re-sign? Will The Hive convince Mike Scott to stay? Did the Sixers trade away valuable assets for a star-studded fling? There was always risk in trading for players on expiring contracts, but now that the season was over, that risk felt less exciting and far more sobering.
For months, the rallying cry on Sixers Twitter was “Sixers In 6” (6 being the number of games it would take Philly to beat Golden State in the NBA Finals). When the Sixers lost to the Celtics in February? Sixers In 6. When they beat the Celtics a month later? SIXERS IN 6!!!! The second Leonard’s shot fell through the basket, Sixers In 6 gave way to a new, far less presumptuous rallying cry: Run It Back.
It was everywhere. The three words found at the bottom of a tweet, or in a person’s Twitter name, or in their bio. It was brought up on podcasts, in DM conversations, with your younger brother during family dinner, and with your girlfriend when she’d ask “What the hell is Run It Back?” The obvious reason for its existence was that, above all else, the Sixers were damn good. This became increasingly apparent as the Raptors continued on their improbable run to a championship. The Sixers — a team that had, for all intents and purposes, been assembled several months earlier — were eliminated from the playoffs on a Game 7 buzzer beater to the eventual NBA champions. Why not run that back? While, yes, the financial implications of potentially re-signing Butler and Harris to max contracts are substantial, a championship in the next year or two would validate the decision.
But there is more to Run It Back than championship aspirations; it is a yearning for familiarity. After returning home from my stroll through the neighborhood, I opened Twitter on my phone and typed “Joel Embiid” into the search bar. There were videos of him crying on the court and outside the locker room. There was a myriad of tweets defending him and some mocking him. My heart sank. I had never wanted a player to bounce back and conquer the NBA universe more than I did Joel. After scrolling for a few minutes, I typed “Ben Simmons” into my search bar. The first tweet that popped up was a condemnation of his Game 7 performance. I typed out a lengthy rebuke, wisely deleted it and closed out of Twitter.
As I lay in bed later on, I realized I hadn’t searched “Tobias Harris” or “Jimmy Butler.” Why was that? Days earlier, I chanted “Jimmy Butler!” with the rest of the Wells Fargo Center crowd. I exclaimed, “There you go, Tobi!” every time Harris hit a 3-pointer during the playoffs. I greatly appreciated their contributions to the 76ers, and even appreciated Butler’s ultra-candid persona. But when the team was down and (literally) out, my emotions were tied to their two young cornerstones. As exhilarating as the 2018-19 season was, there were moments when I wondered, “What team am I watching?” After the novelty of a blockbuster acquisition begins to fade, unfamiliarity and disconnect starts to creep in.
I want those guys (Butler and Harris) to become my guys. I want to feel obliged to defend them after a regular season loss on a random night in January. More than anything, I want them to want to be here. When Embiid says he wants to play his entire career in Philadelphia, that means something to me. When Simmons talked about rings with Embiid following the Sixers’ 2018 playoff elimination, I was proud to be wearing his jersey. If Butler and Harris choose Philadelphia — a city that has never really been a free-agent destination for NBA stars — their relationship with the fan base will blossom.
By the time you read this, there could be a report that Butler plans on signing with the Lakers, or that Harris plans on reuniting with the Clippers, or that Sixers Twitter is burning to the ground. At first, I hesitated to write this because I feared the possibility of it becoming a sad internet artifact. But I ain’t no bitch, and neither is the Sixers’ roster. Run it back, Sixers. I’m not ready to say goodbye to a roster I just met.