“You have to see this,” my buddy told nine-year-old me. “He shatters the backboard with his dunks.” The exact exchange was chattier, but you get the point.
Never mind this didn’t happen every time he dunked the ball, let alone every game. It was still a damn impressive feat. He was a giant among other giants. As a kid, I thought a juggernaut wrecking backboards was the coolest thing ever. As you may have guessed, the player responsible for kindling my love for basketball was not a Sixer, or even Michael Jordan, but then-Orlando Magic center Shaquille O’Neal.
Due to a combination of bad parenting (I kid!) and me having poor taste (still true today), I felt compelled to advertise this Shaq fandom. And since I couldn’t afford a No. 32 Shaq jersey, I bought an Orlando Magic baseball hat on the Wildwood, New Jersey, boardwalk in 1994; I wore it for the next year.
In contrast to the great Kazaam, the Sixers lacked sizzle, or any other quality that would pull in fans of elementary school age. For reference, in 1993 — the year after they traded Charles Barkley — their best players (according to 1993 arcade classic NBA Jam) were Hersey Hawkins and Jeff Hornacek.
It took several years for the Sixers to bring in a player that entertained me as Shaq did. But when they did draft that certain six-foot guard from Georgetown, I was hooked.
Allen Iverson didn’t look like any of the other great players I enjoyed — he was smaller, was covered in tattoos, and rejected authority. By the end of high school, I hovered around six feet and 160 pounds, just like AI — something I viewed as a point of pride. If you’re part of the Liberty Ballers community, I don’t need to explain why Iverson meant so much to Sixers fans of the time, but it’s useful context to explain where my love for the Sixers was born. As a teen trying to shed the burden of religious fundamentalism I was raised under, his non-conformist attitude and “the world is out to get me” vibe particularly resonated with me.
My interest in these Iverson Sixers coincided with changes in my home life. I had just moved from my longtime neighborhood after eight years, separated from my friends, and was in a new place, which seemed hundreds of miles away (it was actually 20). With few friends in the new neighborhood, I spent many nights just watching basketball, waiting to see what Allen would pull out of his bag next.
AI was a thrill to watch, and always gave maximum effort on the floor. (I won’t debate whether he worked just as hard on defense, not today). I loved his hustle, passion and emotion. He was a wrecking ball, a dynamo and a wizard on the basketball court, and I enjoyed every minute of it — even his legendary feuds with Larry Brown.
And when the Sixers would come up short each year in the playoffs, my attention would shift to the NBA draft and free agency. This interest was no doubt fueled by many hours of listening to sports talk radio on 610 WIP.
But aside from that magical 2000-2001 season, the Sixers never got close to a championship again. Then five years later, after years of mismanagement, the Sixers traded Iverson for far less than the king’s ransom he was worth. My interest waned.
I found the team’s constant failures not just at winning, but at drafting and developing players, to be incredibly frustrating. In thinking about this intro piece, I began reviewing the 1997, 1998 and 1999 drafts and imagined what might have been if they hit on just one of those picks, but it was too painful; the Sixers could never find the right complementary guy to help AI win his title. Even though Allen was immature early in his career and may never have bought in to sharing the ball, I still blame Larry Brown and Billy King for not bringing the right guys in to give it a real chance.
So when the Sixers hired Sam Hinkie in 2013, who believed that everything had to be torn down in order to build a contender, I was sold. And though I maintain he didn’t get a fair shake, he certainly was not blameless in his dealings with players and agents. Yet, despite his mistakes, it was absolutely worth it for Embiid alone — he has single-handedly brought the team from being a bad team to a very good team.
In the five years since his dismissal, history has been kind to Hinkie. Some of his other draft picks and signings have looked better each year. In addition to RoCo and TJ, who found success as Sixers role players, other players caught on with other teams. Jerami Grant, Christian Wood, Nerlens Noel, and Richaun Holmes all turned out to be very good NBA players , they just needed time. I’ve probably missed a few others.
One of the craziest things to remember is that, in 2017, the Sixers, without Hinkie or much of a plan, appeared to have all the time in the world. Between Jo, Ben, Dario and the other FEDS guy, the Sixers had perhaps the brightest young collection of talent in the NBA — on paper, at least.
Since 2017, this team is unrecognizable. Fast forward a few years, after devastating losses in 2019 (I dare not post a link referencing the end of the Toronto series here) and 2021 (you know what happened), several players not working out, multiple front office changes, a new head coach, and several roster reconfigurations, the Sixers are in a weird place. We know they’re a good team, but not a title contender in their current form. And most concerning, it just feels that they’re on borrowed time, our hopes and dreams resting on the battered legs (and back and feet and hands and orbital socket) of a seven-foot colossus. So, this team isn’t in a bad place, but it sure feels damn precarious.
My love for the team, likewise, is in a weird place. I love Jo and Matisse and Maxey. I appreciate the solid role players in Seth, Danny and Furkan that Daryl and co. have assembled. I respect how Daryl has drafted and maneuvered and steered this Ben Simmons disaster thus far. Doc has been fine-ish, though not spectacular. However, nothing is normal in Sixers land, but when you look back at the past 25 years, it never really was. All of this is to say that we should enjoy this ride. Things will no doubt stay weird until, one day, things will be normal and fine. At least I hope so.
My goals here are modest: I hope to learn more about basketball and to share what I hope are useful insights with the audience. I hope to make the Liberty Ballers community proud. I hope to write about a Sixers title during Joel’s prime. And I hope to make some friends along the way.
I do love this team and the circus they bring. Let’s enjoy this train wreck together!