"Sam's just a genius," Nerlens Noel said at his introductory press conference back in the summer of 2013, referring to Sixers General Manager Sam Hinkie, who acquired Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams on draft night.
"How could you think of something like that? To have two players that played AAU together [and] already have a great relationship," Noel continued.
The story became a popular one: two long time friends reunited on the night of the 2013 draft to resuscitate one of the NBA's storied franchises. It became a story so often told that we took it for granted, which made the reports of a potential feud between the two all the more shocking.
The alleged conflict all started on January 13th when the Sixers were dismantled by the Atlanta Hawks at the Wells Fargo Center. The loss to the Hawks wasn't surprising, as the Hawks had won 24 of their 27 games heading into their matchup with the Sixers. The comments from Nerlens Noel, however, were surprising.
"I love to pass the ball myself. We have to make sure that's contagious," Noel told reporters after the loss to the Hawks. "Hopefully we can start to build it as a habit, [an] every game habit, so guys can be able to have fun playing this game."
The comment was subtle, but a noteworthy exception to what has been an otherwise amazingly intact and harmonious locker room. It was especially weird since Noel and Carter-Williams had just celebrated their first home win of the season by dancing together at mid-court not even 10 days earlier.
The next day, ESPN's Chad Ford reported that some in the Sixers organization didn't consider Michael Carter-Williams a long-term piece. A Syracuse blog called DYST Now then piled on, reporting that the Sixers blamed Michael Carter-Williams for creating a toxic environment in the locker room, and that Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel had been engaged in multiple confrontations over the last week, including at least one that nearly resulted in blows. DYST Now has since deleted the article, but luckily a cached version still exists.
And the controversy just wouldn't die, as Noel once again complained about the a lack of ball movement after the Sixers were thumped by the Wizards.
"It's two friends trying to figure it out," Sixers head coach Brett Brown said before the Sixers played the Knicks. "It's healthy. It's team.
"These guys, they get along amazingly and co-exist on buses and locker rooms. It's just sometimes they don't pass to each other because they're so tunnel visioned," Brown elaborated. "it's not like they're selfish, they just don't know what they don't know."
So which is it? Was the bond that Carter-Williams and Noel developed in AAU perhaps overstated? Was there maybe a rift between them that wasn't dug up or reported? Or is Brett Brown correct in saying that it was just two friends trying to work out what would be an admittedly tough situation for any competitor, a situation where tensions can get the better of even two close friends, sort of in the way that brothers can argue and bicker but still come back to each other at the end of the day.
Enter Leo Papile
Leo Papile, who has long been a fixture in the basketball scene in Boston, has had quite a career in the sport.
Papile was a member of the Boston Celtics front office for 14 years, from his arrival with Rick Pitino in 1997 to his departure at the start of the 2011-12 season, the season that included the Celtics game 7 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Besides his time with the Celtics, Papile has spent nearly 40 years as a coach. Papile became the youngest professional basketball coach in history when he coached the Quincy Chiefs of the Continental Basketball Association in 1977-78 at the age of 23. After his brief one year stint in Quincy, Papile spent a year as an assistant at Suffolk University before joining a young Rick Pitino at Boston University for the 1979-80 season, where one of the players on his squad was a small, feisty young point guard named Brett Brown.
From there, Papile's journey would take him all over the place, from the CBA, to Cleveland State, to being selected by the National Team Committee to join the coaching staff for the Men's Developmental Basketball Team.
It also included Papile founding the Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC) in 1977. Over the years, Papile has helped mold future NBA stars such as Patrick Ewing and Dana Barros at the BABC.
It was at the BABC AAU team where Papile took a young Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams under his wing. Papile had the duo for three seasons together, from 2008 to 2010, coaching them in what he estimated to be 180 games in total.
It's safe to say that there are few people in this world who understand the relationship Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel share, both on and off the basketball court, as well as Leo Papile.
And you can count him among those who are surprised at the alleged tension between the two.
"There was zero conflict. It went to the extreme in the other way," Papile told Liberty Ballers when asked about their relationship in high school. "The extracurricular time they spent together was extraordinary.
"In both of these guys cases, there weren't behavioral issues. It seemed like basketball consumed them, and I think that they bonded because of a mutual passion for basketball," Papile said about the relationship. "It seemed like they were sort of joined at the hip for those couple of years.
"I bet they'd be together more days [than not] in August, which is vacation month for us, and vacation from school. That was voluntary, it wasn't mandatory," Papile said. "Over those 3 summers that they were teammates, they'd spend an awful lot of time [together]."
Michael Carter-Williams' Basketball Family
Michael Carter-Williams grew up in a household that was all about basketball. Amanda 'Mandy' Carter-Zegarowski and Earl Williams, his biological father who Michael remains close with, met while both were playing basketball at Salem State University. His stepfather, Zach Zegarowski starred at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he was recruited by Stan Van Gundy.
All of them would end up coaching in some capacity later on in life. Mandy Carter-Zegarowski had a 10 year run as the head coach at Ipswich High School in Massachusetts, Earl Williams was an assistant coach under Lance Dottin at Cambridge High School in Boston, and Zach Zegarowski was an assistant at Charlestown to Jack O'Brien, who won 5 state championships in 13 seasons at Charlestown.
"A lot of times you're on these teams and it's guys who see each other but don't hang out after work, so to speak," Papile said when explaining the typical dynamic between AAU teammates. "In this particular case, Nerlens would spend the weekend [at Michael's house] and it would always be basketball based.
"I'd say that they were joined at the hip in terms of the extraordinary amount of time that they spent together off the court," Papile continued.
That basketball dynamic that was such a core parter of the Carter-Zegarowski household was something that Noel craved.
"I think for Mike it was a steady, 24 hour, 7 day a week, 365 day a year basketball diet," Papile described. "I think when Nerlens would spend time with Mike's family, it would increase his basketball appetite.
"You would just hear that Mike and Nerlens were up at Mike's house and they were playing 2-on-2 with Zach, playing in the yard, going to the gym and getting shots up, going to get some lifting in," Papile described. "It was sort of like a voluntary boot camp relationship, with Mike hosting him almost like a foster brother. "
"They've been a big help for me ever since I was young. They taught me the game," Michael Carter-Williams told Liberty Ballers about his family of coaches. "They definitely helped out a lot and he gave Nerlens and myself some good advice that we were able to use."
Nerlens Noel's Football Family
Whereas Michael Carter-Williams had a basketball in hand dating back to his days in a stroller, Nerlens Noel came from a family of football players. Noel's two older brothers, Jim and Rodman, both played football collegiately. Jim Noel played defensive back at Boston College, where he was a team captain his senior year. After graduating Jim spent the past season as an assistant at Temple. His other brother, Rodman, played outside linebacker at N.C. State, having just finished up his eligibility this past season.
Nerlens Noel was no stranger to the gridiron himself, playing quarterback on Everett's freshman team before giving it up to focus on basketball.
Papile encouraged all of his kids to play football, even if it meant they might miss AAU games.
"If one of our guys misses a fall weekend because he's playing football, we gladly support them," Papile said. "I think that dynamic serves guys well, because I think football is a real humbling sport.
"I think in basketball younger guys, if they have the wrong human dynamic around them, they tend to be misled into thinking that they're something special," Papile said. "In basketball, particularly at scholastic and amateur levels, you have a guy that's more gifted and he can kind of carry the mail himself, and get a false impression of who he is and thinking that's going to carry him forward into the higher levels."
That humility, Papile said, shows up in Noel's unselfishness and passing ability.
Passing has been an area of Noel's play that has taken many Sixers fans by surprise, as it belies the rest of his relatively raw offensive game.
Passing, however, has always been something Noel excelled at, according to Papile.
Along with Carter-Williams and Noel, Papile's AAU squad featured Georges Niang, now a junior averaging 14.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game at Iowa State. Noel and Niang combined to form a devastating front court, with Noel operating frequently as the entry-passer in a high-low offensive set with Niang.
"Nerlens is a terrific, terrific passer. He really has great vision and great instinct," Papile said. "He has a real terrific feel for where to deliver the ball."
As Noel said himself, he loves to pass the ball.
A Friendship That Can Weather The Storm
What does all of this mean?
Obviously, we're not talking about 16 or 17 year old kids anymore. We're talking about multimillion-dollar athletes playing on the worlds largest stage. Perhaps more importantly, we're talking about a pair trying to will their undermanned team to competitiveness.
All of those dynamics can change even a long-standing relationship.
Still, Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel are far from strangers. With 180 or more games played together before either donned a 76ers jersey, odds are the ball not moving perfectly has happened before, and this is an issue that they have already resolved many times over.
"I think this is kind of unique in NBA annals," Papile said. "There haven't been a whole lot of guys that preceded their NBA careers by having that type of a relationship.
"The growing pains that the franchise is going through, I think just enhances that [friendship]," Papile said.
"I don't even pay attention," Sixers head coach Brett Brown said about Noel's comments. "I have great faith that we, the coaching staff, have our finger on the pulse.
"We have a great locker room. We have an amazing group of guys that have found a way to play together and play hard," Brown said. "Those things happen with a bunch of young guys, and I don't personally pay much attention to it. We'll move on."
Whether or not this whole experiment works is a story that still has to be told. The challenges are real, and plentiful. The odds, depending on your view, almost insurmountable. Whether or not both Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel are here when the franchise does finally turn around is far from a guarantee.
What does appear to be known, at least as told by those who know the Sixers young duo best, is that the bond between Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel is one built to last.