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For Sam Hinkie’s Next Act ...

The Philadelphia 76ers are one of the feel-good stories of the NBA season, but the man who began the Process won’t be there to witness its fruition. Instead, Sam Hinkie is biding his time, watching ‘The Bachelor,’ attending the Sloan Conference, and considering whether to get back into a league that struggled to understand his team-building philosophies.

Ryan Simpson

Early on a Friday morning, on his way to hear a panel discussion about optical tracking and esports analytics, Sam Hinkie was stopped a handful of times in the overcrowded hallway at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center by a host of hopeful, clammy-handed college kids clutching résumés. Hinkie got another 50 feet or so before a member of the media recognized him and asked to chat (Hinkie politely declined), and then another 50 feet before a business acquaintance grabbed him briefly and did the “we should talk later” thing that colleagues sometimes employ as a placeholder for actually talking (Hinkie said, “Sure”). When he finally arrived at the session, Shane Battier, now vice president of basketball development and analytics for the Miami Heat, went over to say hi and give him a hug.

That is how things go for Hinkie at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. There, among the like-minded and aspirant, Hinkie remains a massive deal, someone to get close to and gush over. If Daryl Morey—Hinkie’s friend, former boss, general manager of the Houston Rockets, and cofounder of SSAC—is Dork Elvis, then Hinkie is something approaching Nerd Timberlake, and that place is the analytics community’s Super Bowl, with all sorts of people as desperate to sidle up to Hinkie and shake his hand as that kid in Minneapolis was to snap a selfie with JT.

Later that same morning, as Hinkie leaned against a windowless conference room wall—clutching a cup of coffee, wearing a sort of professional camouflage (navy suit, blue shirt, blue patterned tie, and brown leather shoes), and preparing to listen to a discussion on statistical techniques for measuring space creation in soccer—Hinkie was once again recognized and approached. This time it was Jim Tanner, the agent for Thaddeus Young and Battier, among others. Tanner had a student tagging along and introduced him by saying, “This is the next Sam Hinkie.” The kid blushed, and Hinkie leaped in to save them both.

“Careful what you wish for,” Hinkie said. Everyone laughed, Hinkie most of all.

It has been almost two years since Hinkie resigned as the president of basketball operations and general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. He turned 40 in December and co-teaches two classes at Stanford, one on sports business management and another on negotiation dynamics in sports, entertainment, and media. Hinkie, who began his career with Bain & Company and has worked in private equity and venture capital, has lately gone back to his roots. He’s an angel investor and adviser for various startups, and has become increasingly interested in machine learning and artificial intelligence. (One of the SSAC panels Hinkie appeared on was was titled “Is AI the Answer?”)

When we met at the Courtyard by Marriott in Copley Square two weekends ago, he was carrying a stack of papers watermarked with “Sam Hinkie” on each page—that way, if the proprietary information he held ever leaked out, the company that shared its secrets with him would know who’s responsible. There is something ironic about a man who was constantly knocked for not talking about things walking around with documents designed to prevent him from talking about things. Since leaving the Sixers, he’s also done some consulting for various NBA franchises, which he did not name for obvious reasons. Dividing his time between the business and sports worlds has so far worked for him. “Sometimes you can get the intellectual kick you need from that,” he said.

Along the way, he has found lots of time to spend with his wife, Alison, and their four boys, Tyler, Hudson, Cole, and Cooper. Because Hinkie chooses what he calls “something approximating zero percent” of the television consumed in his house, he sometimes finds himself watching The Bachelor. (“Sean Lowe is all right.”) When they’re not tuning in for rose ceremonies, he and Alison load up the kids and head off on family vacations: a cruise in Alaska, skiing in Wyoming, camping in Tahoe, long drives up and down the California coast from San Francisco to San Diego and back again.

But despite the literal and figurative distance he’s put between himself and Philadelphia, he can’t outrun the past. Not that he’s trying to. He’s a fixture at Sloan—a transactional environment where information is the currency of students, journalists, basketball fans, NBA employees of varying importance, agents, convention organizers, greenroom security dudes, guys asking you to try their VR tech, and so on—but this year he was caught off guard. Hinkie did not agree in advance to the name of the second panel he spoke on, and he was not exactly thrilled with it: “Trust the Process? Team Building and Rebuilding in the NBA.”

The organizers slapped that title on the session after Hinkie told Morey he’d speak at the conference. It also turned out to be the keynote panel on SSAC’s second and final day. Thousands of people packed into the biggest room in the facility, the same space where, just a day earlier, Barack Obama had been the headliner. The Process panel, moderated by Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck, included Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin, Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, and 11-time All-Star Chris Bosh, who was seated to Hinkie’s immediate right. When Bosh was introduced, the crowd was largely quiet. When Hinkie was introduced, they erupted, prompting Beck to wonder aloud whether he’d just broken an SSAC record for applause.

John Gonzalez

“I told Howard, if we run out of things to say, I’ll just lie down and everyone can kick me in the ribs,” Hinkie said. The assembly LOL’d all at once. The man knew his audience. Hinkie is a star at Sloan, but that hasn’t prevented critics from chucking tomatoes his way at every opportunity, thereby keeping the two sides forever at odds. When a headline recently blared that “There will never be another process, or a GM job for Sam Hinkie,” Hinkie devotees were not pleased and immediately leaped to his defense. (Sixers Twitter leads the league in fastest mobilization time.)

“The problem, if you’re a journalist, is that you have to take an angle that’s interesting to your audience,” Morey told me as we wound our way through the byzantine back corridors at the conference a few hours before Hinkie’s Process panel. At Morey’s request, this year’s SSAC opened with a specially made “Game of Zones” cartoon where Obama rides to the rescue of Hinkie, who is being attacked by Charles Barkley and an anti-analytics mob. It’s bizarre and delightful and the first thing attendees saw when the convention convened. Morey thought it was hilarious. “And the angle they take with him is that he’s weird. And he really isn’t. But you don’t get to pick how someone is going to portray you.”

Hinkie never spent much time trying to dispel those misperceptions. Historically, he’s been reluctant to paint a fuller picture of his personality. He’s thought about that a lot recently.

“I don’t sort of fight some of the narratives out there, some of which is my personality for a whole bunch of reasons, and some of which is not smart, which I get,” Hinkie told me. He said this period away from basketball has been “pretty good” for him “in a bunch of ways,” not the least of which is that it’s given him time to audit his previous PR strategy. “Some of that perspective leads to humility and learning about lots of things you’d do differently the next time. And some of it leads to perspective about how there’s a limit to how some of that stuff would have mattered.”

In a way he might not have initially intended, that approach also made Hinkie a fascinating figure to people who care deeply about the NBA and team-building. He is a former NBA executive who executed a radical plan, pissed off a lot people, quit his high-profile gig in the midst of a palace coup orchestrated by internal and external forces, dropped an infamous 13-page manifesto that was one of the biggest, most singular exit statements in recent memory, and then lit out for the California coast. He is also a man who, despite being one of the most talked-about and debated figures in modern NBA history, has somehow managed to remain a mystery. And all this while the Sixers are finally starting to bring his once-hazy vision into focus.

Hinkie’s maneuvers set up the Sixers with Joel Embiid, Robert Covington, and Dario Saric, put them in position to grab Ben Simmons, cleared massive cap space, and armed the organization with a surplus of future draft picks. For the first time since Doug Collins coached the team six years ago, they are barreling toward the playoffs. Meanwhile, the attendant billboard game has transitioned from a sad reminder of what didn’t work out to a hopeful pitch about what could. As Evan Turner, whom Hinkie once drove to the airport after trading, recently put it: “Shout out to Sam Hinkie. I didn’t comprehend the Process, but that shit’s working now.”

All of which serves to keep people interested in the man—not simply due to what he once set in motion, but because of a lingering question: What comes next?

While we stood outside the SSAC greenroom one afternoon, an earnest basketball fan approached. He had barely introduced himself to Hinkie before blurting out, “Would you have picked Markelle Fultz?” It is probably the question he gets asked most these days, just barely ahead of, “Are you going to get back in the NBA?”—which is the very next thing the filterless, fearless lad asked Hinkie.

Hinkie gave a practiced answer to both. He didn’t know what he would have done in the last draft because he didn’t have enough information, and without that he couldn’t possibly make the call. That might sound like a cop-out, but it’s also the the truth and a reflection of how he thinks about decision-making. As for returning to the league, it was too early to tell. That last point is far more nuanced than any bleating anti-Hinkie headline would otherwise suggest.

During a conversation between Hinkie, some conference attendees, and Sachin Gupta—the Sixers’ former vice president of basketball operations, who now serves as a special adviser to the Rockets—the discussion pivoted to maybe the funniest panel at Sloan: “Nuts and Bolts of Acquiring a Franchise.” Everyone laughed and wondered how many billionaires could have possibly flown in for the exercise, which turned the conversation toward oddball professional soccer team owners.

“You’re dealing with the guys who came out of the top of the PEZ dispenser,” Hinkie said, “which by definition means they’re the most eager because they’ve just won the auction.” And there, he paused for some role-playing and pretended to be one of those fortunate, select PEZ. “If a team is worth $1 billion, let’s bid $1.1. Screw it, $1.5! It’ll be fun!”

The exchange underscored why taking another front-office job is a complicated proposition for Hinkie. There needs to be someone who wants to hire him—but also someone Hinkie wants to work for and with. That’s no simple thing. How many teams at the bottom of the NBA have quality assets and are looking to upgrade their general manager? How many teams at the top would even consider overhauling their front office? How many teams in the middle have reasonable paths toward something significant? And of those, how many have good ownership groups? When you winnow the NBA, there aren’t many potential opportunities. But when I told him it sounded like he wouldn’t go back unless he could run his own shop, he pushed back a bit.

“I think there’s a misconception because of the way I talk sometimes,” Hinkie said. “I would be delighted in the right situation. I worked 11 years in the NBA, and eight of those I was not the top guy and loved it. Three of those, I was and loved that, too, in a different way. I think it’s more important to work with amazing people than it is your exact position.”

Still, that’s a big caveat. Even if Hinkie finds a situation that fits all his criteria, how can he be certain that the prospective owners will share his worldview and allow him to stick around long enough to do his job? He thought he had that agreement in Philadelphia with Josh Harris and David Blitzer, two titans in the private equity business. If guys who made billions by being shrewd—and sometimes shady, according to The New York Times—couldn’t see the long-term edge in Hinkie’s plan, who might? That was a tough lesson for Hinkie to learn, one that will go a long way toward informing future decisions.

“I don’t know what the odds are,” he said about never going back to the league, “but they’re real.”

Hinkie has a new friend. Or maybe it’s too soon to call him a friend. These things tend to take time with him. At the very least, they are friendly enough that Hinkie feels comfortable telling me about him. His name is Will Thorndike. He was out at Stanford two or three weeks ago, and they spent some time talking and kicking ideas around.

Thorndike is the author of the book The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success. Hinkie described it as “a business-y thing,” which he “doesn’t read much of anymore,” but he liked that particular work for reasons that make sense when run through the Hinkie filter. The book is about executives that Hinkie calls “south of 45 years old,” with certain commonalities. They hire exceptionally well. They’re incredibly careful about how they spend their time. And they don’t often do the same thing in their careers over and over. Meaning, as Hinkie put it, that “if you try to pigeonhole them” they’ll surprise you.

“You think they’re growth, growth, growth,” he explained, “and then they shrink, shrink, shrink. You expect them to do things one way, and then they do things entirely differently.”

Sounds like someone we know. It’s part of why whatever comes next for Hinkie might have nothing to do with basketball at all. He’s looking for an advantage more than a specific job. “If there’s no edge to chase,” he said, “it’s not very interesting.” That’s why he’s spent so much time making sure the next thing is the right thing, because the margins between success and failure are so slim. As an illustration, he told me about a company Amazon recently bought called Ring, which Hinkie previously knew nothing about.

“I saw this thing last night,” Hinkie said. “They just posted this on Twitter, and they showed a picture of him, in 2013, the founder went on Shark Tank—I don’t watch Shark Tank—and said he was trying to sell 10 percent of his company. It was valued at I think [$7 million] or something like that. And basically everybody passed. And he just sold it to Amazon for a billion dollars. That roller coaster is not for the faint of heart. Not only could it go belly up and you can struggle and the world thinks you failed at it, but it also has that kind of upside. The only thing worse than going belly up is something that only went belly up by the skin of your teeth and could have been something incredible, and you were that close.”

The parallels are obvious; Hinkie was on to something with the Sixers, and he knew it even if all the sharks he was trying to convince didn’t realize until after he was already gone. “So, you ask me what I might do,” he said. “I don’t suspect I’m going to coast from here on out. I want to try something hard.”

That initially sounds crazy to me, or at least off by a factor. Running a professional sports franchise, the way he ran it, in the city he ran it, seemed pretty damn hard. I watched it up close. It did not end well. And yet Hinkie insists that “quite honestly, the traditional, high-tech entrepreneurial life is much harder than being a GM.” Then he outlined the challenges. Raising money. Starting a firm. Worrying about running out of cash. He called the stress they live with “incredible.”

“It makes the kinds of things that people like me went through seem like child’s play.”

Saying even this much represents something of a departure from his usual close-hold default PR position. For all we get wrong about Hinkie, the notion that he takes care to map things out is right. He once told me that when he moved his family from Houston to Philly, he didn’t just throw his kids (they had two at the time) in the car and say let’s go, because it occurred to him that children would think about it differently, and have different questions than adults might anticipate. Are mom and dad coming? Are my toys? That kind of thing. So Hinkie did what he usually does—he gathered material on the topic and researched and thought about it. Then he threw his kids in the car and said let’s go.

Almost everything with Hinkie is planned out and calculated. Which made me curious about why he peeked his head up and talked to The Ringer at this moment. I had been after him to do something like this for almost two years—but it wasn’t until the Saturday of All-Star Weekend, while we sat in a hotel lobby across from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, that he finally said yes and told me to meet him in Boston a few days later. The cynical journalist in me couldn’t help but wonder why.

So, I asked. He said part of the answer was the backdrop. He knew I wouldn’t be able to resist writing about the SSAC scene, which would make at least some of this piece not about him. That does not mean he was entirely comfortable with me drafting off him that weekend. When he dipped into a panel one afternoon and we got separated for a moment, he made a joke about losing his tail. Later, he told me to meet him in the east wing of the convention center even though he was actually in the west wing. He swore it was a mistake but laughed a touch too much when I finally found him. (I possess meager surveillance skills and would be terrible on a stakeout.)

Beyond that, Hinkie was at ease in Boston. Friends surrounded him. On the night before the conference opened, Hinkie wrapped up dinner and his companions wanted to know where he was off to next. It was after 10 p.m. on a Thursday, but no one was in the mood to go home yet. Hinkie told them he was headed for The Fours, a sports bar in the shadow of the TD Garden in Boston’s North End where a host of SSAC attendees and speakers were camped out. A bunch of people asked if they could tag along. There were maybe 10 or 12 of them. Hinkie told them it wouldn’t be cool. He didn’t mean it wouldn’t be cool if they crashed the party. He meant the party itself wouldn’t be cool—which they all found out because they accompanied him anyway.

Wherever he went that weekend, a knot of friends wasn’t far behind. That has a lot to do with why—unlike an NBA lifer who lost a scouting gig and is desperate to get another—Hinkie is currently cool with his basketball sabbatical.

“I like to learn, and I get to learn a lot in this period,” Hinkie said. “I like to explore, and I get to explore a lot in this period. I like to meet awesome people, and I get to meet a lot of awesome people. And I still have almost all of my closest people in my life. I don’t feel nearly as isolated as some might think.”

The common thread that connected the reflexive Hinkie stories was that of an aloof introvert who struggled to talk to the person in front of him. Agents and executives and reporters moaned about his supposed unavailability. Hardly anyone, Hinkie included, really bothered to knock that perception down.

“Sam is not some dark, brooding genius,” says Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren. “He’s really a friendly, open guy. But he became this caricature for both sides, for the people who like him and the people who don’t. And the interesting thing is, the caricature was the same.”

You’ll get no argument there from Hinkie. As he said during one of the Sloan panels, the Sixers had some hits but also some misses during his administration and “to lionize the opposite is silly.” Maybe that’s why he never tried too hard to erase that caricature—because he never saw his reflection in the image.

“He’s very adept in those ways,” Ben Falk said over a breakfast that bled into lunch in Boston the day before SSAC convened. The Sixers former vice president of basketball strategy, who now runs CleaningTheGlass.com, said Hinkie can be “very charming and public facing” and has the ability to “turn that side on.” Which is why people still wonder why he didn’t toss a few jocular quotes over his shoulder to hold off the hounds. “From a pure values standpoint, he didn’t feel like it made sense to be out there trying to do something that was largely self-serving and not helpful to the organization.”

That gets to the core of why Hinkie inspired such devotion among his hires. When Gupta resigned not long after Hinkie left the Sixers, he wrote a touching, personal seven-page letter to Hinkie, Alison, and their kids that was styled after Hinkie’s manifesto in a nod of friendship. Hinkie, Falk, and Gupta talk everyday on a private three-man Slack, and they spent the weekend of Sloan kicking around Boston together. (When I called Hinkie last week, he had just gotten off the phone with Falk, who was already planning a trip out to Palo Alto to see him and his family.)

This is why Hinkie spends more time thinking about who’s on the job with him than what the job actually is. “Tell me the problem,” he said, “and my next question is, which people are involved?” The idea, as he sees it, is to “work with all 10s and the occasional nine.”

That approach of picking the team first and outlining the concept second made me think of Donald Glover, who explained that he set out to make a show with a group of close confidants—referred to as Royalty, because they’re kings and queens—before really knowing what that show would be. (That will likely be the first and only time anyone compares Glover and Hinkie, which is probably for the best.)

“The one thing that makes me different, that makes it hard for people to figure out that I’m not some charlatan, and I think this ties it together, is the folks in my life that are super meaningful to me have been super meaningful for a long time,” Hinkie said. “They’re still in my life. Part of that is what drives me to be not quite as NBA-or-bust as some. And drives me to find ways to work with a subset of amazing people for another 10 or 15 years.”

On the day after SSAC ended, Hinkie and I talked hoops for almost two hours in Boston’s Back Bay. It was raining and cold and neither of us was in much of a hurry. I pressed him on this idea that he might not return to the NBA. No matter how many times he told me it could happen, it still didn’t register. Because for all his other interests, Hinkie loves basketball. Always has.

That’s something else that runs counter to the established Hinkie narrative. His detractors in Philly portrayed him as too busy fumbling with his pocket protector and abacus to actually watch games. Never mind that he flew to Italy to scout Giannis Antetokounmpo and Spain to see Dario Saric, and was the only NBA GM to check in on Emmanuel Mudiay in China.

“Basketball has been a huge part of my life,” Hinkie said. “It was a huge part of my life growing up and a huge part of my identity.”

He was the starting point guard at Marlow High School in Marlow, Oklahoma. (He was also the starting safety on the football team that made the state finals.) The basketball team made the state playoffs, and he was good enough that he considered walking on at the University of Oklahoma before realizing that path probably would have ended with him being a college coach somewhere. I didn’t know he played as a kid until I was sitting in Brett Brown’s office one day a few years back when Hinkie walked in. Brown has a son who’s a pretty good point guard. To demonstrate that point, Hinkie grabbed a ball and started dribbling between his legs and I damn near fell off my chair.

He still watches a lot of basketball, the Sixers included. The Sixers especially. He hopes they win a championship for a lot of reasons (“That would look really good for me,” he joked), and he thinks they’re on their way to something special. “Did you see what Giannis said?” he asked me, referring to Embiid “recruiting” Giannis to the Sixers. As a Philadelphian, and following all those lean years, I’m still adjusting to the possibility of the Sixers as a free-agent destination for Giannis or LeBron or Kawhi or any other one-name star.

“How will they choose?” Hinkie asked rhetorically. “‘I should go play with some awesome teammates in a big city that cares about basketball. With an interesting coach and a ton of tradition. I bet I could win if I did that.’ If Jo plays, you know, 70 games a year for the next three years and plays like he’s playing now, everyone will be like, ‘Let’s go throw him the ball.’”

For the first time, I started to imagine it. After all these years of conditioning, and even after the Eagles won a Super Bowl, it remains difficult to wrap my head around good things happening to Philly. Hinkie smiled. That’s the part he likes best about basketball—how it affects communities and families and makes people feel good. It’s basically where our conversation turned into a therapy session.

“How people view their team and their tribe and their city and their community and make lifelong memories that would end up being in your top five,” Hinkie said. “Some day, when you’re at the end of your life, and you think back on something, that magical season. You were there. And that moment when you went with your kids. That’s meaningful to me. It’s worth spending your time on.”

If he doesn’t go back to the NBA, that’s what he’ll miss most. He’s always been the kind of person who “worked way north of 40 hours” a week, and there were “chunks of my life where I worked 100-hour weeks.” But for the 11 years that he was in basketball, work was something his family could be involved in. Alison used to bring the kids to “the first half of virtually every game imaginable” while Hinkie was in the league. It started when their first-born was about 2 years old and then never stopped.

“A lot of times we’d watch and it was the mascot and cotton candy and just stuff,” Hinkie said. “But I would be in the office for 12 hours, and they would come, and we could hang out for a little while, and at halftime they would go back. That just won’t exist in some of these other places in the same kind of way. That didn’t exist when I worked in private equity.”

He said there’s a big difference between Dad going to work on Saturday “and pushing the elevator button and going up to the 43rd floor to do stuff,” as opposed to “Dad’s going to the game, and we’re going too, because the team plays, and it matters, and it’s important.”

It’s precisely that kind of talk that makes it hard for me to imagine him never working in the NBA again. How can someone who loves basketball that much, who highlights the community/family aspect as the very thing that “makes sports not ephemeral” and “makes it matter,” give up his dream to go invest in someone else’s? I asked him to explain it to me so many times that I lost track. Then I called him late last week to ask one more time. I expected him to pause and think about it. He didn’t.

“I feel incredibly blessed already,” he replied. “I made a bunch of decisions to try to build something bigger than myself, and I knew that had lots of downside risk associated with it.” He made it sound like some of us might be more broken up about him staying gone for good than he would. “I got comfortable with that trade-off a long time ago.”

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