Through the last year of Doug Collins and the darkest days of the Process, I was a rock. It didn’t bother me that much when the Sixers traded Andre Iguodala — one of my favorite basketball players ever — for a mopey big who never played a minute in a Sixers uniform. The Kwame Brown contract was amusing in a nihilistic sort of way, as were the multiple record-tying or record-breaking losing streaks. Dario Saric spends another year in Europe, I am steadfast. Joel Embiid’s lower body turns to ash, again, and I recover. Lost draft lotteries, 10–72 finishes — nothing could shake me.
Until I was confronted with T.J. McConnell.
McConnell is my least favorite kind of college basketball player — the short, competent point guard. The gym rat, the hustle guy, the “coach on the floor.” Those are qualities players don’t get praised for if they have noticeable basketball skills. LeBron James works his ass off, but we don’t talk about that because it’s more meaningful to praise him for his game-changing free safety defense or his ability to not just score on but bully anyone in the league. Without those more obvious (some would say “meaningful”) attributes, we’re left to praise a player for trying to make up for those deficiencies. Particularly if that player is a coach’s kid, like McConnell, whose father, Tim, is a legendary Pittsburgh high school basketball coach, and whose aunt is Suzie McConnell-Serio, a Hall of Fame guard who played at Penn State. (Left unexplained is why being a coach’s kid makes a pro athlete more appealing when everyone who played sports growing up always hated the coach’s kid.)
When the Sixers signed McConnell, in 2015, to play for their summer league team, I found him annoying but not particularly threatening, because summer league doesn’t mean much and McConnell seemed like a prime example of a college player whose game wouldn’t translate to any pro league more competitive than Lithuania’s. If the Sixers wanted to bring him to Vegas so Arsalan Kazemi could atomize him on screens in scrimmage, more power to him.
I already hate McConnell so much. There's not a chance in hell he makes the roster, but if he does I might have a stroke.— Michael Baumann (@MJ_Baumann) July 7, 2015
Then the noise started up about how McConnell had a shot to make the team. And worse, Sixers fans latched onto him immediately. Which makes perfect sense.
The Sixers are the most popular basketball team in the Delaware Valley, but they are the favorite basketball team of comparatively few local basketball fans. Everyone has a Big 5 team, if not a fanatical high school affiliation as well. Wilt Chamberlain is a former Sixer and Warrior, yes, but crucially also an Overbrook alum. Aaron McKie is remembered not only for his eight-year tenure with the Sixers, but also for his time at Simon Gratz and Temple. Dawn Staley, who played one season in Philadelphia after high school, was on a 10-story mural in Center City during her WNBA days.
Most of the city’s beloved basketball teams are college teams, particularly in the 35 years since the Sixers’ last title. And the Sixers have long had room for the occasional Philadelphia college basketball nostalgia trip. Temple’s Pepe Sanchez and Lavoy Allen. Villanova’s Tim Thomas and Michael Bradley. Malik Rose (Drexel, Overbrook High School) called games on local cable, while Villanova alum Chris Ford, a longtime Sixers front office executive, coached the team briefly in the mid-2000s. If Sanchez could sit at the end of the bench, then so could McConnell.
But he didn’t, because McConnell walked off the University of Arizona campus and onto one of the worst teams in NBA history. McConnell played 81 games as a rookie and averaged almost 20 minutes a night, barking and pointing like a guy who’s trying to get into a fight after a pickup game. He started 17 times, bless his heart, and he was terrible. His signature offensive move was driving to the rim, then when confronted with an open basket, pulling the ball down and scurrying back out to the perimeter in fear. In more than 1,600 minutes, he took 41 free throws.
I hated every moment of it. At the time, I was occasionally recapping games for the Sixers blog Liberty Ballers, and once found myself writing about a game in which McConnell had played well. I prefaced my praise of McConnell with a lengthy paragraph detailing my distaste for his All Point Guards Matter aesthetic, in which I called him a “floorbound Caucasian tryhard.”
But over the past two years, something unexpected happened: He got good. He stopped being afraid of shooting and turned into an 80 percent foul shooter and a 42 percent 3-point shooter. His annoying high-schooler-who-needs-better-deodorant defense started working against NBA guards, and he became a trusted ball handler on a team that even on its run back to the playoffs still struggles with turnovers from time to time. He got a series of terrible hair cuts — each different, each ugly in its own distinct way — and grew a patchy beard that makes Sidney Crosby look like Archie Bradley. He appeared at a live taping of The Rights to Ricky Sanchez, chugged beers, and judged a floor-slapping competition, then told a series of self-deprecating stories on The J.J. Redick Podcast.
As the Sixers grew from a historically bad team to a team with designs for the later rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs, McConnell became a legitimately valuable NBA player. And where I once saved the worst insults I could think of for the floorbound Caucasian tryhard, I admit now that I was too quick to judge.
But as the Promised Land approaches, McConnell is once again fading into the background. He started 51 times in 2016–17, but just once this season, and has averaged just 12 minutes a night in the past eight games. The next evolution of the Sixers point guard is already here.
The Saturn V rocket is the largest flying machine ever created, as tall as a football field is long, including the end zones, and weighing 6.2 million pounds. When its Soviet counterpart, the N1, was destroyed on a test launch, the explosion had a force equivalent to 7,000 tons of TNT. There are three surviving examples on display — one each at the NASA flight centers in Florida, Texas, and Alabama — and the sheer size of the machine beggars belief. Laid on its side, the first stage is itself as tall as an apartment block, and the rocket extends into what can only be described as “the distance.” And yet the Saturn V was designed to travel quickly enough to escape Earth’s gravity, more than 17,000 miles per hour — inconceivable speed for the majority of people who have never traveled on anything faster than a commercial airliner. It’s nearly impossible to imagine something that big moving that quickly without all perspective being warped into uselessness.
Unless you watch Ben Simmons on the fast break.
When the Sixers drafted Simmons out of LSU, coach Brett Brown made a point to call him a point guard. The point forward — i.e., a bigger player with preternatural passing skills who initiates the offense and does a lot of the ballhandling — is a pretty familiar concept in the NBA by now. But no, Brown insisted, Simmons is a point guard.
At 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds, it’s amazing that Simmons runs like a normal person and not like Rik Smits. Simmons looks more like Russell Westbrook at 110 percent magnification. He dribbles and moves like a point guard, but with the physicality to bang down low with centers — and if he were on, say, the Rockets, with their array of shooters and small-ball players, that’s exactly what he’d be.
But Simmons was drafted onto a team that had spent three straight top-six picks on centers, and now starts Embiid, a 7-footer, and two forwards 6-foot-9 and above, Dario Saric and Robert Covington. If the Sixers want to put their best five players on the floor at once, Simmons has to play actual point guard. The result is a hilariously big lineup of Embiid, Saric, Simmons, Covington, and the 6-foot-4 Redick, with Simmons at the top of the key.
I’ve watched Simmons on TV numerous times, seen his box scores, know that he’s among the league leaders in steals, blocks, and rebounds per 100 possessions. I had an intellectual understanding of what his speed and size would do to an opposing offense at a point on the floor where they’re not used to encountering that kind of obstacle. But it didn’t truly sink in until I saw him in person.
I live in Texas, and therefore don’t have many opportunities to watch the Sixers live. But when I saw them in January, for a game in San Antonio, there was just no getting around Simmons. He’s too long and quick. After a while, the Spurs could only probe Simmons with what I’d describe as a resigned futility, like a cat getting up the courage to walk past a vacuum cleaner, only if that vacuum cleaner were a giant squid with magnets on its tentacles. I had never seen anything like it. The Spurs scored just 78 points and the Sixers won by 19.
Offensively, Simmons is the kind of passer who can move the ball instantaneously from any point on the floor to any other point on the floor, with an ease that blurs the line between experience and instinct. If there’s such a thing as congenital basketball telepathy, Simmons is one of the fortunate few to be born with that superpower.
People are fond of saying that players who combine size and skill in a certain way — Simmons, Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Giannis Antetokounmpo — look like “the future of basketball.” They’re imbued with ball skills and physical gifts that allow them to play free-flowing, positionless basketball. A 7-foot-3 center can step outside to shoot 3s while a 6-foot-10 point guard boxes out for the rebound under the net.
That future is here. That positionless and, above all, creative, expressive form of basketball has brought the game to a pinnacle of excitement and popularity. Simmons, however, embodies most of all a different yet equally important evolution in the game: the decreased emphasis on scoring as the be-all, end-all of stardom. Since Wilt Chamberlain, the best players are judged as scorers first, even if, like Jordan, Kareem, Bird, and others, they were also great at other things. Post-Jordan basketball was about individual confrontation as much as anything else — stepping up to take the last shot, specifically, which is why Kobe Bryant was used as a cudgel against LeBron, no matter how many bad shots LeBron passed up or how many Kobe bricked.
That mode of analysis has waned, however. James Harden is a great scorer, but also a great playmaker. Westbrook’s 30 points per game aren’t as important as his 10 rebounds and 10 assists. The pure scorer is now a role player, the way a pure rim protector or pure defender once was. As basketball becomes a game of managing personalities in public — extremely high-stakes office politics, in other words — we have come to value skills traditionally thought of as unselfish.
Scoring is getting yours. Passing is setting someone else up to get his. Rebounding is covering for other people’s mistakes. In the 1990s, one domineering Jordan or Iverson could lead a team by force of will; today’s stars are collaborators and consensus builders. There are occasional grouches and hotheads, but most of them — Giannis, LeBron, Embiid, Steph Curry — are reputed to be nice guys. Traditional confrontational masculinity is slowly giving way to collaborative masculinity.
The city Simmons inhabits is also slowly rejecting its old norms. Former mayor Frank Rizzo was — not to put too fine a point on it — a super-racist former cop. When statues of Confederate figures started to come down across the country, Philadelphia turned its eyes on its own equivalent. Two weeks after Simmons made his NBA debut, the city announced that the statue of Rizzo would be moved. Three days after that, Larry Krasner won the election for Philadelphia district attorney. Krasner, a career civil rights attorney, ran in the Democratic primary as a reform candidate, essentially promising to tank the prosecutor’s office from the inside if he won. Krasner inspired record turnout in a crowded Democratic primary and won the nomination with almost twice as many votes as his nearest opponent. Once Krasner took office in January, he started firing prosecutors and announced that his office would no longer seek cash bail or prosecute people for marijuana possession. A radical leftist agenda was thought to be a death sentence for a politician, particularly a DA, whose job is mostly interpreted as winning convictions, rather than interrogating the justice implications of our legal system.
Simmons’s shooting should’ve been just as disqualifying. He’s bricked all 11 3-pointers he’s attempted this season, and he’s shooting just 56 percent from the line. My colleague Kevin O’Connor thinks he shoots with the wrong hand, which is a funny gag that might also be true. And for all his constructive collaboration, Simmons is tied for second on the Sixers in field goal attempts per game and second in usage rate.
Just like with Babe Ruth hitting fly balls or Curry chucking 28-foot 3-pointers, Simmons’s shooting was supposed to be a fatal flaw. So far, the Sixers are 50–30, their best record since 2000–01, when Iverson took them to the NBA Finals. The possibilities of the future are bounded largely by our own ability to shed our preconceptions, and the future has been here for some time.
Philadelphia is a city of pessimism. There’s a structural element to it — at our country’s founding, Philadelphia was the cultural center of the Western Hemisphere, the largest English-speaking city apart from London. In the years that followed, it found itself sandwiched between the city that absorbed its cultural importance (New York) and the city that absorbed its political importance (Washington, D.C.). It led to an understandable defensiveness.
Its sports teams never won anything, either: The Phillies are the losingest team in the history of organized sports. The Flyers are going on 43 years since their last title. The Sixers have been only intermittently relevant in the 35 years since their last title. And most ironic of all, this football-crazed city had never won a Super Bowl until February.
Philadelphia, therefore, started to steer into the skid. It embraced underdogs, like the 1985 Villanova Wildcats, whose NCAA title kicked off a 23-year citywide multi-sport title drought. But that frustration expressed itself in other ways, notably a propensity for brief bouts of therapeutic violence, to the peril of a friendly hitchhiking robot. Hall of Fame cheap shot artist Bobby Clarke, berserker safety Brian Dawkins, and gritty sourpuss Chase Utley were elevated to folk hero status. Philadelphians bristle at their undeserved reputation for nastiness, but there’s a pride in toughness that permeates the culture. At the intersection of all these threads sits the city’s most famous fictional son, Rocky Balboa, whose status as Philadelphia’s de facto cultural avatar is so clichéd as to embarrass certain corners of the city.
Last summer, a 19-year-old Chick-Fil-A enthusiast named Markelle Fultz had the misfortune to drop into that crucible.
The Sixers traded two first-round picks to move up to take Fultz first in the 2017 draft. In his lone season at the University of Washington, Fultz expressed vision, physicality, and scoring ability that looked like Harden’s if you squinted a little. That would make him the perfect complement to Simmons — when the two played together, Fultz could play off the ball and hunt down open jumpers, then transition to run the offense when Simmons rested. The Sixers could have at least one person with congenital basketball telepathy on the floor at all times.
Then Fultz’s shot went to shit. The Sixers put the no. 1 overall pick on the inactive list, and Fultz became a punch line for his round face, reluctance to smile, and disastrous shooting form, which appeared in daily cellphone videos from beat writers. Those videos turned into their own grim ritual, a self-flagellation for a fan base that was used to being laughed at, but not so used to it that the laughter didn’t hurt a little.
My reflexive Philadelphia sports pessimism made me write Fultz off entirely. It’s the yips, I thought, and I’ve read Rick Ankiel’s book, and I know there’s a real chance he might just be messed up beyond redemption.
While Fultz was air-balling free throws, and looking like Clayton Richard in traction while he was doing it, the Eagles were playing their way into the no. 1 seed in the NFC — though in typical Philadelphia fashion, they lost their franchise quarterback in the process and went into the Super Bowl against the heavily favored Patriots with backup Nick Foles (himself frequently a punch line) at the helm.
Then they won. And not only won, but did it in swaggering, swashbuckling, dramatic fashion in an orgy of fourth-down conversion attempts, foremost among them a play that might go down as the most famous gadget play in football history.
That moment changed everything. It proved that Philadelphia’s role in sports is not necessarily to always be America’s schlimazel, and that the good guys sometimes win, at least from our perspective. Two months later, Villanova unleashed a hellfire of 3-pointers on the NCAA tournament en route to a second national title in three years, itself an impressive display of swaggering and swashbuckling.
And in the middle of that tournament run, Fultz came back. He’s not the Fultz of a year ago — he’s averaging just over 17 minutes a game and shooting 40 percent from the floor, including a whopping 0-for-1 from 3-point range. But the physicality and vision are still there. Any effective NBA minutes are more than seemed possible in a pre–Philly Special universe.
But in a post–Super Bowl world — and I know this sounds stupid, but sports fandom isn’t supposed to be entirely rational — it feels safe to believe in Fultz again. It feels like the Sixers won’t have to win in spite of a Job-like torrent of cosmic abuse, but that they might enjoy a break or two from time to time. Fultz could yet turn into Round Harden. Wait and see.
Because we’ve seen evidence of a changing identity on this very roster. In the past, we made the best of a city divided by misguided factionalism, while in the present we’re beginning to enjoy the fruits of a revolutionary future that long seemed outside our grasp. If that’s what the present is like, imagine the wonders that lie on the next page of the calendar.