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Dream Chasers: The Sixers’ Moment Has Arrived

Philly dispatched the Heat in five games, welcomed Meek Mill home, and put the rest of the league on notice: The best young team in the NBA isn’t in the mood to wait

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Philadelphia 76ers are not a dog mask team. They are not an all-we-got-is-all-we-need team. They are not a do-you-believe-in-miracles team. There’s nothing scrappy about them. They do not have a blue-collar identity. They do not achieve Weapon X levels of berserker hype. They don’t start fights, they finish them. And they don’t defy the odds, they set them.

They are not a Meek Mill team.

This is not a shot at the Philadelphia rapper who I have been listening to regularly since the Flamers days. On Tuesday, Meek, whose real name is Robert Rahmeek Williams, was released from a Chester, Pennsylvania, prison, where he had been serving time since November for a probation violation. His personal hell is the stuff of crime novels, complete with allegedly corrupt narcotics officers and erratic behavior on the part of the judge presiding over his case. It’s entirely possible — likely, hopefully — that the original conviction on gun and drug possession charges will be overturned. While Meek was in prison, his name became a hashtag — one part social-justice battle cry and one part catch-all exclamation point — and his music became the soundtrack to the Philadelphia Eagles’ improbable Super Bowl run. About that: I’ve watched this video more than I’ve looked at my wedding photos.

Meek never got to celebrate with the team he scored, but his cause became something bigger than a Tom Brady fumble in February. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft got involved in the efforts to overturn his imprisonment, as did other celebrities. Members of the Sixers’ roster and ownership group visited him in prison. In March there was a rally in Philly calling for Meek’s release, and shortly afterward, the city’s new district attorney, Larry Krasner — who ran on an inspiring platform of criminal justice reform — said that he was “unopposed” to Meek being released on bail. There were weeks of rumors and false dawns — would today be the day? — and then it came all at once. Meek was getting out. And it just so happened to coincide with the Sixers hosting the Heat in a game that could see them advance out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

About that timing: I’m sure the two things are unrelated, and I don’t want to suggest that Meek’s release was stage-managed or tied to his relevance at a professional sporting event. At this point, I’m deeply ambivalent about conflating the fortune of a team and Meek’s personal freedom, and I’m not psyched about that freedom being converted into content. But that’s really not up to me anymore.

Because there was Meek, posing for an Instagram photo with Sixers minority owner Michael Rubin, then rushing from a vehicle to a chopper that would whisk him from prison to Game 5. I hope that the sentiment he expressed in his post-release statement is consumed and appreciated as much as the images of him at the game: “Although I’m blessed to have the resources to fight this unjust situation, I understand that many people of color across the country don’t have that luxury and I plan to use my platform to shine a light on those issues.” The debate about why he was in prison, who put him there, and who kept him in there can be had. It needs to be had. But for one night, I just felt happy for him.

Before tipoff, Meek rang the Sixers’ prop Liberty Bell as the in-arena PA announced to the crowd that the rapper was supported by Sixers owners Josh Harris and Rubin and longtime fan Kevin Hart. As he completed his final wallop, “Dreams and Nightmares” started to play.

This was the Eagles’ song. It sounds like a motorcycle engine being revved in your chest cavity; it sounds like watching Creed on a loop; it sounds like Brian Dawkins screaming at the moon on Monday Night Football. It’s got lots of words about Popeye and Aston Martins and murder, but it doesn’t matter. The song came out in 2012, but in the past year it’s been distilled down to what it was always meant to be: a war cry for Philadelphians. You don’t believe in us, you don’t respect us, you don’t think we can do it. Well, we don’t need you. Your children are wearing dog masks, and your quarterback is getting strip-sacked.

There are songs that make you hype and there are songs that cause out-of-body experiences. “Dreams and Nightmares” is the latter. If the Sixers weren’t ready for the game before, they were now.

Turns out they didn’t need the pep talk.

For weeks, people have been coming up to me — friends, trolls, troll-friends — congratulating me on the Sixers. You guys did it. You guys are going to the Finals. LeBron is a good backup for Dario. They’re not trying to jinx it. They’re conceding the point. They recognize the emergence of a very special basketball team led by two very special basketball players. Whether or not the Sixers ever realize their promise is subject to the vagaries of injuries and contract extensions and trade demands and coaching turmoil and everything else that fans in Oklahoma City and Chicago can tell you all about. The Sixers are actually this good. I am not a Process purist because I would have probably settled for a good team, a fun team, a cool team. But if you watched Philly dispatch a well-coached, savvy, physical, and multifaceted Miami squad over five games, you know this much already: This team is much more than that. They’re already good. They have a chance to be great.

Ask Dwyane Wade. It feels strange to be a fearless Philadelphia 76ers fan. For years, I’ve been worrying about lottery results and bone scan results. I fretted over Markelle Fultz’s shoulder and Markelle Fultz’s head. Every time Joel Embiid hit the deck, I stopped breathing till he popped back up. But then my large adult koala became a transformative NBA player, and I wasn’t scared anymore.

Being fearless doesn’t make you feel like William Wallace. It makes you feel calm. That’s what Ben Simmons does. It doesn’t matter if the Sixers are up 16 — they’re not giving up that lead to a pesky team. It doesn’t matter if they’re down 12 — they can get back in it by praying to the octopus god of switching defense that they must keep in their locker room. And it doesn’t matter if Goran Dragic wants to take some cheap shot at their franchise point guard’s head, or a guy nicknamed “Bloodsport” wants to square off with him. Nothing fazes Ben Simmons.

I’m used to cheering for iconoclasts — Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson — but Simmons will be my first NBA icon. Watching him cradle Game 5 in his 21-year-old arms was all I needed to see. When the Sixers needed to go, he drove them forward. When they needed to slow down, he gracefully pumped the brakes.

He ended the night with a modest (for him) 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists, but the control he exerted over the game was unquantifiable. It’s like Wade said after the contest, “I don’t think he had a bad game. A young player like that in his first playoffs. … It’s like that guy in Cleveland doesn’t have bad games. The imprint they put on the game, it’s more than scoring.”

Miami had 32 personal fouls and two techs. The Heat could not hang with the Sixers, so Miami tried to get into a fight with them. It was a physical series, but this was by far the ugliest game, the first in which both teams didn’t score in triple digits.

There is a version of this Sixers team that might have wilted in the face of Miami’s professional fouling and streaky shooting. Maybe it’s the one that heavily features Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Markelle Fultz. But that’s not who these Sixers really are. Their above-the-line talent is Simmons and Joel Embiid (who finished Game 5 with 19 points and 12 boards, still hates his protective mask, and still has about five plays a game that look as unstoppable as early-aughts Shaq), but the guys who punch the clock are post-Process players like J.J. Redick, Ersan Ilyasova, and Marco Belinelli.

Marco looks like the kind of guy who sells you drugs in a Prague nightclub, and Ersan is the one who makes you pay for them. Their arrival on the team — both were picked up after being released by the Atlanta Hawks — is the low-key B.C./A.D. moment for the season. They are pros, and they know how to win, even when the team’s performance says they shouldn’t. Throughout the second half of the season, the Sixers made fish chum of the league’s worst squads. Now they’re starting to beat up on the best.

It’s an adjustment, for both Philly fans and the rest of the NBA. The spotlight and scrutiny shouldn’t be hitting this team so soon. They were just the experiment; Golden State, Houston, Boston, and Cleveland were supposed to be the elite. But two kids and a few veteran shooters, Euros, 3-and-D specialists, and role players have barged into the frame. And I haven’t seen this kind of breathless response to a young team since the Thunder blew San Antonio out of the water in 2012.

This wasn’t supposed to happen so quickly, but like Embiid said Monday, “I think our time is now.” Here are some things I have learned from cheering for Philadelphia sports teams during the past six months: Sometimes losing your franchise quarterback doesn’t mean the end of your season; sometimes the underdog wins; sometimes Brady can’t catch; sometimes Donte DiVincenzo can hear Jimi; sometimes they actually free Meek. Sometimes you just have to trust the Process.