Welcome to ‘Winning Culture’ the new column focusing on the Philadelphia 76ers for tapintothemainline.com. Throughout the season we will be following the Sixers and trying to make sense of going from 10 wins to hopefully 55 in just three years. Be sure to check back each week for offbeat insights, weird references, and as many words about Joel Embiid as we can write.
In the world of professional wrestling, the wrestler's narrative falls into two camps, face or heel. Faces are the heroes, the protagonists, the characters who everyone cheers for. Heels are their opposite, the villains.
Pro wrestlers go through long convoluted plots that range from semi-serious to utterly outlandish. One kind of plotline that is always memorable is what’s known as "The Heel Turn."
This is when one of the hero characters turns bad. A lot of the most famous wrestlers of all-time have had a heel turn, maybe the most famous being Hulk Hogan.
When I was growing up Hogan was the all-American superhero. He starred in movies, Saturday morning cartoons, had ads on tv, action figures, all of it. Then in the1996 he became a villain and has been one of the most memorable villains since.
Heels and faces in the sports world at large are not so clearly defined. There are a lot of sports superstars that have legions of fans who treat them like heroes but have an equal number of fans that think they are the villains.
Tom Brady is the biggest heel in the NFL for some, the biggest face for others. Ditto for Bryce Harper in MLB, Sidney Crosby in the NHL, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in MLS.
The Face of the Process
The Sixers have one of the most loved faces in the NBA in Joel Embiid. He is a media darling, who is prospering under the spotlight of stardom. His push to make the All-Star game during his rookie season was a viral social media sensation. Last year he was voted in as a starter to the All-Star game. He constantly engages with fans, is a master of social media, and has his own signature shoe coming soon. He even graced the cover of NBA Live this season.
He has charmed NBA fans and non-fans alike. Even before he set foot on the court people loved his funny tweets and witty Instagram posts. He even brought Shirley Temples back into style.
Up until now in his career, he has been a face. But his heel turn is coming, and it’s coming soon.
Embracing his Villainy
The rumblings around Joel Embiid are already starting. Embiid’s reputation as a non-stop trash talker is well-known. He can often be seen staring down his opponents after dunks and blocks. He screams and yells on the court. Against Orlando, he euro stepped around former Sixers big man Nikola Vucevic for an easy score and then euro stepped all the way to the bench after a timeout.
Philadelphia fans love what he does, but fans from other cities are starting to find it less charming.
Boston has never really liked Embiid. Certainly, Miami fans saw him in their nightmares after he came back in the playoffs last year in his "Phantom of the Process" mask. If not the fans, then certainly Hassan Whiteside has woken up in a cold sweat thinking about Embiid. Andre Drummond in Detroit has had a feud with Joel for three years now, with Embiid getting the best of him almost every time. As Embiid puts it, “I own real estate in his head.”
The more years Embiid plays, the more of these rivalries he develops.
Some players transcend rivalries, but Joel Embiid won’t be one of them. Steph Curry, for example, is one of the leagues two or three most popular players. Despite regularly decimating his competition there aren’t many fan bases that dislike him. Curry may trash talk during games, but it never seems to extend beyond that. To the best of my knowledge, Curry has never posted an Instagram picture taunting a particular opposing player as Embiid often does.
And as Embiid's antics start to match his on-court dominance, the narrative builds for the media. The national media is starting to frame Embiid the way they might a villain. Now that he has been playing a couple of years and the Sixers have higher expectations, they have stopped viewing him from the lense of "lovable loser." Now media pundits pick on Embiid's taunting and trash talking. He is at the stage where if he has a bad game, talking heads will dish a hot take saying Embiid should "shut up and let his play do the talking."
That's one of the signals that let you know the media is constructing their dramatic narrative.
The full heel turn is definitely coming, sooner rather than later.
Embiid is going to go from universally beloved to one of the NBA’s biggest heels.
So what does this mean for Sixers fans?
For a city whose theme song currently is "Nobody loves us, we don’t care" I think it will be the thing that cements Embiid in the fans hearts forever.
Sixers fans have been here before, with Allen Iverson, once the NBA’s biggest villain who reveled in his status as an iconoclast and counterpoint to Kobe Bryant’s golden boy status.
Embiid isn’t quite the controversial figure that Iverson was, but both have completely embraced Philadelphia and it’s fans. This past offseason Embiid was seen dunking on people in a playground game, jogging through the city at night, and playing tennis. He even took part in Sixer fan shenanigans like the famous retweet armageddon.
The connection Embiid has with a fan base is rarer than it seems like it would be in sports. Typically, fans don't build those strong connections to one player -- rather they root for the guys on the team when they’re there and then move on afterward.
It's the really special players that stay in the hearts and minds of the fans, despite being viewed as villains everywhere else. Philadelphia still goes nuts when Iverson is introduced as Sixers games. He may have played elsewhere, but he’ll always be a Sixer. Embiid is that same kind of player. Even his nickname, "The Process," has as much to do with the team and the fans as it does with him personally. It was the same with Iverson’s nickname, "The Answer."
Heels Can Win Championships
For some Process-Trusters, the narrative has zero meaning, and all that matters is the results. Can this villainy of being a heel affect Embiid's performance and thus the ability of the team to win a championship?
Detroit Piston fans in the 1980s and early 1990’s embraced a group of heels called "The Bad Boys." That team had great players like Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer who were also universally loathed as villains. But the Bad Boys won a lot of games. And in 1988 and 1989 they won back-to-back championships before ceding the league to Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
Those Pistons teams played tough and worked to get into the heads of opposing players. In a league with flashy higher profile teams like the Showtime Lakers, the Bird Celtics, and the Jordan Bulls, they became the villain. They embraced the role of heel, and used it to their own advantage on the court to win it all.
The Price of Being Good Again
The Sixers and Joel Embiid are becoming the NBA’s best villains. The Golden State Warriors are filled with players who almost glide and they play beautiful basketball. The Celtics have Jayson Tatum, who at only 20 is becoming a star, and freshman philosophy 101 graduate Kyrie Irving, who already is a star. LeBron James is on the Lakers, so the Lakers who were on TV every third-night last year, are on TV every other night this year. Utah has a young core lead by Donovan Mitchell, an NBA sophomore like Ben Simmons, who is too much of a doofus for people to root against completely. Denver looks like they will be a force sooner rather than later, but no one has ever really rooted against Denver, especially not when they’re led by chubby mall security cop Nikola Jokic.
The league is if full of likable stars, young and old But the Sixers young stars have an edge that the others don’t.
Joel Embiid can do anything on the basketball court he wants. He does it with vigor and joy, but also with sarcasm, and earned arrogance. He is beloved across the NBA still, but teams and fans are getting tired of him clowning them. The heel turn is almost here for Joel, and as a wrestling fan, he’ll know when it happens and fully embrace it.
Philadelphia hasn’t been the villain since Iverson left. Get ready for round two, and the new era Bad Boys. The heel turn is inevitable.
Jacob Jones-Goldstein has written about the Sixers for Roundballrev.com, loves statistics, and Trusts the Process. He dabbles in fiction, watches a lot of movies, and goes to more concerts than he should.