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.
Early Morning To Minnesota
5 AM is early for me. I’m am not a morning person. If I wake up and it’s dark out, my brain starts doing the math to calculate how much longer I have to sleep. This particular 5 AM wake-up time was a bit different, however, because I wasn’t going to work early, I was going to Minnesota.
I have been to Minnesota before. Usually just passing through on my way west. The first time was when I was a kid on a family trip. We knew a rock DJ who moved from the town I grew up to Minneapolis for a radio gig. As we passed through the Twin Cities, he gave us an on-air shoutout and played ‘You Might Think’ by the Cars. That song was playing in my head as my editor, and I walked through the Philadelphia airport to our gate.
You might think I’m Crazy
To hang around with you
When we arrived at our gate, those lyrics seemed spot on. The lounge was packed with Sixers fans, waiting to take off on the grand adventure known as ‘Fly The Process’ IV. There were plenty of familiar faces waiting including writers for other Sixers sites, famed Philadelphia jeweler and Sixers fan LL Pavorsky, and the ringleader himself, Spike Eskin.
Spike Eskin is one half of the Podcast duo, along with Michael Levin, who put out The Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast. They, along with Phans of Philly, organized the trip. The original two trips were by bus to Brooklyn and then Washington. Last year the trip expanded and went by plane to Milwaukee. This year we were all heading to Flour City to see the Sixers take on the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Originally the trip was scheduled to go to Atlanta but was changed after the Sixers early season trade of Process Heroes Robert Covington and Dario Saric to the Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler. Very few things are quite as on brand for the podcast, and it’s fans than to re-plan an already planned trip to go see "our guys."
Our Guys = Process Sixers
It’s hard to think of Covington and Saric as anything other than Sixers. Covington was one of the original Process Sixers. He was snapped up by former General Manager Sam Hinkie in his quest to find the diamond in the rough type of players to develop while working the system to obtain a star. Dario was drafted knowing it would be at least two seasons before he donned a Sixers uniform. Both players represent the faith fans of The Process, and listeners to the podcast had in what the Sixers were doing.
Many of the original arguments about "The Process" centered on whether Covington was actually good and whether Dario would ever come over to the US. Those arguments left a mark and when the faith fans had in both was rewarded, a genuine bond formed. That bond wasn’t severed when they were traded. I wasn’t one of them, but I know plenty of Sixers fans who immediately went out and bought Wolves jerseys within a day or two of the trade. Many of those jerseys were on display during the weekend trip.
Last year when we traveled to Milwaukee, it was to boo Malcolm Brogdon for winning the rookie of the year award that should have gone to Joel Embiid or Dario. This year the idea was to cheer for Dario as hard as we could, while also cheering for the Sixers.
As the plane took off that morning, it was hard to not smile at the fundamental craziness of the whole thing. Looking around the cabin, it seemed like ¾’s of the passengers were wearing Sixers gear, or Sixers related t-shirts that would be mostly incomprehensible to people not in the know. Personally, I was wearing a black t-shirt with big white letters that read, "Process vs. Everybody." That same Cars song kept running through my head the whole flight.
You might think I'm foolish
Or maybe it's untrue
(You might think) you might think I'm crazy
(All I want) but all I want is you
The group that puts these trips together, Phans of Philly, do a remarkable job. Everything is effortless and unstressful. Once we landed in Minneapolis, we gathered near a baggage carousel next to a woman holding a large sign letting us know this was the RTRS bus. We weren’t hard to spot in an airport that likely doesn’t often see large groups of Sixers fans. She was laughing at how easy it was to get us corralled and then onto the bus to our hotel.
Once at the hotel, everything was ready for us. The rooms were good to go. A table was set up with the ‘Guns and Roses’ inspired t-shirt to commemorate the trip and badges to get us into the pre-party at a local bar before the game. Traveling can be a hassle, and these trips are the opposite of that.
Once we were settled my editor, and I went out to wander the city. Minneapolis in late March is an odd town. We weren’t familiar with the skyway or much of the city's character, but as we walked around, we were surprised at how empty it felt. It may have been the area we were in or just the time of year, but it felt sparse. When you’re used to places like Philadelphia or New York, cities with little foot traffic are jarring. That said one of the fun parts of the trip, and last year's trip as well, is wandering around and randomly running into other Sixers fans. There’s always a nod, or a fist bump, and a greeting of "Trust the Process."
It’s a good time.
Despite the cold and the sparseness, Minneapolis is a lovely city. We found landmarks like the Mary Tyler Moore statue, and the wall of stars at the music venue "First Avenue," and later on famous record store Electric Fetus.
That first night in town we dined at a pretty famous steakhouse called Murrays where my editor had the best steak he’s ever had.
The centerpiece of these trips is always the Sixers game, but getting to explore a city and trying out new things was a highlight last year, and again this year.
Ball maybe be life, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore a bit between games!
We even managed to wander into an Anime convention after seeing cosplayers on the street and wondering what they were doing. You never know where being a Sixers fan will lead you I guess.
Saturday before the game, all the fanatics on the trip gathered for a pre-game party at a pub just down the street from the Target Center called the Pourhouse. A few hours before the party it was announced that Joel Embiid wouldn’t be playing that night. In fact, Embiid hadn’t made the trip with the team.
This news was a downer since watching Embiid square off against opposing teams is one of the best experiences in basketball. In a nice touch of sympathy, the Sixers organization bought everyone the first round at the party. It was one of the few times the team has acknowledged the podcast and the fans, and it was a kind gesture.
When I turned my ticket in to get the free beer I was told despite the wide selection at the bar, it was good for only domestic drafts. I got a Budweiser, my first since the team bought us a beer at the Milwaukee game. So while the gesture was appreciated the limitation on the beer choice made me think the team still hasn’t forgotten about the billboard completely.
The bar put on the Phillies game as we all gathered to drink, eat, and get to know one another. It’s always fun talking to other fans, especially the crazy kind that wind up in Minnesota.
A personal highlight was running to the guys who were next to my editor and me in the famous photo of Embiid from last year in Milwaukee. We re-created the photo as best we could without Embiid being in town. Despite being in a bar for three hours, it’s a pretty wholesome event. It’s probably safe to say that the loudest cheer for Bryce Harper’s home run that day outside of Philadelphia was in that little bar 1200 miles from Citizens Bank Park.
After a few speeches and repeated admonishments to not boo, not do Eagles chants, and do nothing that would get us thrown out of the game, we all headed over to the arena.
Entering the Wolves' Den
Upon entering the confusion on the faces of security and ticket takers is a highlight of the trip. I was asked by one person what on earth was going on, and it’s not all that easy to explain since traveling en masse is not very common in basketball. My editor and I are both soccer fans, where traveling to away games in huge groups is common. We hope that one side effect of these trips will be bringing some of that "traveling-supporter" culture of soccer leagues around the globe to the NBA.
The tickets the Wolves sold us turned out to be as far away from the court as possible. It’s understandable. You don’t really want 300 people cheering for the other team to appear on TV. However, I don’t think they were quite ready for how loud we would be.
The Timberwolves are close to last in NBA attendance, but the fans turned out for this game to boo Jimmy Butler. The reason he is even on the Sixers is he forced his way out of town and burned most of his bridges with the fan base. Loud booing was expected every time he touched the ball.
But the booing from the hometown fans was minimized by Sixers fans doing their best to cheer on their new guy. I don’t think the Timberwolves expected one section to try and be as loud as all the other sections combined in cheering Butler on.
The teams likely noticed something was up as soon as warm-ups began. The Sixers came out first and were greeted with our wild cheers and immediate chanting. Minnesota fans were somewhat confused by such a loud and positive reaction for the visitors but were up for the challenge and tried to cheer their hometown team during warmups. I can say with great satisfaction that we were the louder fans.
The Game Itself
The Sixers jumped out to a big lead, which only encouraged us. Most of our chanting was of the garden variety kind. "Trust the Process," "Let’s Go Sixers," and the like. We chanted "Offense" when Wolves chanted "Defense." When they booed Jimmy Butler, we countered by chanting his name. We also chanted "Frosties" whenever a Timberwolves player was at the line, which I imagine confused Minnesota fans. The funniest chant was probably "SOCIAL MEDIA" at famously not-on-twitter J.J. Redick. It was apparently confusing enough that he looked up at us, but I can’t swear by it.
Late in the second quarter was perhaps the moment we most made our presence felt. With 3:30 left to play in the half, Mike "I just want to play and win" Scott fouled Dario Saric in the act of shooting.
It has been a rough year for Saric. He has regressed across the board and has not seemed to find his footing in Minnesota. After mostly starting for the Sixers for two seasons, he is coming off the bench and averaging 23.8 minutes per game for the Wolves. Some players thrive when given a change of scenery, and some have trouble adjusting. After two seasons and 13 games with the Sixers, Saric has been in the latter camp.
When he stepped up to the line, the arena was quiet. Home crowds usually go quiet when their team is at the free throw line, except for the occasional MVP chant. That void of silence was immediately broken by the full-throated roar coming from the nosebleed seats, as loud as we had been all night, “DA RI O! DA RI O!” I couldn’t swear by it, but I’d be willing to bet it was the first time in a while his name had rung out in that arena.
As much as we had come to root for our team, this too was what we’d come to Minneapolis for. Dario will always be one of our guys, and the bottom line for the whole trip was about letting him know that. Covington too, but that would come later.
The rest of the game was a very Sixers affair. The team was up big and then slowly let the Wolves back into it before finishing them off. The story of the game in our hearts was Dario, but in reality, this game was Jonah Bolden morphing into Steph Curry for a night and shooting 5-7 from three. Butler had an off game after hurting his back early. Scott was excellent off the bench, and Ben Simmons was terrific all around. Simmons even technically took a three-pointer, but it was really just a heave.
After the game, and still on our best behavior, the gracious Minnesota staff marched our group down to courtside seats where we would take a few pictures. This may have been the oddest part of the entire evening as most fans were still in the building. Three hundred some odd Sixers fans being paraded past confused and slightly upset Wolves fans. Most people were amused, but a few didn’t seem to have enjoyed our presence, which is understandable, but at the same time if you don’t want to hear us, be louder.
As we waited for our picture and hopefully a player or two, the Wolves had a long line of young fans being allowed to shoot free throws on the court. It’s a fun thing most teams do. They usually don’t have a loud audience going nuts for each made free throw with occasional chants of "Future Sixers," but I digress.
It wasn’t long before Saric came out to say hello. We found out later that it had been arranged for TJ McConnell to come out and take a picture with us, but Dario was spontaneous. We gave him a standing ovation and did our best in that empty arena to let him know how we felt. He seemed overcome and didn’t hang around long. It’s pure conjecture but I think the trade has been difficult for him, and our presence was a harsh reminder that he wished he was still in Philadelphia.
As Dario began to leave, our other prodigal processor Robert Covington came out. Covington had been flourishing with the Wolves and getting some overdue credit for his defense before getting hurt. He’s been out a while and will be so for the rest of the year. Whereas Dario seemed overcome, Covington seemed overjoyed. He took pictures, laughed, said some things that none of us could hear at all past the first few rows. For our part, we chanted "Deflection rate," "RoCo," and "First Team Defense" at him. He loved it. Before departing, he led us all in one last Frostie Freeze-out cheer and took with him one of the trip’s guns and roses inspired shirts. TJ visited, and JJ waved hello. We chanted "Not on Twitter" at Reddick which seemed to amuse him as he pulled out his phone and mimed checking the notorious site.
After a while, the players were ready to go, and they led us out of the arena. Before we went, I may have yelled for Covington to come back to Philly some day. We waived, which I took to be him not ruling it out.
It’s an odd feeling going to another teams stadium to root for the away team. You’re usually outnumbered and a bit isolated. When you go with 300 other fans, it feels like a home away from home. We headed out into the cold Minnesota night feeling like we had done what we set out to do and grateful for another moment in the ongoing evolution of The Process and Sixers fandom.
Meanwhile, Back at the Hotel ...
The next days was more exploring the city and mostly watching NCAA tournament games in the hotel, but not before Spike and Mike recorded a podcast in a large hallway outside the breakfast area of the hotel.
They had been refused a conference room but said if we were quiet, we could use the area. It’s virtually impossible to explain to people that you are NOT a cult when you’re all sitting cross-legged, eating eggs and tater tots, and listening to two guys make arcane jokes that only a few hundred people in the world would get. It was hilarious and fun as always.
My editor and I took in a Twins game later on, which is probably the coldest I’ve ever been at a baseball game. Target field has heat lamps installed for just such an occasion, and it was much welcomed. Minnesota seems like more of a baseball and football town than basketball. The Wolves haven’t had much success, and what they have had has been fleeting.
When we gathered the following morning our bus driver back to the airport was amused to be carting around a bunch of Sixers fans. He was not a fan of Jimmy Butler and let us know that. But in the end, he was as friendly as everyone we had run into.
What The Process Has Wrought
It’s hard to explain these trips to people who don’t follow sports. Heck, it’s not easy to explain to people who DO follow sports. They’re pretty special though, all the same.
Sports are about community when you get down to it. You watch them to feel part of a team or a group that all has the same elusive and tantalizing goal. You root for teams, and sometimes you root for players as they go from team to team. We have petty arguments on the internet and pretend to be experts at Thanksgiving.
Sports break your heart more often than not, but when they’re good, they’re great.
These trips are for me the best of what sports give us. It’s a chance to bond with people I don’t know over something we all have in common. We get to feel like one big family on a family trip. Everyone is laughing, smiling, and having a good time. The closest thing I can use as a comparison is summer camp. You start out not knowing everyone, but by the end of a week or two, you feel like you’ve made lifelong friends.
We’re the only fanbase in the NBA that does this. Maybe it’ll catch on, but for the time being, it’s pretty easy to say that Sixers fans are the NBA’s best road warriors, and we’re having more fun than just about anyone else.
Thanks again to Phans of Philly and the Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast for putting this trip together. Yeah you know, Lickface.
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.