Entering play Friday night, the Philadelphia 76ers were riding a three-game winning streak and sat at .500 for the first time since November 2013. The seeds planted in Sam Hinkie’s orchard have grown into strong, young saplings.
Ben Simmons has emerged as the clear Rookie of the Year frontrunner, putting up early-career stats comparable to a young Oscar Robertson or LeBron James. Joel Embiid, whose ability was only questioned in relationship to his availability, is averaging close to 30 minutes per game (27.6 to be exact) and has sat out only a single game, the tail end of a back-to-back as a precautionary measure.
After a tough 0-3 start to the season, featuring Markelle Fultz going through the team’s strange initiation ritual of having management mishandle an injury situation, the recent surge on the court had reignited the spark of anticipation prevalent in Philadelphia throughout the summer. The time had come for me to experience how this excitement translated to the in-arena experience at the Wells Fargo Center. Would much have really changed from the early Process era? An old college friend in town for Friday’s matchup against the Indiana Pacers presented the perfect opportunity for me to find out.
I came across the first noticeable difference in the housing development where I’ve always parked before games, a 15-minute walk from the arena. In my usual spot, a sign now reads “No event parking. Violators will be towed.”
I chose to view this as a sign of the increased interest in the Sixers (and I’ll hear none of your “the Eagles are 7-1” counterpoints). Nevertheless, my only concession was to drive farther back and park at the end of a cul-de-sac, secure in the belief that nothing bad could befall me on a night when both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were healthy and playing basketball.
Outside the Wells Fargo Center, there were queues 15-20 people deep just to enter the arena. Looking around, I estimated only 10 to 15 percent of the jerseys in sight were old Allen Iverson numbers, a steep drop-off from years past when maybe three-quarters of the jerseys in attendance would honor The Answer. Now, everywhere you look, people’s backs read Simmons or Embiid, a stark, visual cue that the franchise has finally turned the page from its last successful era to its bright future.
Upon sitting down, a new, small detail caught my eye. The clock ticking down to tip-off on the jumbotron now reads “countdown to the show.” The Sixers are truly a show, an on-court entertainment spectacle the likes of which Isaiah Canaan and Brandon Davies never were. Once the game got underway, the guy seated directly in front of me was standing and cheering after every single Sixer basket. I never explicitly asked him, but I’m confident he wasn’t doing that in the days when JaKarr Sampson was running the point.
As the game progressed, observers pick up on the myriad ways fans engage with the team like never before. An audible murmur ripples through the arena whenever Embiid gets off the bench and approaches the scorer’s table. Every Simmons pass is accompanied by a chorus of oohhs and aahhs from a crowd struggling to process how a man that size could possess such acute court vision. A hum of anticipation builds every time the ball swings toward an open J.J. Redick. Even a smaller Process building block like Richaun Holmes feels the love — the crowd was appreciative of his energy in his season debut coming back from a wrist injury:
Philly I️ love y’all man that applause when I️ came in never heard anything like it love always GOOD WIN TEAM!!!
— Richaun Holmes (@Rich_Holmes22) November 4, 2017
After a sloppy second quarter from the Sixers put Indiana out in front, the Sixers rallied to justify their home crowd’s devotion to this new group of on-court heroes. Simmons notched his second triple-double in his ninth career game, tallying 14 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. He was arguably better on the defensive end, recording two steals and three blocks; his rejection of a Darren Collison transition layup with a minute and a half left was quietly one of the most crucial plays of the game:
Those hums of anticipation as the ball swung to Redick frequently morphed into roars of ecstasy; the 23-million-dollar man drained 8-of-12 3s on the night, including this seemingly impossible shot with the shot clock about to expire to seal the victory:
Then, there is the man who came to embody the Process. Once more, Joel Embiid was raising his arms at the free-throw line, imploring the crowd to rise, his outstretched, condor-like wingspan seemingly reaching across time itself to the brighter future the team is rapidly approaching. Nobody left the arena thinking this was a particularly great Embiid game, but when you looked, he still finished with 18 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals, and two blocks. He makes the ridiculous look routine.
Now, the Sixers are over .500 for the first time in four years. Unlike 2013, however, instead of replacement-level players Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes leading the way, Philadelphia is propelled forward by two 7-foot human Jaegers who routinely defy rational thinking about the laws of physics. This team is ready to take off, and this city is buckled in and ready for the ride.
Perhaps best of all, my car wasn’t towed. You just have to Trust the Process.
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