Work in Process

Watching the Philadelphia 76ers is like appreciating an art film of indeterminate quality

The best thing about sports fandom is the sensation of living in a feel-good movie, as storylines develop in real time. Watching the 2016 NBA finals felt like seeing an adaptation of Star Wars play out on network TV: the uber-talented, record-setting Warriors and their “Death Lineup” versus a scrappy Cavs team led by LeBron. Cheering one way or another was to impart one’s own force to their team of choice. The game’s mise-en-scene supports the cinematic aesthetic: the drama of a game seven; the triumphant orchestral score ABC uses for the finals; the distinct rewatchable sequence (the Block, the Shot, and the Stop); the fact that that series, and all NBA finals since 2003, have aired on the Disney-owned ABC, adds to this filmic sensibility. In America, our sports movies are often made by Disney, and they are usually either treacly and uplifting or gritty and inspirational (The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh, Hoosiers, The Air Up There, The Mighty Ducks, Space Jam, Love & Basketball, Miracle, Coach Carter, Draft Day, The Way Back). Only a few lend themselves to tragedy or cynicism (Brian’s Song, Blue Chips, The Basketball Diaries, He Got Game).

I grew up in the ‘90s and early aughts and passively consumed so many of these films, so I expect the teams I root for to win, with heart and gusto. At the same time, I’m cognizant of the fact that my Philadelphia sports teams rarely compete for championships. Where sports are concerned, there’s a disjunct sense of entitlement and delusion that marks the city’s collective mentality. This is especially true in a town known for its underdog ethos and intense, sometimes violent sports fandom (see: the Santa snowball incident of ‘68, and a fan throwing popcorn on an injured Russell Westbrook as he left the court last month). There are already a few sports movies set in Philly (the Rocky series and Invincible, about a walk-on who goes on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles) and in 2018, the Eagles provided the kind of scenario that frequently plays out in beatific sports flicks. The team won Super Bowl LII over the New England Patriots after its starting quarterback tore his ACL, and the Birds’ backup beat the greatest QB and football dynasty of all time. (We have a statue outside of the football stadium with a key play call immortalized in bronze.) Some Philadelphians have taken to watching recorded versions of the Super Bowl to lift their spirits. In a 2019 article for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Cassie Owens writes that fans queue up highlights or full viewings of the game to “conjure memories of decades of wins and losses, of heartaches and celebrations.” One man quoted in the article laid out his plan of incessant rewatching, explaining, “Until we win the Super Bowl again, I’m going to leave last year’s Super Bowl video playing,” and another compared the game to a favorite movie shared by Eagles’ fans—“It’s yours, it’s everybody’s,” he said.  

This year, fans of the 76ers were hoping to experience a version of what the Eagles pulled off in 2018. The basic elements were the same: like the Eagles, the Sixers had secured the number one seed in their conference and were then almost immediately perceived as the underdog. Our star center Joel Embiid tore his meniscus in the first round of this year’s playoffs and winced through the injury; we also lost our starting wing Danny Green in the third game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Atlanta Hawks. We were primed for a win in this series, because the Hawks were only seeded fifth, and we are, on paper, more talented than they are. We expected a matchup against either the Milwaukee Bucks and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’d swept us in three games during the regular season, or the Brooklyn Nets, who despite their many injuries still possessed former MVPs Kevin Durant and James Harden and Kyrie Irving, a hero of the 2016 Finals. We were ready to experience our own cheesy sports movie. The conclusion of this series Sunday evening, in a heartbreaking game seven loss, means that Sixers fans won’t get to DVR Finals games for comfort-viewing. Instead, what happened last night conjured memories of losses and repeated heartbreaks.

For the past twenty years, the Sixers trajectory has defied the structure of the classic sports movie, which is a dramatic arc that begins with hardship and ends in triumph. Instead of an uplifting American sports movie, Sixers fandom in 2021 is situated in art cinema’s interpretation of one; it’s a story marked by anticlimax and increasingly maudlin sequences of events. Think: Remember the Titans directed by Béla Tarr, an extended set piece on the nature of pain, failure, physical conflict, and head trauma; Claire Denis’s Beau Travail reinterpreted as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on Ben Simmons’s terrible labor at the foul line. The Secret in Their Eyes, the Argentinian thriller, could be remade to expose the lack of killer instinct among members of our starting five, especially considering their downcast gaze in the guts of the game; The Silence, the disturbing German suspense flick recast to explore the horror intimated in the hushed acoustics of Wells Fargo Center in the fourth quarter, after Trae Young repeated in his actions some version of the phrase “It’s real quiet in this motherfucker,” which he’d first uttered in Madison Square Garden in May after beating the Knicks.

Consider Freytag’s Pyramid of storytelling, adapted to the conventions of a sports movie: exposition/establishment of stakes, rising action/training montage, climax/big game, falling action/redemption/”I told you so” locker room scene, denouement/freeze frame sequence. The Sixers’ trajectory switches the order of buoyant activity in the third act—instead, the cheerful moment comes before total collapse. The box score breaks down this broken narrative: steady gains in the first and second quarters yield a large lead, a collapse in the third (an issue all season, as well as during ex-coach Brett Brown’s tenure), a fourth that sees them on the seesaw, gaining control again, and ultimately losing the advantage. To be a Sixers fan is to be an extra in a film with all the trappings of a sports movie, but with a dislocating sense of plot. Events are all out of order. A Rocky where the Italian Stallion rises for the standing eight count but passes out after the bell, is concussed, and then falls into a coma; an alt-universe Rocky II follows in which he emerges from the trauma of being in a vegetative state, gets back in fighting shape, only to lose a fledgling boxer who just turned pro. Not quite a comedy or tragedy, nor quite as balanced as a dramedy, the Sixers movie scrambles the qualities of those genres, and the formulas that apply to all of them. What results is something stranger. Freytag established that the actions of the protagonist and antagonist are linked, and so in theory we’re an obstacle in the Hawks’ victory narrative, an opposing figure in the team’s “play-and-counterplay,” or the balancing force in their story. But I think, given the Sixers’ struggles, it’s not so easy to peg them as villains. The team has obviously failed this year, and there are only one or two members of the team that might be called a hero. In other words, the Sixers don’t fit the mold of a conventional team in a sports movie. 

The Process, the rebuilding phase devised by Sam Hinkie and immortalized in “trust the process,” the team’s informal slogan, was meant to be the Sixers’ strategy for bypassing consistent mediocrity. The idea was to lose on purpose for a few years, end up at the top of the NBA’s draft lottery to increase our chances of assembling a championship team, and start winning. Some of our picks worked out well, but others failed (Michael Carter-Williams, Jahlil Okafor, Markelle Fultz, Zhaire Smith, and some might now say, Ben Simmons). It seemed we’d struck gold with Embiid, who despite being injured and recovering from immense personal loss has emerged as an MVP candidate, and Simmons, a point-forward who has, in theory, the skillsets of both Magic Johnson and LeBron James. The Sixers have won some, and have made the playoffs in each of the last four years, but they have never progressed past the second round. 

More so than other fanbases, the Process set up 76ers faithful to feel like a glossy, triumphant Hollywood ending was coming. Sam Hinkie flouted NBA conventions, openly discussing the plan in the media, assuring fans that tanking was the most viable way to win the team a championship. A cult of personality developed around him; in 2015, Business Insider framed his approach in revolutionary terms, noting that “the Sixers under Hinkie are the most radical experiment in American sports.” When asked when the Process would be complete, Hinkie told reporters, “We’ll all know.” Will we? Embiid is a superstar, and one of the best players in 76ers history, but he’s never publicly presented himself as the kind of Marvel hero LeBron positions himself as—nor the sort of ubermensch he plays in this summer’s Space Jam sequel—nor a playground hero like Kyrie Irving’s Uncle Drew. It was always understood that he’d need real help to carry the team to the promised land. The Process as espoused by Hinkie acolytes suggested fans would be able to intuit the team’s sense of readiness. In certain corners of NBA Twitter, the Process had a kind of mysticism around it, and it was deemed a necessary transformative sequence, like a variation of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Based on the criteria established at the beginning of it, The Process now seems like a failure. The Sixers are plateauing before the championship round, which feels like mediocrity at this stage of the game. The Process as narrative is like a souped-up sports movie arc, but the premise is too abstract to fully endorse. Fans were encouraged to cultivate hope, and to prepare for the grandest, most commercial ending, but one has yet to come. 

What is the Process but a procedural feel-good flick gone awry? The team and its executives have taken a recipe for success, whether in sports movies or real-life (rising talent, loads of draft picks, late-stage leadership change with winning coach out for revenge, wild characters like Morey and Sam Hinkie, a concept like The Process, which, like moneyball, is begging for a film adaptation) and haven’t quite made it work. The Sixers are not the only team to bungle their draft opportunities (see: the Sacramento Kings under the ownership of Vivek Ranadive, Danny Ainge’s Boston Celtics) or waste the good fortune of having a large fanbase, money, and a populous metropolitan market (James Dolan’s Knicks), or gamble on a tandem that was marred by injury and inexperience (The Penny-Shaq Orlando Magic) but they’ve managed to do all of it. Applying the Disney rubric to a feature film based on today’s NBA, the team is not a conventional good guy because of its controversial beginnings tanking, and Embiid’s playful trolling. It’s also not a villainous juggernaut. This is the kind of ambiguity that characterizes Kurosawa’s Rashomon or Andrew Dosunmu’s excellent Mother of George, or Kathleen Collins’s brilliant, meta Losing Ground, not a narrative in a typical sports film. 

Sometimes the Sixers are not just a confusing or unexpected avant-garde movie—they’re a bad one, lacking precision in basketball fundamentals. They turn the ball over, they don’t communicate, they hesitate to shoot, to make the extra pass when necessary. Oftentimes, the spacing breaks down and they become predictable—down the stretch, and with no other viable option to close the game, many plays with potential inevitably resulted in Embiid dribbling with his back to the rim, flanked by two or three defenders. This inconsistent play has yielded a team stuck between the Process and the Next Step. The NBA is a league marked by liminal space: no one knows how long a team’s title window will last, and so dwellers in the land-of-inbetween are always trying to close the gap. Based on their last few seasons, the Sixers seem bound by the strictures of not quite getting there; their title window has maybe elapsed, since it’s rare to find a semifinals bracket in this era of the NBA that doesn’t include teams led by LeBron James, Steph Curry, or Kevin Durant. If ever there was a time to win a championship, this was it. But now they seem destined for a perpetual second round exit: not good enough to win it all and not bad enough to stack lottery picks.

Art cinema is also characterized by its intermediacy. According to scholar András Bálint Kovács in Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema (1950-1980), Robert Spa detailed what Kovács calls “a type of film that could not be categorized appropriately,” a film that was “narrative-based, therefore in the commercial circuit, but not made for the satisfaction of the widest possible audience.” Spa called for a “third way,” between the poles of unsuccessful experimentation and safe, commercial material, writing,

Is not there a way between the most banal films and the search for an art pushed to the extreme, enchanting only mental cubists; a third way, which takes themes taken from real life, based on the similarities with life as we live it, and which is original in its conception and by the careful research for an art by the director?

Kovács cites a 1932 essay by filmmaker and theorist Germaine Dulac that furthered the definition of the art film as an intermediate form. In her estimation, the art film, as opposed to its commercial analogue, would need a specialized distribution system that gave the audience access to “works which it would not tolerate in other theatres,” films that “want to be commercial, but not enough to pander to nervous ignorants.” The lead-losing Sixers are not for the faint or nervous at heart, but they can be a gorgeous team to watch. On the court, Embiid is half Hakeem Olajuwon, half gazelle. His footwork and finesse around the rim conjures the kind of poetic imagery found in proto-art cinema from the silent film era: a field, other players as deers in headlights watching him euro-step into a layup; the hypnotic elegance of his body in mid-air after he releases a fadeaway jumper; the off-kilter geometry of one of his bank shots; the stop-time suspense of a floater curving downward to the hoop; or the beauty of his show-and-go into a finger roll. His physical power is the advent of sound: the boom of his dunks, the hissing swish, the crowd’s eruption. Simmons’s runaway train sprint to the hoop is a study in willpower and velocity. Watching him on a fast break is akin to witnessing the translation of facial features to emoji; he’s a living embodiment of the infamous steam-out-the-nostrils symbol he prefers to use in his social media posts. But Simmons is also a study in entropy, and an avatar of the Sixers’ gradual slide back to mediocrity. He does a lot of things well, but his unwillingness to shoot the ball and inability to convert his opportunities at the free throw line has trade rumors swirling yet again. He keeps taking a step back in his development, and the team is on the cusp of precipitous decline. Just as it seemed they’d found some stability and order in their starting lineup, the team’s executives are considering shaking things up for the umpteenth time. 

The Sixers are artful but need a new distribution system, since they can’t take themselves to the next level. Embiid and Simmons are hero and villain inside the same movie, and on the same team. They’re pitted as each other’s antagonist, and it’s starting to feel like that dynamic is true. Embiid can’t stay healthy enough to stay on the court with Simmons for enough games; Embiid takes on too much to accommodate Simmons’s offensive limitations. Maybe the stage has now been set for a mega sports movie arc that adds this season and disappointing playoff berth to the team’s exposition and rising action. As they get better, they’ll triumph and end up on the biggest stage: a seven-game series on ABC and YouTube TV, the ultimate commercial exposure of network television and internet streaming behemoths. Or maybe the story really is a tragedy, of Embiid’s shortened prime and athletic brilliance marred by nagging injuries. Often enough, following this team feels like engaging a bunch of forms at once. The team is a success commercially and statistically, has a decent ratio of wins and losses, and yet it vexes and alienates its fanbase; its gameplay is alternately beautiful and maddening. Ultimately, because you never quite know what you’ll get, except that you’ll be surprised somehow, stanning for the Sixers is a very niche experience. People who watch most of the regular season (myself included) are a dedicated band of connoisseurs, bonding over our awareness of the Sixers’ signature triggers. The films of Fassbinder and Almodóvar sometimes confound me, but after watching their work I usually take away some appreciation for plot structure, or an actor’s performance, or the use of music in a scene. Like some arthouse films, I don’t always enjoy the Sixers, but I frequently learn something about the precarity of a lead, the need to stay humble, when to quit if something’s not working, how to cultivate a skill I don’t have. 

Maybe I’ve gotten it wrong. Maybe the Sixers in the latter years of the Process era are less an experience cineastes can appreciate and more a pop confection. After all, their experience is not altogether uncommon. Every postseason is riddled with successful underachievers who hover between championship-or-bust expectations. This season, the marquee losers were the Lakers and the Nets, but the Sixers have a more mainstream analogue that’s closer to home. All you have to do is look courtside and peep Philly native son and megafan M. Night Shyamalan, whose films are commercially successful but enjoy a mixed critical reception. His work is marked by an oft-mocked resistance to fulfilling narrative expectations; ironically, his penchant for twist endings has foiled any surprise his films might engender. A look at his filmography, suffused with interventions into genre films, leads to intriguing comparisons with his beloved Sixers: maybe Joel Embiid is Unbreakable’s Mr. Glass, fearful of landing space; Tobias Harris is the protagonist of The Sixth Sense, both there and not there? The Sixers’ entire fanbase is like some version of the park surrounding the antiquated community in Shyamalan’s 2004 film The Village, the ostensibly 19th-century enclave nestled in the Delaware Valley. Though instead of harboring a closed-off, old-fashioned population, it is comprised of a group of people who anachronistically believe in a team built around an injury-prone center, a throwback idea in a league that is characterized by relentless three-point shooting. With the Sixers, despite how well things might be proceeding, you know there’s a twist coming. 

Champions are easier to love, yet this city is a theater and its residents have consistently supported its art cinema basketball team. But Sixers fans always want the team to sell out its commiseration cred and go big, on the biggest stage. It’s not just me, who went from delighting in small things to expecting it all (when the basketball was terrible, I once reveled with my now-ex, then a delivery driver, at the generosity of former Sixers forward Thaddeus Young, who I had been told was a really good tipper). In an October 2019 article right before the new season began, and mere months before the pandemic put the season on hold, Shyamalan wrote about his Sixers fandom for In the article, the director referenced the team’s heartbreaking loss to the Toronto Raptors earlier that year in the East semis, and expressed hope in the future, writing, “This year is different. Going into Opening Night, that’s the feeling I have, and I can’t wait for the ride.” It’s likely that he, and the rest of us Sixers fans, will be able to forget the pain of this loss and cheer up at the start of the new season, as we have done before. Whether its basketball or the movies, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief.

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