I’m trying to write this so that people who don’t follow the Philadelphia 76ers, the NBA, or sportsball in general to be able to track. The religious motifs throughout the past five years around Philadelphia basketball stand on their own as symbols of a kind of faith. They also speak to my processes both as a Sixers fan and a follower in the way of Jesus.
Enter Sam Hinkie, executive par excellence
On May 14, 2013 the Sixers hired basketball analytics savant Sam Hinkie as general manager. His bold vision: to bring the franchise through three horrifying years of collecting assets and trading away any talent or veterans. Critics around the league said that the basketball gods frowned upon such blatant “tanking,” or losing now on purpose in order to stockpile draft picks and build a team from a clean foundation. Fans marked his memorable contribution with deep conviction..Trust the Process.
At the end of his 34 month brilliant and notorious ride as the antihero of basketball executives, Hinkie gave a 13pg gift to the world in the form of his resignation letter. He wrote about “a tolerance of uncertianty,” the “necessity of innovation,” the “importance of intellectual humility,” and “the longest view in the room.” I embraced this man and his vision right away, and my heart is warmed by his courage. I learned what optionality was. He will not be able to enjoy the fruit of his good work as a Sixer, but must be happy with all of the affirmations that have been coming lately.
Making the God connection, beyond the meme
At the end of his term, his risky ask were sacrifice and faith. He asked a board of trustees and fanbase to forgo conventional wisdom to grind it out and wait for a miracle for a longer term plan that would have a higher chance to reap larger rewards. Was all the #HinkieDiedForOurSins just blasphemy, tongue-in-cheek memes showing how post-Christian we really are in the US, or could it be a deep reach toward finding meaning in suffering?
You may or may not know, but at the NBA Draft tonight (coverage begins at 7pm), the Sixers (by leveraging assets acquired by my boy Sam) have the first pick. They had the first pick last year, too. The acquisition of elite talent through the draft remains essential to perennial success in the NBA. In a few hours, we will have three players who have the potential to become superstars. The opportunity to acquire such talent through the draft could not have happened without sustained losing, drafting players that would not play for a few years, and trading away good players for future picks.
Proclaiming that The Process has arrived
Perhaps no one embodies The Process as much as the transcendent talent and personality of Joel Embiid. Before he made his long awaited debut, he missed two full seasons because of foot surgery and complications from growing from 7’0″ to 7’2″. While we waited, The Ringer made a 10min mockumentary about him called The Legacy of a Legend, which he of course ReTweeted. Leading up to his debut last season, he asked to be announced at games as Joel “The Process” Embiid. Jojo boldly proclaimed that The Process had arrived, and pointed to himself as evidence.
Being Bible reader for most of my life, I feel like I have seen this movie before. But I have not seen a new reality announced and practiced in a way that inspired me like this. Joel helped me understand the gospel more deeply. In the first verse of Mark’s gospel, he lifts a cultural term that I missed for a long time. When he says “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” he didn’t coin the term gospel. Rome spread news of a military victory, to be celebrated when they brought the good news. Mark flipped it to meaning a release of the Good Story – the Prince of Peace had begun a re-harmonization process that was divinely re-ordering everything.
Trusting our own processes
When I began my second stint with higher ed in the Fall of 2008, I did not see a clear timeline or endpoint. I wanted to learn and re-orient my brain, and become a better pastor. As I recently completed seminary, I look back at a long run of stimuli and change. I hit roadblocks that I couldn’t see past at times. I experienced a mental fatigue that I didn’t know was possible. I trusted the wise people around me and that the Spirit was going to use these challenges for God’s good purposes. I also enjoyed graduating more than I expected I could.
As much as it has been hard to be a Sixers fan while they put up historically bad teams, real life is harder. I’m walking with some friends who are giving up on their processes before they come to good ends. The hardest times in life are often right before we turn a corner. This is an encouragement to trust God and your spiritual friendships when you’re confused or in crisis.
I hope you get encouraged by finding some faith out there, even in unexpected places. Faith is a lot more than a series of beliefs, faith is working the spiritual muscle that helps us connect. Faith is more a midwife to hope and perseverance than it is a crutch or painkiller. I found real faith in Philadelphia over these years, even if it mocks my faith a bit. I feel like a lot of us have endured some trying seasons. I am also giving witness to a new beginning that we are experiencing because of the work of God in our hearts. Won’t you go with it?