It is four hours before the NBA draft lottery, and the parking lot behind Xfinity Live!—a massive dining and entertainment space in the heart of South Philadelphia's Sports Complex—is already home to dozens of tailgaters. There are mini-grills. There is beer pong. Footballs are tossed.
While sports fans in other cities look up to realize, "Oh, the draft lottery is tonight?" 3,000-plus Philadelphia 76ers fans are dressed in black, drinking Shirley Temples, paying $5 for photos with a Vlade Divac cardboard figure or with a podcaster's dog, and raising a banner to honor a former general manager who saw the team go 47-195 during his tenure. Oh, and getting engaged. A couple also got engaged.
These people are supporters of The Process. And they are the weirdest fans in the NBA.
Bound by its unrepentant adoration for polarizing former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie and his Process of patiently (and perhaps courageously?) rebuilding the team by bottoming out for high draft picks, leveraging cap space to stockpile trade assets and constantly sifting the bottom of the roster in search of gold—as well as its love for Process-friendly Sixers podcast The Rights To Ricky Sanchez—the group continues to distance itself from anything resembling traditional basketball fandom.
Jake Pavorsky @JakePavorsky
Sam Hinkie goes into the rafters. Thank you Sam. https://t.co/O2zMTxyj9F2017-5-16 23:37:30
Jason Lipshutz @jasonlipshutz
Oh my god they have Hinkie tattoos #SamsTown https://t.co/2nOFYmyg782017-5-16 22:14:22
"This group of people is so unique in that they follow something that nobody should be following," says Max Rappaport, a basketball writer, podcaster and one of the most recognizable names in Process Twitter. "It's kinda touching in a way that I don't know how to describe. When you care about something that other people can't relate to, or when you bring it up, people are, like, 'Why do you watch the Sixers? Why do you watch 80 games of a team that wins 22 of them?' To be around 3,000 people who also watch 80 games of this bulls--t team—it's awesome. It means a lot."
But Trusting the Process is more than slogging through 80-plus games of T.J. McConnell as your primary playmaker. It also involves a lot of inside jokes and deep-web NBA knowledge. It's wearing Divac's Sacramento Kings jersey and carrying his trading card for good luck. It's adding #LickFace to your Twitter profile. It's understanding the most granular details of the Lakers' first-round-pick protection rights. It's drinking Shirley Temples (by the pitcher, if possible). It's regularly simulating the draft lottery on Tankathon for months. It's buying obscure T-shirts and holding up house cats and being unfairly critical of the Colangelos and even getting engaged in a Ben Simmons jersey, apparently.
Sure, people at other sporting events get engaged all the time—but not like this. Not by submitting a backstory to a podcast, showing up unsure whether you're getting engaged and praying you win a $7,500 ring from LL Pavorsky, the podcast's jewelry sponsor. Not by having thousands of drunken people chant "She said yes!" as the words "She said yes" with a clip-art basketball figure is flashed on every screen. Not while another couple, perhaps a bit presumptuous, came prepared wearing a suit and full wedding dress only to seemingly leave unengaged.
Jake Pavorsky @JakePavorsky
An engagement at the Lottery Party. God I love these people. https://t.co/rbpsVHXG972017-5-16 23:19:54
Process weirdness was on full display in all its majestic, dorky glory.
Look at these guys:
Or the group who brought a flag of Embiid's home country of Cameroon:
Or this hat from the Sixers' 2014 Orlando Summer League championship (very rare!).
Depending on who you ask, the dedication and clever one-upsmanship of the Process crowd is either a positive or pathetic, and nobody represents the warring sides of that argument better than Spike and Howard Eskin.
Spike, one half of The Rights To Ricky Sanchez podcast along with TV writer Michael Levin, has been throwing this draft lottery party the last four years and was integral in making "Trust the Process" a catchphrase. His dad, legendary Philadelphia sports radio heel Howard Eskin, has long called Hinkie a fraud and has publicly debated his son on this topic at every turn.
"My son's out of control, that's No. 1," Howard tells Bleacher Report, holding a box of Kool-Aid packets he would later mockingly toss at Hinkie fans. "It's a great party for the wrong reason. This is the most relevant day for the Sixers for the last four years, and that's because it's the lottery! That's not a good reason to celebrate—because you're in the lottery!"
His son, who also used the event to raise money for the Alzheimer's Association of the Delaware Valley and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, obviously disagrees.
"This'll sound corny or whatever," Spike begins, "but I'm happy and honored that everyone found [this group]. It's hard to find other fans to cheer for a team when the team is losing. People don't get together and go to the bar when the team loses 75 percent of the games, so you have to find other ways to bond and get through it. And that's what all these people did."
The vibe isn't of grim camaraderie, but of celebrating a situation few sports fans can appreciate.
"There's no tough guys here," Spike says. "There's no attitudes. Everyone just has a good time. And it's weird and it's goofy and the people who don't get it make fun of it, but it's awesome and I'm proud to be a part of it."
Within the group, the only figure who even comes close to matching Hinkie's Christ-like standing is his most famous draftee, Embiid, the No. 3 pick in 2014. Embiid seems every bit as proud to be a Process supporter as Spike, especially when you remember that the 7'2" Cameroonian nicknamed himself "The Process" last season.
Using that phrase was something the front office looked to avoid following Hinkie's resignation, so Embiid's move to buck the team to side with Hinkie only strengthened the bond to this unique group of fans. So it should come as no surprise that one of the loudest cheers of the night was simply the first time Embiid was shown on screen.
SPORTSRADIO 94WIP @SportsRadioWIP
Fans react to Joel Embiid being introduced https://t.co/aiyuFvSg0I2017-5-17 00:43:34
In this room, a game-winning buzzer-beater and Embiid's face garner the same reaction.
Still, his initial appearance wasn't the night's loudest moment for the tightly packed, cultish Philly faithful. The loudest roar, inarguably, arrived when it became clear a pick swap with the Kings was going to net the Sixers a top-three pick in this year's draft.
The right to exchange picks with Sacramento was part of what is likely Hinkie's most famous trade, in which he sent Sacramento's GM Divac little more than a bag of air and some cap relief in exchange for Nik Stauskas, the Kings' unprotected 2019 first-round pick and the right to swap picks with the Kings in 2016 and 2017. As one of the last remaining pieces of Hinkie's legacy, the pick swap almost eclipsed the importance of the selection itself, representing Hinkie's skill as a trade negotiator, while also serving as a quick back-pocket weapon against Hinkie doubters.
So when the Knicks landed the No. 8 pick—with the hive-minded crowd fully aware that the swap was in play and the Sixers were guaranteed a top-three selection—the building exploded.
Aaron Talasnik @ATalasnikCSN
When you find out the pick swap is happening! #TrustTheProcess #LotteryParty #SAMSTOWN https://t.co/FbrH3n4N362017-5-17 00:54:56
"F--kin' pick swap. Can I just say f--kin' pick swap?" asks Rappaport. "No. 3 via the pick swap is basically the equivalent of the No. 1 pick." [Laughs.]
"We got the pick swap, which Sam did," says Spike Eskin. "So I think it's a win all around."
Adds Ike Reese, a former NFL Pro Bowler and current sports radio host: "This is an awesome night for us. This is obviously where we can see Sam Hinkie's vision come to light."
Even Stauskas, who was traded in that deal roughly a year after the Kings drafted him, poked fun at the swap:
Nik Stauskas @NStauskas11
Rain drop, drop top, we be converting on the pick swap. #ThanksSac 😜2017-5-17 00:57:05
Predictably, some are still withholding praise. "Don't give credit to Sam Hinkie," huffs the elder Eskin. "Any moron, any nitwit can create a Ponzi scheme and lose."
Some teams have playoff drama. Others have storylines hooked to the draft lottery.
So what's next for this strange sliver of Sixers fans? With Hinkie gone to the rafters and his Process pronounced dead and mourned by thousands dressed in black, what do those who "Trust the Process" expect next?
"It turns to progress," says Rappaport. "Process turns to progress. The Process was always a vehicle to get to something else."
Spike Eskin is slightly more specific.
"I just don't want Lonzo Ball. No Lonzo Ball and we're good."