PHILADELPHIA — Moments before tipoff Tuesday of Game 5 between the Philadelphia Sixers and Miami Heat, a crowd of fans and media members, almost all carrying cameras and cellphones, congregated on the sideline across from Miami's bench, pushing and angling for a glimpse.
Even on a night where the Sixers would win 104-91, clinching their first postseason series since 2012, Meek Mill was the star.
Hours earlier, Mill, the 30-year-old rapper who had spent the previous five months behind bars, had been granted bail and released. You no doubt heard the story by now: How Mill was convicted of charges related to drugs and gun possession in 2008, a charge he has long denied. How he was sentenced to prison, released after eight months and put on probation for five years—a period that has been extended multiple times. How a Philadelphia judge believed that a pair of 2017 arrests—for an altercation in a St. Louis airport, which never resulted in charges, and another time for reckless driving in New York City—constituted a violation of his parole, which he'd been shackled by for nine years, and sentenced Mill to two to four years in prison, even with his parole officer and the district attorney both recommending he serve no time.
Mill's case became a symbol for many, a public example of the ways this country's justice department routinely and systemically fails its citizens, especially its young black ones.
It also drew the attention of Michael Rubin, an e-commerce billionaire and Sixers minority owner.
Rubin, 47, first met Mill (born Robert Rihmeek Williams) around five years ago at an NBA game. The two started talking, with Mill peppering Rubin with business questions. They stayed in touch and grew close over the next few years, and after Mill was sent to prison in 2017, Rubin felt compelled to help fight for his friend.
He sent a letter on Mill's behalf to the presiding judge and regularly visited Mill in jail. And then, on Tuesday, a Supreme Court judge overruled Mill's original conviction due to questions about the credibility of the arresting officer. Rubin received the news at around 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, just a couple of hours after visiting Mill with comedian Kevin Hart.
"For the past six months, our team has worked tirelessly to bring justice for Meek Mill, who was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated," Rubin said in a statement. "The greater injustice is that Meek is not alone. I look forward to working with a newly freed Meek Mill on the urgent cause of criminal justice reform. I know Meek is excited to shine a light on the plight of many like him and ultimately make a difference in their lives."
"Although I'm blessed to have the resources to fight this unjust situation, I understand that many people of color across the country don't have that luxury, and I plan to use my platform to shine a light on those issues," Mill said in a statement. "In the meantime, I plan to work closely with my legal team to overturn this unwarranted conviction and look forward to reuniting with my family and resuming my music career."
First, though, there was Game 5, and a liberty bell—which the Sixers bring out prior to every home game—for Mill to ring.
Rubin called in a helicopter, which picked Mill up outside the state prison in Chester, Pennsylvania, and delivered him to a black Chevrolet, which shuttled the group to Wells Fargo Center. "He's gotta get a shower, and we gotta go win this game," Rubin told a group of reporters in the parking lot after the car pulled up about 45 minutes before tipoff.
"I need clothes," Mill, wearing jeans and a solid burgundy shirt, said. Asked how he felt, Mill added, "I feel great."
Mill, led by a phalanx of handlers and security, walked the arena's hallways and into the Sixers locker room, where he spoke with some of the people who, over the past year, had visited him.
"When he was in jail, I went to visit him, and he wasn't feeling good," Sixers center Joel Embiid said after the game. "You could tell he was trying to hold on. He's been following us. I was just happy—I was happy for him. They've been working on it for months now. I was excited."
"Meek was super-excited that he got here; everything just fell into place," Sixers forward Justin Anderson added. "It was big for the city to see him out and to see us clinch a first round."
Mill spent the rest of the evening seated courtside, between Hart and Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, Mill's seven-year-old son bouncing on his lap. They watched the Sixers ping the ball around the floor and Ben Simmons gallop up and down the court and JJ Redick drill five three-pointers.
But before that, before the game's opening tip and after the crowd of reporters surrounding him had dispersed, Mill was welcomed home by the in-arena announcer and introduced to the fans. The lights went dark, and the team's liberty bell was rolled out toward midcourt. Carrying a small, makeshift hammer, Mill strolled out to the spotlight, smile stretching across his face. He was free—finally—and awash in the love of a team and city that had a lot to celebrate.