PHILADELPHIA — Once he walked into the Sixers locker room after the most meaningful victory of his tenure so far in Philadelphia, head coach Brett Brown received a celebratory welcome befitting of the other Philly-based champions that already have been crowned in 2018. However, the champagne sprayed all across the Eagles locker room after Super Bowl LII in February nor the confetti dropped on the heads of the Villanova Wildcats men’s basketball team at the Final Four earlier this month was anything like what ended up being doused on Brown’s silver-colored spiked hair after the Sixers closed out their first playoff series victory in six seasons.
“If we were some other place, I would be wet, maybe, because it’s champagne. Here in Philly, it’s chocolate milk,” said Brown, upon entering the press conference room with a towel draped over his shoulders.
It is only fitting the popular lunchtime drink amongst schoolchildren was one of the beverages in circulation in the locker room after Philadelphia’s 104-96 victory over Miami confirmed the Sixers’ place in the conference semifinals. The stars of Philadelphia’s basketball resurgence include 21-year-old Ben Simmons, the dominant 6-10 man-beast of a point guard who dropped the first postseason triple-double by a rookie since Magic Johnson in the come-from-behind win by Philadelphia in Game 4; 24-year-old center Joel Embiid (a.k.a. The Process, a.k.a. The Phantom of the Process), whose return to the lineup in Game 3 from an orbital fracture – protective black mask in tow – was as devastating as it was comedic; and 24-year-old Dario Saric, the sweet-shooting Croatian power forward who scored at least 20 points in each of the first three games of the series.
All of those players were drafted (or traded for) by Philadelphia in the lottery during the midst of, arguably, the darkest period in 76ers franchise history, when then general manager Sam Hinkie decided that if the team was going to win big in the future, it had to lose big – and gain high draft picks – in the present. Just two seasons ago, as Embiid’s debut in the league was halted for a second consecutive season due to a foot injury, Philadelphia lost 72 of its 82 regular-season games. Even when luck was on the Sixers side, winning the draft lottery and drafting Simmons first overall in the 2016 NBA Draft out of LSU, disaster struck in the form of Simmons missing all of 2016-17 due to injury.
Brown, who was one of Hinkie’s first hires in 2013, oversaw the rebuilding mode that, at numerous points, seemed to have no terminus. After Hinkie was fired and the new front office led by general manager Bryan Colangelo took shape, Brown, with his coaching record looking like one of a coach who should have been given his marching orders years before it became so pear-shaped, was retained.
The children who were projected to lead the franchise out of basketball purgatory have done just that. A task that looked to be Sisyphean, rebuilding from virtually nothing into a championship contender, has taken place faster than almost all could imagine.
Cue the chocolate milk celebrations.
“I was hired in 2013 and I sat with [principal owner of the 76ers] Josh Harris and [partial owner] David Blitzer and a few of the other owners and we talked about the vision, what we hoped to build and through rough times, through adversity for sure, we didn’t blink,” said Brown. “We stayed strong in what we were trying to do and to sort of walk off that court. We’ve got more to do, we’ve got more to give.”
What will lead to more playoff success coming from the Sixers in 2018 may rely as much on the veterans added to the team during this season than the young stars of the present and future. In Game 1, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, both joining the team just two months ago after being bought out of their contracts by the Atlanta Hawks, combined for 42 points in Game 1 coming off the bench. Last night, offseason acquisition J.J. Redick played the role of closer, scoring 19 of his 27 points in the second half as the Sixers shook off a lethargic first half that saw the teams tied at 46 at half.
Admittedly, expectations were tempered given the youth and inexperience that came along with the limitless potential of this team, but after seeing off the Heat in relatively dominant fashion in the team’s first go-round as a group in the postseason, the bar that the Sixers have set for themselves in 2017-18 continues to be elevated.
“We were 25-25 with five games to go before the All-Star Break, so this is new to us as a group, and I think the interesting thing that has happened is we’ve changed our goals now like four times,” said Redick in the postgame press conference while leaning toward Joel Embiid to talk into the shared microphone, a fitting juxtaposition of youth and experience. “It was make the playoffs, then it was maybe we could win 50 games, and then it was home court and then it was [getting the] third seed.
“I think I remember talking to a couple of people in our front office about getting a first-round victory,” Redick continued. “Obviously, none of us now feel a sense of complacency. We’re not satisfied. This group is still hungry. We want more.”
Philadelphia sports fans, after seeing what the first four months have given them with two major championships, including the city’s first-ever Super Bowl win, sure would not mind more this season, especially from the team that was expected to give them more…in about 3-5 years. The timing of the Sixers’ rise, along with the Era of Good Feelings around sports in the City of Brotherly Love, could not have been more perfect, and it is something Brown believes his team capitalize on and build more momentum as this ride through this postseason continues.
“We all got a taste of it with the Eagles, we all got a taste of it with Villanova’s tremendous win,” said Brown. “You feel it with the city from afar. Sometimes you’re in the straight pulse of the city and to generate our own interest and to generate our own momentum and feel like you can give something back to the city and the fans that endure it with us.
“We knew that if we could fight for home court and then we got greedy and wanted third [place] as our regular season was winding down, it would provide a platform that you can’t even quantify,” Brown continued. “It’s just a vibe. In this city, in this building, the fans were unbelievable tonight and I know that they will continue to be. Everybody is excited to be apart of, what I think, is playing out to be a cool story.
It might end up being yet another 2018 sports sequel of A Philadelphia Story – another championship tale.