The next book on your social distancing reading list might be “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports,” an in-depth account of the NBA’s most famous front office experiment, dubbed “The Process.” NYU alumnus and former WSN sports reporter, Yaron Weitzman, the book’s author and NBA reporter for Bleacher Report, talked with WSN about his own process, how to write a sports book when a team tries to prevent you from conducting interviews and what it’s like to cover the NBA during a global health crisis.
WSN: Why did you choose to write a book about the Philadelphia 76ers?
Yaron Weitzman: I cover the NBA for Bleacher Report and I’m supposed to be a national writer which means you’re supposed to find stories that would interest a national audience and the Knicks and Nets were not exactly cutting it there. So I started going to Philadelphia, around the 2017 season, I would start driving down or taking the train down, and writing about them a little bit. I figured it would be good to kind of get in as [Ben] Simmons and [Joel] Embiid were sort of blazing out — and I figured it was you know, kind of the NBA’s next team. At one point during the postseason, I don’t remember exactly when, but I remember thinking ‘There seems like there’s a good book in here’ and it seemed like no one else was doing it which I was a little wrong about that.
WSN: At the beginning of the book, you talk about how the 76ers organization tried to limit your access to players and personnel so you relied a lot on background interviews with 175 different people, old articles, press conferences and podcasts. How difficult was it to write a book on the 76ers without being able to talk to current or former players and employees at any length?
YW: There’s a story I have in there about [former President of Basketball Operations Sam] Hinkie telling Jason Richardson that he needs a restaurant with a back door for when he needs to sneak out because “everyone in the city is going to hate me.” And that anecdote came from Jason Richardson’s manager, a random person who you wouldn’t call. Why would you call Jason Richardson’s manager? But yeah, it was definitely hard, getting blocked in certain ways is hard. But at a certain point, you just say “OK, challenge accepted.” I think [Sixers head coach] Brett Brown, Joel Embiid, most of the Sixers guys I nailed pretty well. There’s enough stuff on the internet, podcasts or interviews. There’s questions I wouldn’t even have to ask Brown, like about his dad growing up, because he’s answered that question nine times in the exact same way. Hinkie’s the one guy where I think it would have been the most revelatory to get more time with him.
WSN: The first half of the book, especially, focused a lot on 76ers President of Basketball Operations Sam Hinkie and his methods in developing “the Process.” How would you describe Hinkie’s impact on the Sixers of today?
YW: His shadow loomed over the franchise and affected everything, how the fanbase viewed it and ownership kind of fought against that, the idea that he’s responsible for everything. Even [Tuesday], Embiid tweeted out “trust the Process,” so it doesn’t go away. It’s part of the fabric and DNA of the franchise. Hinkie’s shadow will loom over everything they do at least throughout Embiid’s Sixers career and maybe throughout this current ownership.
WSN: On Tuesday, the Philadelphia 76ers ownership announced that they were going to cut employee salaries but they later reversed course after Joel Embiid said he would help the team employees and after they received intense criticism online. Given your research and knowledge of billionaire team owner Josh Harris, what did you make of that fiasco?
YW: First of all, the Embiid thing was not surprising. I kind of touch on this in the book, on how much power he has in the organization — he might officially be the employee, but it’s very clear who’s running things. Joel Embiid can do what he wants and sometimes that can hurt the organization if he’s not in top shape and no one can check him on that, but sometimes it can help everyone if he calls out the owner on doing a nasty thing and gets them to reverse their decision. I don’t go too deep into Josh Harris’ business background, but there’s a summary of it and I think what they tried to do with the workers’ salaries, it fits with the way he goes about his day job and the private equity industry in terms of maximizing profits at all costs.
WSN: The book discusses the differences of opinion among the Sixers fan base when it came to “the Process.” Do you think Hinkie’s exit served to exacerbate that rift in the fan base?
YW: I do think it made the Rights to Ricky Sanchez group, the Hinkie supporters, louder and accelerated their unionizing. Hinkie’s a sort of martyr for them and that triggered a movement where they’ll stand behind him and they’ll support him, and I do think that made them louder and caught ownership off guard. The idea of how loud and supportive this group of hail Hinkie was and how angry they would be over him being pushed out. I do think a lot of younger fans kind of came up in the post-Moneyball era and fantasy baseball era where a lot of us come at fandom as sort of GMs and I think the Hinkie stuff really spoke to them.
WSN: For Bleacher Report, you write a lot of longform feature stories. How was writing the book different from your normal process?
YW: The book’s going in a linear path, but not every chapter should just be a straight biography because then you’re just citing Wikipedia. So, like a feature, you have to pick certain themes that you’re going to highlight or draw from throughout. You start at one point, and you can go back in time a little bit within the chapters themselves. So if I’m doing Joel Embiid getting drafted, I can start with Joel Embiid on draft night then go back to him being born in Cameroon and go forward like that. I was more liberal about information — the Joel Embiid chapter’s a good example. That was long. If you’re writing a Joel Embiid profile, it would not be close to that long, I had a ton in there. But Joel Embiid, Brett Brown — certain people were worth emptying a notebook on.
WSN: Do you think Sam Hinkie has read your book?
YW: That’s a good question. No, I feel like he hasn’t. He’s one of the few guys who would not do it. I have no idea, I would honestly bet he hasn’t. I think Brett Brown will read the book at one point, I think other guys will read it. I think [Hinkie] will really not read the book, I would bet against it.
WSN: Would you consider “the Process” a success?
YW: Yeah, I would. [The 76ers] were irrelevant for many years, they traded a few really bad years for being one of “the” teams in the NBA. If you’re a Sixers fan, every game matters. You have two superstars which means you have a chance and I think you’ll be really good for it. Whether you win a championship or not, that’s a different thing. It’s not necessarily fair to judge Sam Hinkie on that. You start a project and you’re yanked off halfway through, and nine other people complete it. Then again, he bears some responsibility for being yanked off. But yeah it was a success.
WSN: The 2019-20 NBA season has been suspended for the foreseeable future. As an NBA reporter, how are you going to try and continue to cover the league?
YW: That’s a great f-cking question, I have no idea. I have a story coming out soon about how NBA players are passing time, like a weird hobby some of them have picked up and stuff. Otherwise, it’s hard. The access is the hardest thing, we’re not going to have much access and that’s going to be the big difference. The other thing is — and the idea is the same thing — try to find stories that are relevant and illuminating in some way. I don’t know what that is, and I’m going to have to be a little more creative.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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