The summer of 2013 had been a very busy one for the Philadelphia 76ers. After the disastrous Andrew Bynum trade, owner Josh Harris saw the writing on the wall and opted to make some major changes to his NBA franchise. This included hiring a new GM in Sam Hinkie, a new head coach in Brett Brown and deciding it was time to tear everything down and rebuild it all effectively from scratch.
The first sign of what was to come came on draft night that summer, when the Sixers traded All-Star guard Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for Nerlens Noel, a center out of Kentucky who wouldn’t be playing a single game during the entire 2013-14 season as he was recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee. Later, the Sixers took guard Michael Carter-Williams with the No. 11 pick to replace Holiday and he joined Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes as well as a cast of young, inexperienced players on a roster built to do one thing: lose.
The Sam Hinkie Plan, or “The Plan” as it has come to be known, involved losing as many basketball games as possible without making it look like you were trying to lose as many basketball games as possible. This way you gave yourself better odds of landing the coveted No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft and could draft the next LeBron James or Michael Jordan.
That summer, the term “tanking” quickly became synonymous with the Sixers and arguments would break out at random about the merits of the practice in the NBA, the Sixers plan and if it was the right thing to do. Some fans couldn’t stomach losing on purpose while other embraced the Great Tank with a fervor that was scary. “Trust the process” and “In Hinkie we trust” became catch phrases for the season and attendance at games, already bad, was expected to take a huge hit.
For some reason I still don’t quite understand, I renewed my 10-game package before the season started and decided to gut it out. I love going to basketball games and have found over the years I can have fun at games no matter how bad the product on the court may be.
The package included the home opener, a game I go to every year without fail. It just so happened that that year, the Sixers would face none other than the defending NBA champions, the Miami Heat, at the Wells Fargo Center.
On the drive down I-95 to the game that night, my buddy and I discussed how much the Sixers would lose by, if it would be worth staying for the whole game and that I might be able to sneak in a nap during the third quarter because, let’s be honest; there was no was the Sixers were going to win this game. We thought the highlight of the evening was more than likely going to be seeing Sixers legend Allen Iverson at the game as he had announced his retirement from basketball that same day.
We grabbed some food and a couple of beers, settled into our seats and waited to see what was sure to be a sad excuse for a basketball game.
Instead, what we got was a game that, for me, ranks among the best Sixers games I have ever been privileged to be present at.
The Sixers, led by MCW, came out of the gate firing on all cylinders and never looked back. They hit their first 11 shots from the field on their way to a 19-0 start and led by as many as 22 points during the first half.
As you knew they would, the Heat came storming back behind the shooting of LeBron James (25 points) Chris Bosh (22 points) and Ray Allen (19 points) to take a 9 point lead going into the final quarter. But, in the same style that they would demonstrate all season long, the Sixers never quit and staged an improbable comeback, fighting tooth and nail for every basket and board. They would eventually take a 2 point lead with 10 seconds left in the game and Carter-Williams at the line to shoot two. He would go on to sink both and give the Sixers a 114-110 victory and one of the most fun, exciting and unlikely wins in the history of the franchise.
MCW nearly finished the night with a triple-double, scoring 22 points as well as 12 assists, 7 rebounds, and 9 steals. Turner scored a team-high 26 points while Hawes added 24.
But more importantly, the Sixers gave the 19,523 fans who were at the game one of the most entertaining and exhilarating nights they had experienced in a long time. The Wells Fargo Center was rocking that night as everyone was on their feet, screaming and yelling and cheering almost from the opening tip. For one night, there was no talk of tanking or draft picks or how many games the Sixers might lose. There was only talk of hope and winning and how much fun it was to send LeBron out of Philly with his tail between his legs.
The Sixers would go on to win only 18 more games that season. Turner and Hawes were traded at the deadline and the team would land the No. 3 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, were they would take big man Joel Embiid.
But for one amazing night in South Philly, the Sixers beat the best team and the best player in basketball. And it is a feeling I will never forget.