Amos Lee Goes Deep on the Sixers: Joel Embiid, Sam Hinkie Worship & 'Trusting the Process'
The Philly native and folk star discusses his beloved basketball team and why he sees the Sixers' former GM as an artist
On Wednesday night (Oct. 26), the Philadelphia 76ers lost a basketball game. They’ve been doing a lot of that lately – over the past three years, the Sixers have only won 37 games in 246 tries, easily the worst record in the NBA over that time period. Wednesday’s loss, however, was a different kind of loss: a 97-103 defeat to the Oklahoma City Thunder was marked by the debut of long-injured star rookie Joel Embiid, who posted 20 points in limited playing time, and generally looked like the stud the team had drafted in 2014. Meanwhile, No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons’ own debut is looming following a foot injury suffered in training camp; with Embiid and Simmons, the oft-ridiculed Sixers finally have players that could very well be ruling the league in a few years’ time.
Amos Lee, the soulful singer-songwriter whose new album Spirit was released in August, is part of the long-suffering Sixers fan base – and couldn’t be more excited about the team finally turning the corner. He’s also still pretty miffed that general manager Sam Hinkie -- who oversaw the team’s patient overhaul and inadvertently inspired the phrase “trust the process" -- resigned in April, after being effectively pushed out by ownership and chairman of basketball operations Jerry Colangelo (whose son Bryan Colangelo is now the general manager). Lee sees Hinkie as an artist that wasn’t allowed to finish his masterpiece, and won’t soon forget his contribution to the team’s current makeup.
Earlier this week, Lee hopped on the phone with a fellow Sixers fan at Billboard to discuss the rise of Embiid, the past three loss-filled years, the team’s pro-Hinkie subculture and whether or not he’s down with TTP (Trust the Process).
Billboard: How long have you been tuned in to what’s going on with the Sixers? Were you a fan as a kid?
LEE: I’m 39 now, so my first real introduction to the Sixers was that 82-83 team with Doc [Julius Erving] and Moses [Malone] and all those guys. So I go way back.
The Sixers have been the worst team in the NBA over the past three years. I’ve actually become a bigger fan of the team during those three years, because I’m out of my mind, but what have you felt during that era?
It depends on how you define “worst.” If you’re talking about records – if you’re talking purely about records – yeah, that’s easy. That’s an easy thing to look at and go, “You’re bad, you won 10 games last year,” and, fine, you can’t really argue with that. But the word that we always talk about in our circle is “process.” What’s your vision? And if you change it to vision rather than process, maybe it’s a little different.
I think that the thing that Hinkie didn’t really get to discuss with the fan base was where the process becomes the vision, and when you watch Joel Embiid play, when you watch Ben Simmons play in the summer league, you can go, “Oh, right. That’s the vision.” Previously, it was just an idea. It was an idea – “trust the process” – but no one got to see it. Joel Embiid was invisible for two years, and we knew about him, but it was kind of like this mysterious force we had heard about but we didn’t know existed. Now, you can see the vision, you can go, “Oh my god, we might have two of the top ten players in the NBA in a few years.”
So if you’re a rational person who understands what building in the NBA looks like -- purely how you build your roster in the modern NBA -- it’s about accruing assets, and I think that’s what Hinkie’s vision was.
You asked me what it was like as a fan. In some ways, I really enjoyed watching some of these young dudes who might not have been on other rosters get their shot to play and develop. On another hand, at times it was painful, like any other growth process. It’s not easy, but you give credit to Brett Brown, for just weathering the storm and keeping positive. I really hope that, if he can coach (and I think maybe he can), that they at least give him some time with the young guys to really develop them. I was always invested in it as a fan because, I went through those Billy King, Tony DiLeo, Doug Collins years where I was just like, “This sucks, this just sucks. This is like shitty pizza. I don’t even want it.”
That’s what I think a lot of people don’t understand about the Sixers. Sam Hinkie came in in 2013 and basically said, “We need some real talent from the top of the draft, and we’re going to suck a few years to get there.” The Sixers were so mediocre for so long before Hinkie, and he came in and started this weird cult revolution, unwittingly, and it’s been really fun. Have you bought into of the whole subculture of “Trust the Process"?
It’s a commitment that you make to an ideology, right? Like, “Yeah, we actually follow the underpinnings of how you build rosters in the NBA,” so I don’t even really see it as a sub-culture, just people who are practical, rational fans. I think that what you’re talking about is [the fans] who made it through all of these years of 10 wins, and it’s a great culture in Philly because we’re willing to defend each other and this approach.
I mean, don’t Lakers fans understand that they’ve been tanking for the last three years? Why don’t they get the national shit like we get? Everybody just decided that Hinkie was going to be the poster child for tanking, but everyone else in the league does it too, and they might not do it on purpose, but how are the Sacramento Kings doing year after year? Sucking, right? If you’re going to suck, suck bad.
I think that it was a question of how blatantly they were doing it, and how cleverly they were doing it, where you have a team like the Kings who are completely inept but at least they’re trying to put a good product on the court, even if secretly they’re like, “Ah, we don’t really care how many wins we get, but we’ll sign some veterans and hey, we’ll make a show.” And then you have Sam Hinkie, who did the exact opposite, which is just completely punting on different seasons and getting to this point.
I want to ask about Joel Embiid, who's making his debut on Wednesday night. How excited are you, on a scale from 1 to 10?
I mean, to watch him play – I watched every pre-season game that was on TV, so I’ve seen him play already. You know, honestly dude, I just want to see the guy stay healthy, and he plays with such passion and joy and heart, and you can imagine that someone who has been through that much injury at such a young age and had to sit on the sidelines and had to fester inside of all of this probably has a lot of doubt. I’m sure he was paying attention to the people who were ragging on the Sixers, and I’m sure that all of that stuff was probably challenging for him.
I just want to see him stay healthy and to be [the] unique basketball genius that I think he will be. The dude is ridiculous. He’s got skill, he’s got feet and agility, and so you watch him and you go, “Oh, right.” He’s not as smooth as [All-Star forward Chris] Bosh, because Bosh is one of the smoothest of all time, but he’s got this fluidity to him that makes you think that he’s the size [6'11"] of Chris Bosh. But in reality, he’s huge.
In terms of the big-men logjam for the Philadelphia 76ers, are you a Nerlens Noel guy or are you a Jahlil Okafor guy?
I like [second-year big man Richaun] Holmes.
Wow, you went with door number 3!
I’m not saying he’s better than anybody or worse than anybody but I like Holmes. I wanted [New York Knicks star Kristaps] Porzingis [in the 2015 NBA draft]. And I was kind of surprised that, knowing who Hinkie was, that he didn’t draft Porzingis. I was envisioning this very strange hybrid of Porzingis and Embiid, being these two inside-out bigs – either could go to the block, either could go to the wing – two seven-foot rim protectors who are fluid with the ball. Okafor is smooth with the ball, [but] can he defend, can he get in the open court? I don’t know, I honestly can’t say.
I like all of them -- I wish all those kids the best of luck. They’re working hard.
Do you have a favorite Process-era Sixer – maybe someone who’s not with the team anymore, or maybe someone who is with the team but a bench guy? Do you have one that has a special place in your heart?
Yeah. I have one and it’s a heartache, it was one that I never really got a chance to embrace the way I wanted to, and that’s Pappy Jack [Pierre Jackson]. I loved Pappy Jack, man. I wanted him to come in and score 37 one night and be like, “Holy shit, Pappy Jack is back." But he got hurt, and that was that. But Jerami Grant, Holmes... there are so many of those cats. There’s Alexey Shved…
Wow, that’s a deep cut.
Also, I have to say the guy who I really love -- I want to smash something because he got hurt -- is Tony Wroten. I love Tony Wroten. When he hurt his knee… you know, his thing was he was a slasher, and he was so young! He was like 20 years old by the time he was traded like three times.
Let me ask you a question: why do you think ownership bailed on Hinkie at the moment where his vision was becoming a vision and away from a process?
I think it was more of a timing thing. Last November or December, people had some sort of expectation -- not high expectations that the Sixers were going to make the playoffs last year, but you had some guys coming in. You hoped that, after winning 19 games the year before, there would be some sort of progression in Year 3. But there was no healthy point guard, there was another long losing streak to start the season, and Jahlil Okafor got into a fistfight in Boston. I think there was some external pressure on ownership, and they hired Jerry Colangelo to come in and at least figure out how to right this ship from a public relations standpoint. And when that happened, I think that set the regime change into motion.
Well, coming from an artist's standpoint, I really struggle with that decision. Let’s just say we’re making a record, right? You write the songs, your record company comes to you and says, “We want to do this thing, how long would you need to do it?” and you go, “Let’s say six weeks.” I’m making my record and everything’s cool. I understand it’s going to be hard, and there are going to be some moments where it’s going to be tough.
Six weeks comes and my record’s getting there, it’s not mixed yet, not mastered yet, but it’s there – it’s really coming together. But now the record company comes in and is like, “You know what dude, this isn’t what we thought it was going to be. We’re going to take the music, but we’re not going to give you credit for anything. You don’t get songwriting credit, and we’re going to put your name on the record sort of in the corner. But it’s going to be someone else’s thing.”
That would devastate me as an artist, and the way that I feel that Hinkie acted in putting together this [team] was very much like an artist would do, giving themselves fully into their process and the building of this vision that they have. Only the people who are the face of an organization come in and go, “Well, we don’t really care about your process, we don’t really care about any of that, people are writing down bad stuff about us.”
So as an artist, I really related to Hinkie, and as a person who really cares about what it takes to build a beautiful thing, I realize that it takes a lot of sacrifice and hard work. That was why I connected with Hinkie -- because I was like, “Yeah man! Go for it, dude. See your beautiful vision and let’s build together.”
“Grow the orchard,” some would say.
Grow the orchard man, grow that orchard. I’m going to always be thinking about Hinkie in the next few years, when I see that pick-and-roll between Embiid and Simmons.
So you would say you’re down with TTP?
I mean, dude, more than that. I’m more than down with TTP, I am part of TTP. We are TTP.