“Because he’s the hero Philadelphia deserves, but not the one it needs right now, so we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it, because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight.”
The past several years as a Sixers fan have been tough. I’ve watched 40-point losses, googled “navicular bone”, and have been emotionally gutted by an amalgamation of bad news and tough breaks. Many times I’ve been asked, “Why do you do this to yourself?” On some nights, like the blowout-loss to the Clippers, or Joel Embiid’s setback, I didn’t have a good answer. It’s been stressful, even nauseating at times – has it really all been worth it? All of the losing? The mocking? The ridicule? It’s easy to lose sight of things along the way.
But then we’re rewarded with something special. Bliss and exuberance replace doubt and anxiety. An exhilarating wave of passion pushes aside a wall of darkness. Nights like tonight remind us all of our unrelenting trust in the process, and bring a sense of balance back to our lives. On nights like these, the glory justifies the pain.
“This is a team victory…we’ve been through some lows. There’s 82 games so there’s going to be some highs. We just gotta keep sticking together. And the fans have been phenomenal throughout the year, and we can’t thank you guys enough.”
TJ McConnell is not your prototypical NBA player. He’s short and scrappy, lacking elite athleticism and a consistent perimeter shot. At Arizona and in the NBA, the widespread presumption was that he would fail. He was too small, too slow, and quite frankly not good enough to succeed. McConnell is someone that even a diehard fan would struggle to recognize on the street – I literally walked past him in Target last December, only realizing who he was once Nik Stauskas appeared and called him over. There’s nothing special about TJ McConnell on paper, but that’s what makes him great. To paraphrase Coach Jimmy McGinty in The Replacements, he has “miles and miles of heart”. He is an embodiment of “the Process”, a testament to something much bigger than him. His intangible skill-set represents the seeds that have sown the orchard in growing a franchise from the ground up. He is an embodiment of everything Philadelphia represents: toughness, pride, and passion.
Carrying that cross is not a glamorous task. He doesn’t jump off the box score or show up in highlight reels. You don’t see his jersey when the camera pans through the concourse. We’re not even sure if he is a part of the team’s future. But like a good soldier, he presses on, relentlessly pushing his teammates and willing them to compete harder without any expectation of praise or promise of fame.
So when something happens like we witnessed tonight, the glory rises to new heights. The ecstasy of a buzzer-beating win eclipses levels you had deemed unfathomable. We all expect Embiid to be the hero. Maybe down the road it will be Ben Simmons, or another future star not yet in the fold. We expect them to be our heroes, to take the big shots, to carry the city up from the depths. But tonight, TJ, our foil to “the Process”, did just that – he took the shot. He carried the burden. He won the game. And in that moment, it was all worth it. Everything came to a standstill. I forgot all of the losses, all of the pain, and lost myself momentarily.
And then I remembered.
This is why I am a Sixers fan.