Closing With God in the City of Brotherly Love, or, How To Get A Head on the Pennsylvania Pike

However do senators get so close to God?
How is it that front office men never conspire?
—Nelson Algren.
“The Silver-Colored Yesterday.”
     Chicago: City on the Make (1951).

Sam Hinkie, the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers—a basketball team in the National Basketball Association—resigned from his position this past week, citing the fact that he “no longer [had] the confidence” that he could “make good decisions on behalf of investors in the Sixers.” As writers from ESPN and many other outlets have observed, because the ownership of the Sixers had given him supervisors recently (the father-son duo of the Coangelos: Jerry and the other one), Hinkie had effectively been given a vote of no confidence. But the owners’ disapproval appears to have been more than simply a rejection of Hinkie: it also appears to be a rejection of the theory by which Hinkie conducted operations—a theory that Hinkie called “the Process.” It’s the destiny of this theory that’s concerning: the fate of the man Hinkie is irrelevant, but the fate of his idea is one that concerns all Americans—because the theory of “the Process” is also the theory of America. At least, according to one (former) historian.

To get from basketball to the fate of nations might appear quite a leap, of course—but that “the Process” applies to more than basketball can be demonstrated firstly by showing that it is (or perhaps, was) also more or less Tiger Woods’ theory about golf. As Tiger used to say, as he did for example in the press conferences for his wins at both the 2000 PGA Championship and the 2008 U.S. Open, the key to winning majors is “hanging around.” As the golfer said in 2012, the “thing is to keep putting myself [in contention]” (as Deron Snyder reported for The Root that year), or as he said in 2000, after he won the PGA Championship, “in a major championship you just need to hang around,” and also that “[i]n majors, if you kind of hang around, usually good things happen.” Eight years later, after the 2008 U.S. Open Championship (which he famously won on a broken leg), Woods said that “I was just hanging around, hanging around.” That is, Woods’ theory seems to have seen his task as a golfer to give himself the chance to win by staying near the lead—thereby giving destiny, or luck, or chance, the opportunity to put him over the top with a win.

That’s more or less the philosophy that guided Hinkie’s tenure at the head of the 76ers, though to understand it fully requires first understanding the intricacies of one of the cornerstones of life in the NBA: the annual player draft. Like many sport leagues, the NBA conducts a draft of new players each year, and also like many other leagues, teams select new players roughly in the order of their records in the previous season: i.e., the prior season’s league champion picks last. Conversely, teams that missed the last season’s playoffs participate in what’s become known as the “draft lottery”: all the teams that missed the playoffs are entered into the lottery, with their chances of receiving the first pick in the draft weighted by their win-loss records. (In other words, the worst team in the league has the highest chance of getting the first pick in the next season’s draft—but getting that pick is not guaranteed.) Hinkie’s “Process” was designed to take this reality of NBA life into account, along with the fact that, in today’s NBA, championships are won by “superstar” players: players, that is, that are selected in the “lottery” rounds of the draft.

Although in other sports, like for instance the National Football League, very good players can fall to very low rounds in their drafts, that is not the case in the contemporary NBA. While Tom Brady of the NFL’s New England Patriots was famously not drafted until the sixth round of the 2000 draft, and has since emerged as one of that league’s best players, stories like that simply do not happen in the NBA. As a study by FiveThirtyEight’s Ian Levy has shown, for example, in the NBA “the best teams are indeed almost always driven by the best players”—an idea that seems confirmed by the fact that the NBA is, as several studies have found, the easiest American professional sports league to bet. (As Noah Davis and Michael Lopez observed in 2015, also in FiveThirtyEight, in “hockey and baseball, even the worst teams are generally given a 1 in 4 chance of beating the best teams”—a figure nowhere near the comparable numbers in pro basketball.) In other words, in the NBA the favorite nearly always wins, a fact that would appear to correlate with the idea that NBA wins and losses are nearly always determined simply by the sheer talent of the players rather than, say, such notions as “team chemistry” or the abilities of a given coach.

With those facts in mind, then, the only possible path to an NBA championship—a goal that Hinkie repeatedly says was his—is to sign a transcendent talent to a team’s roster, and since (as experience has shown) it is tremendously difficult to sign an already-established superstar away from another team in the league, the only real path most teams have to such a talent is through the draft. But since such hugely capable players are usually only available as the first pick (though sometimes second, and very occasionally third—as Michael Jordan, often thought of as the best player in the history of the NBA, was drafted in 1984), that implies that the only means to a championship is first to lose a lot of games—and thus become eligible for a “lottery” draft pick. This was Sam Hinkie’s “Process”—a theory that sounded so odd to some that many openly mocked Hinkie’s notions: the website Deadspin for instance called Hinkie’s team a “Godless Abomination” in a headline.

Although surely the term was meant comedically, Deadspin’s headline writer in fact happens to have hit upon something central to both Woods’ and Hinkie’s philosophy: it seems entirely amenable to the great American saying, attributed to obscure writer Coleman Cox, that “I am a great believer in Luck: the harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.” Or to put it another way, “you make your own luck.” As can be seen, all of these notions leave the idea of God or any other supernatural agency to the side: God might exist, they imply, but it’s best to operate as if he doesn’t—a sentiment that might appear contrary to the “family values” often espoused by Republican politicians, as it seems merely a step away from disbelieving in God at all. But in fact, according to arch-conservative former Speaker of the House and sometime-presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, this philosophy simply was the idea of the United States—at least until the 1960s came and wrecked everything. In reality however Gingrich’s idea that until the 1960s the United States was governed by the rules “don’t work, don’t eat” and “your salvation is spiritual” is not only entirely compatible with the philosophies of both Hinkie and Woods—but entirely opposed to the philosophy embodied by the United States Constitution.

To see that point requires seeing the difference between Philadelphia’s “76ers” and the Philadelphians who matter to Americans most today: the “87ers.” Whereas the major document produced in Philadelphia in 1776, in other words, held that “all men are created equal”—a statement that is perhaps most profitably read as a statement about probability, not in the sentimental terms with which it is often read—the major document produced in the same city over a decade later in 1787 is, as Seth Ackerman of the tiny journal Jacobin has pointed out, “a charter for plutocracy.” That is, whereas the cornerstone of the Declaration of Independence appears to be a promise in favor of the well-known principle of “one man, one vote,” the government constructed by the Constitution appears to have been designed according to an opposing principle: in the United States Senate, for instance, a single senator can hold up a bill the rest of the country demands, and “[w]hereas France can change its constitution anytime with a three-fifths vote of its Congress and Britain could recently mandate a referendum on instant runoff voting by a simple parliamentary majority,” as Ackerman says, “the U.S. Constitution requires the consent of no less than thirty-nine different legislatures comprising roughly seventy-eight separately elected chambers” [original emp.]. Pretty obviously, if it takes that much work to change the laws, that will clearly advantage those with pockets deep enough to extend to nearly every corner of the nation—a notion that cruelly ridicules the idea, first advanced in Philadelphia in 1776 and now espoused by Gingrich, Woods, and Hinkie, that with enough hard work “luck” will even out.

Current data, in fact, appear to support Ackerman’s contentions: as Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University and the author of Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It (a book published in 1996) noted online at The Atlantic’s website recently, “average real wages peaked in 1973.” “Median net worth,” Wolff goes on to report, “plummeted by 44 percent between 2007 and 2013 for middle income families, 61 percent for lower middle income families, and by 70 percent for low income families.” This is a pattern, as many social scientists have reported, consistent with the extreme inequality faced in very poor nations: nations usually also notable for their deviation from the “one man, one vote” principle. (Cf. the history of contemporary Russia, and then work backwards.) With that in mind, then, a good start for the United States might be if the entire U.S. Senate resigned—on the grounds that they cannot, any longer, make good decisions on behalf of the investors.