Pythons and PowerPoints: How the Sixers cracked the culture code

ByKevin Arnovitz ESPN logo
Thursday, April 19, 2018

ONE MORNING LAST season, the Philadelphia 76ers gathered for a team breakfast, a monthly get-together in the dining area of the Sixers' training facility in Camden, New Jersey. The airy space, appointed in soothing grays with sleek black-ribbed pendant lights hanging from the ceiling, is one part premium airport club, one part communal dining room where players can grab a freshly blended smoothie or help themselves to the healthy, chef-driven spread. And it was there that they listened to forward Robert Covington share his love for reptiles.

Present was not only the entire roster, but most of the basketball operations staff, from assistant coaches to the analytics crew. While they scarfed down their breakfast, they intently watched and listened to the PowerPoint presentation by Covington -- a full-time student of the game of basketball, and part-time enthusiast of herpetology.

Covington, who recently acquired two pogonas (also known as bearded dragons), briefed the group on the evolutionary origins of snakes, and showed a clip from season two of BBC's "Planet Earth" in which a gang of snakes surround and attack an iguana.

"He thinks snakes are beautiful," guard T.J. McConnell says. "Which is ridiculous."

As the gruesome video played, Covington pointed out that the snakes, though each ostensibly acting individually, were actually working as a group to encircle the prey. As he concluded the presentation, Covington reached to collect his backpack.

"It kind of threw everyone for a loop," Covington says. "Nobody knew it was in there. I reached for my bag at the end of the presentation and said, 'Everyone, I'd like to introduce you to Max.'"

"The whole room just scattered," Covington says. "Joel was the first one."

Max is Covington's bumblebee python, nearly 4 feet in length. And as Covington pulled him out of his backpack, Embiid's 7-foot frame darted across the dining room, hiding behind the serving counter area, a healthy distance from the nonvenomous snake. Covington offered to let teammates hold and touch the snake, but received no takers apart from a few junior members of the front office.

"[Embiid said,] 'Don't bring that thing near me, or I'll kill it!'" Covington says. "He repeated it over and over again, 'I don't like snakes. I don't like snakes. I don't like snakes.'"

More than a year later, an idle comment from Covington, such as "I have something to show you," with a bag in close proximity, will elicit anxiety from Embiid and others. Impressed by the visceral response to Max, the coaching staff even named the 76ers' transition defense drill "The Max," in which an odd-numbered break triggers the Sixers' defenders to scramble back and account for the attack. (The Sixers' transition defense ranks fourth in the NBA in opponents' points per possessions on the break.)

Pulling a python out of a knapsack is unlikely to win an NBA team a basketball game. Yet Max, and the larger tradition of player show-and-tells, is a fitting example of how the 76ers have developed a ritual to create moments of conversation, collective introspection and unscripted humor in service of team-building.

This phenomenon didn't begin during the 16-game winning streak the Sixers ripped off to conclude their joyous 52-win regular season. It started during a period when naysayers complained that the franchise was intentionally injecting itself with an epidemic of losing that would infect it for years to come. But while the critics clucked their tongues, the Sixers were building a foundation for a winning culture, one talk at a time.

SIXERS COACH BRETT Brown calls the breakfasts, generally on an off day. Sometimes the invited guest speaker will be a wrongfully convicted criminal defendant, or perhaps a celebrity such as film director and Philadelphia native son M. Night Shyamalan. But about once a month, a member of the Sixers' roster will be called upon to prepare a presentation. The player will work with the team's director of player development and coaching administration, Connor Johnson, and the video coordinator to craft the talk. Together, they'll come up with a PowerPoint component and maybe a couple of video clips.

The Sixers have embraced a basic human truth -- people want to tell their stories -- and turned it into a team-building exercise.

A few weeks ago, big man Amir Johnson educated the team on tattoos. He traced the practice back to its ancient origins, including Maori warriors of New Zealand and the 5,300-year-old mummified remains with tattoos discovered by German archaeologists. Johnson then touched on how tattoos emerged in the United States, first popular with sailors, then adopted by the countercultural movement of the 1960s and '70s.

"Tattoos have been a part of my life for a while," Johnson says. "I did research, and explained how they became a part of the culture and what inspired me to get mine."

Then there was the fun part -- a quasi-tribute to the NBA's tattoo pioneer, Allen Iverson, and slides of amusing tattoos from around the league, including Mario Chalmers' "Super Mario" image and the Larry O'Brien Trophy found on Jason Terry's biceps.

One of Johnson's overriding messages: Tattoos are a way for in-groups to express identity. It's a permanent mark of tribal affiliation, one that persists over time, irrespective of national success or failure.

The Sixers aren't running out to the tattoo parlor for some matching ink like the Morris brothers -- another slide in Johnson's presentation -- but they're forging a creed. While they were losing 253 games over a four-year span, skeptics bemoaned that an unintended consequence of the organization's rebuilding strategy would be the entrenchment of a losing culture. Yet today's Sixers insist that what the outside world saw as an abject, overmatched unit was a team that -- well aware of its limitations on the court -- focused its attention on cultivating the mindset of a winner off it.

"All of that was a time of learning, a time of progression, a time of really seeing the type of person you can become when you endure hard time," says Covington, who started 165 games for the Sixers during the lean years. "That journey made us who we are. The 18-win season, the 10-win season. All that, it built us up for this moment."

That moment -- the Sixers' first foray into the playoffs since 2012 -- is spotlighting a team that ranked second in defensive efficiency (third overall) and fifth in offensive efficiency since the All-Star break. But apart from their on-court performance, the Sixers have demonstrated a poise and cohesion uncommon for a team featuring three starters under the age of 25. Talk to anyone at the training facility on a given day -- vets, the youth brigade, senior management, support staff -- and you'll hear a similar refrain.

"We have an extremely close group," Brown says.

Winning has a way of breeding mutual affection, and the Sixers have done plenty of it in 2018. Since entering New Year's weekend with a record of 15-19, the Sixers have won 37 of 48. Such a run requires talent, but there's something ineffable about the Sixers' success, a vibe of collective confidence. For the Sixers, it's a vindication of an ethic that was being implemented even if nobody outside of the organization could see it.

T.J. MCCONNELL LOVES coffee. Loves it in the morning, loves it before practice, after practice, loves "the coffee nap" before games. Loves it on a boat. Loves it with a goat.

So the significance of civilization's most enduring beverage was a no-brainer as a breakfast topic for the guard who, like Covington, endured the losing seasons as an undrafted long shot -- but established himself as a mainstay.

Like Johnson, McConnell started with history -- coffee was first cultivated by Ethiopian shepherds in the ninth century and banned in the 16th because it was thought to inspire radical thinking. And did you know it would take at least 80 cups of coffee for the caffeine to kill a person, but that it can help you burn fat by increasing your metabolic rate between 3 and 11 percent?

"The talks are far-reaching," Brown says. "Each of the topics, each of the presentations, each offers some level of entertainment, some funny, some sad, some humorous. It's another layer to developing and growing culture, and people. And it's been a wonderful experience, and I think I achieved the goal that I wanted when we implemented the program."

McConnell is the NBA's ultimate caffeinated player, best demonstrated when he's picking up opposing point guards at 75 feet. The Sixers, at their very core, are an energy team, ranking fourth in pace and committing to early offense as an imperative.

The energy is derived from the component parts. Much of that is a reflection of rookie point guard Ben Simmons, already one of the league's most devastating open-floor players and the force that provides the energy that propels the on-court product at both ends.JJ Redick, whose former coach Doc Rivers referred to him in Los Angeles as "his own offense," buzzes in constant motion around a dizzying array of screens. Embiid is a lighthouse that towers above the game, but a total departure from the big men of old who stood stationary on the low block. He dominates from every spot on the floor, and has lent the team his dynamic personality off it. Covington defends 1-through-5, whileDario Sarichas blossomed this season -- another multipurpose player who rarely stops moving.

The sum is a team that derives energy from the circuits that connect it in the locker room, then expends it with reckless abandon on the court.

THE BALKAN CONFLICT was embedded into Dario Saric's consciousness from birth. He was born in 1994, during the height of the war, and grew up in basketball, where Serbs, Croats and Bosnians co-mingled in a basketball-obsessed region where cultural and national identity run deep.

After some background on geography and recent history, Saric showed a video of the 1990 Dinamo-Red Star riot in Belgrade, where fans of the Serbian and Croatian national soccer teams clashed a year prior to the armed conflict that killed approximately 140,000 and displaced 4 million people. To illustrate the human element of the conflict in more relatable terms, Saric then chronicled the bitterness that emerged on the Yugoslavian national team during the ensuing decade.

"Dario's [talk] was the most impactful," Covington says. "He spoke about everything that went on. You could tell it was a tad bit sensitive for him."

The Sixers' starting lineup is composed of an Australian, a white American from the rural south, an African-American who grew up in the near suburbs of Chicago, a Croat and a native of Cameroon. The reserve unit includes two players from Turkey, and one each from Italy and France. On the surface, an international roster could lend itself to a Tower of Babel effect, whereby players from such divergent backgrounds have trouble finding a common language.

Brown, who spent the 1998-99 season in San Antonio, then 11 more after a stint in Sydney, was fully immersed in the Spurs' value system, which embraces individual differences to craft an organizational commonality. It was a place where Gregg Popovich insisted that players share stories of their upbringings overseas, and where visiting speakers educated the team on the world outside basketball. For the Spurs, "breaking bread" as a team was less about the food -- though only a little less -- and more about celebrating a world where guys from the Caribbean, South America, Eastern Europe, Australia and the Middle East could build lasting bonds.

As it was in San Antonio, diversity has been a virtue in Philadelphia.

"Through sort of just organic discovery, we started to learn that the conversation topics, and the level of variety, is expedited tenfold when you have foreign views from a small group of 14 or 15 teammates," Brown says. "And whether it gets to religion, whether it gets to politics, whether it gets to geographic conversation, it's just healthy when you have a perspective that you certainly couldn't generate if you had 15 American players in a row."

Saric's talk on the Balkans was weighty, whereas Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot's presentation on France, after which the team sampled escargot, was whimsical. In late March, Simmons -- normally a reserved voice -- wowed teammates by highlighting the deadly wildlife of Australia, featuring the saltwater crocodile.

The Sixers' roster is as varied in national origin as that of any team in the league, and their offense is similarly diverse. The pick-and-roll is the backbone of the vast majority of attacks in the NBA, but the Sixers run fewer of them, opting instead for a wide-ranging menu.

"It really, at times, isn't an NBA feel," says Brown, who coached internationally for 17 years. "It's got a high level of motion, and movement. I hope that we use Joel the way we should. We stumbled on something. In the light of day it sure seems smart making Ben Simmons a point guard. I think that we've changed his career when we've just given him the ball, and ultimately maybe the career of the Philadelphia 76ers. And so offensively, I love our style, the pass is king."

The Sixers are decidedly international in their offensive sensibility. In a certain sense, diversity -- on the floor, in the locker room, and in the interests shared at the team breakfasts -- is the identity in Philadelphia.

COFFEE, TATTOOS, A 4-FOOT SNAKE. Then there was this: "Are we living in a simulation?"

"It put people's heads all over the place," Covington says.

JJ Redick's first slide posed the following to his teammates: "Are we living in base reality? Questions and moralities surrounding the Simulation Theory and the Quantum Mechanical Laws that explain our very existence."

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2003 addressed this question and several others in a paper whose central themes and implications have mesmerized a generation of folks ranging from public intellectuals to science fiction fans to those who just like to have a good time with existential riddles. Is it possible that our descendents -- who are now superhuman, thanks to computing capacities that we can barely imagine -- are running a detailed simulation of their ancestors?

"I am fascinated by this whole theory," Redick says. "[The talk generated] lots of great questions -- some of them existential, some of them logistical. We discussed whether God could coexist with this theory, which I believe he can. To be clear, I don't believe we are living in a simulation, but I do believe that it's a possibility."

Redick continued the presentation with a clip of the iconic scene from "The Matrix," in which Morpheus presents Neo with the blue pill and the red pill, with some quotes from physicist Max Tegmark and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Redick concluded with some questions for the room, asking teammates and Sixers staff whether, if the theory were true, they'd want to know.

IS IT POSSIBLE the 76ers are living in a simulation? That years from now, after The Singularity, some being is playing its posthuman version of NBA 2K -- and Redick and his teammates are just along for the ride? That the versatile talents of Embiid and Simmons are the product of said being, through computer learning, getting better and better at this whole basketball thing?

If only a single NBA team is living in a simulation, it might very well be the Sixers, who are evolving at a warp speed that seems more like a product of technology than the maturation of a ballclub.

And so it was that Saric, who wasn't thrilled with the notion that what we are experiencing as human beings isn't entirely real, continued the debate long after practice. With Redick's presentation still detonating in his brain, Saric showered, then made his way out into the players' parking lot with 76ers wing Justin Anderson. A few minutes turned into nearly an hour as they stood there, a 23-year-old from a small city in Croatia and a 24-year-old from suburban Washington, D.C., exploring the nature of our universe.

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