I’ve returned to the United States after finishing up my quarter at Oxford in the Bing Overseas Program, and let me just say that it is GREAT to be back. Sports are televised at normal hours of the day, cars drive on the appropriate side of the road and the weather in Palo Alto is absolutely gorgeous. I’m sad that I’m no longer investigating weird British sports on a weekly basis, but I am truly grateful to have made it back in time for Opening Day, the end of March Madness and the start of the NBA playoffs.
But I didn’t truly realize how much I had missed professional sports until last Monday, when I was sitting at home on spring break. As a Philadelphia native and a sports enthusiast, it should come as no surprise that I’m a massive 76ers fan. And in the spirit of trusting the process, my Dad and I had tickets to see the Sixers play the Denver Nuggets that night at the Wells Fargo Center.
As I was putting on my Joel Embiid t-shirt, I heard my Dad come crashing through the garage door, arriving home from work. He sprinted up the stairs, yelling my name, “Bobby, Bobby, have you seen the news?”
I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, and was running through a list of possibilities as to what could have happened when my Dad said “He’s playing!” Knowing exactly what he was talking about, I was in disbelief, but after hastily checking my phone and seeing the twitter notifications and texts I had received, I knew it was true. The news had broken not five minutes ago. Markelle Fultz was making his return that night.
If you’re unfamiliar with the specifics of trusting the process, let me explain to you the curious case of Markelle Fultz. The top-rated prospect in the 2017 NBA Draft, Fultz was a one-and-done player at the University of Washington. I got to see him completely obliterate Stanford men’s basketball last season live at Maples! At the point guard position, draft scouts compared him to a James Harden-type player, a shot creator with incredible ball skills.
The Celtics owned the number one pick in the 2017 Draft, having acquired it from the Brooklyn Nets a few years earlier, while the Sixers sat at number three. In a surprising move, general manager Bryan Colangelo used a future first round pick of the Sixers in 2018 to swap picks with the Celtics, in order to add Fultz’s talent to the Sixers’ young core of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. It was a move I was a massive fan of, as Fultz brought something to the Sixers that they didn’t quite have yet, an iso player with an impactful jump shot, and this commitment to Fultz seemed to herald a new era for Sixer basketball.
But the season started and something was wrong. Fultz showed off great vision and ability to drive to the hoop in his first four games as a Sixer, but his shot was just completely wrong. He looked lost from behind the arc, he looked lost in the midrange and his free throws were atrocious. It seemed like had forgotten how to shoot a basketball.
The Sixers medical staff came out and announced that he had a scapular muscle imbalance, his shoulder wasn’t able to move or operate in the ways it was supposed to and this was causing his shot to look off. The initial timetable was 2 to 3 weeks, but that stretched on and on, until Markelle had missed over 60 games in the regular season.
Rumors swirled around potential mental inhibitors preventing his shot from being corrected. Practice videos circulated of his free throws continuing to look terrible, of his three pointers looking worse than Lonzo Ball’s. The people of Philadelphia were worried they had wasted two first-round picks on a bust. Meanwhile, Jason Tatum, whom the Celtics drafted with the third overall pick, looked like a steal.
But practice videos started to change, Markelle’s shot improved. He participated in shootarounds before games, producing Twitter videos that even made me stop and say, “Damn, why isn’t he playing?” The people of Philadelphia needed a reminder to trust the process, and slowly but surely, Markelle’s shoulder had healed. The rumors in the city stopped consisting of “When will he be ready?” and transitioned to “Why isn’t he playing yet?”
And then, last Monday, he walked up to head coach Brett Brown and said “I’m ready,” and just like that, he was back. And I was lucky enough to be going to watch his return live on the Sixers’ home court. I was so excited on the way to the Center that I nearly couldn’t contain myself.
The energy at the game was absolutely electric. It embodied everything that I love about professional sports, the game of basketball and the city of Philadelphia. The moment that Markelle checked into the game for the first time was absolutely magical. Every single person in the arena rose to their feet, and cheered Fultz on as he stepped onto the court. The overwhelming support the fans showed this 19-year-old kid who had been through so much in the past months was unbelievable. Nobody thought he was a bust, nobody was showing him animosity. Every single soul in that building wanted him to succeed, and when he sank his first pull-up jumper, the stadium went absolutely ballistic.
I love Philly sports fans, even if they can be a little much sometimes. Towards the end of the game, the stadium started mocking the Minnesota Vikings’ SKOL chant, which they had previously adopted during the NFC Championship Game to cheer on Nick Foles, and started chanting “Fultz! Fultz! Fultz!” Even with how convoluted that reference was, I still thought it was hysterical.
It’s all coming together for the Philadelphia 76ers, and things looked incredible during the Nuggets game. Every Philadelphia sports fan was ecstatic from the moment Fultz stepped on the court … to the moment he nearly knocked Joel Embiid unconscious on Wednesday and gave him an orbital fracture. But I know everything will work out fine! After all, you’ve gotta trust the process.
Contact Bobby Pragada at bpragada “at” stanford.edu.