Jim Cooke/GMG, photo: AP
In April of last year, Philadelphia right-wing talk radio host and Daily News columnist Dom Giordano cooked up a hot take comparing now former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie to Bernie Sanders. It ended with an almost Breitbartian non sequitur: "Hinkie robbed area basketball fans of three years of competitive basketball. If elected, Sanders would rob us of a lot more."
This is a classic hack columnist move: Here are two things I don't like, therefore they are the same. But Hinkie's Process is antithetical to socialism. Its strategies explicitly are copied from banks, which Hinkie openly admires; its actual basketball players are treated like widgets. (Hollis Thompson was the only Sixer on the roster for the duration of the Process, and he was waived this season.) It doesn't get less socialist than Stanford Graduate School of Business, from which Hinkie graduated and which should've been shuttered after Hinkie's insane resignation letter. In short, Giordano's take is dumb as shit.
Except: Many of America's ascendant socialists also are ardent Process Trusters. The Philadelphia chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America is filled with Hinkie fans; here's a sign from an anti-Trump rally in Philly saying "Trust The Process, Not The President." Here's Bernie Sanders policy staffer Billy Gendell copping to being a TTPer. And no one Ts the P more than Larry Website, who chairs the Central Jersey chapter of the DSA and does recruiting and outreach for DSA national. He's tweeted some variant of his faith in Hinkie dozens of times already this year.
I asked Jacobin magazine editor, publisher, and founder (and Knicks fan) Bhaskar Sunkara why socialist NBA fans were so quick to embrace a disastrous strategy of losing basketball games on purpose that was ostensibly based on investment banking. Sunkara said that he doesn't want the Knicks to tank—that "as a basketball fan, and as a socialist, I actually do believe in winning any reforms you can get today in the here and now … I'd rather take that two-percent chance that the Knicks get the eight seed and win it all than [have] a lottery pick."
But Sunkara loves the ideas that surround Hinkie's failed team-building on several levels. "I feel like the tagline for Jacobin should be 'Trust the Process,'" he told me. "There is something about the slogan itself that resonates with me as a socialist. The struggle is ahead. Us trying to carve out a space in American politics for socialist ideas, in the long term trying to build an opposition movement that could hopefully one day, decades down the road, contend for power, requires a very patient strategy. And our time horizon extends way beyond next season, or next year."
This was the part of Hinkie's strategy that bought him (and many failed GMs before him) years and years of job security: If we're not trying to win right now, you can't judge me on the outcomes on the court. You just have to trust the process. This is bullshit out of the mouth of a man trying to lose basketball games on purpose; it rings truer when Bernie Sanders says that a political revolution is required before democratic socialism can be realized. But Sanders also is fighting like hell to win contests in the current conditions. Like Lenin (and Steve Bannon), Hinkie wanted to heighten the contradictions so he could rebuild after a total collapse.
Sunkara accurately identified a reason why Hinkie was able to attract so many fans, and it's one that tracks pretty well with why Trump was able to beat Clinton in November. He prefers the Hinkie-era Sixers to the rudderless Knicks: "People are like 'I don't mind what my team is doing, because at least it seems like they have a plan.' Compare that to the Knicks in the Isiah Thomas era where it was like, 'Oh god, no one knows what they're doing.' Or even right now, our front office has gone back to that, where no one has a plan."
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Analyses of the Trump and Clinton campaigns found that 25 percent of Clinton's ads focused on policy; inasmuch as Trump had policies, 70 percent of his ads did. Announcing that you have a terrible plan and are sticking to it no matter what is more persuasive than seeming to have none.
Sunkara is glad that the Philly DSA is filled with Hinkie Bros. "What I like about the Philly DSA using 'Trust the Process' often is that it shows that DSA is now an organization filled with lots of young people who have pretty normal pursuits and interests. One pretty common interest among a lot of people in DSA is watching the NBA, which is what it would be for a broad group of people from their early 20s to their early 30s—which a lot of DSA members are.
"A lot of its purpose is kind of a signal that we're not just complete wackos. We're committed to a political purpose but it's not the only thing we do in life." This is not dissimilar to the thinking that leads to the Democrats trotting out a phalanx of celebrities at their convention—Look, youths, we are cool!—except that for a still relatively obscure and small (still less than 20,000 members) leftist party, it might actually help.
The pseudonymous Larry Website needs no such second-order rationalization of his Hinkie fandom. For Website, leftism and Process Trusting go hand in hand; he rejects Sunkara's incrementalism on and off the court. "It taps into the political sphere in that, how many times can you try reformism? At some point, you're just like, this isn't working, and you need to try more radical ideas to try to win. Trying reformism and trying to do the bare minimum isn't working for the left or the Sixers."
Okay, sure, fine. I hated the post-Iverson Sixers; I can't stand Hillary Clinton, though I better admit right here that I supported her in the Democratic primary before coming to regret it deeply. But just because incrementalism is shitty politics doesn't mean it's a bad way to run a basketball team. I'd trade the last four years of non-basketball to be a fucking Bucks fan right now. Centrist politicians are who they are and will never radically convert to class-warfare politics. But a basketball team can hang around the playoff mid-pack for a few years while also positioning itself to jump to title contention with one big acquisition. Just ask the Houston Rockets.
And again, Hinkie is an archetypal Silicon Valley techno-libertarian. When I asked Website about that, he agreed, saying, "Don't get me wrong, he's a horrible person. Like in his work life, he's a horrible person. But he's the one who was finally brave enough—in his terrible ruling-class kind of way—to be the first one to take a jump at this." And Website points out that even if Hinkie is of the ruling class, he was ultimately rejected by it when the NBA pushed him out for the Colangelos.
"For me, it's like, he's more of a class traitor in that he's willing just to fuck shit up. The Kings ownership are the ones who really make you wonder—are these really the smartest people in our society making these decisions? The Kings, I mean man, a lot of these people fail upwards."
(Quick hilarious note here: the Kings reportedly are interested in hiring Hinkie. Website made that comment three weeks before news of their interest broke. Back to Larry.)
"He definitely made enemies among that ruling class that we loathe, and he got replaced by someone that I equally despise. Some people take it too far in the way that they idealize him, but he was the one who was the one who was willing to actually do it.
"I appreciate him for that, but in all other aspects, definitely not a fan. There are a lot of historic class traitors. FDR, he was mobilizing the working class; Hinkie was tapping into a rage that Sixers fans felt across the board. There's something there. Even still, the Sixers are a horribly capitalist team. The Wells Fargo Center is still the name."
Website has been a radical acolyte of the Process since he learned about former Sixers center Andrew Bynum driving away from a gas station in his Ferrari with the nozzle and hose still attached. "That was when I was like, I'm fuckin' done, the Sixers can do whatever." When I asked him if there was ever a moment in his political life if he had patience for reformism, he says that he "was a pretty big Obama supporter when he first got elected."
Like Steve Bannon's, Website's political views were hardened in the crucible of his dad's finances getting ruined in 2008. The realization that the Obama administration wouldn't be arresting any bankers for their role in that year's economic collapse was Website's political version of Bynum driving away with the gas pump flopping in the street.
The difference is in their respective conclusions: Bannon famously views the future apocalyptically; Website, as is maybe temperamentally required for a Process Truster, is an optimist. He will not be content to go for the six seed: "The static complacency of neoliberalism extends to the basketball sphere as well. We can do so much better than this; we just have to find radical alternatives to do this."
Preferring Hinkie's radical approach over Democratic-style incrementalism is, essentially, an aesthetic preference. But pro basketball is not just a simulation of socialism's concerns; it's a real industry with real management and a real unionized labor force. And more than just Hinkie's credentials and style match up neatly with investment bankers'; his practices do, too.
The Process, at bottom, is a suite of business practices designed to exploit the NBA's most management-friendly features, most especially the draft lottery and rookie wage scale—measures that rob new workers of negotiating power and self-determination, and artificially cap their pay at a tiny fraction of their worth for what can end up being the first five years of their careers. The Sixers under Hinkie rarely and only grudgingly exceeded the collectively bargained salary floor; in tandem with the NBA's effective monopoly on pro basketball in the United States, the Sixers' (ongoing) effective withdrawal from the market for the kinds of players who might help them win games shrinks the pool of jobs available for those players. And for years the Sixers have subjected young, unqualified workers to miserable public failure at the beginning of their careers for a benefit that, if it ever arrives, would be realized by their replacements.
This is all stuff that is counter to socialist values, obviously. When I pressed Sunkara and Website on this, both of them conceded that while they were intoxicated by Hinkie's radicalism, its execution left something wanting.
Sunkara supports a pursuit of sabermetric efficiency, but not at the expense of workers. "Socialists are for rationality and scientific management, but to what end? If there's a technique that could improve productivity in a workplace by 20 percent, I would say that in my vision of a socialist society, that technique would be employed. But then workers would have the chance to either get paid more or take time off. So the gains of this productivity advantage isn't just going to a couple people, but is more broadly shared."
Website compares the Sixers' procession of cheap second-rounders and other obscurities to any other profession exploited by capital: "Some of the players—and this goes back to alienation, and the disposable labor that Marx talked about—are just lucky to get in the league. And some of the players have that mentality where they're like, 'I'm just happy to be in the NBA.'
"Some people would use the same language, like, 'I'm just happy to be a miner.' These players are remarkably disposable, but also, they deserve to get paid for their labor." He also added that "the way they churn players through" bothered him.
Both men displayed a desire to #sticktosports that was surprising to me, but maybe when politics is your full-time gig, finding it in sports is less interesting. "I like sports enough where I don't like mixing it with politics," Sunkara told me. "There's certain people, I won't name them, that specialize in that kind of stuff. [Being a sports fan] is what I do in my free time, and I try not to find like hidden acts of resistance on the court at every corner."
Website was less sanguine about it, saying that rooting for the Sixers wasn't the most evil thing in which he actively participates: "There can be no ethical consumption under late capitalism, so these are the compromises we have to make every day. When we go shopping at the food store, we're making compromises, when we go to the gas station, we're making compromises.
"To put it all on something like basketball that brings to joy to my life—the community around the Sixers is everything that is good about the world and that sense of solidarity and that we're all in this together riding through it with the Sixers but then also in real life, that community, I've met some amazing people. That is what is good." If this sense of solidarity excludes the workers providing the community its identity, well.
Website and I spoke just after the news broke that rookie center Joel Embiid, the jewel of the Process so far, would miss the rest of the season, but before the more recent news that Embiid's knee would require surgery. Embiid's play thrilled us both, but even the much sunnier Website was aware that any revolutionary project teeters on collapse. He compared the Process to the doomed Paris Commune that ruled the city for two months in 1871: "The fragility of this project, of the revolutionary transformation of the Sixers, it is like a shot in the dark. And it can fall apart at any second."
Maybe the Sixers will never make it past or even back to mediocrity. Maybe the weirdest possible outcome of the Process would be turning the team into the American version of the Bundesliga's FC St. Pauli soccer team, whom the Guardian called in 2015 "the club that stands for all the right things … except winning." Website points to European soccer teams like Livorno, whose support is deeply tied to militant communism.
Perhaps this will be the Process's legacy: making this eternally hapless franchise the unofficial team of an American socialist party, forever undermining one of the most visible unionized labor forces in the country but beloved by rose-handled internet leftists everywhere. At the moment, it's a destiny that seems nearer than a championship; I'd like to think that Sam Hinkie, neoliberal scum, would hate it.