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Dispatch from the Northeast IIII: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 76ers

vic 15 | Flickr

vic 15 | Flickr

 

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

The train carries me from the increasingly-familiar grounds of Boston to the foreign lands of Philadelphia. I’m a stranger once more.

A drizzle of rain coats the Philadelphia skyline. Rain, however torrential or innocent, has a way of obscuring and distorting, masking a city’s full identity. It forces you to squint,  inhibiting your ability to observe the full depth of the scene before you.

Tom Sunnergren, writer-extraordinaire and perhaps the most Jewish goyim I know, picks me up from the train station. Tom’s quick to laugh, quick to make others laugh, and quick to be fascinated. He is endlessly curious, asking my opinion on whether you become a better writer by reading or writing, if I could write about another sport, what would it be, what Denver’s like, who my favorite writers are, how we can fix the broken education system…he’s seeking answers to the questions as much as he’s seeking answers about the person.

When we arrive at Tom’s apartment, the first thing I notice is his bookshelf. Though only about 3 feet wide, it stretches to the ceiling. David Foster Wallace rests next to Kurt Vonnegut who snuggles up next to a biography of J.D. Salinger. Non-fiction neighbors novels, biographies border histories. These aren’t just for display, meant to show visitors  the depth of Tom’s education. Every book shows signs of wear, some more than others. The spine’s of David Foster Wallace books, in particular, aren’t just broken, they’re shattered. Great writers read great writing.

After lunch, we head back downtown so Tom can play tour guide. Or at least, that’s the plan, until it becomes evident that this is nearly as much of an exploration for him as it is for me.

We amble around Reading Terminal Market, vendors packed into rows and corners. A Chinese restaurant adjoins a cajun restaurant, while a stand selling only lamb rests next to a fish market. The entire cuisine of the United States, packed into one building.

We walk down a street trying to find Chinatown, and stop at a crossroads.

“Should we go right…” Tom asks, and we turn to the right, and see storefronts, some with Chinese lettering, others with English. “Or should we go left?”

We turn our heads to the left to see a monolithic, ornate gateway.

“Left. We should probably go left.”

Tom points out spots and storefronts where merchants usually set up shop, absent today because of the cold and drizzle that prevent Chinatown, perhaps even all of Philadelphia, from fully blossoming.

After Chinatown, we make our way to the Constitution Center. The drizzle evolves into a steady downpour. We hunch our shoulders against the rain, and I ask Tom why people do that, considering that hunched shoulders do little to protect ones head, or any other body part for that matter. He says it’s because hunching our shoulders is at least something we can control. I want to discuss this further, but I also want to not be wet, so I drop it as we scurry towards the door.

There’s a presentation inside the center that details the history and formation of the constitution. After the presentation, Tom remarks that it always seems as if the story of the United States is everyone’s story.

“Well, we have several options,” Tom says after we leave the Constitution center. “We could go watch a game somewhere around here, we could grab some dinner, or we could go back to my place and get ale-ish, then grab dinner…”

“Ale-ish?” I ask. “Is that Northeast-slang for grabbing a beer? Because I don’t like it.”

Tom bursts out laughing.

“No, no, EILIS. It’s my girlfriend’s name.”

We arrive once more at Tom’s apartment, this time with Eilis, not Ale-ish, there to greet us.

You know a relationship works when one person tells the other that a friend of theirs, whom they’ve really only met in person once, and talked to only handful times more, is coming to stay on the couch for three nights, and the other person is fine with it.

“I can feel something building here.” Tom says to me just outside the Philadelphia 76ers locker room.

His excitement and hope regarding the future of the franchise contrasts starkly with Jared’s misery.

Tom came to write a piece about Michael Carter-Williams, only to find that the rookie was in the hospital with a skin infection.

I came to write a piece about Evan Turner, only to have Turner play one of his worst games of the season.

The Sixers are a collection of castoffs, could-have-beens and could-be’s. Case in point: Tony Wroten, who scorches the Nuggets in the first half, eviscerating Denver’s defense on his way to the paint. The Sixers score 42 points in the paint in the first half, and Wroten’s constant driving and penetration are largely responsible for that feat. Wroten couldn’t consistently crack the line up in Memphis, but he’s flourished in Philadelphia starting alongside, or sometimes in place of, Michael Carter-Williams. Hinkie, as is his wont, took a chance on Wroten, and this particular gamble is so far paying off.

The player most symbolic of the Sixers isn’t Thaddeus Young, nor Evan Turner, nor even Nerlens Noel. It’s Hollis Thompson. No wait come back just hear me out.

Sam Hinkie’s rebuilding project is nothing short of a gamble. Sure, it could work — the Sixers could end up with two high first-round picks, or at least one high first and one mid-lottery. They could have their choice of Wiggins, Parker, Randle, and still have room for a nice desert perhaps in the form of Wayne Selden or Montrezl Harrell.

But the best laid plans of mice and Hinkie could just as easily go array. Even if the Sixers end up with the best odds to land the number one pick, the Gods of the draft lottery (minor deities compared to the Basketball Gods, to be sure, yet important in their own right), could frown upon their practices and banish them to a much lower draft pick. Or, maybe the Sixers end up with a top 3 pick, and they end up choosing the wrong guy — Jabari Parker becomes Michael Beasley, not Kevin Durant; Andrew Wiggins becomes a late-career Tracy McGrady, not the world-devouring Paul George.

Hollis Thompson, in that same vein, is no certain thing. An undrafted rookie free agent, Thompson’s had a few good games — scoring 16 points and grabbing 7 rebounds against Milwaukee, a 10-points, 9-rebound, 3-assist performance against Denver — but most of his other games have been smatterings of 6, 7, 8 point performances. At times, he looks like he could be a do-everything rotation player. At others, he’s looked like an overwhelmed second-round pick whose basketball destiny lies overseas, not in the NBA.

The future of both the Sixers and the Thompson are uncertain, mercurial and ever-chang-sorry I can’t finish this thought I’m mesmerized by both the fact that the Philadelphia 76ers have a theme song and the song itself. 

The Nuggets adjust after halftime, clogging the lane to cut off driving lanes. They come back and win the game. I think I see Sam Hinkie, perched in one of the luxury suites, rubbing his hands together in delight, but the lights and reflections off the glass could just be tricking my eyes.

After the game, we go to a party in Manayunk, a suburb of Philadelphia. It takes us twenty minutes to get from the arena to the city, and it takes us twice as long to find a parking spot. Cars line the town, and there’s such little space between the front bumper of one car and the rear of the next that air molecules are likely classified as endangered species around here.

It’s an ugly Christmas sweater party, and Tom and Eilis were hell-bent on finding the most hideous of combinations for me to wear. The final decision: a billowy grey K-Mart turtleneck with a pastel teal Christmas sweater, decorated with sleighs and Santas and other such Christmas niceties, over it. The sweater is a women’s small. I look like an idiot, and it’s a hit at the party.

Tom tells me that whenever I want to leave, I just have to say so. I plan on staying for a half hour, then feigning a migraine.

Eventually, inevitably, I start discussing basketball with one of Tom’s friends. He asks who I write for, and I tell him.

“OH! The blue bear who tweets a lot!” He exclaims.

Never has there been a more perfect and concise summation of Matt Moore.

A half hour turns into an hour, which turns into two, then into three. Tom’s friends, and his girlfriend’s friends, and his girlfriend’s brother’s friends, are all incredibly nice, because of course they would be.

My fake migraine never comes, and when we do leave, I can’t help but think it’s too soon.

It snows Sunday. A lot. You probably read about it.

As the plane descends into Denver, I expect to feel some sort of relief, perhaps even the comforting sensation that comes when one returns to a familiar city. Instead, I feel…nothing. Worse, an emptiness begins to settle inside me.

It’s a jarring, and not wholly pleasant experience, to be constantly surrounded by friends then suddenly removed from their company.

This isn’t Home. Then again, I’m not even sure where that place is now.

Everything ends. It’s a fact of life. The good, the bad, the extraordinary, the mundane — they all end at one point or another.

Sometimes, these endings are sad. We want to cling to the precious moments before the end comes, begging for just a few minutes more. Other times, the end is a joyous occasion, worthy of a celebration of the highest bacchanal order. And then there are the times when the endings just happen. It’s neither sad nor happy, it just is.

In the spirit of this truth, my journey comes to an end.

Jordan White

Jordan White loves basketball, loves writing and loves writing about basketball. He marvels at every Ricky Rubio pass and cries after every Brandon Roy highlight. He grew up in Kansas, where, contrary to popular belief, there is running water, electricity, and no singing munchkins. Follow him on Twitter: @JordanSWhite

  • Daniel Robinson

    Manayunk is not a suburb.