Strangelove In Philadelphia

Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Process.
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There either is or is not a lost ending to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. The question of its existence, and the sub-question of what different things might have happened in the moments leading up to Slim Pickens barebacking an atomic bomb into a glorious mushroom cloud, is one of the great what-ifs in film.

That infamous final scene -- the destruction of planet Earth mind you, a bit of satire that was notably pointed just a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis -- was originally preceded by the Three Stoogiest of conflicts, a rambunctious custard pie fight in the bunker. As the world stood on the precipice of being wiped out, Soviet Ambassador Alexei de Sadeski (Peter Bull) refuses a strip search by winging a creamy dessert at George C. Scott’s gung-ho American warmonger Buck Turgidson. Sadeski misses and hits President of the United States Merkin Muffley, the most pube-inferenced character of the three played by Peter Sellers. Turgidson takes Muffley in his arms and bellows, “Our beloved president has been infamously struck down by a pie in the prime of his life! Are we going to let that happen? Massive retaliation!” The D-Day of pie fights ensues.

The lost ending raises a lot of questions, first and foremost: Why was there a fully-stockpiled dessert cart in the bunker? And, as a logical follow-up, are pies of this sort ever actually intended for eating, or mainly crafted for post-walkoff interview antics by big league baseball teams?  

Accounts vary regarding why this custard-y shootout was jettisoned. It may have been that Turgidson’s rallying cry was deemed too insensitive coming on the heels of the Kennedy assassination, for instance. Or that the actors laughed too heartily throughout the scene, turning it into farce. Or that the explosion of filling made it too hard to know who was who, or simply because Kubrick found the scene to be a “disaster of Homeric proportions.”

Unless there’s some long lost film canisters tucked away at Childwickbury Manor, we’ll never get the chance to decide for ourselves whether the pie fight works. All we have to go on are these amazing stills, which only deepen the mystery as to the pastry throwdown’s effectiveness.

It’s easy to see how it might have taken viewers out of the movie, breaking what had been until then a comic but visceral tension, and so ruined a masterpiece. On the other hand, turning the clandestine clownshow of men charged with deciding whether we all live or die into a sloppy slapstick mess might well have been the perfect metaphor in a movie full of great ones. On the dessert menu tonight, banana cream pies infused with precious bodily fluids. Stop worrying. Learn to love it.

***

Last week, a rumor hit the web that the Philadelphia 76ers were going to feature an alternate logo of “Ballin’ Ben Franklin.” The new design was apparently nixed, which sucks not just because the idea of Ben Franklin as a playmaking combo guard is so satisfying, but because it would have been a shot in the arm for a moribund franchise and its fans.

And as far as its appropriateness for Philly goes? Perfect. Franklin was vital to America’s founding and remains one of the most authentically American geniuses ever to live, but he is also and undeniably second-tier. He isn’t immortalized a la the Washington Monument or Monticello; he ain’t New York or D.C. Franklin is more of a post office guy, a man of the people who came up with things like reading glasses, libraries, stoves, electricity, newspapers, fire and police departments, and of course, the good old U.S. mail.

He invented practical things, the kind that made life easier, safer, and healthier for everyone, allowing for workaday folk to grow the nation. The Constitution? Sure, fine, whatever. The United States doesn’t get where it is today without the infinite knowledge available via a library card or letters from whatever the next frontier.  (Once more, pretty please wit’ Wiz on top, Sixers people: work Ballin’ Ben into the rotation and I’ll buy jerseys for my entire brood.)

The other thing that tickled about Ballin’ Ben Franklin, though -- the really welcome bit, the actually fun part -- was that it served as an unexpected bit of midweek whimsy that had nothing to do with The Process. This is the tragic/heroic/satirical work in progress that otherwise defines these 76ers.

***

There’s no reason to dive terribly deep on The Process, here. In May 2013, the 76ers hired Sam Hinkie as president of basketball operations and general manager in an effort to bring the lackluster franchise back to respectability. (To use the word “championship” is, at the moment, as pie-in-the-sky as Turgidson’s baked-good retaliation.)

You know what’s happened since. Hinkie traded away All-Star guard Jrue Holiday, John Galt’s favorite jump-shooting center Spencer Hawes, and other assorted nothingburger side-orders like Evan Turner; he stockpiled draft picks. A positive and true thing that can be said about all this is that it’s bold. A less-positive and also true thing that can be said about it -- especially as it appears that Hinkie appears poised to stretch The Process out for another brutal year -- is that it’s sadistic.

Hinkie cleaned out the closets and then bought new linens on layaway. Yes, Michael Carter-Williams was named NBA Rookie of the Year, in a season that also saw Mason Plumlee receive two votes, but it’s the dudes that haven’t been on the court yet, and likely won't be soon, that are the cornerstones. In 2016, will Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Dario Saric light up the NBA and get the Sixers pointed in the direction of the promised land? No one knows the answer to this yet. There is no choice but to rise and say, “In Sam We Trust.” It’s all part of the The Process.

Problem is, I’m already getting weary of The Process. A bigger problem would be that I am not at all alone in this.

On draft night, fellow 76ers masochist and Classical bad-sports-movie correspondent Tom Keiser tweeted:

Dude seemed despondent, so I responded:

Truth be told, the #BuckUp was for me. I’m not sure I’m buying what the Sixers are selling. At the very least I’d like to go to a store where there’s something for sale besides the purely theoretical, bales of marked-down hope, and Criterion Collection editions of The Process. Like I don’t know, maybe a basketball shop where fans could purchase highlights and insights, a loop of poor poor Thaddeus Young doing good things, or a singular clip of whatever greatness Casper Ware possesses.

Logically, of course, I get what Hinkie is trying to do; pragmatically, there is no turning back. He begs for patience, and it’s patience he’ll get. What the hell else are we supposed to do, besides ignore the team? Many in Philadelphia do this already. Many were doing it before this slow, thorough demolition. This is how the Sixers are doing it, and they’re the NBA basketball team in Philadelphia, and that’s that.

My problem is that the NBA -- and seemingly all of its coverage, especially online -- has zeroed in on the behind-the-scenes stuff rather than on the basketball team itself. Given this team, that is not totally unreasonable, but there is still something perverse about how thoroughly The Process has swallowed the actual team and its games.

This is all around us. The average broadcast and think piece converges on a bottom line-oriented consideration of cap space, sign-and-trades, opt-outs, and wannabe GMs waxing poetically about European stretch-fours recently discovered on YouTube; it’s a fantasy basketball league’s message board, but bigger and realer and with financial consequences beyond some piddling three-digit buy-in.

I realize it's the offseason, and that this is the time to talk about where franchises are heading. But that political-ish Narrative -- who’s up, who’s down, optics, and what the play is for the next cycle -- has usurped the sweatier, realer basketball stuff to a strange degree. I recall reading a preseason ESPN article about where LeBron would end up this offseason, which fine fair enough, except that this was before the 2012-13 campaign. It was my fault for reading it, but the writing and running of it is a different and bigger thing. It was quite simply, bullshit speculation that served no purpose other than to kickstart jibber-jabber about The Decision 2.0, a repackaged version of The Process.

Much of the momentum for this particular trend comes out of Bristol; much of the rest, in my estimation, owes to the proliferation of fantasy football and the second and higher ascent of Sabermetrics, and the way in which they’ve both quantified and abstracted the game.

In the NFL and MLB, it makes sense, the extraneous roster-managing enhances the game. Sure, Zach Lowe is at the forefront of using advanced metrics to deepen the fan experience of watching the NBA; he’s good at it and deserves the accolades. But how often do commentators and columnists referencing 82games.com bother to explain how those stats impact roster creation? Insightful commentary is available -- Michael Lewis's semi-classic New York Times Magazine piece on Shane Battier helped me understand his hard-to-categorize value -- but it isn't the norm. If the fundamental problem with this is reducing players to decimal-points and cap hits, the addition of new and more nuanced numbers to the mix won’t help much.

All this green-eyeshaded parsing and accounting can be filed, broadly, under The Process. Hinkie in Philly, Jackson in New York, Presti's amazing job in OKC, The Spurs Way, LeBron again, and of course, the vaunted Houston Rockets wonderboy general manager Daryl Morey. (The Dork Elvis! He speaks at MIT! His teams haven’t sniffed a goddamn thing and they have multiple All-Stars!)

The Process is, of course, bigger than the NBA, bigger than sports period. In 21st-century America, we are told to trust, not our elders, but our saviors: the men and (occasionally) women, who run the companies, disrupt the dinosaurs, blow up the apple cart, and hack the system so it bends to their will. Believe in the free market! Or gum it up! Technology will save us! But not the technology you just purchased! Trust us! You have no choice!

Sometimes, of course, visionaries do change things for the better, but it seems to me it was never taken quite so fully as happy gospel as it is now. The Process assures us it is the way forward. We buy into it and it becomes our creed. We are all Uber, now. To grouse about the price gouging, be it a busy Friday night, a wintry Saturday, or a devastating 100-year storm, is to be on the side of the Haters and Losers, or just to announce oneself as a fearful citizen of the past.

***

We take it on faith that Hinkie knows what he’s doing because the Rockets secret sauce was on his iPad for a few years, but nothing the Sixers have done, as of yet, has amounted to anything. It’s early, and it should be said that the Sixers haven’t really tried to have it amount to anything yet, or anything but this is a weirdly uncomfortable in-between present.

Perhaps Embiid will be a combo of Hakeem and Dirk, Noel will be a hybrid of the Eyebrow and Dirk, and Dario Saric will be Dirk II: The Dirk Knight Returns. (I like Dirk.) Or, perhaps they’ll end up being Clippers Bill Walton, a poor man’s Marcus Camby, and a rich man’s Dino Radja, respectively. Oddly, for a man begging fans to stick with him, Hinkie didn’t seek to instill a boatload of confidence in some sort of Noel/Embiid Twin Towers concept. He is hunting bigger game than that sort of thing; why reassure or explain, when you can Disrupt?  

And maybe it’ll work itself out, right? Either way, 2013-14‘s 19-63 record--which included a 26-game-losing streak -- was deemed a success by owner Josh Harris. The Process is working! The Process, defined as such, cannot fail, if only because it hasn’t really begun. Well, at least Harris recognizes the below-market cutrate cowdung product he’s putting out, so the organization isn’t charging $100 for terrible seats in the “Big 6” game package. If it’s good enough for Uber...

In the end, us Sixers folks will wait and see, as if there were anything else to do. But, as people that care about a basketball team, we will of course spend the next season anxiously awaiting the moment that the team becomes more than The Process. I look forward to focusing on  basketball and not big boards and war rooms. If 2014-15 is another wash, Hinkie will get another shot. The Process is in place, and we can’t rewind the doomsday clock now. Total commitment!

It will be quite some time before Sixers world awakens to find out whether Hinkie’s behind-the-scenes machinations blew up in our faces. This is his time, and he might as well be allowed to do his work. But it’s only natural to hope that, when things tip off next season, we might get a breather from The Process. Let the kids don Ballin’ Ben Franklin, and let them play the game; let them have (and create) some fun. The destruction of the once-proud Philadelphia 76ers may yet come, and so might the resurrection. In the meantime, everyone loves a good pie fight.


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