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November 29, 2018

Sixers' Elton Brand: 'Joel Embiid made me an NBA general manager'

His knees were telling him something. His back was screaming the same thing. His feet had a say in this, too, since they were carrying the brunt. And on occasion, his mind wanted to move faster on the court than his body was willing to.

They were all telling Elton Brand to get out.

Only Brand wasn’t listening. Not then, at least. His considerable heart was nonetheless tethered to the hardwood.

In 2015, Brand still thought he could play in the NBA after completing his 16th season, at the time relegated to a fringe role at 35 with the Atlanta Hawks. Regrettably, the 6-foot-8 all-American, 1999 National Player of the Year out of Duke and first overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft had to find out the hard way where his future path as 76ers general manager was from of all people Joel Embiid.

“Joel Embiid made me an NBA general manager,” recalls Brand today, laughing. “Playing against guys like Joel, just getting murdered, just getting destroyed every day in practice by him (in 2016), because I probably couldn’t stop him even in my heyday, but still. My knees hurt, my back hurt, I’m playing defense, giving it my all and that’s when I said to myself, ‘Time is up. Time is up.’

“If there was one galvanizing moment that led me to where I am today, to get out, that was it — playing against Joel. Playing against the younger guys, not being able to move like I wanted to move. I can honestly say that Joel Embiid happened to make me an NBA general manager today — and happened to make me a good one because he’s a Sixer.”

The roots of Brand’s course actually began with a call from his agent after the 2015 season with the Hawks.

“I got the call that all professional athletes dread from their agent — no one is going to sign you,” said Brand, after playing for an Atlanta team that went 60-22, before being swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 Eastern Conference finals. “They loved me in Atlanta and offered me an assistant general managers’ job. I wasn’t playing much. I was in a mentoring role, but I still wanted to play.

“I had the player’s bug. I spent time shadowing management in Atlanta; spent time with Mike Budenholzer, who was the Hawks’ president, talking about basketball, philosophy, talking about trades and the vision of an organization. I wasn’t ready to be an assistant GM, because I saw what it took.”

It was a time-consuming, all-in, no-reward endeavor that meant being at the office by 7 a.m. and sometimes not leaving until well after 10 p.m. because of games. The 12- to 15-hour days were typical.

So, after 2015, Brand thought that was it. He began to immerse himself in regular life, taking his two young children to school in the Villanova area. The teachers would comment how rare it was to see both parents picking their children up. Brand politely reminded them that he didn’t have a job at the time, though the Hawks allowed Brand to be part of their trades and draft meetings.

Basketball was still part of his fabric, still part of his identity.

When 76ers’ 2015 first-round pick Jahlil Okafor got into some off-the-court trouble, then-Sixers’ GM Sam Hinkie gave Brand a call in February 2016.

“Sam wanted to go to breakfast one morning and picked out this Main Line place to talk about mentoring the young guys,” Brand remembered. “They were going to give me a credit card and have me involved with player development. After we met, Sam came back and said that the Sixers actually wanted me to be on the team. He told me I wouldn’t even have to play.

“I was on vacation with my family and the team won nine games — nine games. I thought I could still play, remember. That’s when I came back to play for the Sixers near the end of 2016. We were 9-68 and going to be tied as the worst team in NBA history. I’ve come from winning and was used to winning. So, I had someone make up a banner that said ‘Congratulations for tying the worst record ever.’ It was my idea and we put it up inside the locker room with everyone’s name on it. My name was on it. They were pissed. Joel saw it and said, ‘I’m not even playing.’

“I told him he was still part of the team. We went out and beat New Orleans that night. Coach (Brett) Brown saw things like that and thought there might be a role one day with the team as an executive. After I retired, I went into player development with the Sixers, that’s when I broke in.”

Though, he admits, getting into management was a gradual process. When he was 20, he was on top of the world, signing a huge deal with the Chicago Bulls as the No. 1 pick and the thought of never working again coursed through him.

“You get older and wise up, that it’s not just about making money, it’s about fulfilling yourself with something that you enjoy doing,” Brand said. “As I got older, I did look at the business world, but the basketball world is what I’ve always known and I what I do know. The access that the Sixers’ ownership gave me, like Josh Harris and David Blitzer, opened my eyes to new possibilities.

“I was in on big calls for trades that didn’t happen, but still, you begin to think, ‘Hey, we can get that guy?’ The seed started to become planted in Atlanta, but it didn’t blossom until I got here with the Sixers. Then it dawns on you. You’re sitting at the end of the bench. The travel schedule of an NBA team is ridiculous, leaving your family and kids behind for two weeks at a time.

“As an exec, you have some control over when you travel.”

Brand’s GM process began when Sixers’ chief of staff Brandon Williams left to become assistant general manager of the Sacramento Kings in July 2017. Then-Sixers’ GM Bryan Colangelo approached Brand about running the Sixers’ G League team, then the Delaware 87ers, now the Delaware Blue Coats. Again, Brand was on vacation with his family and told Colangelo he had to think about it.

It didn’t take long for him to tell Colangelo “Yes!”

It led to trips on rickety commuter planes to minor league basketball towns like Oshkosh, Wisconsin, dealing with snow delays, waiting in airports for hours in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Canton, Ohio.

“I loved it, loved it,” Brand said. “It was my team, my team to create through drafts and trades, and developing talent. That’s when I truly found out that I love this. That I could do this. That I want to do this.

“It was hard. It was a grind. But I learned on the job. We had a staff of four and you wear many hats. You do everything from talk to season ticket-holders, plus I was able to weigh in on the decisions of the 76ers. That helped prepare me for this. If I didn’t have a game, I was here at the Sixers’ games.

“I’ll have to admit, this has sunk in, being general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. Before I was making recommendations, now it’s me making the decisions. I think the biggest surprise of the job so far is all of the non-basketball related responsibilities an NBA GM has. I spoke to (Boston Celtics’ GM) Danny Ainge about it and he told me it’s not just trades, and basketball, and player development.

“You’re managing people and a staff who look to you for answers.”

Brand has over 100 people under him. But he says it helps considerably to have people like assistant GM Ned Cohen, senior vice president of player personnel Marc Eversley and executive vice president of basketball operations Alex Rucker as support.

And there are some things he’s learned about himself in the short time he’s been GM of one of the prime teams in the NBA today.

“I learned I can face stress far better than I thought I could,” Brand said. “The group says that. You need to maintain a sense of calm and humility. That resonates through our group. Before, it was frantic, like, bang, bang, bang, this is what’s going on. It’s a perspective I want to keep, for as much as I love what I do. I want to do the best that I can.

“I want to learn more and develop the pureness of the sport; that it’s beyond entertainment. We’re dealing with people’s lives. It’s about people and caring about people. I want to be able to develop players and be an organization that looks out for its people after basketball.”

When PhillyVoice spoke to Brand on Friday, Nov. 9, he was on calls and in meetings with 76ers’ ownership all night. He was calm, jovial and in control.

The next day, the Sixers traded for Jimmy Butler.

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