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May 14, 2019

Sixers have given Brett Brown a chance to build sustainable culture in Philadelphia

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051419-BrettBrown-USAToday Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown reacts from the sidelines against the Toronto Raptors in game two of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena.

In the middle of a press conference that was dominated by questions about his NBA mortality on Tuesday morning, Brett Brown took more than a little time to reflect on how the Sixers arrived where they are. When Brown came to Philadelphia, the team's practice gym was the same used by the students at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. It's a situation the coach admits now he was "ashamed" of, and back in those days, he refused to even go into the locker room at PCOM.

Now, the Sixers practice in a state-of-the-art facility in Camden, boast two All-Stars age 25 or younger, and have legitimate championship aspirations in the immediate future. And these developments have allowed Brown to think about a Sixers future without him, and on the legacy that will be left behind whenever he and the team do eventually part ways.

"I feel incredibly responsible to [Sixers owners Joshua Harris and David Blitzer] and the Philadelphia 76ers logo, uniform, to be a gatekeeper," Brown said at his end-of-season availability on Tuesday. "There will be a time that I'm not here. I hope that, you know, bells will be rung. Who's the bell ringer tonight? I hope that you're gonna walk out and see a thousand coaches at a coach the coaches clinic. I hope that you're gonna see us in the community doing things that we should do. I hope that we can leave something behind." 

"I feel like we have been doing this for six years, or trying to do it. And when I hear the words that you're talking about, I just feel like it validates what we've been trying to do since I was employed."

Philadelphia's rich basketball history is not something that should be dismissed within the historical context of the sport. This is the franchise of Wilt the Stilt and The Doctor and The Round Mound of Rebound and The Answer, icons and superstars whose names will echo through history. But for an entire generation of people, their knowledge of Philadelphia basketball is basically Allen Iverson, and that's it.

There is no long history of luring free agents, seasons with 50+ wins are not commonplace, and the fans are not the only people who notice these things. In my lifetime, there was little reason for a player to grow up and think, "I want to be a member of the 76ers."

The Sixers have been on a mission to change that since Brown arrived here in 2013. 

"We need to build a championship DNA across all areas of our organization and we will commit the resources to make that happen," Joshua Harris said during his opening statement on Tuesday.

Those who only see Philadelphia's second-round exit as it relates to Brown or the team as a whole are missing the point. Look at how the season unfolded for Jimmy Butler — Philadelphia absorbed a player with a reputation for being a malcontent, and they allowed Butler to be who he has always been without ruining team chemistry or losing their underlying traits as a team. Butler said this himself at his exit interview on Monday, acknowledging Brown for letting him speak up and be himself on and off the floor.

Arriving at that point, as Brown told it, was not necessarily a straightforward task.

"I’m in locker rooms, you’re not. You may come into a timeout on national TV and see it, but I feel it. We arrived at a place that was actually a team. They had each other’s back," Brown said Tuesday. "Listen to the players' words, and listen to mine but really listen to theirs. And I give [Butler] a lot of credit for that, he emerged to be a leader... we arrived at a place that if we’re able to coach together again — he’s able to play for me, I’m able to coach him — I think you jump into this thing in a far more advanced way, given the history, albeit brief, that we both have had with each other."

People will get behind leaders who stand for something, but they will not follow a tyrant for long. Building something that will last in Philadelphia is not about imposing one overarching style and never budging. Culture is about bending and blending and mixing when appropriate, putting your foot down when the time calls for it. 

In the middle of the chaos, the Sixers showed they could do that on the floor in 2018-19, as their dribble handoffs slowly decreased to allow Butler and Tobias Harris room to operate. They took a mix of personalities and made them into a whole — Embiid is the court jester, Butler is loud and brash, Harris is quiet and thoughtful, and Simmons is the man behind the glass.

(JJ Redick, obviously, is the obligatory member of the crew with a podcast. There's always one.)

None of that works without direction and leadership in the backroom. That is Brown's legacy to date, and it will be up to him to prove he is more than just a program builder. Whether or not you agree with him tactically, he has proven he can get buy-in from players of all sorts, and that he is willing to adapt as new talent jumps into the mix.

Those who will demand more from him in the future are right to do so, just as they were when Brown was out-coached by Brad Stevens last May. If the Sixers bring back the full group for 2019-20, the Sixers will be making a serious financial investment based around the idea that continuity is king. There will be increased accountability for everyone in that environment, and if things go south, Brown will remain at the top of the blame list for many fans.

He seems keenly aware of this.

"This is my sixth year in Philadelphia. I have been fired every one of these years. It’s true! It’s Philadelphia! Every single one of these years somebody has me not coming back, and it will happen again next year, early," Brown said. "This is just the way it works in my industry, in this city, and to have the club feel the need to repetitively deal with this or other things because it happens on many other issues other than Brett Brown, I’m fine with it and we move on."

The reports and debates will continue, and the goal of a championship remains the hardest thing to achieve in team sports. Talented though the Sixers may be, they can't just roll the ball out and win.

No one can say with certainty when the Sixers will win their next title. For all we know, it may come when Earth becomes uninhabitable and Ben Simmons IV is playing in moon shoes at the bottom of a crater somewhere.

What the Sixers can control in the meantime is the way they go about their business. And for the time being, they continue to be led by a coach who is concerned with treating people right as much as he is anything else.

"For us to be able to retain, recruit, grow, empower, watch this program unfold, are you serious? This is incredibly exciting," Brown said Tuesday. "We’re proud of the fights we’ve had to fight in order to do what we’ve done. Culture is a word that means something to me, it means something to us, and I believe we’ve delivered."

We will see how much that matters when free agency opens on July 1st. And we will see how much that matters down the road when Brown is fishing off the coast of Melbourne, Australia, 10,000 miles away from anything that has to do with the Sixers.


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