You would be hard-pressed to find a mantra throughout sports history that is more synonymous with a team’s culture and identity than “Trust the Process” is to the Philadelphia 76ers.
A rally cry once used exclusively by the wonkish followers of the team’s Patron Saint of Tanking, former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie, TTP has outgrown both the group and city to gain relevance throughout the U.S. pop-culture landscape.
From Ace Hood to Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci, everybody is putting their trust in the process these days. But when did the Sixers’ long-term rebuilding plan come to be known by that name, and how did that name escape Philadelphia sports to represent anyone who prefers a more measured methodology?
To find the answer, the true origin story of Trust the Process, we dug into interview transcripts, analyzed social media trends and talked to the people who helped ingrain those three words into the fabric of our culture.
This is the definitive history.
Planting the Seeds of Trust
Hinkie was never shy in sharing his desire to eschew short-term wins in favor of long-term victories when speaking to the fanbase. On the day he was hired and introduced, he talked about the virtue of patience and also about why he cares most about another important “P” word.
Hinkie (May 14, 2013): “We talk a lot about process—not outcome—and trying to consistently take all the best information you can and consistently make good decisions. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but you reevaluate them all.”
Some fans loved it, but not everyone had warm feelings about Hinkie‘s rhetoric (Warning: tweet contains profanity):
When the Sixers dealt their lone All-Star, Jrue Holiday, on the night of Hinkie‘s first draft as GM, it was clear Philadelphia would be undertaking an aggressive tank job.
The term “rebuilding process” was used often during this time to describe the Sixers’ plan, but what is more interesting is the other phrase that began to pop up on Twitter on the night of that trade:
(Much) later that summer, the Sixers hired Brett Brown to serve as the team’s head coach. During Brown’s introductory press conference, Hinkie put together the themes of “process” and “trust” publicly for the first time.
Hinkie (August 14, 2013): “I was pretty candid with Brett throughout the process, about the challenges ahead. There has to be trust.”
But it would be over a year-and-a-half before those two words would become identified with Hinkie‘s tenure.
Birth of TTP
The spring of 2015 saw Trust the Process become the rallying cry for analytically minded basketball geeks everywhere, but evidence suggests the phrase was already floating around Sixers Twitter in the months prior.
One famously prolific Twitter user got in on the action during a particularly rough stretch of losing in a season filled with rough stretches:
The evolution is understandable. The “process” part was there all along, both in the existing lexicon of NBA rebuilding and through Hinkie‘s rhetoric. “Trust” had sprouted from tank-positive fans attempting to assuage the fears of more traditionalist followers of the team.
It took then-Sixers point guard Tony Wroten dropping TTP during an interview with ESPN’s Pablo Torre for things to really start taking off.
The Oral History
If Wroten was a disciple of Hinkie‘s process, Sixers fans Michael Levin and Spike Eskin were its greatest evangelists.
Each week, they took to the pulpit to extol the virtues of patience and faith to the tens of thousands of Sixers faithful who listened (and continue to listen) to their podcast, the Rights To Ricky Sanchez. Through sheer repetition and clever T-shirt marketing, they were able to turn Trust the Process from a sports-team quote to a lifestyle.
Torre—ESPN’s cool-headed, process-supporting reporter—served as a national proselytizer for the cause both in his writing and during on-air appearances on the network.
Torre: “I heard those three words for the first time on the evening of January 5, 2015, from Tony Wroten in the Sixers locker room just before a home game against the Cavs. I just searched the transcripts I have saved on my computer to be sure.”
Wroten (via Torre’s transcript): “They tell us every game, every day, ‘Trust the Process.’ Just continue to build.”
Eskin: “I’m not sure when I actually heard it first in regard to the Sixers. It seems logical that it was Tony Wroten in Pablo Torre’s article, but I must have heard the phrase itself previously.
“The first time I ever saw anything ‘process’ in regard to a sports team was with the Astros several years ago. There was actually an official team T-shirt that had the Astros logo and just said ‘process’ on it. They were in the same situation that the Sixers ended up being in.
“So I’ll say it’s Tony Wroten, but it’s possible that’s just what makes the most sense so that’s what I think I remember.”
Levin: “It was an organic thing. Like finding the perfect pair of pants…I recall it being very laborious to say, ‘The Sixers plan to tank, which does not mean losing games on purpose but just prioritizing wins in the long term rather than the short term.’
“So once the process happened upon us, it was a pretty immediate adoption. Not that acronymizing something is a creative feat, but it definitely felt like it became our version of nWo then.”
Torre: “First, it represents a big idea, and there is no grander tension in sports—no, life—than the one between process and results. Second, it’s both desperate and defiant, a phrase you might repeat to yourself while hiding inside a tank taking heavy artillery fire. Third, and most important, it is super chant-able.”
Eskin: “I remember pretty clearly when we started saying it on the podcast all the time. I was working with a graphic designer named Kevin Lennertz on our 2015 NBA draft-lottery party T-shirt in the spring. I told him to make a design with Sam Hinkie and a pingpong ball machine and put the phrase ‘Trust the Process’ on it. I remember Mike laughing, liking it, and saying it was ‘very cult-y.'”
Torre: “Spike had invited me to the lottery party, and I couldn’t make it—I was doing Around the Horn out of New York that day. So I asked for a shirt instead. Holding it up was my homage to a fanbase that quickly realized how fun and absurdist an allegedly cold and heartless story could be.”
Eskin: “So Pablo used the shirt on TV on Around the Horn the night of the lottery party, but it was pretty quick. It wasn’t until the draft, when our amazing fans were all over the crowd, and the camera kept stopping on them.
“A couple of people had the T-shirt on, a couple of people had ‘Trust the Process’ signs in the crowd as well. I remember whomever was doing the broadcast was laughing every time the camera went on to these guys.”
Levin: “I think it picked up steam primarily because of the sheer loudness of process folk. But it simultaneously gave us a level of legitimacy and absurdity—Hinkie on a T-shirt playing with lottery balls, that pleased me.”
Levin: “Once it went everywhere, it felt like it wasn’t solely ours anymore. Like it grew up and moved out and started smoking and we couldn’t protect it anymore. But we’ll always be proud of it because we’re its mom…
“Also, unless you follow the Rights To Ricky Sanchez or our Twitter accounts closely, you probably have a hard time believing Spike and I are part of why it got so big. It takes too long to explain, and it just sounds like you’re bragging in the weirdest way. Not worth the trouble, usually.
“That being said, in my mind I’m the f–king Process Batman.”
Torre: “When I transcribed my interview with Tony Wroten, I never imagined I’d serve as the journalistic outbreak monkey in a pandemic. I see Trust the Process everywhere now, and I laugh every single time I do.”
Eskin: “It’s pretty neat that it’s gotten this popular. Especially because the team itself hasn’t really embraced it (meaning the organization…the players mostly have). It’s just been a grassroots thing.
“Between us, Joel Embiid and the fans, everyone just decided that this is the team’s slogan. I’ll never forget opening night last year against OKC, people chanting it in the crowd. There is a little bit of a loss feeling because we don’t own it anymore, but more than anything it’s a combination of pride and it being hilarious.”
On the eve of Joel Embiid‘s NBA debut last year, Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated penned a profile of the 23-year-old titled “I’m The Process.”
The nickname stuck, and over the past 10 months Trust the Process has transformed from a declaration of faith in the Sixers’ rebuild to something more akin to a pro wrestler’s catchphrase.
Eskin: “The day before he called himself ‘The Process’ on Twitter, we ran a poll on the Rights To Ricky Sanchez account asking if that should be his nickname. I think it’s great, he’s great. But in all honesty, it’s about time to say the name [of the podcast], JoJo.”
Levin: “He’s the biggest and most important spectrum of the process embodied, and we go where he goes. He’s also forced the Sixers’ hand in acknowledging TTP, which has been a fun journey of brand awareness and a brand relenting to its radical base.
“What a weird thing all this is.”
But with Hinkie on the outs of the NBA and the Sixers poised to compete for a playoff spot this season, it’s not unreasonable to question the future of Trust the Process. Eskin and Levin do not count themselves among that group.
Eskin: “People seem to refer to the whole thing that Sam Hinkie and the Sixers did as the process, but if you really believe in what it means, that’s not what it is.
“Trusting the process is never over. Somehow, people will take that to mean that it’s OK that they stink forever, but that’s not what it means, either. If rebuilding a jump shot is a process, you have to continue that process even when the shot is fixed. You never stop shooting that new way, you never stop trusting the process.”
Levin: “The process can’t ever truly die until Embiid and Dario Saric are gone. I’d include Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz and Robert Covington and [future Kings pick] in there as well, since all of them truly stemmed from the Hinkie asset tree.
“This whole era is the process era, with little sub-eras along the way. It’s more Dr. Who than anything else. [Former Hinkie-era Sixers guard] Hollis Thompson just got reborn as JJ Redick.”
Eskin: “What TTP meant to me at the start was making the right moves based on the work you’ve put in and the experience you have. It meant continuing down that path many times, regardless of the results.
“I’ve always compared it to playing blackjack. If you’ve got a 16, and the dealer is showing a 6, you stay put. You don’t hit. That’s what the math tells you. But sometimes, when you stay, the dealer will have 16, hit once, get a five and beat everyone at the table.
“That doesn’t mean the next time you get that hand you play it any differently.”
Levin: “The Billy King/Ed Stefanski/Tony DiLeo/Rod Thorn/Doug Collins/whoeverthef–k regimes didn’t have any cogent roadmap to a championship, and it all felt entirely pointless to me. Seasons of mediocrity and aimlessness went by, each more nondescript than the last.
“Then Hinkie came through and was like, ‘Here’s what we’re doing, here’s why we’re doing it, sit tight for a few years and it’s gonna be dope.’ And every transaction was in service of that.
“Only a Sith deals in absolutes—that’s part of what got him fired [Hinkie technically resigned], but the philosophy behind it was always sound, and here we are reaping the benefits.”
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