"I don't want to go anywhere else. I want to be a part of this family. I want to be here."
Take your pick of any press conference in which a billionaire sports team welcomes an athlete it just paid millions. You'll find comments of that nature almost every time. This was the right fit. This is where I wanted to be. Clockwork.
It's not every day, however, when the athlete playing that broken record is the athlete who signed the( ). Or the athlete who turned down a to do so.
We refer, of course, to Bryce Harper. He is the man behind those cookie-cutter remarks, delivered March 2 in Clearwater, Florida, while seated next to Forbes' No. 1 sports agent in the world at Spectrum Field, a stadium that Harper's record contract could have paid for 11 times. He is the man the Philadelphia Phillies will pay a guaranteed $330 million from 2019 until 2031, the year self-driving cars are predicted to overtake the roads.
He is also the surest confirmation to date that Philly, in remarkably expedient fashion, has arrived.
This is a story that could have started and ended with Harper. In terms of average salary per season, the former Washington Nationals outfielder isn't even among the top 10 highest-paid players in baseball. If you adjust old deals for inflation and consider Mike Trout's mega-extension that came just three weeks later, Harper's lucrative contract looks even tamer. But $330 million is $330 million. You read that on a ticker, and your eyes widen. You start looking for someone to talk to. You hear about this?
And when it comes to Harper's impact as a historic offseason addition, the numbers don't lie: He made the biggest waves of anyone across the sports spectrum.
In the 24 hours after Harper's signing was first reported, the Phillies sold 220,000 tickets. That's roughly $8 million in revenue. In the same span, sportswear retailer Fanatics reported , in any sport -- ever. LeBron James joining the Los Angeles Lakers didn't do that kind of damage.
Yet, monumental as it may have been, an unprecedented payout for an unprecedented free agent, a grandto "spend money ... and maybe even be a little bit stupid about it," the Phillies' acquisition of baseball's most marketable name was just the cherry on a sundae already assembled. In that same press conference where Harper became the latest purveyor of sports cliches with his expected Philly pleasantries, he also name-dropped fellow next-generation icons from the city's football and basketball teams -- and openly recruited Trout, baseball's best player -- in one fell swoop.
That kind of stuff just doesn't happen if not for Philadelphia's sudden evolution as a destination.
The night is darkest just before the dawn
On March 2, 2016, exactly three years before Harper's welcoming party, this was life in the City of Brotherly Love:
The Philadelphia Eagles were beginning their second rebuild in just four seasons. After firing coach Chip Kelly, a once-heralded hire who lasted all of 47 games, they called upon Howie Roseman, a demoted general manager, and Doug Pederson, a man whose only head coaching experience was at the high school level, to right the ship. With no playoff wins in almost a decade, the days of perennial NFC Championship contention under 14-year coach Andy Reid appeared long gone.
The Philadelphia 76ers were fresh off their 10th straight loss to fall to 8-53 -- yes, 8-53 -- on the 2015-16 season, en route to the second-worst finish (10-72) in franchise history. General manager Sam Hinkie was entering his final month of employment, a likely byproduct of his infamous plan to trade victories for future assets -- a plan that stripped the Sixers of any recognizable talent and prompted to reorganize Philly's front office. They were, by far, basketball's biggest losers.
The Philadelphia Phillies were preparing for their first full season under manager Pete Mackanin, who was charged with leading a rebound from a 63-99 finish in 2015 -- the franchise's worst record, not counting strike-shortened seasons, in 46 years. Coming out of Major League Baseball's cellar, they said goodbye to Chase Utley and Cole Hamels, some of the last iconic 2008 World Series holdovers. And with a farm system failing to produce, their streak of four seasons without playoffs was destined to continue.
"I felt like the early part of this decade was basically the Dark Ages," said ESPN's Kevin Negandhi, a "SportsCenter" host and avid Philly fan.
Now, just 36 months later?
"We may be in the Golden Age."
The Eagles won a franchise-record 13 games in Pederson's second season as coach, riding an MVP-caliber season from 2016 first-round draft pick Carson Wentz and an improbable playoff run by backup quarterback Nick Foles to a Super Bowl victory, the first in team history. Their championship, which not only put a rare dent in the New England Patriots' dynasty but ended a near-60-year title drought, enabled fans to take next season's playoff loss in stride and has Philly primed to be among the NFL's elite for years to come. With Wentz, Pederson, and Pro Bowlers Zach Ertz and Fletcher Cox among others, they're as promising as anyone in football.
The 76ers improved by 18 wins a year after hitting rock bottom, then jumped another 24 wins from 2016-17 to 2017-18, taking a record 16 straight to close the season behind Rookie of the Year honoree Ben Simmons and earn their first trip to the NBA playoffs in six seasons. As more and more fans adopted Hinkie's old motto for patience -- "Trust the Process" -- in triumph, the Sixers shifted into high gear, overcoming a to add not one but two bona fide stars under rookie GM Elton Brand, putting Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris alongside Simmons and MVP candidate Joel Embiid in the hunt for a 2019 NBA Finals run.
The Phillies fielded the youngest roster in baseball under first-year manager Gabe Kapler in 2018 and improved 14 wins from the previous year despite a late-season fall from first place and out of the playoff picture. After an aggressive winter from GM Matt Klentak, there might not be a more exciting lineup in the National League than the one in Philadelphia. Not only did the team re-position or re-sign homegrown talent like Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins, but it also became the first club in MLB history to add three position players who were All-Stars the previous year -- Jean Segura, J.T. Realmuto and that Harper guy.
"I haven't seen something like this since the early '80s," Negandhi said, "with the Eagles making the Super Bowl in '80, the Phils winning it in '80, the Sixers being there in '82, winning it all in '83. It's fantastic."
New kids on the block
Matt Gelb, who covers the Phillies for The Athletic, was born and raised in the city. He lives in South Philly now, not far from the three-stadium sports complex. He remembers, growing up, when Fishtown, a neighborhood northeast of Center City, was nothing more than an off-the-grid residence for the working class.
"Fifteen years ago, no one went to that place," he said.
Now, Fishtown is "one of the most buzzed-about" urban hotspots in the country, marketed as Philly's "truest harbor of artistic, culinary and musical action." And the home of Phillies slugger Rhys Hoskins.
"It's a hip neighborhood," Gelb said, "and it almost mirrors the sports teams right now. You look at Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Bryce Harper, Carson Wentz."
In other words, it's one thing to talk about Jimmy Butler joining the Sixers' starting five or DeSean Jackson coming back to the Eagles, but it's another to talk about how much of Philadelphia's abrupt resurgence centers on the faces of tomorrow. Philly sports aren't just hot because they're no longer awful. They're hot because they're trendy.
Not only have the Eagles, Phillies and 76ers all leaned heavily on analytics in their separate roads to relevance, but in successfully mining "hip" icons, they've become Fishtowns of their sports. Places to be. Philadelphia will always be viewed "like the little brother to New York," Gelb said, but the reality is "it's become one of the more eclectic big cities in the country," from the food scene to the universities to a spread of professional sports that rivals those across the nation.
The spark that lit the fire
Identifying how Philadelphia got to this point depends on who you talk to.
Gelb says the only era he can remember when the Eagles, Phillies and Sixers all commanded such a spotlight was the early 2000s, during the heydays of Donovan McNabb and Allen Iverson. He also thinks the current cross-sport triumvirate isn't so much one franchise feeding off another as it is a "perfect storm" of circumstance.
In 2016, for example, one could have predicted at least a slight upswing for all three of the major teams -- even though, as Gelb says, "from 2012 up to the Eagles Super Bowl, it was about as bad of a stretch for those teams as we've ever seen." The Eagles had just drafted a consensus top-five quarterback prospect in Wentz, their highest pick at that position since McNabb in 1999. The 76ers had just witnessed the debut of a healthy Embiid and had Simmons, a No. 1 pick, in waiting. And the Phillies had just begun collecting on a $2.5 billion TV deal that guaranteed they would eventually have money to spend.
Others would suggest one team's success can -- and did -- set off a chain reaction.
"In Boston, the triggering point is what the Patriots did," Negandhi said. "That set off what we would see with the Red Sox, the Bruins. There's a sense of urgency there."
No one's here to argue that Philly is on Boston's level when it comes to hardware. Since the turn of "Boston's century," Massachusetts fans have been treated to 12 different title teams -- six championships by the Patriots, four by the Red Sox and one by both the Bruins and the Celtics. Yet before the Pats went the distance in 2001, none of Boston's beloved winners had won much of anything for a while. From 1991 until 2001, the Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox had a combined three conference final/championship appearances in 33 seasons, with absolutely zero trophies between them. Was that just another "perfect storm?"
Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills was on the field when Philadelphia won its first Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 4, 2018. He tries to attend a 76ers game at least once every two weeks. He thinks teams do feed off each other. And he's confident his city's crowning football achievement -- against a Boston team, no less -- helped put Philly's collective resurgence in motion.
"Oh, for sure," he said. "It kind of put that in the mindset of the other athletes, that it can be done. The City of Brotherly Love can win championships."
The Eagles will always be the easiest to credit here, being that they actually won something. (And besting Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on football's biggest stage is nothing to sneeze at.) But in the end, the reality is an entire city's sports scene doesn't turn around because of one franchise. Brandon Graham strip-sacking Brady didn't guarantee the Phillies' 74-person baseball operations staff would do its job. Foles throwing a touchdown to Zach Ertz didn't get Elton Brand the Sixers' GM job.
Processing: The 76ers
Of the three teams' turnarounds, none is more fascinating than that of the Sixers. The NBA is as much about drama as it is basketball, and Philadelphia's journey of the last half-decade has mirrored that.
Hinkie, an advanced statistics guru, assumed GM duties in 2013 and promptly traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for a top-five draft pick -- the first of many moves that signaled an apparent plan to " " and then reap the rewards of a rebuild. A record 26 straight losses in 2013-14, the season even Sixers starters admitted to the team's "restructuring process," got the ball rolling.
"I think they knew big things were coming," said Kelsey Howell, who worked on the 76ers' game presentation crew in 2015-16, witnessing the club's 28-game losing streak that spanned two seasons. "For the team, it was a different story. ... During shootaround, there wasn't much energy. Almost like everyone was going through the motions."
The ethics of the "Process" are debated to this day, but long after the NBA's reported intervention and the arrival of Hinkie's fittingly philosophical 13-page resignation letter, it's clear "tanking" -- the trades for picks, the no-name lineups, etc. -- has at least partially been validated.
Embiid, who's easily a, is the most obvious fruit of the harvest -- so much so that he's nicknamed himself "The Process."
A wise man once said "Trust The Process"— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) July 8, 2017
But for all the preaching of patience that went into the 76ers' slow-burn ascent, it was actually a polar-opposite approach from new GM Elton Brand that finally put Philly on the map in 2018. In landing four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler in November and Tobias Harris three months later, Brand sent a clear message: No more waiting around; we're going all in for a championship.
"Another GM wanting job security might take it a little light, grow into it, get two years under your belt," Brand told ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski in March. "But me, I'm going for it."
Brand, who was still playing for the 76ers during their 2015-16 debacle, didn't just accelerate the "Process." He also, in an unprecedented feat for a first-year NBA GM, completely rewrote the narrative surrounding Philly's front office. Just three months before he was hired, the team parted ways with Hinkie successor Bryan Colangelo afterwas "careless" and "reckless" in protecting private information about the team -- information that was apparently posted by Colangelo's wife, along with criticisms of Hinkie and some of the 76ers' star players -- on anonymous Twitter accounts.
By the second month of the 2018-19 season, no one was talking about it. They were talking about Philly's shot at the NBA Finals.
Eagles players with Super Bowl rings are now regular guests at the Wells Fargo Center -- and happy about it. ("They come to our games, we go to theirs," Mills said.) The 76ers' ticket waiting list is now up to more than 12,000 fans. They just made their first Sports Illustrated cover in more than a decade. And the team is on pace for its best record in almost 20 years, with an MVP candidate and the NBA's top fourth-quarter closer in the saddle for a return to the playoffs.
"The city has rallied around Joel, Ben, Jimmy, Tobias, JJ [Redick] and the rest of our roster in a truly special way," 76ers president Chris Heck said. "These guys are rock stars not only in Philadelphia but around the world."
And as for that old saying, "Trust the Process," which no longer signifies waiting as much as it does winning?
"We're embracing it," Heck said.
Roseman's Rebuild: The Eagles
If the Sixers have the most fascinating of the rebuilds, then the Eagles have the most surprising. Anyone who had a remote interest in the NFL from 2000-2010 knew Philadelphia was a football power, even without a Super Bowl win. You don't go to five NFC Championship Games in that span by accident. Yet no one could have foreseen the Birds finally getting over the hump the way they did.
Chip Kelly's lasting legacy as Andy Reid's replacement was trading all the best players from Reid's regime -- future Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, franchise leading rusher LeSean McCoy, perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
So for personnel chief Howie Roseman, whose office was literally moved farther from Kelly during the coach's takeover, to restore the Eagles to contender status alongside new coach Doug Pederson in a matter of just two seasons was a small Philly miracle.
Orchestrating a trade up from No. 13 to No. 2 in the 2016 draft to select Wentz, then surrounding Wentz with weapons like LeGarrette Blount and Alshon Jeffery the following year, Roseman turned the Eagles from a mess to a masterpiece in 24 months -- all after Kelly had already undone Reid's roster. Even more impressive, however, was what happened on the field in 2017 -- Wentz earning MVP consideration as a second-year starter, Pederson outsmarting the NFL's wisest minds, and then Foles, one of those Kelly castoffs, returning to replace an injured Wentz and save the season with a Super Bowl run for the ages.
Philly fans are notorious for their devotion, and Eagles fans are often characterized as volatile. But there may not have been a more peaceful moment for them than when the clock hit :00 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Super Bowl LII.
Millions of Eagles faithful had grown up knowing a world that simply did not permit Philadelphia football championships. "Maybe next year" was a greeting in the city. And for those lifelong pipe dreams to be realized in such sudden, improbable fashion made the glory all the more surreal.
Normally, 2018's second-round playoff exit would be cause for impatience in Philadelphia -- contrary to parts of the city once vouching for "Process" patience on the basketball court. But there's no longer anything normal about Eagles football since the Lombardi hit Broad Street. Things could always change as the years pass, but thanks to 2017 and Philly's abrupt triumph on the gridiron, the Eagles are in their fans' good graces, or at least more so than ever before.
They're also built to stay that way with Pro Bowl-caliber talent at every turn -- Wentz, Ertz, Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Lane Johnson, Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox and Malcolm Jenkins, among others.
Stupid Money: The Phillies
If the Sixers are better because of their patience and the Eagles are better because of their aggressiveness, then the Phillies are like the imperfect but promising blend of the two.
It's common knowledge in Philadelphia that former GM Ruben Amaro Jr. waited too long to start offloading bloated contracts from the Phils' 2008-09 teams that made the World Series, and even after his replacement, Matt Klentak, took over in 2015, it took years for the organization to finally unearth enough cash -- and internal prospects -- to regain relevance. But this winter saw Klentak join the big boys' table, following in the footsteps of both Howie Roseman and Elton Brand.
Klentak tried his hand at big-name deals during Philadelphia's promising 2018 campaign, which at least Jake Arrieta, Carlos Santana and later Wilson Ramos and Asdrubal Cabrera, among others. But after a late-year fall from first in the NL East to out of the postseason entirely, Klentak pulled out the big guns -- as in, owner John Middleton's pocketbook.under Gabe Kapler and his sometimes-unorthodox approach, adding
As Matt Gelb reported in early March, the Phillies initially brainstormed a 20-year (!) contract offer for Bryce Harper. Anything to get baseball's most marketable player onto one of baseball's most desperate playoff contenders. Klentak had already poured resources into the rest of the lineup, trading Santana to land All-Star shortstop Jean Segura, giving $50 million to longtime Pittsburgh Pirates star Andrew McCutchen and acquiring the consensus top catcher in the game in J.T. Realmuto. But Harper was a name. He was a six-time All-Star and former NL MVP, yes. But he was also an item that would prove the Phils were serious pennant contenders.
It's no surprise, then, that the minute news of Harper's 13-year, $330 million agreement broke, Philadelphia re-adopted baseball.
"The Phillies used to be sold out every night," Gelb said. "It was an event to go to a game, from 2009 to 2010. I get the feeling that we're going to see that again this summer. ... This is a football city, and it will always be a football city, but the Phillies can be a close No. 2."
Klentak and co. could've swung and miss on Harper and still had a solid offseason. From top to bottom, their lineup rivals just about any team in the National League thanks to the presence of homegrown talents like Rhys Hoskins, Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera, and their rotation is headed by an emerging Cy Young candidate in Aaron Nola. But now, with a star of Harper's caliber and name recognition in the clubhouse?
"Phillies fandom feels reborn," said Brandon Lee Gowton, of SB Nation. "The die-hards never left, but with Harper in the fold ... the city is going to be buzzing in the summertime."
If you throw Flyers goalie Carter Hart in the mix, there's a case to be made that each of Philly's four major sports teams possess some of the best young talent -- at some of the most important positions -- across the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL. The trophies may or may not follow, and if they don't, many Philly fans' signature aggression could resurface as quickly as it's dissipated. But it's no secret around Philadelphia that, from 2016 to 2019, the city's sports scene has gone from downright undesirable to one of the most appealing in the nation.
"There's no question we are a destination city," said Les Bowen, of the Philadelphia Daily News.
The teams know it.
"There is a sports renaissance happening in our city right now, and we all feel a sense of privilege and obligation to deliver for our fans," 76ers president Chris Heck said, pointing to the Eagles' Super Bowl, Villanova's national championships and the Phillies' Harper signing as examples Philly excelling. "We're proud of this city, and we think it's important to amplify the excitement."
Rarely has there been so much cross-sport support with as much magnitude. One of the first images of Harper in a Phillies uniform paid tribute to 76ers legend Allen Iverson. Some of the first athletes to be mentioned at Harper's press conference, remember, were current Eagles and Sixers. The first celebrity to offer Harper a place to stay in Philadelphia? Sam Hinkie.
The players know it.
"Philadelphia the place to be!!!" Alshon Jeffery tweeted upon Harper's arrival.
The fans know it.
Is there any other reason the Sixers have been sold out all season? Or that "busloads" of Phillies fans are set to travel to Washington, D.C., for Harper's Nationals homecoming? Or that Wentz's jersey outsold all but seven NFL players despite the QB missing five games in 2018?
"My friend once famously said, 'Imagine enjoying a sport in Philadelphia,' during a not-so-distant time when the Philly sports outlook wasn't so bright," Gowton said. "Well, we don't have to imagine anymore. We can actually just do it."
And Philly can do it all year long. The question, "What are you looking forward to?" no longer has to be answered with, "Football."
"Now, I think if you ask that question, you would get a different answer from a variety of different Philadelphians," Negandhi said. "Now you have that buzz about the Sixers. About the Phillies. You're saying, 'Holy cow, I cannot wait for what's ahead.' I was jealous that Boston had that. Boston would transition from one season to the next, and love it. That's what's going on here."
So when Bryce Harper said on March 2, in Clearwater, Florida, with ink still drying on a $330 million contract, that he didn't want to go anywhere but Philadelphia, that he "wanted to be here," was that just money talking?
Or maybe, just maybe, he recognized the renaissance.
Maybe, after a look around, he meant what he said.