With the 76ers in the NBA Playoffs, The Process' preeminent podcast must learn how to win
The Rights To Ricky Sanchez takes its victory lap
Spike Eskin and Michael Levin used to joke that, when the Philadelphia 76ers weren't bad anymore, they'd have to find a new team to talk about every week. They have been co-hosting The Rights To Ricky Sanchez podcast for almost five years, and they are more than comfortable discussing the merits of fringe NBA players, preaching patience and calling out their critics.
Less comfortable for Eskin, the program director at SportsRadio 94 WIP in Philadelphia, and Levin, a comedy writer in Los Angeles: Caring about the results of games, expecting the Sixers to win and thinking about how they match up with the Miami Heat. Their favorite team won 52 games in the regular season, earning the No. 3 spot in the East, and they are learning how to, um, process it all like regular people.
"It's been really, really strange," Eskin said. "It's been really fun, and I think as it's gone on it's gotten more fun as I've gotten more comfortable figuring that out. And I know to a normal sports fan, to a normal person, that should sound crazy. The idea of wanting them to win and being happy when they win and sad when they lose is just sort of what sports is, it's the normal thing, but for us we spent four years really not caring if they won and lost."
Philadelphia is the hottest team in the league and the first in NBA history to enter the postseason on a 16-game winning streak. Lately, the The Rights To Ricky Sanchez has felt like an extended victory lap.
"The fact that it happened so soon is an embarrassment of rightness," Levin said on a recent episode. "It's like getting a lifetime supply of pudding. There's simply no way I can spend all this rightness in one place. I'm just going to keep it in a closet and go to it when I need pudding."
One could argue that the Sixers have not accomplished anything yet. They have yet to win a playoff series, and they are certainly not guaranteed a championship in this era. Levin thinks this fundamentally misses the point, as the philosophy behind The Process would have been correct "even if it didn't work out, even if Embiid never played." In order to understand the radical rebuild engineered by former general manager Sam Hinkie, Levin believes you must know what led to it.
If Levin was writing or producing a 30 for 30 about The Process -- a recurring subject on The Rights To Ricky Sanchez -- it would start with Allen Iverson. Perhaps it's him hoisting the 2001 MVP trophy; maybe it's the famous shot of him stepping over Tyronn Lue in the NBA Finals. The documentary would then cover "the downturn of Iverson" followed by "the long stretch of mediocrity" that, in Levin and Eskin's estimation, necessitated the teardown that produced Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the upswing that Philadelphia is enjoying today.
Remember Randy Ayers' 52 games as coach? How about Eddie Jordan's one dismal season before the Doug Collins era? Levin said they should both be part of the story. And where should the podcast fit in?
"I think it's at the center," Levin said.
Even if you have never listened to The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, you might have seen some of Eskin and Levin's handiwork: NBA Draft lottery parties (last year's featured an on-stage engagement, this year's will have a wedding); the ; trips to Brooklyn, Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee.
Each time, when media outlets reported on Sixers fans gathering without mentioning the podcast that connected them, Eskin and Levin admonished them for failing to "say the name."
About that name: Levin and Eskin did two podcasts together in the summer of 2013 before settling on it. There were other possibilities (Spike n' Mike's Roundball Roundup, Good Length and Max Deal among them), but they settled on the one that would confuse people.
"Should this be it? Is this too esoteric?" Levin said, recalling their conversation. "It was like, of course this is too esoteric, that's what we have to do. Of course this is going to appeal to nobody."
They had no idea at the time that, on a scouting trip, Hinkie would email them a photo of Sanchez, a Puerto Rican center who plays in Mexico and whose rights the Sixers once owned. They had no clue that they would build a fan base, much less popularize the phrase "Trust The Process" and lead a fervent army of Process Trusters.
In the three years that Hinkie was in charge, The Rights To Ricky Sanchez celebrated Philadelphia's march to the bottom of the standings. "We looked like cheerleaders half the time," Eskin said, regardless of how poorly the team was performing.
"As a consumer of NBA basketball, it sucked to watch the team, the product on the court was garbage, but those two guys made it fun to go through it," listener Andy Stahl said.
Hinkie made an appearance three months into the podcast's existence. Eskin, however warned then-public relations director Michael Preston that the podcast's of loyalty was not unconditional.
when Hinkie controversially resigned in April 2016. Eskin and Levin became outwardly antagonistic toward the organization, making it clear that they were invested in coach Brett Brown and the players, not management.
Suddenly, Philadelphia's most committed, passionate fans were skeptical of everything the new team president Bryan Colangelo did or said. Complicating things further, Embiid continued to embrace Hinkie's vision publicly and acknowledge The Rights To Ricky Sanchez online. When he made his debut in the 2016-17 preseason, he nicknamed himself "The Process" and made the Sixers' public address announcer introduce him as such.
"It's been amazing, I've loved every bit of it," Embiid said. "I love all the support that they give me, all the Sixers fans give me. Anytime I get on the court and I get the chance to give them what they want, I'm excited about it."
The organization might prefer to pretend the Hinkie era never happened, but that is not a realistic option. As for the Sixers' relationship to the podcast, Levin said they "can't get too close because I called [owner] Josh Harris a f---face in a bunch of episodes."
In December, Philadelphia guard T.J. McConnell appeared on a live episode of The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, which was recorded at Underground Arts, normally a venue for live music. Appropriately, McConnell was treated like a rock star.
"I kind of got warned about it, but I didn't expect really what it was," McConnell said. "It was rowdy. And I loved it."
McConnell said he probably said too many swear words when he was on stage, but he was just trying to have fun and show everybody in attendance that he is "a normal guy, like them." Every now and then, people approach McConnell to tell him they were there.
As preparation for having McConnell on his own podcast, Philadelphia guard JJ Redick listened to the live show. As a podcaster, Redick appreciated Eskin and Levin's chemistry, noting that it was sometimes challenging for him to create a comfortable back-and-forth on his show without a co-host.
"They have great banter on that pod," Redick said.
Sixers forward Robert Covington is scheduled to be part of a live podcast at the upcoming lottery party -- as long as they are not playing in the conference finals, a scenario that looks less crazy by the day. Eskin said that he does not want player appearances to become a regular thing, though, as it makes it more difficult for he and Levin to discuss the players objectively.
While neither co-host considers the podcast to be a journalistic enterprise, they both feel a responsibility to hold the organization accountable and make sure Hinkie's work is remembered accurately. Eskin followed up an extended interview with an email about Hinkie, writing that, "I do believe that our support of him and deifying ultimately was part of the reason that the pushback became so strong and he ultimately lost his job."
He added, "Now when he gets hired (if he gets hired) somewhere, the circus restarts, as if they've hired someone who was convicted of a crime."
When it comes to the new front office, The Rights To Ricky Sanchez is not as hostile as it was two years ago. On last weekend's show, Levin spent about 90 seconds giving Colangelo credit for shaping this year's roster. After all, it was not Hinkie who signed Redick last summer or added Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova midseason.
Later in the episode, though, Eskin joked that the snake on Philadelphia's new playoff logo represented special advisor Jerry Colangelo.
Part of the charm of The Rights To Ricky Sanchez is that the co-hosts are, in Levin's words, always ready to "talk about our feelings." Eskin, 41, is a veteran in radio, but considers the podcast "the most amazing thing I've done in my career" because it became a meeting point for Sixers fans when they were losing almost every game, giving them a shared experience similar to what you might have cheering for a winning team.
Stahl, 32, handed out T-shirts at the 2016 lottery party for four hours and refused to accept any compensation for it. "One of my favorite things about the podcast," he said, is that Eskin and Levin give the vast majority of their sponsorship money to charities like The National Coalition of Domestic Violence, The Alzheimer's Association of The Delaware Valley and Justice Rescue.
Lee Pavorsky, the proprietor of L.L. Pavorsky Jeweler's, was originally turned down when he told Eskin and Levin he wanted to be their first sponsor. They didn't want to accept money, but they made a deal involving donations. The 53-year-old Richaun Holmes fan was brought into this community by his son, Jake, a former Sixers writer for Liberty Ballers and NJ.com. Now he is not only a fixture at The Rights To Ricky Sanchez events, but also an ambassador of sorts.
"Everybody gets along," Pavorsky said. "Everybody is great. You got a T-shirt on, you're part of the family. It really is. And, business aspect, we're pushing 76 engagement rings and hundreds of other customers that have come because of the pod. I've had close to 100 people just email alone that don't live in the area but they want something and they want to support the podcast and they want it from me. So we send it to them. I sent a ring to Puerto Rico last week. We had somebody stop from France. We had somebody stop from Australia."
The listener from Australia attended Pavorsky's holiday party. It is held at the jewelry store and promoted on the podcast.
In February, a listener emailed Eskin about his brother's dog, a rescue named Nina, needing ACL surgery. Eskin tweeted the GoFundMe link and, within a day, the $4,000 needed was raised. While there is a stereotype about Philadelphia sports fans being the sort that will boo Santa Claus, Eskin has reverence for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez's listeners, saying that that they "have just done so much good and have been so good to each other" throughout.
"I'm blown away by it," Eskin said. "I don't even know how to internalize it. And that's why so many times, Mike always jokes, there's a point in every live podcast or day-after-lottery podcast where I talk about how much everybody means to me and all that kind of stuff. But it's true. It affects me every time. I've gotten misty-eyed about it."
"If there's any time I'm legitimately upset with them, it is when they misconstrue their views of skeptics to be more simplistic than they really were," Sports Illustrated's Andrew Sharp said.
Sharp, one of those skeptics, used to be roommates with Levin in Los Angeles. He thought Levin was smug about The Process and liked playing devil's advocate. "We would have so many arguments with me in the kitchen making breakfast and him on the couch just, like, yelling things," Levin said. "It was all the time. And he has less stamina than me so I would win the arguments every time."
Those conversations trickled onto Twitter, and soon Levin and Eskin declared him an enemy of The Process. Like a true wrestling heel, he attended the 2015 lottery party and played along when the crowd chanted, "Asshole!" at him. He posed for pictures with listeners wearing "F--- Andrew Sharp" T-shirts in D.C. last year.
"For the people who get it, they're not completely serious about all of this," Sharp said. "But I think part of the appeal of The Rights To Ricky Sanchez is they lean into being as ridiculous and insufferable as possible."
Levin understands that he and Eskin can be condescending. "I totally agree with the criticism," he said, adding that this is because they have spent countless hours thinking and talking about the Sixers and it is frustrating to be characterized as a bunch of nerds or drones.
"If it wasn't such a publicity shitstorm for the years that Hinkie was here," Levin said, "and if there weren't countless horrible takes written about how this is a Ponzi scheme and it's bullshit and Sam Hinkie is a 'TED-humping moron' from Deadspin, all of those things about it, if they had just left us alone like whatever people are doing with the Hawks or the Grizzlies or any of the nine teams that are straight-up tanking right now, I think we wouldn't have felt like it's us against the world."
Tom Moore of the Bucks County Courier Times has covered the Sixers for 30 years. In July 2016, he quoted a league source saying that forward Dario Saric would not join the team for the 2016-17 season. A week later, Saric arrived in Philadelphia to sign his contract. Moore's Twitter mentions were full of Process Trusters.
"When he came over, they really got on me," Moore said.
Moore still occasionally gets tweets asking if Saric is coming over. He has admitted he was wrong, "and the folks that were critical were generally accepting," he said. Moore added that while he wasn't always on board with Hinkie's decisions and tended to be in the middle of the spectrum when assessing them, he sees "the fruits of all those losses paying off now."
There was always a nuanced discussion to be had about The Process. Sharp said the podcast works because Eskin "grounds things in reality" and Levin provides a "dose of insanity" to keep it entertaining. Asked if he wanted to say anything else about the pair, he laughed.
"Oh, I don't know," Sharp said. "Spike Eskin is one of the most unprofessional people I've ever met. He's a flat-out idiot. Mike Levin should stick to television writing. And that's it. Congrats on all their success."
Levin said he frequently wonders why people listen to the podcast. He and Eskin were not friends before they started talking about the Sixers, but they "each have our areas that get us fired up and we are united in our defiance against bullshit," he said. While he has never wanted sports commentary to be his career, this feels more rewarding than an average hobby.
"It's a fun, weird second life that, when I talk about it in comedy rooms, people kind of don't understand," Levin said. "And I never really know how to talk about it correctly because I'm either under-selling it and people think I'm being modest or I'm over-selling it and people think I'm being stupid."
Eskin said it was always really important to them that they were doing it because they wanted to and did not answer to anyone except their listeners. They both know their voices and rarely get in each other's way.
"[Levin] is really funny," Eskin said. "He's got a sense of timing and wit that I don't, you know? I don't think I'm dull, but I think I bring a lot of the emotion to the podcast and I think he brings a lot of the funny to the podcast."
Their chemistry has developed despite the fact they have spent scant time together in person. "I don't know if we've ever shared a meal," Eskin said, and most of their conversations are either over email or on the podcast itself. The division of labor is not equal; Eskin takes care of most of the logistics all of the editing.
"I feel like I'm mooching off of him because he does most of the work," Levin said. "I just get on Skype and yell about the Sixers and hugely derail the segments he's trying to do."
Two or three times, Levin said, he has "had to talk Spike down from the ledge of quitting the podcast." They have gotten into arguments when Levin has said something derogatory about sports radio that could have reflected badly on Eskin at work. On a recent morning run, Eskin found himself feeling thankful that they have remained committed to it, particularly because it has nothing to do with Levin's professional life.
"I was thinking to myself, I should tell Mike how appreciative I am of him," Eskin said. "Like, I really love Mike. I'm really proud of what we did together.
"And I didn't tell him. It's such a f---ing guy-and-his-dad thing or a guy-and-his-bro thing, where you think about saying it, but you don't say it."
Far from needing to find a new team to discuss, Eskin and Levin will release two episodes of The Rights To Ricky Sanchez every week the Sixers are in the playoffs. And while there is no longer a moral panic about tanking in Philadelphia to address, this topic has been replaced by speculation that LeBron James might sign there this summer. Process Trusters know that Eskin and Levin aren't exactly trying to recruit him.
"Signing LeBron a little bit is like finding the cheat code in Mario Bros. that gets you to the final round without getting through the dungeon stage when you have to jump over the fireballs," Eskin said, "and it's really hard and you have to time it and you have to do all that stuff."
He continued: "I've run a couple of marathons and there would be very little joy in starting the marathon and then blinking your eyes and then finishing the marathon. The joy is in the triumph and the work through it."
LeBron or no LeBron, the Sixers might not be charming underdogs much longer. Should they beat the Heat, plenty of experts will pick them to dispose of the winner of the Boston-Milwaukee series and advance to the conference finals. A run to the NBA Finals does not even seem completely crazy.
"I'm still making my predictions based on the Sixers that I've known for my life, and this is just not that," Levin said. "They have evolved in a way that I don't even recognize."
If and when they become perennial contenders, the chip on Eskin and Levin's collective shoulder could be perceived much differently. "I think people are going to hate us," Levin said, and he is fine with that. In fact, as much as fun as he's having basking in Philadelphia's success, part of him is uncomfortable with just how well things are going. This season was supposed to be the second act of the 30 for 30.
"I don't want them to go too far this year to where expectations next year are championship-or-bust," Levin said. "That makes me nervous. I like the chase. Not that it has to be incremental growth, but I like hunting for it. I don't know if that makes me stupid, but delayed gratification has been what all of this is about: In the future, it's all gonna be good, it's going to be good.
"So I'm a little bit worried about what happens when we get everything we want, and we win a championship with the Process Sixers. Then what? I mean, does the NBA stop existing? Should we cancel the NBA after that happens, at the end of the movie?"
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