By Joe Yamulla || Sports Editor
Last week, I was fortunate enough to embark on the sports trip of a lifetime. I found myself traveling with the Philadelphia 76ers on their road trip to Oklahoma City and San Antonio. The trip was won through a contest that the Sixers sponsored on Draftkings, the semi-controversial fantasy sports website that continues to grow in popularity. Sports are a crucial part of my life, and not only did I grow up loving basketball, but I also grew up loving the team that makes me miserable every season, the Philadelphia 76ers.
So, the opportunity to travel with the team was simply more important than missing some classes on Thursday and Friday (sorry professors). Yes, I was thrilled to write about this, the moment I sat on the team plane, because it made me rediscover that child-like thrill derived from being around my favorite team. However, the most important part of my trip and this article is the incredible amount of knowledge and insight that I gained regarding the world of professional sports and the NBA.
To start things off, I know the Sixers. Yes, the lovable losers that have become antonymous with winning in the NBA. People ask me all the time how I actually can continue to show up and support this team that has given its fans so little to smile about in the past 10 years. The answer is, I don’t really know why. I’m a Pennsylvania guy who grew up a bit northeast of Philadelphia in the coal region. If there’s one thing about my area and the city of Philadelphia, we’ll stand by those lovable underdogs through the bad and truly relish it when we finally win. So, I arrived in Philadelphia with three of my close friends who joined me, and stepped foot onto the charter flight. As I walked onto the plane, I was in absolute awe. There were healthy food spreads and beverages everywhere for the players, coaches, and staff. Technically, from Thursday to late Saturday night, I was a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, and had access to every single amenity offered. I’ll make this pretty blunt, professional athletes travel in style.
However, as the wheels were up and we took off, the luxuries wore off and the realities of being on a losing team’s plane set in. The players, coaches, and staff were incredibly friendly and accommodating to me and my friends. Yet, I could tell that there was a some restlessness built up amongst the entire flight. As I write this article, the Sixers just finished blowing a game late to the Miami Heat and currently stand winless at 0-14. While the plane soared in the sky for more than three hours, flying over America’s heartland into Oklahoma, head coach Brett Brown sat and completely focused on game film the entire time. As a matter of fact, the entire coaching staff spent every minute conducting game plans and lineups. The players were quiet and mostly slept or talked with Brown. Regardless of how well, where, or who a team is playing, there is an impeccably detailed process of preparation 82 nights out of the year.
I soon found out that this process is not easy, and it is definitely even more difficult when you have the NBA’s youngest and arguably least talented roster. Anyone who follows basketball knows the Sixers are destined for a rough year, but no one thought it would be this bad. Despite promising efforts from rookie Jahlil Okafor, the roster just seems to lack the leadership necessary to win a lot of NBA games. It clearly showed in both games I went to on the road trip. In Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook and his squad handled the boys from Philly without much difficulty. Despite a better effort the following game, the Tim Duncan and the Spurs were still able to defeat the struggling Sixers. After each game, I walked across the court and let the environment sink into my veins for one last time. Then, I ventured into the tunnel and headed for the team busses.
Post-game bus rides were perhaps the most humbling of my experiences. Right next to me sat players, slouched, frustrated, and defeated. They put their headphones on and no one said a single word as we drove to the airport to get on the next flight. After the game in Oklahoma City, rookie Christian Wood from UNLV sat right next to me. Despite the best game of his career, he did not have anything to say or celebrate after the team has still lost. Instead, he picked up his phone and called his grandmother. In front of me, rookie TJ McConnell from Arizona sat and called his mom. It’s interesting how we see these people as so different, so elite, and so unworldly. But, they’re no different from me or you.
The whole trip showed me that they’re just guys who happen to be incredibly talented at what they do. They’re people who call their grandmothers and moms after games and who also feel the pain and exhaustion in defeat–they are not superhuman. Fans should stop expecting them to be so, and understand that these men are vulnerable as well. As each post-game bus arrived at different airports, I knew we were in for a long flight as we trudged up the steps and onto the plane. Twitter and social media is no place for hate-mail regarding how they play, because I first-hand saw the hard work, dedication, and passion in the entire organization. I also saw how much losing affects everyone, from players to the broadcasters.
Also, the hotels may have been swanky, but I can see how difficult the travel would get. Life on the road is never easy, and when we landed in Philadelphia at 3:45am Sunday, I was completely exhausted. I’m sure everyone was, but the team had to lace up their sneakers and play again on Monday. To the average American, being a professional athlete is seen as this easy-going lifestyle. In reality, it’s a grind. It’s stressful, as each and every member of the organization’s livelihood relies on the outcome of every game. Sure, being a professional athlete is what some fans dream about. But it is absolutely not easy, and I could see it in everyone’s eyes on each bus ride or flight.
The 76ers haven’t returned to the NBA finals since Allen Iverson led them there in 2001. Saying that things have been rough is an understatement: they’ve been painful for fans and players. Despite all this, I witnessed how every night the team steps on the hardwood and prepares to compete at the highest level. Experiencing this, and gaining such a profound perspective into the life of a professional athlete is truly more important than any win or loss will ever be. I’ll be forever grateful to this organization for the experience it gave me.
Sophomore Joe Yamulla is the Sports Editor. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.