Editor's note: This story appears in the December 5, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
What would you do upon getting your dream job? Plenty of people—perhaps most of us—would play it safe. After all, you just got your dream job. No sense in losing it.
Others, however, might do something innovative, audacious even. After all, you just got your dream job. No sense in wasting it.
Then there’s Sam Hinkie, the former GM of the 76ers. Hinkie skipped right past audacious and made for you gotta be f---ing kidding me. He did the kind of stuff people talk about late at night after three beers, because theoretically it just might work, but no one actually does. Then he set fire to the lifeboats. And, depending on your perspective, his plan either worked, sorta worked, or failed in spectacular fashion.
This story is about what happens after. What happens when you’re 38 years old and have already blown up a franchise and become both cult hero and cautionary tale.
What do you do next?
Coffee. For starters you drink lots and lots of coffee. Hinkie has his first cup at 6:30 a.m. most days, then another half an hour later. When I meet him, at 9 a.m. on a recent October morning at Blue Bottle Coffee in Palo Alto, Calif., he is on cup three. We are surrounded by yoga moms, start-up dudes and what must be $250K of MacBooks.
It’s an interesting moment to be around Hinkie. The previous night the 76ers—his 76ers—played their season opener, which they lost. But no one cared about the outcome, for it was the debut of Joel Embiid, the 7-foot Cameroonian center drafted by Hinkie in 2014, who spent the last two years sidelined with foot injuries. You could say it went well. In 22 minutes Embiid scored 20 points, pulled down seven rebounds, and generally looked like a pirated version of Hakeem Olajuwon.
The performance brought joy to many. Embiid, of course. The Sixers’ owners, who, with a nudge from the league, pushed out Hinkie last spring. And, perhaps most of all, Sixers fans, some of whom reacted as if they’d seen the Rapture. During the game “Sam Hinkie” trended on Twitter. Afterward, Embiid tweeted “Trust the Process.”
And Hinkie? Is he sad? Angry? Vindicated? No, he says, he is happy. Happy for Embiid. Happy for all the people in the Sixers’ organization.
He’s not terribly interested in talking about it, though. Hinkie has long espoused having “the longest view in the room,” and he’s currently focused on the future. Machine learning. Artificial intelligence. The cross-pollination of different industries. On a noncompete until the end of the season, he’s viewing this “gap year” (his phrase) as an opportunity to reassess, reinvest in himself and shed his old persona.
He certainly looks different. In Philly he was clean-cheeked, with a perfect left-side part, a Mad Men character come to life. He owned 25 blue blazers, all size 40 regular. The goal: reduce decision fatigue, the psychological phenomenon in which the more choices we make in any given day, the worse we are at making them. So, like Steve Jobs (black turtleneck, jeans) and Barack Obama (blue or gray suit), Hinkie settled on a uniform and ran with it. Boom! Decades of choices, eliminated in one fell swoop.
Now, however, his thin brown hair is shorn to a stubble that matches his nascent tech-guy beard, and he is wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a fleece. He looks like he just arrived for your fantasy football draft. By the end in Philly, Hinkie couldn’t order from GrubHub without being asked to pose for a selfie with the driver. (He’d do it in the garage, so as not to disclose his location.) Since moving to Palo Alto in August he has yet to be recognized.
Besides the obvious reasons—weather, culture, networking, anonymity—Hinkie came here to be among what he calls “my people,” the quants, dreamers, AI geeks and visionaries. As opposed to the sports world, which can range from socialist to dictatorial but is often slow to embrace change, in Silicon Valley disruption is expected. Here no one tries to replicate the status quo or embrace average. Here companies operate for years without showing a profit, for better or worse. “When I meet someone out here, I’ll say, ‘I’m kind of between gigs,’ ” Hinkie says. “Or, if I’m being cute, sometimes I’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m like a founder that got pushed out for professional management,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, first time? That happened to me in ’85 and ’93 and ’02.’ ” He pauses. “There’s not the sense of shame for failure here that there is some other places.”
Did Hinkie fail? When he took over in Philadelphia in May 2013, the team was soundly mediocre and trending down. Few assets. Bad contracts. Hinkie compares it to coming into a game of Monopoly midstream, only, “You don’t have any real estate, all the hundreds are gone, and they’ve got Park Place.” So he reverse-engineered NBA success and decided it looked a lot like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Shaquille O’Neal. Which is to say: stars. And the best way to acquire stars, Hinkie determined, is through the draft, though the odds are still low. So Hinkie shed his best players and built the Sixers to lose, and then lose some more. All the while he stashed talent overseas (like Dario Saric), and acquired injured big men with upside (Nerlens Noel and Embiid).
This did not go over particularly well. The league feared copycats and moved to reform the lottery to reduce the odds that the worst team would get the top pick. (The vote fell short.) Critics charged Hinkie with being anticompetitive and forgetting that pro sports are inherently entertainment, you a-hole, and how am I supposed to explain to my nine-year-old that his favorite team is now a series of Excel spreadsheets instead of hometown heroes?
Hinkie didn’t blink. Reasonable people can disagree with the results, and they certainly have, often quite passionately. (A wealth of reading material awaits online if you’re curious, including a good explanation of The Process here.)
Public perception will ultimately hinge on what happens next. If Embiid and Ben Simmons develop into two of the league’s best frontcourt players, and Saric continues to blossom, revisionist history may rule the day. Alternately, if the Sixers continue to falter, people may say, Told you so.
Both of these reactions would, to Hinkie’s mind, miss the point.
"Why do we watch basketball games front to back?” Hinkie asks. “Why not watch games back to front, or out of order?”
It is two weeks later, and we are in San Francisco, riding in an Uber between Hinkie’s second meeting of the day, with the founder of a health-care start-up, and his third, with an old Stanford friend who now runs a hedge fund. As the city glides by, Hinkie discusses one of his least-favorite terms: the narrative.
By doing anything in chronological order—reading a job candidate’s interview responses, watching clips of a player—he believes we end up overvaluing the context. I liked this candidate’s first three answers, so I’m predisposed to like the fourth.
The problem with narratives is that they contain heroes and villains and protagonists and character arcs and redemption and vindication, all of which can overshadow or obscure fact and truth and reality. They derive, as Hinkie puts it, from “the lizard parts of our brains.” Which means they’re simplistic and, for a man who believes there are roughly 2,000 shades of gray, this is troubling.
The other problem with narratives is that, whether you like it or not, they are really, really powerful. An oft-cited study found that if you embed details in a story, it’s up to 22 times more likely to stick. Remember Cecil the Lion? Sure you do, because some dentist went and shot a beloved animal and suddenly we all cared about lion preservation. But if an organization had just put out the information—African lions are being killed at a distressing rate—it may never have pierced your awareness.
Hinkie is aware of this phenomenon. “I’m superkeen on that topic,” he says, which is not surprising. Hinkie is superkeen on a lot of topics. This is a man who listens to books on 3X speed on Audible and curates his Pocket account the way some men once curated album collections, because if you really want to understand something there’s no better way than to spend six hours reading a book someone spent five years researching (density of information!). He espouses a growth mind-set and the ability to be a lifelong learner. (For this reason he’s a big fan of Steve Kerr.)
Thus, after years of being secretive bordering on paranoid, disappearing from public view for weeks and rarely offering quotes on the record—ceding control of his own narrative, essentially, for fear that to explain too much would be to cede his competitive advantage—Hinkie is now tentatively engaging with the world. In September he popped up on Twitter under his own name, sending a string of 10 tweets that ended with a call for reading recommendations. (Hundreds responded, including Embiid, who sent a link to an article about himself.) In reality Hinkie has been on Twitter for a decade—it’s his main source of news—but this was his first time going public. As he says at one point: “I can’t afford to be quiet all the time. I learned that.”