- Eight months after he resigned from the 76ers, the team's former architect is in Silicon Valley, hanging with quants and start-up visionaries as he prepares for his next act.
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.”
Which brings us to the story you’re currently reading. It was not Hinkie’s idea. On the contrary, he fears its existence will provide the impression that he’s on “a public rehabilitation tour.” This is why it took a month of coaxing to get him to agree, and then only with constraints. Talk to his wife? Nope. Parents? No way. How about a photo? Hinkie needed to sleep on that one. Finally, he decided it was acceptable.
Even so, he’s quite anxious. “The worst part of [a general manager’s] job is that it’s public,” he says. “And so I do as much as possible to protect the people I love because they didn’t choose this life, I did.”
At first, after resigning, Hinkie considered getting away from it all. Maybe a trip to Patagonia or “an Endless Summer type deal.” But then he thought about his four sons—Tyler, nine, Hudson, six, and two-year-old twins Cooper and Cole—and, as he puts it, “I realized that wouldn’t be the most fatherly thing to do.” Friends from the league encouraged him to get in shape, maybe run a triathlon, but he’s not interested. Instead, he took the advice of Paul DePodesta, the former Dodgers GM and Moneyball disciple who’s now with the Cleveland Browns. “Treat this as a rare opportunity to refocus the next 20 years of your life,” DePodesta told him. So Hinkie thinks big picture while setting small, realistic goals, like guest lecturing at Stanford next semester and teaching Hudson to ride a bike. In the meantime the three older Hinkie boys, Sam included, ride push scooters to school each morning. “The last time I was unemployed was 1989, and I’ve seen the research on retired people and how they feel about it,” Hinkie says. “I’m definitely wired in a way that you wouldn’t predict it would go wonderfully.”
To combat this he’s embraced an arsenal of life hacks. Every hour between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., his Fitbit watch vibrates. Not to remind him to exercise; as Hinkie says, “I do not feel compelled to impress it.” Rather, it’s a cue to consider the previous hour. Was he productive? Did he achieve his goals? He then spends the following 60 seconds considering the hour to come. Once properly centered, Hinkie proceeds with his day.
If that day is a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, it rarely includes email. Similarly, he doesn’t check his texts in the mornings because, “You can’t let someone else’s agenda hijack your day.” If his wife, Ali, needs him, she calls twice in a row. Otherwise, he rarely takes out his phone. “If you don’t create structure, your time will get eaten up pretty quickly,” warns Hinkie. “And the alternative is harsher than you think, because the world will suck it up.”
Mornings are reserved for creative tasks when his brain is fresh. Afternoons for meetings. Built in throughout are “opportunities for serendipity.” During one such window, at Blue Bottle, an old friend saw him and mentioned he was headed to lunch with the Google Translate guy. Did Sam want to come? Yes, yes he did. Two hours later, after a deep dive into linear algebra, Hinkie had gained a new pocket of knowledge.
On the days I shadowed him, Hinkie stacked meeting on top of meeting, to better maximize his time. (Some are with people who reach out to him, hoping to pick his brain, while others he sets up.) He sat with hopeful Stanford M.B.A. students, seemingly all of whom wanted to run a team one day. He listened as a wiry start-up founder described his quest for life optimization, which included eating the same meal, a doctor-recommended curry, every day for nine months. He nodded along with the head of the Positive Coaching Alliance, of which he is a national advisory board member, and recommended contacting Stan Van Gundy. (“Hit him up for a coaching clinic. That’s catnip for the Van Gundys.”) One morning we met at Facebook, where Hinkie had just finished talking to the virtual reality folks. Another afternoon we took a four-mile hike—research proves that walking improves cognitive function, after all—and discussed parenting, AI and Bayesian probabilities.
People who first meet Hinkie are often surprised. For one, he’s funnier than you expect. (At one point he jokes, “If Pop turns David Lee into a great defender, he’s a wizard and we should burn him.”) But mainly it’s the contrast between his affect—amiable, Oklahoma twang—and his ability to clinically, ruthlessly deconstruct situations. Will Weaver, who worked for the Sixers and is now a special assistant to Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, first met with Hinkie while trying to break into pro basketball in the mid-2000s. Says Weaver, “He’d say the nicest things about me that didn’t feel like compliments. He had this ability to assess without dragging himself into an emotional state.” When Weaver left the meeting, after an hour and a half, he called his mom and told her two things. First: “That’s a guy I want to work for someday.’ ” Second: “He’s the weirdest dude I’ve ever met.”
This is something of a recurring theme with Hinkie. “There’s a huge disconnect between who Sam is and who the world thinks he is,” says Than Powell, a grad school friend. Though this is more like half-true. Because in some respects Hinkie is exactly the guy you think he is. To wit: When he and Ali flew out to Palo Alto this summer to house-hunt, Sam used the Wi-Fi on the plane to rent route optimization software from a trucking company. His logic: a percentage of the 24 houses they’d targeted from afar could be eliminated just by driving by them, because sometimes you just know. So Sam designed an optimal driving route, and the next morning, before meeting with the real estate agent, he and Ali cut their list from 24 to 12 in two hours. This in turn spared a second day of house-hunting, which they used for a rare, kid-free date.
Then again, Hinkie is not always that guy. He is both hyperrational and a man of deep faith. He’s the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with—good company, wry—but he doesn’t drink. He’s unemotional but also sentimental. A friend recounts how, while first wooing Ali, Hinkie spent his winter break feeding quarters into a pay phone to call her long distance from the lodge at Disneyworld, where his family was staying. (The Hinkies love Disneyworld.) Later Sam convinced the lodge to sell him the actual phone, which is now in their house in Palo Alto. He also has a slat from the bench in Paris where he proposed to Ali.
With the Sixers, Hinkie was renowned for his dispassion. “Bleak events would happen and that day looked exactly like the days when Robert Covington has 40 and we look smart for signing him,” recalls one colleague. “There was no variation at all to Sam’s approach and it probably freaked people out, I know it did.” Then again, Hinkie was also known for his empathy. One example: He drove Evan Turner to the airport after trading him. “You couldn’t find a group of nicer, more approachable humans,” a co-worker says of Sam and his family. “Then you see him act like Jerry Maguire on draft night and you’re like, holy s--t, this guy is a unique cat.”
Younger Sixers staffers often saw Hinkie as a mentor. After he wrote his infamous, leaked 13-page resignation letter to Philly brass—in which he alternately defended his record, pointed the way forward and quoted everyone from Atul Gawande to Max Planck—Sixers then VP of basketball operations Sachin Gupta, whom Hinkie had originally hired in Houston and then brought to Philly, in turn wrote his own private letter to Ali and the Hinkie boys, telling them “how grateful I am to him for shaping me as an individual.”
In the letter Gupta related a series of examples of Hinkie’s character, including the story of Marlene Barnes, the longtime Sixers secretary Hinkie inherited upon arriving. Barnes was diagnosed with cancer. Hinkie was one of a handful of people in the organization she told. He arranged for her and her family to take a trip to New York City, to see the musical Hamilton. When Barnes retired last spring, as the cancer advanced, she publicly thanked Hinkie. Two months later, she passed away. Her service ended up being on the day after that of Sixers assistant Sean Rooks, who tragically died from heart disease. Ten people made it to both services to pay their respects. Nine traveled to the services at the team’s expense on a private jet. The other was Hinkie, no longer a Sixers employee, who traveled at his own expense and took a red-eye flight from L.A. to Philly, the only commercial flight that allowed him to be present.
Hinkie’s background doesn’t necessarily fit the public narrative, either. Unless your version had him growing up in a small oil town in Oklahoma, enduring his only brother’s death at 17 (a subject Hinkie does not talk about), and then seeing his childhood best friend, Kimberly Hampton, become the first female American pilot to be killed in battle, in Iraq in 2004. Hinkie remains close to her family and figures prominently in Kimberly’s Flight, a book about her life.
Sam’s father, Ron, worked for Halliburton. His mother, Sarita, stayed home with the boys. When Sam was 10, the family moved from South Carolina to Marlow, a town of 4,600 an hour north of the Texas state line. Sam stood out from the start. “Born on third base,” as he says, not because his family had money but because he considers intellect, not class, to be the new driver in society. Hinkie’s high school biology teacher gave one test to Sam and another to the rest of the class. Sam was valedictorian, class president all four years, and voted Most Likely to Succeed. At 5'9" and 145 pounds he played safety on the football team and was the point guard for the basketball team. He was exactly the type of player you’d think he would have been. Scrappy. Heady. A floor leader. Worked out in those clunky Jumpsoles shoes. By the time he graduated he could squat nearly 500 pounds. At Stanford—where he got his M.B.A. after graduating from Oklahoma—he was the guy who pulled his beat-up Chevy Tahoe onto the outdoor court, headlights on, so the three-on-three pickup game could continue.
It comes as little surprise, then, that as a talent evaluator Hinkie had a soft spot for players with similar mental makeup to his own. Grinders. Guys who give a crap. During his years as assistant GM in Houston, Hinkie’s favorite player was Chuck Hayes, an effort-and-position guy. He similarly loved Kyle Lowry. And he remains fascinated by Kobe Bryant. At one point during our time together he met with a group of eight law students in a conference room at Stanford. “The single metric I wish we had,” he told them, “is the sum total of the scores of every game you’ve ever played. One-on-one, two-on-two, your little sister, your kids, five-on-five, scrimmages, preseason, playoff games.” He paused. “I don’t know what that would say, but I suspect it would be awesome. I suspect it would say that Kobe Bryant is Genghis Khan.”
These days Hinkie looks for insights outside the basketball world. Here he is on a recent morning, waiting for the elevator in the downtown San Francisco offices of HVF Labs, an incubator started by Max Levchin, one of the PayPal cofounders.
Ben Jun, whose wife went to school with Hinkie, greets us at the front desk. Like most of Hinkie’s friends, Jun is both very smart and very successful. He graduated from Stanford, designed the original Audible player, worked on cryptography for Blu-ray discs and credit card chips, and now helms HVF. The company name stands for “Hard, Valuable, and Fun,” which are both the three conditions Levchin believes necessary for tackling a problem and perhaps the most Silicon Valley acronym ever.
In a glass-walled conference room Jun spreads out a stack of pharmaceutical reports, from which he’s trying to scrape data. Soon enough the conversation turns to securing buy-in. “One of the things we spend a bunch of time thinking about is how to augment a person,” Jun says, leaning back in a swivel chair.
“For sure,” says Hinkie. He sits opposite on a couch, in jeans and a button-down, arms crossed so tight he looks like he’s hugging himself, which I’ve come to realize means he’s really energized. (If he looks like he’s got a migraine, eyes closed and thumbs pressed into his eyes, it means he’s thinking hard or really listening.) “But I’d definitely come at it from a standpoint of, ‘Don’t assume people will change.’ ”
Hinkie provides an example from his six seasons as assistant GM in Houston, where he would provide analytics to coach Rick Adelman. “We’d feed him the information in a way that he liked and could consume,” says Hinkie. “The moment Rick sat down on the plane with a glass of wine, someone would walk by with two sheets of paper, set them in his lap and walk away. Those sheets of paper had the stuff that was relevant for the next game, because that’s the moment he started thinking about the next game.” Hinkie continues. “It wasn’t an 8 a.m. auto email every day [to which] he’d be like, ‘Delete, I don’t check my email,’ or ‘I get distracted with other emails.’ No, make the whole system work for him. As head coach, he’s superimportant. And by the way, he might not have his glasses on, so the font is like 25.”
As Hinkie talks, Jun nods. Like many of Hinkie’s buddies, he is not a basketball guy. Still, upon hearing that Hinkie left the Sixers, Jun tried to convince him to join HVF, to no avail. “Sam is infinitely employable,” says Jun. “I know six people who are hoping he doesn’t go back to the NBA because they’d like to hire him. He’s very good at understanding regulated industries. We look at sports as something other than a regulated industry, but that’s really what it is.”
Ray Bradford, a friend who is founder of Spruce Health, describes Hinkie’s strength as, “Constantly looking at problems in a generic, transferable way.” In meetings Hinkie tends to poke at ideas until he finds holes. He uses analogies to relate complex ideas, tailoring them to his audience. (Explaining the difficulty of attracting free agents to a bad team, he asks Stanford students, “What would it take to convince you to choose Florida Atlantic over Stanford?”) Because of his folksy demeanor, he’s able to be quite blunt. A sampling of things he says in meetings includes:
“So those make sense to me and aren’t terribly different from what I thought you would have said, but I think you’re leaving some things unsaid.” Translation: I’m not impressed so far and think you’re holding out on me.
And: “Let me get a little more narrow there because I still think you have constraints that aren’t said out loud, which is fine.” Translation: Apparently you’re not getting it, and I still think you’re holding out on me.
And, before delivering a pointed opinion (in this case, that a friend is misdirecting his time trying to be too broad): “This might sound terrible and I don’t think many people will tell you this…” Translation: This might hurt a bit but it’s for the best.
Over time, Hinkie’s worldview tends to rub off. To spend time around him is to begin Pocket-ing assiduously (aspiring to an “asynchronous life”), considering one’s email consumption, and thinking further ahead than, say, two weeks (As a former Sixers colleague puts it: “I was always talking about how we needed to walk before we could run, and Sam was focused on building a better bicycle”). By the end of our days together, I found myself returning home and lapsing into Hinkie-speak, to the great amusement of my spouse. “Try it for three years!” says Weaver, the former Sixers scout. “My wife would be just about fed up with me trying to triage her opportunities at work.” He continues. “I’m clearly brainwashed. But part of why that's attractive is that I got to see a lot of real life examples of how well that worked. A theory could be applied to a draft or an apartment search or a dating website. Some of it is seeing it work and being in the habit. But a bigger part was how relatable he is.”
Disrupters tend to foster strong feelings, and Hinkie’s departure in Philly was welcomed by plenty around the league for a multitude of reasons. (Agents felt undervalued; others felt he didn’t respect the game.)
Others remain admirers. “I’m a huge fan of Sam,” Mark Cuban said in September. Daryl Morey, Hinkie’s former boss in Houston, is clearly biased, but he’s also optimistic. Asked if Hinkie’s methodology will be embraced again, he says, “One hundred percent it will be. First off, Philly will do really, really well. It’s a copycat league. Second, every year there are better and smarter owners.” Morey says he’d hire Hinkie back as an assistant “in a second,” but that, “I don’t think he’d be interested. He’s destined for bigger things.” Adds Morey: “My advice is to go long on Sam Hinkie. He’s a growth stock.”
A half dozen other GMs and execs—an admittedly unscientific survey—voiced largely similar sentiments. Some pointed out that while fans and media get hung up on the narrative, people in the league move on much more quickly. “Sam’s respected, and that’s the biggest thing for sure,” says one GM. Another points out that just by having confidence in his ideas, Hinkie is appealing to owners. Because, for one, how many people can do the job of NBA GM? And within that subset how many of those actually have a plan? (See the last 10 years in Sacramento.) In Philly, Hinkie became known as a cutthroat negotiator, sometimes to his detriment. But at least one rival GM thought his rep was earned partly because Hinkie’s combination of certainty and patience was intimidating. He knew what he wanted and was willing to wait for it. This is not the norm in pro sports, where, as one exec says, “To be honest, most of us are just plowing through.”
On one thing all agree: To get a chance to run a team as a GM again, rather than in a consulting or assistant role, Hinkie needs to have learned from his mistakes. “Communication is a big part of the job now,” says one GM. “You can’t ignore it.” Former colleagues note that his affinity for “the idea of self sacrifice for the larger good” leads him astray at times. “I think, in retrospect, his media strategy was wrong,” says one. “I think it came from the right place. He felt that revealing things, or doing things that felt self-aggrandizing, would come at the expense of the franchise and any competitive advantage.” It’s that damn narrative again. It’s hard to relate to someone you don’t know.
For his part Hinkie is a proponent of frequent self-assessment. He espouses writing down your thoughts in a notebook—he carries a leather-bound one—because it forces you to confront your initial predictions and opinions. He now admits that, yes, he probably should have been nicer to player agents. “I could have taken David Falk out to lunch and said sorry.” And, yes, he could have communicated better. “Now, sitting where I am, maybe I should have focused on the story more,” he says. (Hinkie’s noncompete restricts him from disparaging comments about the owners, though he says, “I only have good things to say about them anyway.”) As for his cult hero status—bearded, brainy young men wear shirts bearing Hinkie’s face to Sixers games—he claims to be bewildered. Upon meeting his acolytes in person, he says his advice is, “Calm down,” because, “there’s no way I can live up to their outsized expectations.”
To date, Hinkie says he’s been approached by a couple of teams, informally, but he won’t know the market until the end of the season, when his noncompete is up. That is, if he goes back to basketball. When I first saw him in October, he seemed unsure. He needed to evaluate. Find a focus. “I’m working 30 hours or so a week, and if I’m being honest I’d rather it was 50,” he said.
As time went by, though, he began to circle back. By early November he seemed more certain. “I think the world probably assumes that I’m recharging and unplugging, and there’s a little of that,” he said one evening. “This will get me in trouble if I say it, but I think I’m mostly sharpening the sword to come back.”
He cautions that this doesn’t mean he won’t continue to focus on personal growth. “I’m not going to go to 10 NBA training camps to maximize the chances of getting a job in 11 months,” he says. “I care much more about my life than the likelihood of being employed by next season. The things you learn well compound over time. I’m going to do what I can to stay relevant and dangerous in regards to 2017. But I’m superfocused on what life will look like in 2027 and 2037 and how I can plant seeds now that bear fruit by then, if not before.”
In particular Hinkie is superfocused on the bots. Which, best as I can tell, are coming for all of our jobs and children. He recommends AI books and articles on how driverless trucks are going to ream the middle class. He asks questions like, “Why are you teaching your kids to type?” (A question worth asking, he argues, because soon enough everything will be voice recognition.) And: “How are you preparing your kids for a life with 60% unemployment?”
The ways in which machine learning will change basketball are not yet clear, but that’s not the point. Maybe it’s minutes and player combinations and who touches the ball. Maybe it’s contracts. What’s important, to Hinkie, is that the first people to harness it will gain the advantage. In a free market anyone can enter. In a closed market of 30 teams, to incorporate new ideas is to gain an advantage, even if it’s momentary. In that regard Hinkie has long worried that someone really smart will buy a team, hire 1,000 engineers and stash them in some building in Mountain View.
All this should give you a clue that if Hinkie works in the NBA again, he won’t necessarily be repeating The Process. “He’s way too smart for that,” says one rival GM. “He was just doing what made the most sense for that team.” Instead Hinkie will likely react situationally, based on where he thinks he can gain an advantage on the system. That’s why the fear of crappy teams suddenly copying the Sixers’ strategy never made sense. If 10 franchises all vie for lottery positioning, the advantage is gone.
The search now is for the next edge. When pressed, Hinkie mentions emotional intelligence (EQ) and human optimization (think mandatory Lasik for baseball batters to enhance their hitting eye) as potential differentiation points while rising skill levels, training techniques and machine learning reduce other advantages. Ultimately, though, he believes it is luck that will gain the most in importance. All else being equal, after all, it is luck that decides the day.
Hinkie is particularly attached to the concept. Asked to describe his own narrative, he settles on the idea of brushing yourself off, getting up and making your own luck. That means being at the river delta when opportunities drift by. It means investing where you have an edge, as Warren Buffett, one of his personal heroes, espouses. And it means waiting for the right opportunity—the big opportunity—and then going all in.
Hinkie explains this in a variety of ways over the course of our time together, but he does so best perhaps unintentionally, while talking to Stanford grad students one night. The topic is certainty, and Hinkie, perhaps fried from a long day of meetings, or perhaps caught up in the moment, brings up an unusually personal example. “I was a really good student until I met my wife,” he tells the assembled twentysomethings. “And then, like, all my energies went to that until she said yes.” The students laugh. “I’m not joking,” Hinkie continues. “All my energy went to that. For a year and a half. I didn’t end up being a terrible student, but my time allocation was, I think, shocking.” He looks around. “And by the way, the single best thing I ever did, by a huge margin, is that. The single biggest lever in my whole life. It’s not close. And I see some of my friends—and I take everything seriously—and I ask them, ‘Does it matter?’ Yes? Then pour everything into it. What wouldn’t you pay to make it so, if it’s right?”
Now the grad students are quiet. This is going places they didn’t expect. They’re reflecting on their own lives. “That’s an example,” Hinkie says, leaning forward. “And of course you have to be careful that you’re thinking reasonably. But I think it’s true in other places, too. People are too willing to scratch the itch of the near thing. Discipline is the difference between what you want and what you want most and what you really, really want. . . . I think people often don’t bring that kind of rigor to whatever it is, if it’s important. Because they’d rather make lots of little tiny decisions than a few big ones.”
With that, Hinkie finishes, letting the sentiment hang in the air. The students sit and stare. And in that moment The Process makes a lot more sense.
One final image. On Stanford’s campus, south of the main quad. A hike up near the Wilcox Solar observatory, past what’s known as the Dish. Imposingly fit blonde women, power walking in spandex, cruise past.
As we go, Hinkie talks about Bill Belichick, whose brain fascinates him. And how much he respects Danny Ainge. And how hard it is to find good big-man coaches. At one point he stops and picks up a piece of sand. Hold it up to the sky and it obscures 10,000 galaxies. It’s a useful exercise in perspective.
Normally, this is the point in the story where we’d pull it all together. Complete the arc. Show how the protagonist’s journey has either changed him or how he has changed the world.
But that’s a narrative device and that seems wrong when writing about a man like Hinkie. Because his story remains incomplete. Is this Hinkie’s Act II? Perhaps. Who knows? A man like Hinkie could have many acts. He could do something surprising or exactly what we expect. He could become a CEO or an author or disappear off the map.
So it feels more appropriate, and intellectually honest, to leave this story in midstream, to just stop it somewhere.
Like, say, right here.