Last Friday, the Philadelphia 76ers debuted their new starting lineup featuring freshly acquired Tobias Harris. The Sixers’ core have been quickly dubbed “The Phantastic Five,” but I am not going to tell you about how trading for Harris made the Golden State Warriors just a little less insurmountable. I am not going to discuss what it might mean that on a team this front-loaded, the best bench player might be T.J. McConnel or Furkan Korkmaz. What I am going to do is talk about the player that the Sixers shouldn’t have left behind; the athlete that reflects what it really means to play basketball, to play sports at all, to be a superstar.
To a lot of Philadelphia fans, this Sixers team probably feels like the final result of a long process that basketball fans know colloquially as “The Process.” In three seasons from 2012-2015, the Sixers won a total of 47 games. The rosters those years are chock-full of players whose names you have about a 65 percent chance of remembering. As GM Sam Hinkie moved pieces around and built up the assets that would eventually lead to the Sixers’ current roster—arguably the scariest team in the Eastern Conference—one name stands out among the others, and it’s not Robert Covington or Dario Saric. It’s Tony LeonDre Wroten Jr.
I love Tony LeonDre Wroten Jr., and I am not afraid to say it. But at the same time, I am very afraid to say it. Tony represents the best and the worst parts of me, of all of us. He excelled on the court at Garfield High School in Seattle. In 2011, he announced his commitment to the University of Washington, and in the 2011-12 season, he averaged 16 points, five rebounds and four assists.
The Memphis Grizzlies selected Tony as the 25th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. He went back and forth between the Grizzlies and the G-League that season before being traded to the Sixers in August 2013. The next season, Tony started to show flashes of his brilliance, averaging 13-3-3 in 24.5 minutes a game. In 2014-15, he was on track for a breakout year, averaging 16.9 points (nice) and 5 assists, but he subsequently tore his ACL in January and missed the rest of the year. His NBA career was never the same.
The next season, he was a non-factor on a still-terrible Sixers team and the organization waived him on Christmas Eve. Four days later, he tweeted “Cold hearted Savage. Time to make them respect my game and not go looking for it. #SavageSZN” (Twitter, [at]TWroten_LOE, 12.29.2015) The Knicks respected his game enough in 2016 to sign him off waivers, but the only playing time he saw was in a FIFA tournament in the locker room (he defeated Kristaps Porzingis in the championship). He was signed by the Grizzlies in June and dropped again by October. Since then, Tony has spent time away from the court raising his son, but he is not done with basketball; in December, he signed with the Estonian team Kalev/Cramo, and three weeks ago he had 22 assists against Jekabpils. Tony Wroten’s basketball career is like the New Boyz’s music career: vaguely memorable and minutely important in context.
I am not from Philadelphia. I have only been to Philadelphia twice. But regional allegiance and common sense are no match for the absolutely magnetic energy of Tony Wroten. He is all you could ever want in a basketball star: He has fifteen or so minutes of cool highlights—not too few but not too many. He has some personality, but not that much. He sometimes posts on social media way too frequently, but he sometimes only posts once every couple weeks. He likes to play a video game I also like to play. His hometown friend group has a name, but it’s an acronym, so it’s cooler and fits on a t-shirt. He gives up in the face of adversity a normal amount of time. He is just good enough that, like, one in 20 NBA fans knows his name, and I can impress them with my knowledge, and he is definitely bad enough that it makes me weird and quirky and fun to claim him as my favorite player.
Tony Wroten transcends basketball. He is the just-right-porridge of players, the bed that Goldilocks napped in, the Speaker Knockerz of sports. He’s halfway between a good college player and Lebron James. He’s easy to love, impossible to hate. He taught me what it meant to work hard your whole life at something and kinda sorta achieve it. That is the greatest lesson I could ever ask for from Tony. In a way, we are all Tony Wroten: reaching for the stars and getting pretty close, then readjusting our expectations and finding personal acceptance of where we are in life.