CHICAGO — Nipsey Hussle’s Blue Laces 2 blasted through a side hallway inside the United Center minutes after the 76ers’ 114-109 victory over the Bulls Saturday night.
That had become the unorthodox location for the Sixers’ customary postgame workout session—with All-Star James Harden singing along as he lifted with a small group.
“I’ve been chasing a six pack for about 33 years,” Harden quipped as he walked out of the visitors’ locker room.
It was an appropriate moment for the self-deprecating comment. After a disappointing 1-4 start, the Sixers have rebounded with road victories over the Toronto Raptors and Bulls — two playoff-caliber opponents — on consecutive nights.
» READ MORE: Joel Embiid’s dagger three-pointer saves Sixers in ugly 114-109 win over the Chicago Bulls
Here are some behind-the-scenes moments that defined the week:
After the visitors’ locker room inside Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena had almost cleared out late Friday, a Sixers staffer handed Tyrese Maxey a paper box score.
It’s understandable why he would want a physical keepsake after scoring a career-high 44 points and tying a franchise record with nine three-pointers against the Raptors. But it will hold a fonder memory than the last box score he saved. That’s from when he scored 46 points — his highest total at any level in his life — as a high-school junior, but his South Garland team lost in the Texas state championship game.
That provides a glimpse into why Maxey is so focused on team success, even when he thrives individually at 21 years old. He said he still has a group text with about five high-school teammates, which he uses to periodically lament about the loss to this day.
“Don’t talk to me for this week,” he’ll jokingly message the group. “I’m still mad at you guys.”
So when reporters continued to ask Maxey about his stellar performance Friday, he kept scanning down the box score to highlight his teammates’ contributions, rather than across his line.
Reserve forward Georges Niang said Maxey continued to spread out the praise on the charter plane that took the Sixers from Toronto to Chicago. And when the Sixers built a big first-half lead against the Bulls Saturday night — with Maxey primarily on the bench with three fouls — he giddily became first player to meet his teammates with high-fives as they walked off the floor for a timeout.
“We don’t play this game for stats. We don’t play this game for points,” Maxey said. “That’s not what it’s about. It’s a team sport. It’s a competition. At the end of the day, having more points than they do when there’s zeros across the board, that’s all that matters. That’s why this one was way better [than when I scored 46].”
When PJ Tucker lined up for both national anthems in Toronto, the lyrics to “O, Canada” came flooding back.
That reignited memories of Tucker’s rookie season with the Raptors in 2006-07, when he and former No. 1 overall draft pick Andrea Bargnani had to learn the song and sing it in front of the home fans.
“It was so bad,” Tucker said while standing on the same floor following Friday’s shootaround. “I was scared to death.”
Still, the 37-year-old forward calls Toronto “like a little second home,” because it is where he began to establish himself as an NBA player before and after a stint playing in Europe.
“[I have] so many friends, so many people here,” Tucker said.
As Doc Rivers walked out of his pregame news conference ahead of Friday’s victory over the Raptors, the Sixers coach happened to cross paths with Juancho Hernangomez near the tunnel.
“I thought you were supposed to be wearing our jersey!” Rivers said.
That, of course, was a reference to Hernangomez’s starring role in “Hustle,” the Netflix movie in which the real-life NBA journeyman played a potential Spanish phenom discovered by a fictional Sixers international scout played by Adam Sandler. The movie also featured cameos by Rivers and Sixers players Maxey, Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle (and former Sixer Seth Curry).
“We did something together that will last forever,” Hernangomez said from the Raptors’ locker room a few minutes following his meeting with Rivers.
Hernangomez spent five months over two summers filming on location in Philly. Though the first summer included lots of COVID-19 restrictions, Hernangomez called the people “really lovely — and they feel part of the movie, too.”
And when asked which Sixer was the best actor, Hernangomez gave props to Harris. They shot an “intense” scene playing one-on-one on an outdoor court, in front of a large crowd that included rappers and streetball players.
“I remember that as my best day,” Hernangomez said. “You feel the vibes. You feel the connections. That day was special.”
Thybulle abruptly stopped talking mid-sentence last Saturday, dazzled by the necklace Montrezl Harrell wore as he walked into the Sixers’ locker room inside the Wells Fargo Center. Harrell then handed the piece of jewelry to Thybulle, prompting him to turn on his cellphone flashlight to better examine the diamonds covering the face of a sled dog.
“You’re different,” Thybulle told Harrell. “Sheesh.”
Harrell wants the necklace to be more than a flashy conversation piece, however. It is part of his “Underdawg” brand, which also features an interlocking “UD” logo shaped like dog bones. He has incorporated the imaging on apparel, and hopes the theme resonates with anybody who has faced adversity.
“People feel like they’re the underdog in many different situations that they feel like they have to just work to overcome and find their way out,” said Harrell, who elevated himself from second-round draft pick to the 2020 NBA Sixth Man of the Year. “I feel like that’s what my brand is. That’s what I am, and that’s kind of what I want it to be.”
The Sixers have at least two players — Thybulle and reserve big man Paul Reed — who wanted to wear No. 4 in the NBA.
That number, of course, is retired by the Sixers following Dolph Schayes’ Hall of Fame career.
Thybulle, who had worn No. 4 since fourth grade, decided on 22 — because two plus two and two times two both equal four.
Reed, who wore No. 4 in college, then asked about 15 as his second choice. That number is also retired by the Sixers, for Hall of Famer Hal Greer. So he doubled up his original pick with No. 44.
“It’s tough out here,” Reed deadpanned.
NBA media access is largely back to normal, with in-person player interviews occurring in locker rooms before and after games. But due to arena space limitations, sometimes both teams’ coaches conduct their pregame news conferences in the same auxiliary room, back-to-back.
Saturday night, Rivers accidentally walked in before Bulls coach Billy Donovan had finished his session. It led to this funny exchange:
“Just… how long?!” a jokingly exacerbated Rivers said.
“They keep asking me about Austin, and why you prevented him from coming to Florida!” Donovan countered.
» READ MORE: Doc Rivers, a Chicago native, professes his love for the city before Sixers-Bulls
Austin is Rivers’ son, who starred at Duke before carving out a career as an NBA role player. Donovan, who won two national championships at Florida during his tenure from 1996-2015, said Austin Rivers originally committed the school as a ninth-grader — at the same time as future NBA All-Star Bradley Beal, who was an All-SEC player for the Gators before becoming the third overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.