Dan Pfeiffer is a New York Times bestselling author, successful podcast host, and former senior advisor to President Barack Obama. He’s also a tortured lifelong fan of the Philadelphia 76ers, who just suffered a devastating blow to their 2020 playoff prospects: A knee injury to star point guard/power forward Ben Simmons that will sideline him for the duration. On Tuesday afternoon, GQ called Dan up for a chat about Philly’s future, the polarizing Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons partnership, why Donald Trump would’ve lost the 2016 election if LeBron James’ More Than a Vote campaign existed four years ago, and much more.
GQ: What have been your main takeaways from the bubble so far?
Dan Pfeiffer: I had very mixed feelings about the NBA coming back. Some of those are related to my Sixers fandom, which we can discuss, but watching the NBA exist successfully a few weeks in, there’s this frustration that we could be doing this as a country. The NBA is doing what South Korea and some of the other countries have done that the United States has been incapable of doing. So it sort of speaks to the what-might-have-been. But to their credit, both from a health and safety perspective and a fan-viewing experience, the NBA has done as well as you could possibly imagine. The games are pretty watchable for an empty gym, which is pretty impressive.
How did your Sixers fandom start?
I grew up in Delaware, right outside of Philly. I went to my first Sixers game in the Dr. J era, Dr. J and Moses in the early 1980s when I was seven. I went to Sixers basketball camps several summers in a row. They would have these sessions that were centered around players, so the coolest thing I did as a child was I went to the Thump and Bump session, which was when Charles Barkley and Rick Mahorn came to your camp for a couple days. That was much cooler than what happened the next summer after the Barkley trade: the Hawk and Dawk, Hersey Hawkins and Johnny Dawkins. So real step down that next year [laughs].
I was also the same year at Georgetown as Allen Iverson. So I spent two years watching him play in college and then he went to the Sixers. Then I became one of those super annoying, to others I guess, Sixers Process fans, where I celebrated every asset hoarded, every trade made, I worshipped at the cult of Sam Hinkie, and here we are now.
To be honest, I had mixed emotions when I watched the Sixers blow it against the Pacers in their first game. It’s probably the most normal I’ve felt since COVID hit. But it also feels weird to feel normal. There’s so much happening in the world that-and I don’t begrudge anyone’s desire for normalcy, people should have it-but it feels like an out of body experience to care so much about how the Sixers do. Both COVID, the larger conversation about structural racism and everything else, it is harder to care about sports so passionately.
You have a cautious, worrisome mentality when approaching political elections. Are you also that way when rooting for the Sixers?
Yes [laughs]. I absolutely am. That is a very appropriate attitude to have, particularly for this Sixers team. If you go back the last 3 or 4 years here, at every turn something bad happens. This is a team that’s won 50 games two years a row and would’ve probably won 50 had this season continued. Even if that’s below expectations, they were a very good team that has come very far from The Process days very quickly. But you have to be a weary sports fan to be a Sixers fan because every time Joel Embiid falls down it could be the end of the team as you know it. You’re living on the razor’s edge at all times.
Like a real NBA nerd I have alerts for Woj and Shams, and push notifications from ESPN, and so I walked away from my phone and I had eight twitter notifications that were all about Embiid being out with a sprained ankle for the game against the Suns today and Ben Simmons being out for the season. I do not need that news happening within five minutes. Spread it out for these poor Sixers fans that have suffered.
I didn’t want to ask this question but since we’re on a path towards it: if you had to pinpoint the darkest moment in recent Sixers history, what would it be?
I think it had to be the Kawhi Leonard shot bouncing in. When they got to Game 6, it was like ‘there’s no way they’re going to win Game 6’ and then they won Game 6 and it’s like, ‘well there’s no way they’re going to win Game 7 in Toronto against Kawhi, the Raptors are clearly a better team,’ Then it felt like they were on the cusp of losing in Sixers fashion the whole way, and then the game gets tied and then Kawhi hits that shot. I will never forget just watching it in slo-mo. And it was even worse because I was 10 minutes behind reality because a father thing interfered, so I put my phone away, paused the game, came back and watched it, and then had to pick up my phone and see all hell had broken loose. Then I had to swim in the river of misery that was all Sixers fans and my friends and family dealing with it.
Fultz is the great What If, forever. Either it’s whatever happened to him, or what it would be like if Jayson Tatum was on this team instead, or De’Aaron Fox, because so many of the problems come back to that pick not working. In a world where Markelle Fultz plays like the number one pick, Simmons is probably moved off-ball sooner, you have more shooting. That was the right plan even if it was the wrong pick, and all the problems we currently have, both Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, were about fixing the problem that came from not having Fultz, and it is really weird to look back. Someone showed me a poster with Fultz, Embiid, Dario, and Simmons from 2015, and we have come a long way from this super young core with a gazillion draft picks and all the cap space in the world to where we are right now. That’s the most frustrating part, through some pretty bad decisions or at least decisions that didn’t work out correctly, the Sixers are where they are and their hands are tied about what they can do about it. That’s the depressing part.
Overnight they went from the most patient organization of my lifetime to driving 100 miles per hour towards an immediate need to win the championship. Here’s a multiple choice question: The next Sixers championship has: A) Ben Simmons on the roster, B) Joel Embiid on the roster, C) Both on the roster, D) Neither on the roster.
C. I am a passionate believer that Embiid and Simmons can play together. The problem is the other three players. When you watch the Bucks, as a Sixers fan it just makes you so mad because the Bucks built a team around Giannis that works for Giannis. If you have Embiid and Simmons, the only thing you have to do is surround them with shooting and we’ve explicitly gone out and picked players who can’t shoot. And we let JJ Redick go. I understand the contract reasons why JJ Redick had to go, but you had one of the great three-point shooters in NBA history who had chemistry with your best player and you replaced him with a player who can’t shoot threes. If the Sixers won a championship in the near-ish timeline of the future, I believe it will be with Embiid and Simmons. I just don’t know who the other players will be but they aren’t the players we have now.
I sort of feel like what the Trump administration has done with Obama is what the Sixers have done to Sam Hinkie. They’re just doing the opposite of what he did, no matter what. And trading Landry Shamet on a rookie deal for an unrestricted free agent staring down a max deal [Tobias Harris] is the last thing Sam would ever do.
LeBron’s More Than A Vote campaign is a more robust and organized type of political involvement than we’ve seen from almost any athlete in recent history. In your view, why and how is it important?
More Than a Vote is doing incredibly smart things. I think perhaps one of the most interesting things they’re doing is getting NBA arenas to serve as big voting centers so people can vote safely, with lots of space. They are being very smart about it. I know the people who are working with LeBron and the other athletes on this and they’re people with very real political experience.
You need credible messengers to reach pockets of voters, be it LeBron or Draymond Green or a whole bunch of other people who are out there doing the work to get people engaged in the process. Obviously it’s impactful in the upcoming election, but will also help democracy in the long run. It really is taking advantage of the platform they have and using it in a productive way. You can be an NBA player and just play basketball and that’s completely fine, but when people like LeBron and others are using their platform to do real impactful work it’s going to make a real difference.
If something like More Than a Vote existed four years ago, would the presidential election have gone another way?
Absolutely! One of the reasons the election turned out the way it did was a lot of young people did not vote, and you saw drop offs in turnout among Black voters. To be fair to LeBron, he was out there working in 2016, he did the rally with Hillary Clinton and other stuff for her. But it’s very clear that LeBron and everyone else involved with this have learned the lessons from what went wrong in that election and are seeking to fill a really important gap. In a close election everything really matters. There were 4 million people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 who did not vote in 2016. I’d be willing to bet there were a lot of folks who have a lot of respect for the athletes involved in this effort among those 4 million people.
The NBA has become a divisive organization in the eyes of some, from its relationship to China, to frequent dustups with Trump. What’s been your reaction to the NBA as a player in the culture wars?
I think it is to the great credit of the NBA and their players that they have been willing to take a stand. We should not dismiss the fact that the NBA, in nationally televised games, has Black Lives Matter written on the court. That is a big deal. To this day the Sixers play in an arena that’s outside of downtown Philadelphia because people thought you couldn’t get white fans in urban areas to watch games.
The NBA is not perfect. These are billionaire owners. There are ties to China and all these other things, but the players and the league have stepped up here and have been willing to take a stand, and have not backed down when confronted by Trump and others on these issues. Sports activism has come so far from where it was in the 80s and 90s and even the early part of this century. I think the players and LeBron should get a ton of credit for doing that and the league has been smart to support them where they could.
There are moments like this where people are going to try and divide Americans along racial lines and demonize efforts like Black Lives Matter. You have to pick a side, and I give the NBA credit for picking a side and supporting their players who obviously feel very, very strong about this. It’s not perfect — ultimately you have a lot of rich people wanting to make a lot of money, and that’s why basketball is back. But I think they should get credit for stepping up in ways that others have not.
The Process basically begins as you become a senior advisor to President Obama. Did he ever tease you about it?
All the time. He constantly teased me about the Sixers. Although the Bulls [Obama’s team] had some mediocre years in that period after Derrick Rose got hurt, so there’s a little bit of throwing stones in a glass house. But he teased me about the Sixers, and also he always made so much fun of me when Georgetown had its annual early tournament flameout. In part because, in 2010, Obama went to see Georgetown and Duke play in DC, and he brought all the staff who were fans. We all sat second row, and Georgetown ran Duke out of the gym in that game. That caused Obama to pick Georgetown to go to the Final 8 or the Final 4 in his bracket that season. Georgetown lost in the first round. He tortured me about it. The next year we were on a flight to Brazil and we watched them lose to VCU live on the plane, and he made fun of me to the press.