Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA as the national writer for Bleacher Report, so he ended up travelling from his New York home to Philadelphia to cover the 76ers quite often during the 2017-18 season. Ben Simmons was a rookie that year and, well, the Knicks were not playing well at the time. Weitzman really needed a story.
Once he was in Philadelphia, he realized that he had more than enough content for an article: He had enough to put together a book proposal. A few years later, his new book Tanking to the Top hit the shelves. Weitzman’s book details the history of the last 15 years of Philadelphia 76ers basketball, a tale centred on Sam Hinkie, the former General Manager who notoriously formed terrible teams in an effort to accumulate high draft picks. Weitzman interviewed nearly 175 people, though both Hinkie and the 76ers as an organization cordially refused to cooperate.
“[The team was] very polite [and emailed back], ‘Congratulations, we’re not going to participate,’” Weitzman said. “I kind of figured eventually, when they see that this is a real thing [that they would] [….] It’s easy to say no at first, [… so] I kind of figured they would relent eventually, and, to their credit, they did not. So, power to them. They’re sticking to their guns on that one.”
Given the lack of formal cooperation from the team, Weitzman had to work harder to compile a list of interview targets. In the case of Markelle Fultz, the 2017 top overall pick, he received insights from Keith Williams, an old coach and mentor. He also knew he could reach out directly to certain players and their agents to fill in the details.
“I didn’t have any sit-down with [76ers guard TJ McConnell], and I thanked him in the book, and he would have no idea why,” Weitzman said. “He was just very polite and gracious [though], and, like, I would go to him during pregame availability [….] TJ McConnell [was] always available and sitting, and I would ask him a lot of random questions like, ‘What do you remember about the day [former 76ers teammate] Nerlens Noel was traded?’”
As a sports fan growing up, writing about the NBA felt like a natural fit for Weitzman, who studied sports management at New York University before realizing that he didn’t care for the business side of sports. He has always loved the NBA, and still does, but now finds that other sports have displaced his energetic passion.
“I feel like I’ve channeled all of that into my Mets and Jets fandom,” Weitzman said. “I’ll […] rant like I’m a […] caller [on New York’s The FAN radio station] calling on Mike Francesa to complain about the batting lineup. I still love the NBA. I mean, yeah, it’s more of ‘It’s definitely [a] job, right?’ There [are] times, like, I don’t want to watch. The NBA is not a respite for me.”
Weitzman watches games with a careful eye and has a knack for uncovering interesting stories, like a recent one on NBA players changing their phone numbers or another on players agreeing to not go for rebounds. With years of experience at Bleacher Report and SLAM, among others, Weitzman felt that the book had been a long time coming. He knew that he had always wanted to write one, and the story of the Sixers presented a good opportunity. He had finally found his voice as a writer.
“I’d be scared to look back at [my early writing],” Weitzman said. “I feel like there’s a lot of really bad Bill Simmons impressions.”