From the instant in early October that some punk on an Old City street flashed a gun in the face of Jahlil Okafor, the 76ers and Okafor himself have been on a losing streak that would put the team's record-breaking 27-game slog to shame.
What could have been a clarifying moment for the Sixers and their star rookie center, a terrifying episode that should have forced the franchise and Okafor to reexamine how they were handling his safety and his behavior, has instead prefaced nothing but negligence, irresponsibility, and one daft decision after another. The Sixers haven't done nearly enough to protect Okafor, and he hasn't done nearly enough to avoid the sorts of situations - such as the incidents in Old City last month and in Boston early Thursday morning - that would put his reputation, his playing career, even his life in peril.
Start with the obvious: As The Inquirer has confirmed, the Sixers knew that Okafor had been involved in that October confrontation outside a Philadelphia bar, a confrontation that resulted in an unidentified man's pulling a gun and putting it to Okafor's head. Yet when Okafor - 19 years old, 6-foot-11, and a multimillionaire - and teammate Christian Wood went to Storyville Nightclub in south Boston on Wednesday night after a loss to the Celtics, the Sixers didn't have any bodyguards or security personnel accompany him.
This is, to put it gently, unconscionable. The Sixers have too much invested in Okafor to put the responsibility for his safety solely on him, to hang on to the hope that he - at his age, with his riches and status - will do the right thing, make the right choice, every time. It's easy to put the onus on him, to suggest that he ought to avail himself of the services of Lance Williams, the team's security director. But once that Old City incident had come to the attention of general manager Sam Hinkie and coach Brett Brown, a security detail for Okafor should have been nonnegotiable, regardless of the crimp it might have put in his social life.
That backdrop makes what happened in Boston in the wee hours of Thursday morning all the more incredible. That the Sixers remained there overnight instead of flying to Houston immediately after the game was itself a puzzling move. Brown attributed it to the organization's research on sleep patterns and conditioning, but what part of the Sixers' sports-science program involves underage drinking at a nightclub until 2 a.m.?
Then, Okafor stepped into a trap that any young and famous professional athlete, and the franchise that employs him, ought to have anticipated. He and Wood went outside. People reportedly began heckling them. Was the mocking over the Sixers' futility? Was it, as TMZ.com has reported, over Okafor's failed attempts to charm some women at the club? It doesn't much matter. Together there were young, chest-puffing men and alcohol and a late night. This was a far more potent cocktail than anything Okafor might have allegedly and illegally ingested inside Storyville, and the video that TMZ obtained - Okafor shouting "We got money," using the same racial slur that turned Riley Cooper into a pariah, pushing a man to the ground and punching him - didn't show him to be a thoughtful kid doing all he could to avoid trouble. He has to be smarter. He has to grow up a little.
But even if Okafor had spent the whole night sitting alone at a table, talking to no one, sipping a club soda, he still would have been at risk. He was a superstar at Duke and was the third pick in this year's NBA draft. His face has graced magazine covers. He could splice together his own hourlong ESPN special just from his SportsCenter highlights. He is a giant target in every way, particularly now. He lives in an age when the virulent side of social media emboldens people to antagonize celebrities, and he was partying in Philadelphia and Boston - cities where fans can be downright diabolical toward even hometown athletes, let alone those from a rival team. Okafor doesn't have to do anything to create or escalate a tense situation, because someone else is bound to.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's an outside individual, somebody who recognizes the athlete," said John Scutellaro, the CEO of Player Protect, a company that contracts with teams and players, including some in the NBA, to handle athletes' personal security. "They have a problem because of a female, or they just don't like the fact these guys take over the club and draw attention away. And a lot of times you'll get guys who just don't like the team and are looking to harass these gentlemen."
Scutellaro is a retired Hoboken, N.J., cop, and he has seen firsthand the thin line that teams try to walk between safety and freedom. One important and helpful factor, he said, is the presence of one or several veteran players on a roster - savvier, more experienced men who over time have learned where to go or, better still, where not to go.
"When you have teams who have more stable players," Scutellaro said in a phone interview, "they'll say to these younger guys, 'We're going out here. Why don't you guys come meet us there?' They will tend to keep an eye on them, or, if somebody does start up with somebody, the veteran player will be just sitting around going, 'Man, don't worry about them. They're just being idiots.' That definitely comes into play."
It doesn't for the Sixers. As a function of their rebuilding plan, they don't have an active player older than 24. Maybe such a veteran wouldn't have persuaded Okafor to stay in and play cards, to have a low-key night just for prudence's sake. But the choice between having someone who might help and having no one who can is no choice at all. There are lessons in these incidents for both the Sixers and Jahlil Okafor, if they care to learn them. After what happened in Old City in October, they're damn lucky they have the chance.