From the far end of the Wells Fargo Center court, where he had been pressing the flesh of several season-ticket holders, Sam Hinkie weaved his way forward and through the tunnel behind the 76ers' bench.
It was more than an hour until the start of the Sixers' game Saturday against the Golden State Warriors, a thrilling three-point loss that inspired a sellout crowd to make the arena shudder with sound, but Hinkie had a different sort of setting in mind. He shuffled along the sideline and down the tunnel, cutting through the players' weight room, turning left down a hallway, entering a lounge that had bottled waters and little bags of potato chips lined up on serving tables. He had found perhaps the quietest spot in a building that was already humming, the perfect place to do what he had been loath to do before the Sixers hired Jerry Colangelo as their chairman of basketball operations: talk on the record.
That Hinkie, the team's general manager, has been more accessible to the media since Colangelo's arrival is no coincidence. If limiting his remarks to a few press conferences each year was feasible when the Sixers were just a young, overmatched team trying to rebuild, it became impossible after Jahlil Okafor was filmed fighting on a Boston street early Thanksgiving morning. The video's publication sparked the revelation of other troubling incidents involving Okafor, all of which Hinkie, aside from a brief press release, refused to address publicly.
The Sixers hired Colangelo less than two weeks later, sending a message that Colangelo - the longtime patriarch of the Phoenix Suns; the head of USA Basketball; a colossus in the sport - had come strutting into town to clean up Hinkie's mess. He would show the 38-year-old novice GM what it really took to build a winning NBA franchise and, failing that, find someone else who already knew. Hinkie, though, spoke of Colangelo less as a mentor than as a colleague and co-worker on equal footing with him, a daring stance for someone who is supposed to be fearing for his future.
"He's already proven to be helpful," Hinkie said. "I'd be surprised if he can't be at least as helpful, if not more helpful, over time. I think he's brought a different perspective that's been good. I think he's brought a different level of gravitas and experience. Our discussions have been richer because he's been here. I don't see that changing."
He was asked if he saw Colangelo's presence as a threat in any way.
"In what sense?"
In the obvious sense: Colangelo has power. He has his own perspective. And even after all those productive discussions, he might eventually decide that Hinkie should no longer be the Sixers' general manager.
"I'm a big believer in the meritocracy of ideas," Hinkie said, "and your idea had better stand up to scrutiny from all sides. You'd better know your opponents' arguments better than they do if you want to truly understand what's best. So I don't mind the thought that there might be debate about any particular topic."
The implication there is rather profound. For all the presumptions over the power he apparently has lost, Hinkie is unafraid to disagree with Colangelo. And that if the price of that disagreement turns out to be his job, Hinkie still can put his head on his pillow at night with his mind at peace.
"I'm principled," he said, "and it's a really deep principle of mine that you be willing to speak truth in the face of dissension all the time. You can anticipate I will continue to recommend what I think is best and be willing to defend why."
Whether Hinkie's conviction will lead to a kind of creative, symbiotic tension with Colangelo that helps the Sixers evolve into an elite team is, of course, an open question. Since becoming the Sixers' chairman, Colangelo has been up front about his condition for accepting the position: He wouldn't have done it if he didn't come with significant decision-making authority. "I think you've seen some of that already," Hinkie said.
An example: On Christmas Eve, having lost 30 of their first 31 games, the Sixers traded two second-round draft picks to the New Orleans Pelicans for point guard Ish Smith. Smith had played 25 games for the Sixers last season, but the team had declined to re-sign him, choosing instead to count on Tony Wroten, T.J. McConnell, and Kendall Marshall. The trade, then, was regarded as a concession by Hinkie to Colangelo - that the new alpha dog in the Sixers' front office had finally forced Hinkie to admit his mistake.
Hinkie said Saturday that he didn't need to be persuaded to surrender those two picks to reacquire Smith: "We learned a lot over six or seven weeks of the season. I'm big on, when you get new information, you factor it in. If that changes the decision, it changes the decision." But he did describe the Smith trade as a "collaborative" process, an acknowledgment that Colangelo had played a role in it.
"He has a way about him," Hinkie said. "He has an economy of words that I like. He has a directness in what he says and when he speaks, and when he does, you often learn a little something. He's seen lots of situations. He's hard to ruffle, in part because he's seen so many situations."
That's why Colangelo is here, to bring the Sixers experience and wisdom and credibility, and Hinkie understands only a fool wouldn't at least listen to Colangelo's ideas and recommendations. But Sam Hinkie still has his principles, some of which he won't compromise even for a colossus, and as his words Saturday in that lonely lounge made clear, he can send a message, too.