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Two Jewish guys created the most popular fan podcast in sports. The 76ers had to listen.

You don’t have to look hard for a throughline from Jewish nationhood to Philadelphia 76ers fandom: unity forged through suffering.

Maybe it’s fitting, then, that a Jewish podcast duo are the undisputed spiritual leaders of the Sixers fan base. For Michael Levin, it runs even deeper: Listening to the Sixers blow leads in the car on the way home from Hebrew school in Northeast Philadelphia is a formative memory.

“There’s definitely a wandering through the desert element to all of it,” Levin said.

Levin, 33, started the Rights To Ricky Sanchez podcast in 2013 with Spike Eskin, a longtime radio host, after the two met through a 76ers blog. Since then, the show — named for an obscure player whose draft rights the team traded in 2012 — has become the most popular fan podcast in sports. A decade in, the Ricky has enough average listeners to sell out the Wells Fargo Center, where on Sunday the Sixers evened their series with the Celtics in Game 4 of their conference semifinal series.

Game 5 will be played Tuesday night in Boston.

The Ricky’s shepherds and their devoted following have become such an influence on Sixers culture that the franchise has had no choice but to bow to their might. Eskin and Levin have popularized slogans trademarked by the franchise (“Trust the Process”) and nicknames adopted by its highest-paid employees (“Bball Paul”). And in spite of the hosts occasionally harping about the team and good-natured teasing of its personnel, players and coaches alike have appeared on the show.

As Eskin, 46, and Levin have grown their audience from opposite ends of the country — Levin in LA, Eskin in Philadelphia until recently, when he moved to New York — the 76ers have climbed out of the Eastern Conference basement and into championship contention. The last few years have ended in disappointing playoff exits, but with the series knotted at two games apiece, the hosts are optimistic that this year will be different. 

What initially brought the two together was a dig Levin — then writing for the 76ers blog Liberty Ballers — made at the expense of Eskin’s dad, legendary Philadelphia sportscaster Howard Eskin. The younger Eskin thought the line was funny and reached out; soon the irreverent blogger was a regular caller on his sports talk show. So when Eskin wanted to launch a 76ers podcast, Levin was the natural partner — even though they had never met in person.

“It wasn’t like a grand plan,” Levin said. “It was sort of like, ‘Oh, we’re doing a podcast. OK, we’ll talk about the Sixers for an hour. And then after two or three of those we said, ‘Alright, let’s make it a regular thing.’ And then we called it the most esoteric name possible.”

The podcasters have a love/hate relationship with the 76ers, but their frankness and humor has won over some of the team’s players. Fan favorite Paul Reed joined the show for an interview in April. Photo by Wayne Terry

Tanking to the top

The name came from deep in the annals of the team’s transaction history, and it was so niche that at first they had trouble getting media to say it. It was also prescient. Ricky Sánchez, a Puerto Rican forward, never played in the NBA after being drafted in 2005, yet he — or rather, the rights to sign him — managed to be traded three times. Recalling less an athlete than a transaction, The Rights To Ricky Sanchez foretold several years of the Sixers dealing talent away in an effort to lose as much as possible.

The strategy relied on winning top draft picks, which are awarded via lottery with the league’s worst teams getting the best odds. The Sixers’ perennial moribundity confounded the league, but to Levin and Eskin, the near-term struggle was essential, and they relentlessly defended former general manager Sam Hinkie’s vision of tanking to the top.

Borrowing an offhand phrase uttered during this period by one of the players, the podcast called on Sixers fans to “trust the process.” The phrase became a rallying cry for the movement, and ultimately was vindicated, though not before Hinkie was fired. The Sixers have now made the playoffs six straight seasons; 2014 draft pick Joel Embiid, who won his first most valuable player award this week, calls himself “The Process” as an homage. The team trademarked both — but not, Eskin says, before giving him a heads up.

Having started from scratch in the early days of podcasting, the duo had little idea of how popular the show was when it decided to throw a watch party for the 2014 draft lottery at a Philly sports bar. To promote it, Eskin had printed free T-shirts for the first 50 listeners who showed up, but wasn’t sure they’d all be distributed. Levin didn’t think to fly out for the occasion. Instead, they got a call from the bar manager hours before the event was set to begin. 

“He was like, ‘Well, we already have people here waiting for the T-shirts,’” Eskin recalled. Hundreds of people turned up. “It was like, this is a thing. There are a lot of people here. And this was weird. And that was the moment I think that I noticed.” The next year, they found a bigger bar.

Undoubtedly the strange turns taken by its subject has boosted the podcast. When Hinkie was fired, he issued a 21-page manifesto on his team-building strategy that Process trusters revere like the Bible. His replacement, Bryan Colangelo, was a career NBA executive with a sterling reputation — but two years into his tenure he was outed as running a fake Twitter account to defend his roster decisions and his shirt collars. (Yes, literally.) He subsequently resigned. And then there was Ben Simmons, an all-star talent the Sixers picked first overall who gradually, confoundingly, lost the nerve to shoot.

“It almost seems like the Sixers are written for us to do a podcast on,” Eskin said.

On the podcast, which is also posted on YouTube after every playoff game, Eskin plays the pessimist and Levin (here wearing a luchador mask) the optimist. Image by screenshot/YouTube

The accidental podcasters

The Ricky is there at every turn, podcasting twice a week, 52 weeks a year, plus after every playoff game. Eskin, a heavily tattooed vegan, chuckles from underneath a basketball cap; Levin favors sweatshirts and loungewear, but in a recent episode he wore a black athletic facemask in tribute to Embiid, who sported one on the court earlier this season.

Even at that churn — the podcasts usually run about an hour — and even having taken paid ads for a few years, the Ricky has remained a side gig for both hosts. Eskin is the vice president of programming for sports radio behemoth WFAN; Levin has worked on shows like Young Rock and How I Met Your Mother, though he’s striking now along with the rest of the Writers Guild of America. 

Eskin said he sees the show as less a side hustle or passion project than a communal experience — an essential feature of his life. (Is that another religion parallel?) Unlike Levin, whose mother was once president of Shaare Shamayim Synagogue in Northeast Philadelphia, the veteran radio DJ hasn’t experienced much organized Judaism — his parents, though both b’nai mitzvahed, raised him without it. But lately he’s been wishing he had. At a recent church funeral for a Ricky listener, he realized he believed in God, “but, you know? Not Jesus.”

“That’s the most Jewish thing that I would say about me,” Eskin said. “Well, aside from hosting a basketball podcast.”

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