Perhaps nothing better explains the sensibility of “The Rights to Ricky Sanchez” podcast than the name itself.
Sanchez was a middling Puerto Rican power forward, acquired by the 76ers in a 2007 trade. In the NBA, the rights to overseas prospects like Sanchez are often throw-ins to a larger transaction, nothing more than filler. The team held his rights until 2012, when they traded the rights to Ricky Sanchez to the Memphis Grizzlies, Sanchez having never played a single game in Philadelphia.
In a normal world, his name would have little to no resonance among even the most die-hard Sixers fans.
But as the hosts of RTRS are so fond of saying, Philadelphia is not a normal city, and the Sixers are not a normal team. When Levin and his co-host, WIP Program Director Spike Eskin, decided to make their occasional radio show a full-blown podcast back in 2013, the name was chosen on a whim. It was a silly name for an unbelievably niche podcast dedicated to a mediocre basketball team.
“From the title down, it set the tone for type of nonsense we’ve been doing,” said Mike Levin, a writer for the TV show “Perfect Harmony” and one of the regular co-hosts of RTRS.
Seven years later, RTRS is, in Eskin’s telling, the most popular single-team sports podcast in the country. They’ve hosted 76ers players, executives and coaches on the podcast and, in September, packed Franklin Music Hall (the former Electric Factory) for their most recent live show. National media figures have acknowledged the popularity of the podcast; in the jargon of RTRS, this is known as “saying the name,” an end unto itself, and an instruction given during the theme song recorded for the show.
The show began to come together around 2012. Levin, who had been writing about the team for the Sixers blog Liberty Ballers for a few years, wrote a blog that denigrated Howard Eskin, the longtime WIP host and Spike Eskin’s father. Spike Eskin emailed Levin to tell him how funny he thought the article was and, after some back and forth, Eskin invited Levin to call in to his own late night show on WIP. Levin, who was working on “How I Met Your Mother” at the time, began to call in late at night from Los Angeles to talk basketball with Eskin.
Eskin had long resisted sports radio — when he was in college at Syracuse, he found it unpleasant — and had gone into music. He bounced around for a few years, and was at WYSP when it went off the air in 2011. Since then, he’s worked for the local CBS Radio-Entercom stations, primarily with WIP, where he’s the program director. As he was doing a ton of behind-the-scenes work, he started to get back into sports journalism and radio, first with Bill Simmons-lite game recaps, and then, podcasts.
At first, the podcasts he appeared on were mostly “for reps,” as he put it, a way to master the cadence and rhythm of sports talk radio. But the more he did it, the more he enjoyed it. It was in those days that RTRS was born, with Levin and Eskin as the co-hosts.
It was, in their assessment, a dire time for the team. Though there had been recent playoff appearances, the team seemed destined for mediocrity. Still, the podcast was great fun.
“It could have stayed the same 500 people for six years, and I probably still would have done it the same amount,” Eskin said.
Soon after, Sam Hinkie was hired as the general manager of the team. He quickly instituted a team-building framework that came to be known as The Process, which involved hoarding draft picks and losing an unfathomable amount of basketball games, with the hope of acquiring enough high draft picks to eventually hit on a franchise-changing star, a necessity for an NBA championship.
For some, it was at best controversial, and at worst a reason to stop paying attention; in the national media, it was treated as an affront to the very idea of competition.
To the RTRS guys and their listeners, it became an ethos. Trusting “The Process” became shorthand for having, as Hinkie called it before resigning, the longest view in the room. Any sort of real, sustained success would take patience, bumps and a clear goal in mind. Years after Hinkie left, his best draft pick, Joel Embiid, is one of the premier players in the sport, and the coach he hired, Brett Brown, is in his seventh year, with a real chance for a championship.
“Of course it was worth it,” Eskin said, “not because it worked, but because it was the right thing to do. It’s the right way to make any decision, ever.”
Lest you believe that this proof of having been correct about the Process would be an occasion for humility, consider this: the words to the RTRS theme song largely come down to variations of, “We were right.”
Through all the losing, the podcast developed a bizarre set of in-jokes and references that are impenetrable to first-time listeners. They’ve ceremonially banned and unbanned national sports media figures from appearing on the show for various offenses, created something called “Re-Tweet Armageddon” and made layered, interesting characters out of the local business owners who sponsor the show. Eminently forgettable players have become cult heroes. Their live shows are a hard ticket, their apparel sells out and once a year, they lead a “Fly the Process” sojourn of fans for a Sixers away game.
If anything from the show has pierced the mainstream of sports fandom, it’s a contribution from occasional third mic Andrew Unterberger, who caught a mistake in a broadcast closed-captioning that called future 76er Nik Stauskas “Sauce Castillo,” which has since become his nickname. Unterberger, known as “AU” on the show, is a writer and editor at Billboard, and writes for the RTRS in an appropriately esoteric vertical called, “If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders.”
Unterberger, like Levin and Eskin, is local. He grew up in Lower Merion, attending Adath Israel on the Main Line and his mother Alyse is director of special initiatives at Jewish Learning Venture. Levin’s mother was once president of the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim, and he sees his years talking about Philadelphia sports during Hebrew school at Gratz College as his first real introduction to sports analysis. “That was all very formative to me,” Levin said.
As the 76ers legitimately contend for a championship for the first time since 2000-2001, Eskin can’t help but be grateful for the bizarre, loving community that formed around a losing basketball team that, by the grace of God and Sam Hinkie, has become a winning one.
“There is no group of people in sports history who have done what this group of people did, in their unwavering support of the right thing and their unwavering support of each other,” he said. “It’s really heartening to me, and an experience I will never forget.”
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