Robert Covington started from the bottom; now he’s here
Forward who endured a 10-win season and record losing streaks will see his first playoff action with the surprising Sixers
The game was played a few years ago, early in “The Process,” and the verbal abuse directed at Philadelphia 76ers forward Robert Covington from the fans at the Wells Fargo Center was getting heated. Some called him trash, others demanded he be traded or cut. Covington paid it no mind. “We were losing,” he explained. “It’s a tough city.”
But one fan kept riding him, cutting deeper with each offensive remark. It got so personal that Covington, who refuses to repeat what was said, stopped in his tracks and approached the habitual line-stepper. “Let me hear that come out of your mouth one more time,” the normally mild-mannered Covington told the fan. “Do it again and I’m going to jump in the stands, and it’s going to be a problem.”
That was then, the beginning stages of the process where Covington endured a 10-win season and the two longest losing streaks in NBA history.
And this is now, the No. 3 seed in the NBA playoffs with the Sixers beginning play at home on Saturday against the Miami Heat. The Sixers clinched that seeding with a 130-95 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday to end the season with 16 consecutive wins, the longest winning streak to end a regular season in NBA history.
A lot of people suffered during the journey since the Sixers’ last trip to the playoffs in 2012, but none more than Covington.
He and T.J. McConnell are the only current Sixers who played on that 2015-16 team that opened the season with 18 straight losses (a record to start a season), which followed Covington stomaching an 0-17 start to the season the year before.
Covington was there for the duration of those NBA-record 28 consecutive losses, and was a participant during the 2015-16 season in which the Sixers won 10 games.
Through the years, Covington has emerged as a key component of “The Process.”
But, initially, he wasn’t likely going to be a big part of it.
“The Process” was a chess game, a strategic endeavor launched by former general manager Sam Hinkie intended to snag high draft picks such as Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz and not guys who were undrafted and unheralded like Covington.
Covington may not have been a mere pawn — we’ll save that description for guys such as K.J. McDaniels, Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims, who were among the unknowns to start games for the Sixers during the 2014-15 season.
But he was, at best, a knight, a roster piece easily sacrificed whenever the Sixers, described during the early stages of “The Process” as being “anti-competitive,” could position themselves to snare a first-round pick.
Covington never bought into that narrative. Instead, Covington saw his arrival in Philadelphia as an opportunity, and he took his job seriously enough during the dark days of accepting “L’s” to emerge as a significant player on the NBA’s most surprising team this season.
Covington has become a 3-point threat on offense and one of the league’s toughest defenders. His active hands and 7-foot-2 wingspan helped him end with the league lead in deflections for the second straight season (he averaged 3.9 this season, tied with Paul George).
This is the first trip to the playoffs for Covington, and the words that best describe his feelings are revealed as he pulls his white tank top to the side to show the words etched just below his collarbone:
“No one thought we could do this,” said Covington, relaxing in the living room of his sparsely furnished New Jersey home. “All the guys bought in, and that helped us get to the place we’re at now.”
Ah, yes, the postseason. And for the time it’s taken Covington and the Sixers to get here, they’re not content to just make a brief cameo.
“I’ve been through a lot, so this feeling is great,” Covington said on the eve of the team’s first playoff game since 2012. “We keep playing the way we’ve been playing, we have endless possibilities. We’re ready to get this started.”
Covington’s dad recognized his greatness early. Dennis Bryant had taped his 10-year-old son shooting baskets, and when he returned to their home in Bellwood, Illinois, to watch the workout, he excitedly called out to his wife, Teresa.
“He’s got it, he’s got it,” Dennis Bryant yelled as he kept rewinding the tape.
“He’s got what?” Teresa Bryant responded.
“A jump shot. Look at it! It’s so pure.”
Parental adulation didn’t translate to basketball success. At least not immediately for Covington, a skinny kid who was cut from his grade school and middle school basketball teams on three occasions.
“They had talented guys who were taller and a lot stronger than I was,” Covington said. “They didn’t feel like I was an addition, someone who could help their team.”
Snubbed by the school, Covington went the AAU route, and once he got to high school he was quickly embraced by his coach, Kevin Dockery, who looked past the rail-thin ballplayer and saw some of the same qualities that Dennis Bryant had spotted on tape.
“Maybe the school that cut him saw a tall, lanky kid,” Dockery said. “I saw a kid who could shoot.”
As a freshman at Proviso West High School in suburban Chicago, he shot up from 5 feet, 9 inches to 6 feet, 3 inches, and school coaches suddenly began to take notice.
But in a day and age when kids are born with an apparent green light to shoot, both Dockery and his high school coach at Proviso West, Tommy Miller, discovered their best shooter was a reluctant gunner.
“I remember a few times he’d push the ball upcourt and then wait for a guard so he could pass,” Dockery said. “I’d call timeouts early, pull him aside, pop him in the chest and tell him, ‘Shoot the ball.’ ”
By his senior year in high school, Covington had grown to 6 feet, 8 inches and showed his versatility, averaging 18.1 points, 11 rebounds and 7 blocks per game. He was the West Suburban Conference Player of the Year and led Proviso West to the West Suburban title, but by the end of his career he had just two college offers, from Sacramento State and Tennessee State.
Tennessee State’s interest didn’t come under ideal circumstances. Then-coach John Cooper traveled to Illinois to see Covington in an organized pickup game at the recommendation of his assistant coach, Dana Ford. But when the two arrived at the gym, there weren’t enough guys for a full-court scrimmage, forcing the two coaches to make an evaluation from a few half-court games.
“First thing I noticed was he was long, and the second thing was he could shoot,” said Cooper, who had six available scholarships entering his first year at Tennessee State. “People weren’t interested because they saw a kid who weighed 170 pounds. I saw a kid who could shoot over a zone.”
Covington had never heard of Tennessee State, a historically black university that produced Joe Gilliam, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Maurice White and Oprah Winfrey. But he visited the campus, and after four hours he called his parents telling them, “I found my school.”
Robert Covington’s workout plan. The Sixers forward tells us all about his training “process”
When basketball practice began, Covington often participated in rebounding drills against upperclassmen who outweighed him by more than 50 pounds.
“Rob was weak,” Cooper said. “But he wasn’t soft.”
Covington laughs when he hears those words and is asked what they mean to him.
“He meant my body looked frail,” Covington said. “But mentally he knew I wasn’t weak-minded. He gave me a challenge and a task, and I took it on full throttle.”
Covington scored 21 points in his college debut against Siena and by season’s end was the team’s second-best scorer (11.5 points per game) and top rebounder (6.5) on the way to being named the Ohio Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year.
Suddenly, the Division I schools that ignored Covington coming out of high school had an interest. He stayed at Tennessee State, where his game continued to develop.
“Had Rob gone to a major program, he might have been pigeonholed into a particular position, but with us we needed him to play everywhere,” said Cooper, who’s now an assistant at Oklahoma State. “It was a perfect fit with us, and by his sophomore year I thought he had a shot at the NBA.”
By his junior year, Cooper knew he had an NBA future based off a prolonged shooting exhibition during practices. “For a three-month stretch in practice, he never missed an open look — never,” Cooper said. “It was almost an open joke in practice that whenever he touched the ball I’d say, ‘That’s good, that’s good, that’s good.’ ”
Covington finished his college career seventh on the school’s all-time list in points (1,750) and rebounds (876). During his best college season as a junior, Covington averaged 17 points and 7.9 rebounds and shot 44.8 percent from 3-point range.
All that earned him a snub from the 2013 NBA pre-draft combine in Chicago, even though he eventually received a late invitation.
Covington was confident he’d be drafted, based on conversations his agent was having with teams. On draft day he had just flown back from Cleveland, where he had a workout with the Cavaliers, and arrived just in time for the party his parents hosted at a local hotel.
But by night’s end, after he spent the entire draft speaking to various teams, his name was never called.
“Everyone was excited, and then it’s over and everyone was confused and people were mad that my name wasn’t called,” Covington said. “But no one knew that my agent had already worked out a deal with the [Houston] Rockets before the draft had ended. When I broke the news that I was fine, everybody was ecstatic.”
That deal with the Rockets was a partially guaranteed two-year deal that led to Covington spending most of the 2013-14 season with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the D-League (now the G League). He cherished the six call-ups to Houston, where he had a chance to practice with and learn from NBA players.
“I picked the brains of Dwight Howard and Francisco Garcia, and just hearing the stories of what they went through, it gave me a better sense of what to do and what not to do,” Covington said. “The best advice that Dwight told me was ain’t nothing guaranteed and to go and work hard every day because it’s a cold world and you can easily be replaced.”
Which proved true by the start of the 2014-15 training camp when Covington, who signed that multiyear deal with the Rockets, was waived.
Robert Covington sits down with Jerry Bembry of The Undefeated to discuss his love of reptiles, and introduces his 3-foot pet python, Max.
Eight days after being released by the Rockets, Covington was selected with the first overall pick of the D-League draft by the Grand Rapids Drive, an affiliate of the Detroit Pistons.
Within two weeks, Covington was signed by the Sixers, who were entering year two of “The Process.”
“I knew about it, but you can’t run from those types of things,” Covington said. “I experienced that all my life: being on a team that didn’t have a winning record, being on a team that had young players, being on a team that’s inexperienced.”
Heeding Howard’s advice, Covington kept grinding. He never let himself get comfortable. He never allowed the losing streak to get to him. And he never let the abuse from frustrated fans get to him (except that one time).
“I looked at the positive: When I got to Philly, there was nothing but playing time to develop as a player,” Covington said. “You’re not going to get that experience unless you get on the court, and Philly, to me, was the best opportunity.”
So Covington kept his head up through the booing, never glanced over at the fans who showed up at games with bags on their heads and didn’t pay attention to the empty seats.
Considering the reputation of Philadelphia fans, the reaction to the team could have been worse. Many fans actually embraced “The Process” and were thrilled when the losing allowed the team to add pieces who they thought would turn out to be good (Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor) and those franchise-changing players who actually have talent (Embiid, Simmons and Fultz).
“We would hear, ‘When are you going to be ready, where are things going to change?’ ” Covington said. “They didn’t like us losing, but at the end of the day they knew we were a bunch of kids out there trying to make it.”
And here we are: The Sixers are in the playoffs with the players built through “The Process,” but without the man, Hinkie, who put the plan in place.
Hinkie announced his resignation just over two years ago in a 13-page letter to the team’s partners in which he said many things, including expressing regrets for not signing Covington on draft day, and this line:
“Jeff Bezos says it this way: ‘There are a few prerequisites to inventing … You have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to think long-term. You have to be willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.’ ”
Asked about Hinkie’s departure, Covington leans back in his chair and thinks on it for a second.
“Everything Sam Hinkie did during that time unfolded the way he pictured it,” Covington said. “People always say, ‘Trust the process.’ He really laid the foundation perfectly.”
It’s approaching 10 o’clock on a Saturday night in New Jersey and a four-car caravan led by Covington travels east on I-76 toward the Walt Whitman Bridge. The bright lights of Philadelphia are enticing, and surely on the other side there’s a nightclub or bar that would gladly comp Covington’s crew and raise a glass to the guy who battled LeBron James the previous night in a win that set in motion the Sixers clinching the No. 3 seed five days later.
But Covington turns north before he reaches the bridge and heads north toward Camden. After a few turns through downtown, he leads the caravan through the security gates of the Philadelphia 76ers’ practice facility.
Since high school, Covington’s lived by the motto that attached to all of his social media profiles: ATF, or allergic to failure, a line from a Lil Wayne that fills his headset before every game.
“Everything you go through is not bad. Everything you do, every lesson, every mistake that you make, there’s something to be learned from it,” Covington said. “When things don’t go the way I’d like it? I’ll figure it out.”
That’s why, on this night, Covington’s choosing to practice and not party. His trainers, Jamal Richardson and Spencer Richardson, have flown in from Nashville, Tennessee, to help get Covington’s body right for the final stretch of the season.
Earlier this season, Covington signed a four-year, $62 million contract extension, which gave him a raise from $1.57 million this season to $16.6 million, which, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, is the “largest single-season figure negotiated since that [renegotiation] became an available contractual avenue in the NBA.”
After Covington’s deal was announced, Sixers coach Brett Brown, who arrived at the beginning of “The Process,” praised the move.
“He’s a poster child for everything we tried to do,” Brown said. “You’re not going to find a better example that we have had in the program where somebody just continued to work … seize the moment, and then get rewarded.”
Seize the moment. The late-night drive to the Sixers’ practice facility is the conclusion of a long day for Covington.
The previous night he was in Cleveland hounding James in Cleveland. He arrived overnight and got up early to spend the afternoon at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden with family and friends.
Then he took time to provide a little TLC to his 3-foot python, Max, and two iguanas. Then it was dinnertime with his friends and family — his parents and siblings are all in town — that’s prepared by his chef.
At the gym, Covington is run through a nearly 90-minute session that includes sets that are designed to simulate the shots he gets in the Sixers offense.
With $62 million in the bank and a playoff berth locked up, it would be easy on this Saturday night to be across the water, where there is some serious partying in large sections of Philadelphia.
For Covington, the social scene can wait.
His desires are bigger than chugging beer and table service.
“The Eagles won the Super Bowl and Villanova won a championship,” Covington said. “So why not us?
“I’ve been here at some low moments. Now with talent that we have, what we want is there for our taking.”