Wilson Chandler helping Levi Payne live his last few months to the fullest

Photo: Serena Winters

Wilson Chandler helping Levi Payne live his last few months to the fullest

When I walked into Sixers shootaround on Tuesday, there was a four-year-old boy named Levi Payne from Benton Harbor, Michigan flexing his biceps and doing push-ups for Brett Brown.

Brown had just finished asking Levi how strong he was, and naturally, Levi figured showing off his muscles would do the trick. Brown got a big kick out of it.

So did Wilson Chandler, who invited Levi, along with his mother, Yasmine, and two sisters, out to the practice facility.

Chandler is from the same town as Levi and heard about his story through a friend.

On May 18, Yasmine took her son to the doctor after he was complaining of headaches.

Shortly thereafter, Levi was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor, DIPG, found in the part of the brain that controls your motor skills. (About 200 to 300 kids are diagnosed each year). Soon, Levi, who Yasmine says always has a basketball in his arms, won't be able to walk, to see, to hear, among other daily functioning activities.

He had radiation for six weeks (starting June 8) and gained 30 pounds, while the tumor shrunk in size. But once the radiation wears off, the tumor will go back and Levi has already had the maximum amount of radiation that a child his age can endure.

"They've given him 6 months, it's been since May and it's usually a 6- to 9-month wait..."

Jasmine has trouble finishing her sentence.

"He won't be in pain. It will just be natural. He won't know what's going on." Jasmine gets quiet as she thinks about saying goodbye to her only son.

Levi doesn't know there's anything wrong with him. Neither do his sisters, although the oldest, Lyric, keeps questioning why Levi is always at the doctor. Yasmine says she's trying to keep some sort of normalcy while trying to celebrate every bit of life Levi has left.

That's where Chandler comes in.

Chandler said he learned about Levi, shortly after his hamstring injury.

"It came at a crazy time. I had just hurt my hamstring before I heard the story, and I was kind of down," Chandler says. "Then, that whole story kind of put it into perspective. It kind of made me tear up a little bit, so I just wanted to reach out."

So, Chandler texted Yasmine and made sure that his coach was OK with having them at shootaround.

And when Levi got to shootaround he was very curious about Chandler's leg.

"He asked me about my leg, asked me why I had the ice on it. When I took the ice off, he was like, did that make you feel better?"

Chandler gets a little quieter as he reflects on Levi's concern about his leg.

"I should be asking him if he's alright."

Yasmine describes Levi as her "happy baby," and in the time that they spent together, Chandler had similar thoughts.

"He's happy, he's strong. When you got someone like that going through things, and still, to be able to be happy and strong and show no signs of weakness, it kind of put everything into perspective. When you're going through things, and you're living life, and you're actually healthy, you're alive."

Before leaving the facility, Levi, donning his new personalized jersey signed by all the Sixers, passed out wristbands that read #LeviStrong. Levi didn't know what they meant, but he made us all feel a little stronger that day.

Sixers Talk podcast: Bring on the Bucks!

NBCSP/USA Today Images

Sixers Talk podcast: Bring on the Bucks!

On this edition of Sixers Talk, Paul Hudrick and Amy Fadool discuss Joel Embiid dominating, Alec Burks being a spark off the bench, and Saturday's huge matchup against the Bucks.

• Sixers win a weird one in their first game after the All-Star break (1:07)

• Alec Burks gives the Sixers exactly what they need (9:18)

• Al Horford's new role (12:55)

• Joel Embiid vs Giannis Antetokounmpo (25:08)

• Ben Simmons' defense has allowed the Sixers to really compete against the Bucks (29:42)

• Sixers' three-point shooting percentage against Milwaukee (32:32).

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With Joel Embiid-Al Horford pairing, Brett Brown has more important decisions ahead

With Joel Embiid-Al Horford pairing, Brett Brown has more important decisions ahead

CAMDEN, N.J. — The Sixers have 24 two-man lineups that have played at least 400 minutes together this season. The Al Horford-Joel Embiid pairing has the worst net rating of them all, by a margin of 2.9 points.

It’s an important statistic and an obvious reason why it made sense for the Sixers to remove Horford from their starting lineup. Horford played only nine minutes with Embiid on Feb. 11 against the Clippers, seven minutes Thursday night vs. the Nets. Before that, the pair had averaged 14.3 minutes per game together. 

Is Brett Brown’s goal simply to minimize the time those two share the floor? 

At times when you see that number to be low, it will be driven because the matchups just, in my opinion, didn't allow it," he said Friday. "It's just a stone cold small-ball game. Some of it will be driven out of performance and my gut feel, but I feel like a large portion of it will be driven out of just the matchups that we have on the floor. 

“It is my hope that you see that number in a healthy way. It's still the desire to have those two guys play quality basketball and coexist whenever that is required. But I feel like the number that I was saying should be judged based on matchups. You're going to see if it's a tiny number, I'll be shocked if it's not driven completely because the game is really small.”

The Nets did indeed use ultra-small lineups against the Sixers, with 6-foot-8 Wilson Chandler seeing time at center. Horford also played poorly. He was a minus-26 in 18:33 which, though an extreme number, did not seem to be an outrageously inaccurate reflection of his performance. 

Putting Horford on the floor with Embiid at the end of the game would have been illogical — doing so would have removed a ball handler like Alec Burks or Shake Milton or forced Brown to take out Tobias Harris (22 points, 12 rebounds). Essentially, Brown would have been trying to insert an ill-fitting piece and using a lineup that made little sense in the circumstances. 

Still, one can understand the instinct to involve Horford as much as possible. The Sixers gave him a lucrative four-year contract this season with the idea that he could both back up Embiid and play next to him. To abandon one half of that equation could be viewed as admitting a costly mistake, even in the context of Horford still having value as an improvement over the team’s backup centers last year and as Embiid insurance.

Brown doesn’t see Horford as a lost cause and was insistent Friday that the five-time All-Star is still an important player for the Sixers. 

“There's a human side of this that I take a lot of pride in, figuring that side out as as best I can,” he said. “Relationships and communication rule our sort of worlds. … He's a prideful man, he's got a history that he has, he has been rewarded with the contract that he has, and just keeping it very straight, very clean, very quick, and this is how I see it, this is why I see it this way, and not being apologetic about it. … He knows that I am aware of it all. And I believe that things will settle. 

“We have seen the history of Al Horford, and all of us would be very naive to think that some of his signing wasn't driven to where we think we want to be in April, May and we hope June. Just progress out, look ahead to see the matchups. … I think the communication and how I speak to Al is for me driven with those sort of core tenants in mind that I try to stick to.”

Horford is shooting 32.4 percent from three-point range, his worst mark since 2014-15, and 33.1 percent on wide-open threes. A hopeful look at history would suggest those numbers will improve. 

He’s also accepted a bench role without any fuss, saying Wednesday, “It’s what the team needs right now, and that’s what we’re doing.”

There is certainly evidence to support the notion he can excel at a job that includes a few less minutes alongside Embiid but still has him featuring in late-game lineups, especially against teams like the Bucks. 

Brown will continue to track the success and regularity of the Embiid-Horford duo. Though he and the Sixers will be looking for signs of improvement, it’s feasible that he’ll eventually be best served by further decreasing the playing time of his original frontcourt. 

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