Meek Mill sets the stage for 76ers' Game 5 mission

PHILADELPHIA — With hammer in hand, replica Liberty Bell at his side, and comedian Kevin Hart on the opposite end serving as hype man, Meek Mill looked toward the ceiling at Wells Fargo Center and took a moment to exhale. Earlier in the day, the Philadelphia-based rapper was in prison, serving a sentence for a parole violation.

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But in a matter of hours, he was free, catching a helicopter ride to a Penn’s Landing heliport, and riding to a 76ers game — the best place to celebrate anything these days — with minority owner Michael Rubin. Before an audience of 20,000 raucous supporters cheered his release and his presence, Mill addressed the team in the locker room before it attempted to close out the Miami Heat in Game 5, got a fresh new haircut with Hart making fun of his weight gain – “He got fat,” Hart shouted on YouTube — and slipped on a Joel Embiid jersey to show that in life, basketball and the legal system, the process has to be trusted.

Meek Mill, left, comes out to ring the 76ers’ replica Liberty Bell with actor Kevin Hart, right, before Game 5 Tuesday night. (AP)

After taking in the entire whirlwind of a day, Mill waited for his cue and banged on the bell three times. The Philadelphia Supreme Court granted Mill’s petition for release and the longtime 76ers fan quickly attached himself to a franchise that has made an unexpected, and rapid, rise to join the Eastern Conference elite. The 76ers ran from the locker room to the floor for warmups to one of Mill’s earlier hits, “Ima Boss” — an appropriate choice for how far the team has come from once being a guaranteed loser.

Since being imprisoned at the State Correctional Institution in Chester, Pennsylvania, Mill received support from athletes, entertainers and other celebrities. The Super Bowl champion Eagles came out to his song, “Dreams and Nightmares” before capturing the city’s first Vince Lombardi Trophy, and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft visited him two weeks ago. But the 76ers were among the first to rally around him. Embiid visited Mill in prison in December, and Rubin helped rookies Simmons and Markelle Fultz pay a visit earlier this month, while the team was riding a 17-game winning streak that extended into this series. Hall of Famer Julius Erving even attended a public rally campaigning for Mill’s release.

Before tipoff, Simmons, who owns a Meek Mill Dream Chaser chain, shook Mill’s hand, and Embiid sprinted down to give the rapper a hug. The 76ers have had no shortage of motivation during what has been a stunning, magical turn from doormat to contender. The team was so excited to have Mill around that NCAA men’s basketball champion Villanova, which was originally set to ring the bell, got bumped. Understandable when the hashtag #freemeek becomes a reality.

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