For Ben Simmons, finally, a chance to shine

Ben Simmons is on a roll, the good kind. After pundits, fans and other assorted wags pronounced him done, his body and brain not up to the challenge of being an NBA star, he started turning things around last week. After nine games without a double-figure scoring night and five he missed with knee soreness, the Ben Simmons, the one with an All-NBA honor, three All-Star berths and two All-Defensive team trophies, was back. It was no surprise to his teammates and one of them used the post-game podium Wednesday to say, I told you so.

Asked what was different about the old, now new Ben Simmons, Markieff Morris replied with one word, “Healthy,” then defended his 26-year-old teammate.

“He finally got his legs under him. He was off for two years. Y’all wouldn’t give him a chance, y’all want to criticize him after every fu***** game…” Morris told the media. “”But when a guy doesn’t play for two years — because obviously y’all wouldn’t know because none of y’all played in the NBA, he had to get his body right. Contact every night, he’s playing 30-plus minutes, it takes time.”

It’s been a journey for a while, of course. No one who follows basketball doesn’t know the saga, but there’s always more to a story like Simmons and Konrad Marshall, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this month, found a lot of it. Simmons has a history of opening up to writers, but the Marshall interview takes it all to a new level.

He reminds the reader of the pressure that led up to his Philadelphia holdout, how when he was drafted, he was compared to the greats by the greats.

“Ben Simmons is the best all-round player I’ve seen since LeBron James came out of high school straight to the NBA!” said Magic Johnson. LeBron James himself told Simmons, “You have an opportunity to be better than me. But you can’t skip steps. You have to do the work.”

The LSU experience was the first time he experienced controversy. Was he going to class? Did it matter?

“The class wasn’t pointless, but for me it wasn’t necessary,” Simmons told Marshall. “And the school was making money off me. I don’t put my foot down a lot, but I did. I was tired. I was training constantly, and I had all these photo shoots they wanted me to do.”

After missing his first year due to injury, he became a presence for Philly. He loved the NBA experience.

“Running on the hardwood arenas, warming up, tip-off, all these different cities – it’s rare to be on that court,” he recalled to Marshall in one of the many references to Simmons’ love of the game. “You hear your name called out when you enter the arena. You dunk on somebody you grew up watching. It’s incredible.”

But he also understood that “it’s a business, it’s a job, it’s a livelihood, and you gotta do what you do well. It gets serious.”

It was then, back in 2020, that things started to go south. His shooting became an issue, at least for fans.

“I was already going to therapy,” Simmons said. “I got into a really dark place in my life. ‘Why do I feel like this? What’s happening to me?’ It was a build-up of everything – all that pressure, and multiple things going on with my family. I’m not sure if you’re aware of that?”

At the same time (as we reported back in April) that his family back in Australia was in crisis. His sister accused their half-brother (and Simmons manager) of sexually molesting her since she was 3 and that their mother had covered it up to protect Ben. His half-brother sued the sister for defamation and won $50,000 Australian in a judgment. It was not pretty and it was happening in the spring of 2021 as the 76ers were pushing hard to win it all. He couldn’t travel back home because of the Sixers schedule … and COVID restrictions.

“These things just started piling up and piling up, and basketball was supposed to be my happy place, where I’m able to be free and express myself, and suddenly I wasn’t able to do that,” he recalled and noted that he once asked another sibling, “Do you ever just wake up sad?”

Then came the Hawks series and Game 7 when he passed up a sure dunk to pass it to Matisse Thybulle who hit one of two free throws. The narrative quickly became that Ben Simmons was afraid of going to the line, a coward for making a split second decision, as Marshall describes things. In the post-game press conference, Doc Rivers and Joel Embiid put the blame on Simmons, which Simmons denies and in talking with Marshall, is decidedly not diplomatic about Rivers and Embiid’s comments.

“If I could go back I would go up strong, go to the line,” Simmons told Marshall. “But there was so much emphasis on that moment. I made a bad play, but loads of guys made bad plays. I’m not the reason we didn’t win.”

“Your teammates are supposed to have your back. Your coaches are supposed to have your back. And I didn’t have that at all,” said Simmons.

He also describes in detail what transpired the day he decided he wasn’t ready to participate in a defensive drill, for which he was fined. Simmons again suggests that Rivers didn’t have his back, didn’t understand.

“I still wasn’t ready in my head. I wasn’t in a place to get on the court and play. I went to Coach and said, ‘I’m not ready yet to get back on the court, I need some time.’ He says, ‘Well, I’m going to put you out there regardless,’ ” Simmons said, shaking his head. “Okay, so now you’re just trying to f… with me.”

Simmons went into his shell. His high school classmate Tahj Malone was living with Simmons and saw the toll it took, Marshall writes. He was eating less, sleeping longer. “You kinda saw him mentally going into a shell, kinda of shutting down. It was tough and ugly, but he wasn’t going to play victim.”

From then on, it got uglier and uglier in Philly. Philadelphia Inquirer beat writer Keith Pompey tried to explain to Marshall how the Philly fans felt. “It’s not like the team paid him,” said Pompey, “it’s like, ‘We paid him, so he owes us’.” The only thing missing was a TV crew waiting outside his house. I’ve never seen that happen to another athlete.”

How ugly? Marshall reveals that Simmons travels with a personal security detail.

“There is this perception that if you enjoy all the good stuff, you’ve gotta be prepared for the bad stuff, but this level of relentless hatred was totally disproportionate,” Julie Simmons, Ben’s mother, told Marshall. “I got to a point where I was so enraged, because I felt what they were doing was dangerous and ill-informed and just wrong. It almost became a sport – to pile on and make a joke about it, make a joke of him, but he’s a person. He’s my son.”

Finally, at the deadline, an unhappy Simmons (along with Seth Curry and Andre Drummond plus two picks) was traded to Brooklyn for an unhappy James Harden (and Paul Millsap.) Simmons mother recalls the moment and how emotional he was about his new opportunity .

“He literally broke down over the phone – ‘Mum, I’m going to Brooklyn’ – and I could hear it in his voice,” she said. “I could hear him take a breath. I could tell he was having a moment. I said, ‘Ben, put it all behind you, honey,’ but, of course, nothing gets put behind you.”

Indeed, then came the back injury, which Simmons again talked about in more detail than with other writers.

He went to run upstairs one day and felt two of the lowest vertebrae in his spine – the L4 and L5 – give way, Marshall writes. The pain was immediate. “My whole right side just dropped. I lay down in bed and couldn’t move. Nerve pain all down my leg into my calf. I had a dead foot, dragging my right, which was numb.”

More controversy which cascaded with reports that he might play in Game 4 of the Celtics series.

“I was supposed to play,” he confirmed to Marshall. “And the day before the game we’re playing 5-on-5 and 4-on-4, and I’m like, ‘Let me play one more game,’ because it just wasn’t right. I wasn’t moving the way I move. I felt something in my back, it locked up quickly. I woke up the next day – which is what tells you how you really feel – and I couldn’t move. There was no way.”

It was time to pile on. He was faking it again to avoid the moment. As Marshall recounts, Reggie Miller told him to “#ManUp”, and Shaq agreed: “In the hood, we called this a punk move.” Stephen A. Smith called Simmons the most selfish player in the league: “Nobody is worse than Ben Simmons! Ben Simmons might also be the weakest, most pathetic excuse for a professional athlete we have ever seen in not just American history but the history of sports.”

“Maybe people don’t know me because I don’t show them my life?” he said in the Marshall interview. “There are going to be haters anyway – I’m not going to try to prove anything to them. If you don’t believe me, you don’t believe me – that’s on you. It shouldn’t be up to me to convince you otherwise.”

On May 9, he went under the knife in LA and relief was instantaneous.

No pain. I could feel my feet again. I could feel my glute trying to activate.”

But despite all that, there were other issues, all of which Simmons spoke to. He even showed Marshall his texting history to prove that, no, he didn’t abandon a group text.

Perhaps nothing goes to how much Simmons is, yes, hated, particularly in certain quarters of Philadelphia. Marshall tells a single story that encapsulates that hate.

Simmons’ eldest sister, Melissa, runs his community and social-impact work (Ben Simmons Family Foundation), which includes everything from youth leadership programs to partnerships with organizations like Operation Warm (giving winter coats to kids who need them). Last year, he was forced to continue the latter anonymously. “We were a little bit worried that people in Philly might not wear the coat if they knew it was from Ben Simmons,” Melissa admits, noting that a few kids even dropped technology scholarships because his name was attached. “That was heart-wrenching.”

There’s a LOT more in the article including Patty Mills’ critical role and his desire to play with the Australian national team at the 2024 Olympics and his increasingly role as a fashion icon (something it’s a lot easier to do in New York than Philadelphia.) Also, the python.

In the end, Simmons understands he needs to win, the Nets need to win.

“It’s all about the win. Everything changes once you start winning, and then those people with things to say suddenly have nothing left to say. It’s that easy and that hard.”

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