How Ben Simmons went from Philly’s next big thing to an outcast

Philadelphia woke up on Monday to the grim news of another homicide, this one a fatal shooting of a nurse at a hospital. The shooting raised the number of homicides in the city to 418, the most by this point of the year since 1986. Philadelphia, in short, has much more important things to worry about than its status as the city where Ben Simmons shoots, or refuses to shoot, a basketball.

And yet he remains headline news. The 25-year-old Philadelphia 76ers guard is not reporting to the team until he gets traded – and Philadelphia’s notoriously passionate fans are not happy. Just two years ago, he signed a five-year, $177m contract extension, tweeting at the time, “Philly means so much to me.”

It’s unclear exactly why Simmons has changed his mind and now wants out because he has not gone on the record about it. But reports indicate he is unhappy at the lack of support the Sixers have shown him after fans and the media criticized deficiencies in his game, and there is also friction between Simmons and the team’s other (and more popular) superstar, Joel Embiid.

Sports mean so much to Philly, maybe too much sometimes. The city stops dead in its tracks for an Eagles game. People wear Philadelphia (and definitely not New York) team hats and T-shirts to the store or on walks through the beautiful parks. Philly fans get ripped for being too fanatical, but they are fiercely loyal, especially to athletes who perform well and play hard.

The rebuilding Eagles lost Sunday at home to the Kansas City Chiefs, and the first-year coach Nick Sirianni was booed for odd choices on offensive plays, but the fans seemed to cut young quarterback Jalen Hurts some slack. He generally played well and said afterwards, “There are no moral victories.” In sharp contrast to Hurts, however, is Simmons.

Simmons, the NBA Rookie of the Year in 2018, is a terrible free-throw and three-point shooter and does not care to shoot the ball late in games – notoriously passing up a dunk in a playoff loss to Atlanta. By demanding a trade, his value has clearly diminished, which is a problem for the Sixers, who still think he is worth roughly what they were going to pay him.

It is a genuine standoff, a real mess. Last week, Simmons was due the second 25% of his $33m wage bill for the 2021-22 season – more than $8m – but the Sixers reportedly refused to pay because he has effectively decided to stop playing for them.

His agents, through leaks to the media, blame the Sixers for not getting rid of him when he’d made it clear this summer that he wanted out. Embiid, the Sixers’ center and focal point, said several times in an interview last week that the team would obviously not be as good without Simmons but also called his teammate’s holdout “weird, disappointing, borderline kind of disrespectful”.

What makes Simmons’s decision to walk away jarring is that his father, a player of much more modest skills than his son, battled just to have any kind of basketball career at all. Dave Simmons made it the hard way. He came from the South Bronx and was recruited off the playgrounds by a school called Oklahoma Baptist. He played a year, transferring to a nearby junior college for a year to improve his grades, then returned to Oklahoma Baptist. Later he transferred to Oklahoma City University, where he played for the colorful Abe Lemons. Then he travelled halfway across the globe Australia to carve out a professional basketball there for 13 years. He was a league all-star, and his jersey number, 25 (the same as his son’s), was eventually retired by the Melbourne Tigers.

Dave Simmons loved Australia, marrying an Australian who already had four kids, and would have two more with him, including Ben. Unlike his father, Ben’s rise came easily: he was a prodigy, playing just one year at Louisiana State University before turning pro. He was seen as a generational talent, and the Sixers took him with the No 1 draft choice – even though there were red flags.

“His body language at times bothered me,” Stu Jackson, an analyst who played and was an NBA executive, told in 2016. “There’s just some personal characteristics with the way he portrayed himself and performed that just gave me a reason to be a little bit hesitant about taking him No 1.”

Still, Simmons was compared favorably to LeBron James. He missed his first NBA season because of a broken foot, but he was terrific the next season. By the end of his second full season in 2018-19, the Sixers gave him a giant contract extension, because, as general manager Elton Brand said at the time, “Ben positively impacts the game in so many ways.”

The problem with giant contracts, of course, is that they often make it hard to deal away a player who is perceived not to be performing to expectations. This became the perception in Philadelphia. Sixers’ fans had patiently (and a little uncharacteristically) endured what team officials called ‘The Process’ of rebuilding. Now they wanted a contender. As Embiid thrived, though, Simmons shrank, and many blamed him for a disappointing exit from last season’s playoffs after they had finished top of the Eastern Conference. Simmons was said to be upset that the Sixers were perceived to be “Embiid’s team”.

The situation could drag on, too. The Sixers won’t take anyone in a trade just to get rid of Simmons and his onerous contract, even though Embiid could use more help. Progress will be measured in increments, if at all, until a deal is done. The Sixers could simply hold tight and have Simmons sit in limbo for a year or two, but they’d devalue their investment even more.

Simmons was such an obvious player to take first in the 2016 draft, even if the Sixers knew he might not be cut out to play here if things got tough – tough, in this case, meaning that he and his team would come to be regarded as underachievers. There are much bigger problems in Philly right now, but the Simmons debacle hits at the very core of a city that values hard work and loyalty.