Ben Simmons, not the star Philly deserved
Let's hope he isn't the poster child for mental health in the NBA
If you don’t watch basketball but have heard the name Ben Simmons, you may be asking “why is everyone in the media picking on him?”
Yesterday, Ben Simmons had back surgery and it is natural to wonder why anyone should harshly judge a player who has publicly admitted he is dealing with mental health issues. Over the course of Ben’s NBA career, I have heard many prominent sports media personalities comment on his court skills, social media posts and competitiveness. I cannot point to a single person who doubts his mental issues are real or honestly thinks a player would fake surgery for attention. Not even from his most vocal critics.
Despite Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reporting:
Brooklyn Nets swingman Ben Simmons will require three to four months of rehabilitation after undergoing back surgery on Thursday, but is expected to be fully recovered to return to the court well ahead of preseason training camp in September, sources told ESPN on Wednesday.
Fans and the media have stopped believing in Simmons. He could post regular rehabilitation updates, and he will consistently be castigated for putting himself above the team. And the reaction is not undeserved.
Drafted 1st in the summer of 2016, Simmons’ future looked bright. At nearly 7 feet tall, he is that rare defensive specialist who can play point, forward and center. When he came into the league and started demonstrating his talents, it was not uncommon to hear comparisons to LeBron James, though no one said Ben was as gifted as LeBron. He did still have the potential to be extraordinary. At 25 years old, it’s a shame to say absent a career-ending injury that Ben no longer has that potential.
In his first full season as a Philadelphia 76er, Ben won Rookie of the Year and went on to be named to 2 All-Defensive teams, was the 2020 steals champ and voted to 3 All-Star games. Even if you don’t watch basketball, you can tell he was a budding star.
Paired with Joel Embiid, easily one of the most dominant centers since Shaq, the 76ers pushed all their chips forward with Simmons instrumental to their championship aspirations. With a loaded roster in the 2018-2019 season, the 76ers lost in a dramatic game 7 against the eventual NBA champions, the Toronto Raptors. Raptors Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer beater to end the 76ers season received far more attention (in the moment) than Simmons refusing to shoot 3-point shots in the series to keep the Raptors defense on their toes when he had the ball. Simmons was adamant that his defensive prowess is what he brings to the the table. When interviewed by FOX Sports about his shooting:
Interviewer: "Why don’t you want to shoot more?"
Simmons: "I mean, I take my shots. I get shots up. I think it’s just finding a balance of when to shoot and when to take certain shots."
Interviewer: "But when you hear people say that for court spacing with Joel just being willing to take a corner 3," I began replying, but Simmons cut me off.
Simmons: "Our offense isn’t designed for that. There’s things I need to work on, which I’m going to do, but I think the way I play, my style, I’m able to create things. I’m a creative player, I make things happen, which 90 percent of the league can’t do. There’s only a select few players who can make plays and get guys good shots."
Interviewer: "You get what I’m saying, though."
Simmons: "I hear what you’re saying, but at the same time, like, I don’t sit here and say, like, ‘I gotta do this every time.’ My game’s not based off that. Like, I do so many things on the court where I’m efficient and effective, affecting the game in different ways, so there’s things I need to work on, but, I mean, if you really want, you can look at other players and be like, ‘Well, this guy needs to work on his dribbling because he can’t dribble. He has this many turnovers if he’s forced to dribble.’"
The next season concluded in the infamous Orlando bubble during the first year of the pandemic. Once again the 76ers fell short and Coach Brett Brown was replaced in the offseason. Simmons 3-point shooting remained nearly nonexistent and his free throw shooting percentage in the post-season was being discussed as one of the worst in league history.
Last season was Simmons’ epic meltdown against the Atlanta Hawks. Led by Trae Young, the Hawks clearly punched above their weight class and in the biggest spotlight, Ben froze. Passing up an easy dunk in Game 7 to avoid being fouled and embarrassed at the free throw line, Ben chose to dish the ball to a teammate and his poor decision-making exploded NBA Twitter. Compounded by his shockingly rare shooting in fourth quarters throughout the Atlanta playoff series, Ben’s market value plummeted, his once highly praised defensive talents were completely shrouded by his postseason failures and his agent approached the 76ers to send Ben to another team before the next season began. Ben Simmons had signed a 5 year, $169.65M extension with Philadelphia in July 2019, and 2 years later demanded out with mental health issues rumored as the reason he could not put on a 76ers jersey again and face an objectively rabid Philly fan base.
The trade rumors and drama enveloped the 76ers 2021 offseason forcing Ben’s teammates to consistently having to respond to questions about whether Ben would play in Philly again while Simmons kept mum publicly. When the 76ers did not trade Ben in the offseason, Simmons skipped training camp, did not engage the team in good faith and the franchise started to withhold his pay.
[Simmons] reportedly denied the mental health resources that the team offered, choosing instead to work with the [National Basketball Players Association]. Simmons reportedly refused to share basic details of treatment that he was receiving with the team, which he is expected to do per the league's [Collective Bargaining Agreement]. In addition to games, the Sixers also started fining Simmons again for failing to participate in any required activities, including strength training, film sessions and team practices.
Until Simmons was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in February 2022, he kept his distance from everything 76ers. The team refused to pay him and now that Ben has been traded, Simmons’ representatives are taking legal action to recoup nearly $20 million in lost pay because they essentially argue Ben was not mentally fit to play or practice so he should not lose his paycheck as a result.
Prior to Simmons’ mental health issues taking center stage in NBA sports media, two other NBA players - DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love - courageously, on their own volition, spoke about their mental health troubles. In 2018, then Toronto Raptors star DeMar DeRozan spoke about his struggles with depression to the Toronto Star:
“I’m so quiet, if you don’t know me. I stay standoffish in a sense, in my own personal space, to be able to cope with whatever it is you’ve got to cope with.”
“I had friends that I thought was perfectly fine, next thing you know they’re a drug addict and can’t remember yesterday . . . I never had a drink in my life because I grew up seeing so many people drinking their life away to suppress the (troubles) they were going through, you know what I mean?”
“It’s not nothing I’m against or ashamed of. Now, at my age, I understand how many people go through it. Even if it’s just somebody can look at it like, ‘He goes through it and he’s still out there being successful and doing this,’ I’m OK with that.”
That summer after 9 years with the Toronto Raptors, DeMar was traded to San Antonio. No foul play; the Raptors could not get over the proverbial playoff hump and DeRozan went to the Spurs and remade his game. This past summer, DeMar signed a well deserved $82 million contract with the Chicago Bulls and was in this year’s MVP conversation for the first time in his career. At 32 years old, no longer the young stud but a mature and savvier star player.
In the Fall of 2020, Kevin Love wrote an article for The Players’ Tribune. Kevin became an All-Star in Minnesota, where he was drafted. Then when Lebron came back to Cleveland in the summer of 2014, Love joined James on 4 Cavaliers Finals runs and won a championship in 2016. After Lebron left in 2018, the Cavaliers signed Kevin to a 4 year, $120 million contract. The signing was mercilessly mocked in the media for overpaying Love and his play was not nearly at the level it was in Minnesota or when playing with Lebron.
Love started his Tribune article:
Being depressed is exhausting.
That’s one of the cruelest ironies about mental health. When you’re in a dark place, everyone around you — all your friends and family — they just want to see you doing what you love again, being happy, being “the old you.”
Sometimes it feels like the world is looking at you saying things like, “Come on, man, just get over it. Don’t think like that. Just move on.”
But what people on the outside don’t always understand is that it takes all of your strength and willpower just to exist. Just to keep on going. Battling depression, battling anxiety, battling any mental health disorder … it’s all just so unbelievably exhausting.
That’s been on my mind a lot lately, considering the millions and millions of people around the world who have lost their jobs, or lost their loved ones, or who are just dealing with the unprecedented anxieties of being a human in 2020. I know so many people out there are suffering right now. I’m no different. I’m still going through it. Even after all the work I’ve tried to do on myself over the last two-and-a-half years, some days are just brutal.
This past season, Kevin Love reassessed his basketball situation, accepted his role as a bench player on a rebuilding franchise and worked hard on being a better team player. He finished 2nd in Sixth Man of the Year voting this season.
Admittedly the Simmons saga affects me more than some others because I grew up in the Philadelphia media market. Ben was drafted by a storied franchise that featured some of the most illustrious players in NBA history - Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain, Charles Barkley, Moses Malone, Allen Iverson - and today has 2 potential Hall of Famers on its roster - Joel Embiid and James Harden. When I was growing up, Michael Jordan was still winning titles as the world was introduced to Allen Iverson, the #1 pick in the 1996 NBA draft. Watching Iverson was emblematic of everything Philly sports and the city of Philadelphia meant to me. Talented, fearless and gritty, Iverson was barely 6 feet tall, never weighed close to 200lbs as a player and would with reckless abandon leap through human trees to get a bucket. More times than I could count, he would fall so hard on the court after giving every ounce of effort on a play, and before the average person would even start thinking of wanting to get up, Iverson would already have sprung up from the floor and raced back to the other end of the court. The man didn’t even hesitate to go to the hoop when going against Shaquille O’Neal - a living human giant who easily weighed over 300lbs at his peak and was so dominant a new league rule had to be passed so other teams could have a fighting chance playing against any team Shaq was on. Iverson played without fear and a seemingly endless supply of heart.
Like Iverson, the city of Philadelphia has a lot of potential. Before Washington D.C. was even a city, the leaders of the world’s most prominent democracy met in Philly. The city has a lot of character and never completely lost the brotherly love it’s known for. At least not in my eyes. To those who have never been or only momentarily, the city is not for the weak of heart or brittle. You need grit to survive and be prepared to have your hope dashed by every single sports team in the city (at some point). But while Philadelphia sports has a history of heartache, their sports teams are often in the championship conversation because like their city, they don’t give up. They get knocked down and get back up. The Rocky statue is more than coincidental - it embodies the spirit of the city. They may not win the fight, but they damn well fight.
And Ben is not a fighter. Philly gave him his payday and Ben pushed his way out in a way only Ben could. For all the athletes who are working through mental issues while playing their hardest, not one of them deserve to have Simmons be thought of first, second or third when it comes to mental health in sports. Unfortunately when the next NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement is determined in 2024, Simmons name will come up and other league players will pay the price for Ben’s actions. Pay-for-play could become a reality and if Ben can recoup his lost salary, it’s hard to believe he’ll give a shit anyone else suffers for the rule that will undoubtedly and appropriately be nicknamed after him.
..if you want to read how DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love courageously spoke about their mental health to help others who may be suffering too: