Aussie hoops phe­nom­e­non Ben Sim­mons, who’s light­ing up the NBA in his rookie sea­son, re­veals why you too should shoot for the stars.

Hoops sen­sa­tion Ben Sim­mons might be the next Lebron James. Af­ter a barn­storm­ing rookie sea­son his next goal is clear: to be the best ever

Men's Health (Australia) - - Contents - BY BEN JHOTY PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY STEVE BOYLE

The king-in-wait­ing looks more like a prince at play. Ben Sim­mons is drib­bling a black leather ball in­sou­ciantly be­tween his legs at a stu­dio in Philadel­phia’s hip Old City Gallery dis­trict. Every so often he hurls in­creas­ingly loose be­hind-the-back passes at his brother Sean, rais­ing an eye­brow when they aren’t caught cleanly. Sean glares back at him as if to say, what the hell? You’d have to say there’s not a whole lot of broth­erly love on dis­play to­day, as Sim­mons smirks and re­sumes drib­bling.

It’s an achingly-cold morn­ing in the home of cheeses­teaks, Rocky and Amer­ica’s Found­ing Fa­thers, a city still buzzing from the Ea­gles’ Su­per­bowl vic­tory a few days ear­lier. Sim­mons watched the wild post-game cel­e­bra­tions from his apart­ment over­look­ing City Hall, be­fore briefly head­ing down­stairs to join the roil­ing mass of green-and-white­cloaked fans. Tak­ing in the hordes, the 21-year-old couldn’t help re­flect­ing on the for­tunes of his own emerg­ing team. And won­der­ing, what would it be like if, one day, he too could bring a cham­pi­onship to the city.

“It’s mo­ti­vat­ing for us to see the fans come out and sup­port them,” says Sim­mons, a lit­tle wist­fully as he eases his 208cm frame onto a stool. “It just pushes us to get to that point with the team we’ve got.”

A cham­pi­onship is some­thing Sim­mons re­turns to a num­ber of times dur­ing the course of our con­ver­sa­tion. To say it fig­ures in his cal­cu­la­tions would be like say­ing Syd­neysiders have a pass­ing in­ter­est in real es­tate or Don­ald Trump dab­bles in Twit­ter. Right now, it is his life’s mis­sion. Along with win­ning a medal, gold of course, with the Boomers at the Olympics. Oh, and one more thing: “to be the great­est player of all time”.

If those sound like loftier goals than what you might hear your av­er­age AFL or NRL rookie trundling out on a club press day you’d be right. Sim­mons has a unique sport­ing pedi­gree – son of Amer­i­can NBL player Dave Sim­mons, he was raised in Aus­tralia be­fore mov­ing to the US at 16 to com­plete high school and at­tend a sea­son of col­lege at Louisiana State Univer­sity. This eclec­tic up­bring­ing has con­spired to pro­duce an ath­lete who some­how man­ages to project both Yan­kee con­fi­dence and Aussie hu­mil­ity.

“He’s very grounded but I think his up­bring­ing and how he was raised has pro­duced an un­usual con­fi­dence in his own abil­i­ties,” says 76ers head coach Brett Brown, who was an as­sis­tant coach over­see­ing Sim­mons’ dad Dave at the Mel­bourne Tigers in the early 90s. “He’s not a towel-flinger,” he adds of Sim­mons’ con­tained de­meanour in the locker room. “I think he sees his fu­ture quite clearly.”

Sean, who lives with Sim­mons and oc­ca­sion­ally ac­com­pa­nies him on the road, puts it this way. “The funny thing about Ben is he’s got this vet­eran mind­set in­side a rookie’s body. He’s al­ways think­ing down the track, he’s think­ing cham­pi­onship. That’s what you get judged on at the end of your ca­reer.”

Sim­mons is un­apolo­getic about the bold­ness of his am­bi­tions. “You’ve got to set the bar high,” he says, his not-quite Amer­i­can ac­cent still be­tray­ing a lit­tle of his Aussie lilt. “If you don’t set it high, you’re not aim­ing high enough, hon­estly. That’s the way I’ve thought since I came over here for high school.”

You could shake your head. Dis­miss his pie-in-the-sky pro­jec­tions as rookie brash­ness. Un­til you look at what Sim­mons has achieved so far in his short ca­reer. The num­ber one high school player in Amer­ica – tick. The num­ber one col­lege fresh­man in Amer­ica – tick. Se­lected num­ber one in the 2016 NBA draft – tick. Now putting up his­toric rookie num­bers to help pro­pel the 76ers into the play­offs – tick. Be­cause that’s the thing about Sim­mons’ prophe­cies. They may start out sound­ing like delu­sions. “They sound out­ra­geous,” ad­mits Sean. But look back a lit­tle later and sud­denly those delu­sions have mor­phed into mere chal­lenges. Look again and they’re checked boxes.

It makes you think Sim­mons might be onto some­thing. That his sim­ple shoot-for-the-stars phi­los­o­phy might be bound by a tightly-wo­ven in­ter­nal logic: if he wasn’t reach­ing so high, he wouldn’t have got this far. That’s a mind­set that helps cre­ate a self-per­pet­u­at­ing form of con­fi­dence that, if you let it spool out over the course of a ca­reer, can take you as high and as far as you want to go.

BE­LIEVE YOUR OWN HYPE

The 76ers charis­matic 218cm cen­tre Joel Em­biid is tow­er­ing over a me­dia scrum that’s

SET THE BAR HIGH. IF YOU DON’T YOU’RE NOT AIM­ING HIGH ENOUGH

as­sem­bled in the team’s locker room af­ter a com­fort­able 115-102 win over the Wash­ing­ton Wiz­ards – a win so com­fort­able the Six­ers PR guy has writ­ten up a vic­tory in his match re­port by mid­way through the sec­ond quar­ter. The crowd, still high from the Su­per­bowl tri­umph two days ear­lier, is in a bois­ter­ous mood, erupt­ing as a cou­ple of Ea­gles play­ers ap­pear be­fore the game and later vig­or­ously boo­ing a lone, very brave teenager wear­ing a Pa­tri­ots jer­sey on the big screen. Sim­mons has a solid game with at least three spec­tac­u­lar dunks and a cou­ple of flashy be­hind-the-back moves, as well as sev­eral turnovers.

Af­ter­wards, as play­ers wan­der half-naked from the show­ers past the wait­ing me­dia, Sim­mons is nowhere to be seen, his tim­ber locker bare but for a pair of Nikes and a huge tub of Vase­line. But while he might not be present he’s the sub­ject of dis­cus­sion as Em­biid fields a ques­tion on who he be­lieves should be se­lected as a re­place­ment in the up­com­ing All-star game in­volv­ing the best play­ers from the NBA’S east­ern and western con­fer­ences.

“My team­mate,” says Em­biid, who hails from Cameroon and speaks in heav­ily­ac­cented English. “I think he de­serves it, he’s been play­ing well the whole sea­son and he’s been a beast lately.” Re­porters im­me­di­ately punch the line into their phones. Within min­utes it’s retweeted to be­come a ma­jor story in the Aussie hoops bl­o­go­sphere.

At the shoot the next morn­ing Sim­mons at­tempts to hide his dis­ap­point­ment at the Al­ls­tar snub with­out be­ing en­tirely con­vinc­ing. “I know who I am,” he says, with a hint of de­fi­ance. “It’s one of those things where you think I could have played, but it is what it is. I have big­ger goals.”

You can see why Sim­mons might be ag­grieved. There’s his eye-pop­ping all-round stats – he’s av­er­aged around 16-17 points, al­most eight re­bounds and eight as­sists and recorded more triple-dou­bles than Magic John­son in his rookie year. Be­yond that though, the fact is, Sim­mons is used to his prophe­cies be­ing re­alised, those boxes be­ing ticked. You can bet an All-star nod was in his sights. He’s also ac­cus­tomed to his name be­ing the one on every­one’s lips. It was dif­fi­cult, he ad­mits, when on the eve of the 2016 sea­son he in­jured his foot and missed the whole year, sub­se­quently slip­ping off the me­dia radar. In his ab­sence, the next year’s rookie class, led by the Lak­ers’ Lonzo Ball, grabbed the head­lines.

“You see ev­ery­body else be­ing talked about and you kind of dis­ap­pear,” he says, look­ing back on his con­va­les­cence. “I used to say, when my time comes, they’re go­ing to be talk­ing about me again.” Tick.

As this year’s reg­u­lar sea­son wound down Sim­mons was locked in a tight bat­tle with Utah Jazz dy­namo Dono­van Mitchell for Rookie of the Year honours. While it’s clear Sim­mons would dearly love to win the award, he frames it as a mile­stone largely de­pen­dent on whether he plays to his po­ten­tial, rather than one that could be de­cided by out­side forces. “If I keep work­ing hard and stick to my goals I think rookie of the year will come along with it,” he says mat­ter-of-factly.

If he does win he’ll be fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of his men­tor, ‘the King’, Lebron James, who refers to Sim­mons as ‘Young King’ and be­lieves his pro­tégé def­i­nitely has the game to one day be men­tioned in GOAT dis­cus­sions. At his skills academy in Las Ve­gas back when Sim­mons was 17, James fa­mously told the kid: “you have an op­por­tu­nity to be bet­ter than me. But you can’t skip steps. You have to do the work.”

De­liv­ered to the wrong re­cip­i­ent, such an en­dorse­ment could have been dis­as­trous. But such is Sim­mons’ self-be­lief that rather than in­flat­ing his ego or see­ing him stag­ger un­der the weight of ex­pec­ta­tion, it merely served to con­firm to him that he was on the right track.

“I’ve al­ways be­lieved in my­self, even be­fore

I USED TO SAY, WHEN MY TIME COMES, THEY’RE GO­ING TO BE TALK­ING ABOUT ME

I met all the NBA guys,” says Sim­mons. “I think that just put it into re­al­ity for me.”

The dy­namic be­tween the two play­ers has made for some in­trigu­ing match-ups when they’ve met this sea­son. It’s fair to say James has had the bet­ter of his heir ap­par­ent, although in their third clash in Cleve­land, Sim­mons had his best game against James yet, record­ing 18 points, nine re­bounds and eights as­sists to the King’s 30, nine and eight out­ing. More im­por­tantly the Six­ers got the win. Af­ter­wards James wrote on In­sta­gram: “I told y’all a while back my young king was next in line! Re­mem­ber lil bro set­tle for noth­ing less than GREAT­NESS!!!” Read that and you can draw two con­clu­sions. Ei­ther the King has taken leave of his senses, or Sim­mons’ GOAT as­pi­ra­tions are no longer in the realm of fan­tasy. The day af­ter the Su­per­bowl a big screen in a down­town Philly sports bar is in­con­gru­ously show­ing cricket’s Big Bash fi­nal. A fe­male pa­tron frowns at the screen. “What am I watch­ing?” she asks the bar­man, clearly be­wil­dered. He turns and looks at the screen. “Cricket,” he replies a lit­tle doubt­fully. “You don’t like it?” “I don’t know what it is,” the wo­man an­swers. “But give me half-an-hour, I’ll fig­ure it out.”

The ex­change serves to un­der­score just how far Sim­mons is from home. To get an idea of how far he’s come con­sider a mo­ment when Sim­mons was back in Mel­bourne last Au­gust and, on a whim, de­cided to fill in on an old mate’s team in sub­ur­ban Greens­bor­ough. He put up 34 points. Sim­mons hoped his ap­pear­ance would go un­der the radar but word got out and by tip-off a few hun­dred peo­ple had gath­ered. “I told them not to tell any­body just be­cause I knew peo­ple would show up,” he says, chuck­ling at his at­tempt at a covert re­turn to his roots. “I should have played bet­ter but we got the win so that was fun.” Not so much fun for the poor guy who had to guard him, per­haps, or the Six­ers trainer who stood fret­ting on the side­lines.

That sense of fun, even mis­chief, is a hall­mark of Sim­mons’ play. It al­ways has been. Last year a video sur­faced of a pint­sized Sim­mons drib­bling be­tween his dad’s legs and then dunk­ing on a kid-sized ring, much to the old man’s mock cha­grin. It wouldn’t be the last time the two would play one-on-one, as Sim­mons went from pre­co­cious tod­dler to lanky teen to ab­surdly pro­por­tioned phe­nom­e­non .“The last time we played I won,” he laughs.

Dave Sim­mons had met wife Julie while play­ing at the Mel­bourne Tigers. The two had two kids, Ben and Olivia, to go along with the four kids Julie had from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage. The fam­ily moved around a lot, spend­ing time in New­cas­tle, Can­berra and Mel­bourne, where Sim­mons went to high school. With the moves the fam­ily be­came tight-knit and, at least un­til Sim­mons started to grow, ex­ceed­ingly com­pet­i­tive with one an­other. “We can barely fin­ish a game of Pic­tionary, let alone a game of bas­ket­ball,” says Sean, who last played his brother in a one-point game dur­ing Sim­mons’ time at LSU, sunk the first shot and promptly re­fused to play him ever again.

Sim­mons would play both Rugby League and Aussie Rules grow­ing up, sports he be­lieves have con­trib­uted to his phys­i­cal style of play. “I think that’s where my tough­ness comes from, learn­ing to take hits and hit­ting back,” he says. “If I see some­one in my way I just try to get them out of the way. I think I learned that play­ing footy.”

As a teenager Sim­mons won the best and fairest in the Yarra Ju­nior Foot­ball League and while his height and ath­leti­cism would have made him a night­mare match-up for de­fend­ers in the AFL, it was al­ways his fa­ther’s sport he held dear­est. Dave Sim­mons never had any doubt his son could play pro­fes­sion­ally, sow­ing and nur­tur­ing the seeds of his am­bi­tion. “He was the one who made me get up early, put the work in and he was al­ways let­ting me know that it’s not go­ing to be easy, it’s go­ing to be hard but it’s all worth it.” It’s the kind of mea­sured en­cour­age­ment you don’t al­ways hear from par­ents to­day. The re­sult is a young man with a mind­set as rare as it is pow­er­ful: the dreamer with drive. FIND YOUR FO­CUS SHOOT YOUR SHOT It’s late in in the game against the Wiz­ards and Sim­mons is at the free-throw line. As he stands poised to shoot, a cou­ple of kids’ voices rise above the crowd. “C’mon Sim­mons,” they cry, a lit­tle plain­tively. They needn’t worry. Sim­mons sinks the free-throws to their ju­bi­lant shouts of “Yes!”

The kids’ con­cern is per­haps war­ranted though. While Sim­mons’ game – the silky pass­ing, gal­lop­ing court-speed and

bull­doz­ing for­ays into the lane for thun­der­ous dunks – has many ad­mir­ers, there’s one glar­ing crit­i­cism: he has no out­side shot. The re­join­der in many a pub con­ver­sa­tion and from Sim­mons, is that he doesn’t need one.

“I’m not wor­ried that much be­cause I’m av­er­ag­ing 17, 8, and 8,” he says. “Guys haven’t done that in their whole ca­reers so for me to do that in 50 games, I think I’m play­ing well.” When pressed on whether he might, as has been spec­u­lated, be shoot­ing with the wrong hand, his ex­as­per­a­tion is clear. “Peo­ple like to make shit up. Maybe I’m writ­ing with my wrong hand too? The thing with shoot­ing is that once I get it to where I want it to be, then I don’t think any­body’s go­ing to be able to stop me.” Does he worry that op­po­si­tion de­fences will fig­ure him out? Sim­mons shakes his head. “They’ve fig­ured me out now and they can’t stop what I’m go­ing to do.”

Brown agrees Sim­mons’ lack of shoot­ing isn’t hurt­ing his game and fore­shad­ows a time where his point guard can’t be con­tained. “It only serves to give him greater mo­ti­va­tion,” he says. “When he grows his shot he be­comes un­guard­able.”

One of the rea­sons for the coach’s con­fi­dence in his charge’s fu­ture may be be­cause he’s al­ready thrown Sim­mons the ul­ti­mate curve­ball and then watched him knock it out of the park. Dur­ing his year out Brown de­cided that rather than play Sim­mons as a for­ward, the po­si­tion he’d played in col­lege, he’d ask him to play point, tra­di­tion­ally a smaller man’s role. Sim­mons wasn’t ini­tially keen – it wasn’t in his pro­jec­tions – but Brown talked him into it. That Sim­mons let him is in­struc­tive for any­one with am­bi­tion be­cause as sin­gle-minded as he is in pur­suit of his goals, the kid’s other-worldly con­fi­dence en­abled him to adapt, re­cal­i­brate and pros­per. He now be­lieves the move has ac­cel­er­ated his de­vel­op­ment.

Per­haps if it had been sug­gested by any other coach Sim­mons would have baulked at the idea, but his bond with Brown, forged by his­tory and ge­og­ra­phy, in­stils im­plicit trust. “We have a stronger re­la­tion­ship than most guys be­cause he knows my fam­ily,” says Sim­mons of the man who ar­rived in Aus­tralia as a back­packer and stayed for 17 years af­ter meet­ing his wife on Great Kep­pel Is­land. “He knows how to push my but­tons to get me go­ing and he knows how good I can be.”

In­deed, Brown saw it clearly years ago, when one af­ter­noon he watched a 14-yearold ath­letic freak with skills that be­lied his size at the Mel­bourne Sports and Aquatic Cen­tre. “You knew some­thing spe­cial was in him,” re­calls Brown, who was coach­ing the Boomers at the time. “Would I have pro­jected back then that he’d end up here with me? You can’t make this stuff up.” He’s right, you can’t. But as Sim­mons con­tin­ues to demon­strate, it doesn’t hurt to try.

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