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
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.