The ongoing saga involving star Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers has turned into a spectacular study in player/team skepticism, player self-agency, social media effects on athletes, and the understanding of player development. As it stands, the Sixers are operating with good faith that their player, who says he isn’t mentally ready to play and appears ready to move on from the team, is getting the treatment he requires. Things don’t look great for their professional relationship, however.
The latest news is that, per collective bargaining rules, the Sixers can no longer fine Simmons for missed engagements. The team has already levied $1.4 million for his absence from four preseason games, plus tea fines for missed practices, on-court workouts, and meetings. He hadn’t made a dollar from the team since suddenly returning on Oct. 11 to take a COVID test and subsequently get into a verbal blowout with Head Coach Doc Rivers.
Through the advice of his agent Rich Paul, Simmons believed that a trade was imminent; and if that weren’t the case, he’d force one by holding out. He (and Paul) soon found that not being paid was a bridge too far.
Since then, the entire situation has played out on social and mainstream media, seemingly everyone having an opinion. How has media shaped the narrative? Who’s the blame, Simmons or the Sixers, or both, like former Sixer legend Charles Barkley said? And how does the unreality of Philadephia fans (and Sixers brass) figure into the equation?
Shouldn’t Simmons’ response to Rivers, specifically, ring familiar to many? This is a workplace and labor issue, after all. Who hasn’t had a job that was a bad fit?
To better understand the Simmons situation, a couple leaps and an explainer are required.
Skepticism and the sure dunk
This saga goes back to the summer, during the Sixers’ second-round playoff series against the rising Atlanta Hawks, just before Game 7. He had taken just 10 shots combined in Games 5 and 6 and missed 16 of his last 23 free throws to that point. It was clear he didn’t want the ball in his hands.
ESPN writer Ramona Shelburne reported that Simmons told family and teammates that he was being held out “due to a possible exposure to a team masseuse, who’d returned an inconclusive COVID-19 test.”
However, several players “questioned whether Simmons had actually seen the masseuse, or was just trying to get out of playing as he battled the basketball version of the yips.” When he was cleared to play, “skepticism from within made everything worse,” wrote Shelburne.
The infamous low moment came when the explosive 6’10” Simmons passed up a sure dunk with only the über-talented but diminutive point guard Trae Young in his way. His superstar teammate Joel Embiid admitted it was a critical point in the game.
A hole was dug and made deeper through Rivers’ answer to whether the Sixers could win a title with the Australian. “I don’t know that question or the answer to that right now,” Rivers said. “So I don’t know the answer to that.”
The question wasn’t as loaded as it seemed, but became disastrous. Rivers simply answered whether Simmons could be the point guard of a championship-winning team, not whether or not Simmons was a championship player—a critical distinction. One of the more significant fundamental questions, in a team sense, is whether Simmons is a point guard in today’s NBA at all. But also, there has to be an understanding of how Philadelphia, the city, views its athletes and why Simmons could want to sail calmer waters. After all, Simmons, like so many others, knows the stakes.
“I had a bad series,” he said. “I expect that [criticism]. It’s Philly.”
Donovan McNabb and Joe Frazier as analog
Philadelphia has an interesting history as a sports town, a city of perpetual underdogs, as the locals perceive themselves. Former resident Philip Lamarr Cunningham, assistant professor of media studies at Wake Forest University, sees the tenure of oft-criticized former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb as informative in Simmons’ case.
“[What] you can’t ignore about Philadelphia fandom is the way that Philadelphians, in general, view themselves as working-class, tough-minded,” explains Cunningham. “If you think about who their sports icons [think Flyers legend Bobby Clarke, Phillies icon Mike Schmidt, or hard-hitting former Eagles safety Brian Dawkins] have been, Donovan McNabb and Ben Simmons are very antithetical to those ideals.”
McNabb, the Syracuse product, was booed during his selection as the second overall pick to the Eagles in 1999. The fans wanted record-setting Texas running back Ricky Williams. They would boo him throughout a career that was likely a Super Bowl win away from being Hall-of-Fame caliber, and more fruitful than Williams’ spotty NFL career. In hindsight, he probably should have been taken No. 1 over Tim Couch, whose career was an unmitigated disaster. McNabb’s time in the city is especially instructive regarding Cunningham’s notions about Simmons—the fans didn’t see him as one of them, as a lunch-pail guy willing to bleed for every inch.
What Cunningham also notes is an unrealistic (and often racialized) understanding of Philly’s benchmarks of greatness. Philadelphia is also a city with a fictional character, Rocky Balboa—a make-believe, rags-to-riches, multi-time heavyweight champion-turned-Italian restauranteur—as an icon worthy of a statue in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The strange personality cult occurs although one of their own, Joe Frazier—who won the heavyweight championship in 1968 and beat Muhammad Ali in 1971’s “Fight of the Century” in the first of the epic trilogy—existed in real life.
Coming back to Simmons, like McNabb: Philadelphia fans can’t move on from him fast enough. Some believe he is faking an injury and mental illness, but it is perhaps a chicken-and-egg question. Is Simmons’ mental health in question, or is he stalling not to face Sixer fans?
Eagles center Jason Kelce commented, “Everybody can bitch and complain about how tough this city is to play in. Just play better, man; this city will love you.” But does he love them? Does Simmons love basketball enough to work toward a state where his summertime jumper works in a real game?
A scout’s take
ESPN NBA Draft analyst Jonathan Givony predicted in 2016 some of the issues Simmons presented as a prospect and social media darling coming out of Louisiana State University.
Givony incorrectly predicted Simmons’ defensive abilities, as he’s turned into one of the NBA’s elite defenders. Nonetheless, Givony may have correctly questioned Simmons in other avenues in his pre-draft assessment. As he wrote in 2016: “Simmons’ lack of competitiveness in some crucial games has raised questions about his character as a basketball player. While many top picks succumb to the NBA star lifestyle and emerge as average competitors, it’s rare to see that at the collegiate level. Simmons has displayed an apathy for defense, contact, and delivering winning plays in crucial moments.”
But social media (and mainstream media) had already called Simmons the “next LeBron James” for his physical gifts, intelligence, and passing ability. Of course, the Sixers, who understood the concerns according to Givony in a recent interview, picked Simmons at No. 1 overall anyway, in the same 2016 draft that included Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, and even Jamal Murray—players who likely would’ve been better fits alongside a then-still-ailing Embiid.
Givony notes that the Sixers are as much on the hook as Simmons. Perhaps due to mainstream and social media pressure, the Sixers for too long believed that they could not sit their young player out of fear of backlash, even if his behavior demanded a benching.
The Sixers are also required, if by inference that they selected him, to create a playing environment that suits his current talents, not the perceived skillset any hoops fan with a Twitter handle has envisioned for him. More so than any player in recent memory, Simmons has been expected to blossom in a particular direction that he does not recognize as his path. Sixers brass, NBA analysts, and social media appear not to honor that distinction.
“Much of that falls on the franchise, like starting [Simmons] off as a point guard,” says Jason Jay, co-host of the Yeet the Press podcast. “I get it. ‘Run that experiment, see what he can do.’ It turns out he’s probably not that sort of a point guard. Although, he is a distributor. And that’s what makes things a little bit more complicated.”
Jay cited analysis that shows progress on how we consider “positions”: “Ben fits into one of those. But it’s so hard because it takes a forward-thinking general manager and coach to work with someone who doesn’t fit into our preconceived notions of what players should be able to do.”
How this ends
Though Embiid went in front of fans and claimed Simmons is “still our brother,” it’s most likely he will be traded before the season’s end, as the conditions appear untenable for all involved.
One of the gravest mistakes made in the situation was Head Coach Doc Rivers’ answering that he didn’t “know the answer to” whether Simmons could be a point guard on a championship team. Again, not because it wasn’t an accurate or honest answer, but because of how social and mainstream media manipulated the response, which likely drove a deep wedge between the Sixers and the young player.
Worse, it seems that Rivers outsmarted himself in believing, perhaps: “I’m going to say this comment, leave it at the player’s feet, and this player is going to respond with force.” He, many analysts, and Philadelphia fans did not anticipate Simmons would respond by receding from him. Simmons’ action is not an uncommon practice for most people willing to admit it. Many are simply reticent in allowing Simmons’ similar agency because of his profession.
“The NBA is fundamentally a business, and these teams are workplaces,” said Jay. “I think a lot of people do this when you find out that your boss does not have confidence in you, or you get passed over for the promotion, or you don’t feel like you have a future in that company. What do you do? You leave. You resign. It’s not always, ‘I’m going to get better at making widgets.’ I’ll be like, ‘Fuck it. No, I’ll go to the other factory.'”
By next summer, Simmons will make widgets for another factory, hopefully one that functions around who he actually is, in the present.
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