“I don't think I'd be in this position if I wasn't meant for it or built for it,” an unflappable Ben Simmons tells me. He’s been tested, but retains the steady confidence of someone who just signed a max contract. After a particularly trying trip back home, we’ve learned just how well-equipped Australia’s biggest-ever sports star is for life in the spotlight, and what he means for the next generation of young Australians.
Ben Simmons was always going to be the sort of generational talent that would lead Australia to the next level. From his early days at LSU, and earlier at Montverde, it was clear he had the on-court assets to make an enormous impact on the international game. Off the court, Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports were quick to sign Simmons based off more than just what they saw on the floor.
“Rich and Klutch choose their people and athletes based on their values and morals,” he says. “Not just their ability to play the game or play sports.”
Ben Simmons' height, passing game and court vision will create a matchup nightmare when he plays for the Boomers in 2020. But his values and ethics, and his fearlessness in making his voice heard, could be what creates a lasting legacy for Simmons in Australian culture.
Let’s take it back a few weeks. On July 18, the Australian sports media was humbled with the nationwide screening of a documentary highlighting the glaring racism in the Adam Goodes saga. On July 19, we read quotes from a contrite Eddie McGuire telling us the documentary was ‘heartbreaking’. The AFL was moved to ‘apologise unreservedly’ for its ‘failures’ in handling the blatant racism unfolding across its stadiums week after week. Eddie and the AFL, two of the most immovable objects in Australia, had admitted wrongdoing. It felt like we had turned a corner.
When Ben Simmons returned home to Australia only three weeks later, a former AFL player was quick to tell a TV audience he was ‘sick of Ben Simmons’ before telling him to ‘go back to Philadelphia’. The outburst came after Ben Simmons committed the sin of attending two AFL games. The local media, it seems, were only prepared to reflect on their troublesome attitudes for so long before resuming their regular programming.
Simmons’ trip to Australia was punctuated with media outrage. 2GB right-wing mouthpieces Alan Jones and Steve Price were, not surprisingly, the loudest and perhaps the most ill-informed voices in the choir of criticism. Alan Jones suggested that Simmons ‘go back to America’. Price went the Alex Jones route and concocted a wild conspiracy in which Simmons had somehow orchestrated a racial profiling incident for his own financial gain.
In town for only a few days, Simmons somehow raised the ire of all the players in the Australian media’s old guard. These are the same ageing, white dinosaurs of Australian radio and TV who have previously taken aim at WNBA All-Star Liz Cambage and told the ATP’s highest-ranked Australian male, Nick Kyrgios, to go back where he came from.
To the rest of Australia, the backlash was infuriating, but sadly, not unexpected. The situation was reminiscent of American right-wing commentator Laura Ingraham telling LeBron James to ‘shut up and dribble’. LeBron, like Simmons, calmly handled the situation with aplomb. Speaking to Simmons, he credits LeBron with opening the door, and opening dialogue.
“The way LeBron handles things, and the topics he talks about, he's always talked about things he's passionate about and what he feels is right and wrong,” explains Simmons. “So for me, when I see that, I'm like 'you know what, if I see something wrong then I'm gonna have to speak up.’”
“[LeBron] and Rich Paul, they've always done things before anyone else. People aren't used to others doing new things. That's what people get scared of. So we have guys like that [speaking out], it makes other people feel OK to speak out and tell others how they feel about certain situations, which is amazing.”
The truth is, the talking heads of mainstream media represent a way of thinking and an insular world view that is rapidly becoming extinct, even in their own neighbourhoods. Modern Australia loves Ben Simmons, and the love is reciprocated. This is the same guy with the iced-out kangaroo swinging from his chain. Simmons embraces who he is and where he’s from; at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo center, you can watch the 76ers play while you eat a Four N Twenty pie. “It's insane,” he says with a laugh. “For me to look in the crowd and see somebody eating a pie, it's the craziest thing.”
The NBA and Four N Twenty pies are an unlikely pairing, but Simmons made it official just last weekend, when he announced a partnership with the brand. The All-Star can be selective with the brands he does business with, but he chose Four N Twenty because “it’s something that represents Australia in the right way.”
“I'm big on everybody being included,” he explains. “I think this represents Australia in the best way possible. It's one of those things that brings everybody together and kind of unites everybody.”
Uniting everybody and driving equality is at the core of Ben’s values. “Collectively we're one race,” he says. “I don't see it as black, white, anything like that. I think we're all just one.”
Regardless of how Simmons sees it, race and sports are unfortunately linked, particularly in the case of the Adam Goodes story. Simmons served as an executive producer on the Goodes documentary The Australian Dream to open the dialogue and help Australia – and the world – progress.
“Goodesy came to me,” says Simmons. “I watched [the documentary] and from that day I was like 'OK, I wanna be a part of this.' I knew this is much bigger than just being an executive producer; if I'm able to use my voice and help other people be better, whether it's in Australia or all over the world, and make a change, then I'm helping others and I'm helping this world. I'm super excited to be a part of that.”
Despite what you may have heard, Simmons put no money into the project.
“It's really just using my voice and being able to show people this documentary and let it grow internationally. And if I'm able to do that, then I've made a change and helped others.”
Simmons is firm in his values, and has the luxury of choice in who he pairs up and lends his name to, be it documentaries or endorsement deals. There are only 26 players named to the NBA All-Star team in any given year. Australia is home to only one, and the suitors are lining up to throw a bag at Ben and get his 6’10” frame into a promotional hoodie. Days after Simmons left the country, Alan Jones made a vile suggestion that the Australian Prime Minister should shove a sock down the throat of Jacinda Ardern. As quickly as brands are throwing deals at Simmons, 2GB sponsors are exiting en masse. The dinosaurs are quickly becoming extinct. They’re not built for life in 2019.
After leaving Australia, Simmons posted a pic to Instagram. In it, he’s looking out across Sydney’s iconic harbour. “Hate it or love it” the caption reads. “Born n raised Australian”.