Ben Simmons can't decide on a warm-up song.
It's late January, and he's standing on the sidelines of Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center. In blue jeans and a fitted gray hoodie, an iPhone in each hand, Simmons is watching the Sixers launch jumpers and loosen up for their evening matchup against the Sacramento Kings. This will be the team's 47th game of the season. This is also the 47th game Simmons will miss.
Yet he's feeling optimistic. He fractured a bone in his right foot before the start of the 2016-17 season, and now, nearly three months later, his NBA debut is just weeks away. Or so he hopes.
Simmons imagines himself on the court, wizardly whipping no-look passes and speeding up and down the floor with a grace 6'10", 250-pound men aren't supposed to possess. He's burning to ball again—eager to fulfill all of the lofty expectations that come with being the NBA's No. 1 overall draft pick. Which is why, with the pregame clock ticking down to zero, he and his best friend, Cisco Silva, are scrolling through songs on one of his phones in search of the perfect warm-up track.
Simmons and Silva go back and forth before asking a Sixers staffer to connect the phone to the public address system so they can test songs with arena surround sound. Eventually, Simmons settles on "X" by 21 Savage.
"That feels like ages ago," Simmons tells B/R Mag over the summer, five months after learning his foot hadn't healed properly. He was shut down for the season before he could ever jog out to the lyrics: Hold up, you done made me wake my savage up…
"Now, I just want to play, so I don't even care about that stuff," he says.
But Simmons does care about one thing: being unforgettable. It's his goal. His season-long foot injury stripped him of a chance to prove he is a bona fide star alongside Joel Embiid in Philly's Trust the Process era. And when the Sixers picked up another buzzy No. 1 pick in Markelle Fultz in this year's draft, Simmons almost became the de facto forgotten dude.
"I want to go in and make sure everybody remembers my name," he says. "I want to get out there and play where everyone's talking about me."
There are Hollywood entourages and then there's the crew rolling with Ben Simmons during his summer stay in Los Angeles. There's his dad, Dave Simmons, who at 6'9" still resembles the professional basketball player he once was, one of Ben's half-brothers, Sean Simmons, and six friends. The last group is a hodgepodge of characters. Some are black, some are white. One dude has bleached blonde hair; another's rocking khaki dad-shorts and a baseball hat. All together, they'd be perfect for the front flap of a college recruiting brochure.
The friends all met Ben before he was a one-and-done star for LSU, before he was tossed into the basketball hype machine and tabbed as LeBron James 2.0. Everyone plus his family are in town to celebrate Ben's 21st birthday. Of course, as the good friends they are, they are mum on the details of his milestone birthday. "You should talk to Sean about that," Silva says, a response echoed by others in Ben's circle. Sean, Ben's roommate and protector, also serves as his spokesman sometimes, like right now, when the burgeoning star is asked how he celebrated his big day.
"By going bowling and sipping water," Sean yells across the photo studio hosting Ben and his friends this July morning. Sean continues, "Ben had his first-ever sip of beer and hated it."
Ben is still learning how to embrace his ascending fame and not be harmed by it.
Such is life for teenagers who grow up under today's celebrity spotlight. Even here, with a camera snapping photographs for a photo session he green-lit, he struggles letting loose. He has his publicist take her own cellphone pics. Every few minutes Ben walks over to her just to make sure he's comfortable with how he looks.
To help him relax, Silva starts playing Future from his phone. He turns the volume up. Pops Simmons shakes his head, while Ben breaks out some Derek Zoolander imitations.
Simmons always knew he'd be a star. When he was a teenager in Melbourne, Australia, he'd regularly stand in front of his bathroom mirror and recite answers to imaginary interview questions, ones he assumed he'd be fielding within a few years. But then came his lone season at LSU, when the team didn't qualify for the NCAA tournament, and Simmons learned the hard way that life under the microscope isn't easy.
He had critics like Charles Barkley questioning his competitive spirit, accusing him of "just going through the motions" on the floor. He created headlines when his poor grades rendered him ineligible for that season's Wooden Award, given annually to college basketball's "most outstanding" player.
"He had more pressure on him than any other player I've ever worked with," says Graham Betchart, a mental health coach Simmons met in high school. "I've worked with tons of them, big-time players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and none of them had to deal with what Ben did."
Which is exactly what entering the NBA was supposed to solve. Not only would turning into the NBA star he knew he could be prove all his critics wrong, but it would also allow him to control the narrative. Become a franchise savior, swap pressure for praise—or at least that was the plan. Then came the injury.
"I came to the States and no one knew who I was, then they kind of do, then I get injured and no one talks about you for a while," Simmons says. "So it's kind of like now I've got to build myself back up."
The homestands were the easy part.
With coaches on the practice court and teammates in the locker room, Ben could feel like part of the team. Unable to drive, thanks to the boot encasing his right foot, he'd have Sean shuttle him back and forth between their apartment, Wells Fargo Center and the team's training facility. Despite limited lower mobility, Ben spent hours honing his jumper, perhaps the lone weakness in his game, under the eye of Sixers shooting coach John Townsend.
After workouts, Simmons would often visit head coach Brett Brown in his office, where they'd study old tapes of Magic Johnson and break down X's and O's. Brown coached Simmons' father 30 years ago in Australia and over the years grew even closer to Ben. In his four-year stretch as Sixers head coach, a span that's seen top draft picks like Embiid and Nerlens Noel miss significant time, Brown, much to his chagrin, has been able to develop a playbook for how to keep injured young stars engaged.
"Unfortunately, I've had a lot of practice," he says, and so during home games he'd venture down to the end of the Sixers bench to pick Simmons' brain.
Every now and then, Brown would even ask Simmons for a play call. "Three of the times I gave him one we scored," Simmons says, though he keeps the specifics of the plays a secret.
Simmons would find other ways to participate in games too.
"If I was struggling, he'd come over and tell me to keep shooting, talk to me about keeping my confidence up," Sixers guard T.J. McConnell says. "It sounds corny, but it would make a big difference."
But then the Sixers would go on the road, forcing Simmons to search for fresh ways to spend his time and bridge the gap between himself and his team.
He'd watch road games, alone in his bedroom on a big screen TV. Sean watched the same games from the living room, the sound emanating from his TV frequently drowned out by a barrage of four-letter words flying out of his brother's room. For Ben, a perfectionist who's spent his life constructing mechanisms of control, being forced to watch from afar as his team lost 54 of 82 games became its own form of torture.
To help Simmons cope with the solitude during his recovery, Brown asked him to text him mid-game thoughts—what Simmons was seeing, feeling, thinking. Afterward, they broke down Simmons' messages, which, as time went on, Brown noticed became more astute. "He was good at the start of the season with some of the stuff he was seeing," Brown says. "But by the end he was great."
The hardest days were those between games. Sure, Simmons would lift weights when allowed and shoot whenever possible. But there are only so many hours a man can spend by himself in the gym, especially when physically limited.
So he went searching for alternatives. Along with Sean, Silva and whichever of his friends happened to be around, Ben became a regular at a local Walmart. They'd buy board games and puzzles and Legos. Sometimes they'd bring home giant Nerf guns, use couch cushions to set up a battle royale and then litter the black-tiled apartment floor with foam bullets. Ben binged episodes of South Park and played more hours of Call of Duty than any human should. They'd shoot pool in his living room with the loser being sent to the floor for push-ups. One time after Sean lost at pool, Ben forced him to down an ungodly amount of a super spicy hot sauce that came packaged as if it were a grenade (Sean spent the night crouched over the toilet).
The brothers also spent months searching for the perfect companion for Ben, a furry friend to help shift his focus off all things he no longer controlled.
First there was a little black kitten named Biggie, but he was born with a blood disease that made looking after him a full-time job. They tried a dog next, and were hooked up with a 127-pound puppy that Ben named Chief, only to have a neighbor, claiming Chief's size violated building rules, snitch to management. Next they tried two Savannah Cats, which Ben, in a tribute to a social media campaign started by a fan, would raise above his head for photographs after (rare) Sixers wins. But "it was like living with f--king mini leopards," says Sean. Finally a black French Bulldog—which Ben, flashing his creative streak, named Frenchy—brought an end to this quest, while all of Ben's previous pets found safe homes.
Yet hard as they tried, none of this could save Ben from the closing walls that come with a sequestered life.
"You're just doing the same thing every day," he says. "I had those days where I just wouldn't want to even go in."
There were mornings where Sean would wake up before Simmons and find his younger brother lying in bed, lights off and shades down. In those moments Sean would alternate between motivational manager ("One more strong day, then we'll get a day off,") and admonishing older brother ("Stop being a bitch. Let's do this."). He'd also remind Ben to focus on the present, to worry about what he could control.
It's September in Camden, New Jersey, and Simmons, having snatched a defensive rebound, is gliding down the court, the ball yo-yo-ing between his hand and the Sixers training facility floor. His right foot is completely healed. His focus now is on the defense ahead of him, and the open teammates standing in each corner. He slings a perfect left-handed pass into the chest of Robert Covington, in the right corner. Covington drills a three.
McConnell, trailing Simmons on this play, is in awe. He remembers the first time he saw Simmons shift from big man to guard within one play. It was a practice late in the season last year. Watching that combination of size, strength and athleticism, and seeing it all wrapped together with one of those Larry Bird-esque passing genes, he couldn't help but feel a tinge of innocent jealousy.
"I'm 6'2", I'm supposed to be the quick one, and he's faster than me," McConnell says. "For someone that size, to be able to play like a point guard and be that fast, it's incredible."
That doesn't mean there aren't valid concerns about Simmons' game. There's his jumper, for instance. He attempted just three three-pointers during his entire freshman season, and some around the NBA believe, based on how he prefers to finish at the rim, that he's actually a righty and currently shooting with the wrong hand. Also, there's the question of his fit alongside another point guard in Fultz.
The Sixers, though, don't seem worried. Listen to them explain why, and it becomes hard to disagree. They have data showing that Simmons' LSU team struggled most when he was off the floor, and they are confident Simmons and Fultz can share playmaking duties the way Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili did not so long ago.
"He has a complex skillset, and I say that with excitement and as a compliment," Brown says of Simmons. "Between his physical gifts and his skill package, there's a lot he has to offer and a lot of different ways he can impact a game."
Brown, like others, thinks Simmons can impact the game, too, which for Simmons is what made the past year so trying. Playing had always been his way of communicating with the world, of fighting back at taunts, both real and perceived. Taking that away was akin to stitching his mouth closed.
He found himself missing the microscope he so often shunned.
"It got frustrating not being able to be out there," he says. "You have people saying things about you—whatever it is, could be negative, positive, but you can't control it. You just have to sit back and wait."
Now he's back, having confronted, and defeated, more physical and emotional adversity than ever before. That's the kind of thing that can change a man, and for Simmons, the manifestations of that change are clear.
"Play whatever," he says of his new pregame song of choice. "Just put me out there."