Kevin Goorjian remembers it like it was yesterday.
One afternoon in the spring of 2009, the head basketball coach of Box Hill Senior Secondary College in Melbourne's leafy eastern suburbs was in the gym working out his star player, Olivia Simmons, when the skilled, athletic six-foot wing turned to him and said, "Hey, Kevin, my younger brother's thinking of coming here."
Goorjian had never actually seen the kid play, but he'd already heard all about Ben Simmons. Since arriving at Box Hill SSC in 2003, Goorjian had built the basketball program into one of the best in the country. His players were elite and he trusted their judgment. And that year, they couldn't stop talking about Simmons.
He was only 13 years old, but it was said that he was already well over six-feet tall, ran the floor like a gazelle, loved to pass the ball and could get to the rim at will. He'd captained the Victorian Primary Schools basketball team—Victoria is the state of which Melbourne is the capital (and largest) city—and dominated Melbourne's under-12s club basketball competitions.
Wow, Goorjian thought to himself, we can get Ben Simmons. There was just one problem: Box Hill SSC only covered Years 10 to 12—the Australian equivalent of what Americans refer to as the sophomore, junior and senior years of high school—and by the time Simmons reached Year 10, he might be reluctant to leave his existing high school, Whitefriars Catholic College for Boys, which had a strong basketball program of its own. (Whitefriars, like most Australian high schools, covers Years 7 through 12.)
The next morning, Goorjian remembers walking over to his principal's office and asking: "Can we start a Year 9 basketball program?" "Well," replied the principal, Steve Cook, "if you get 12 boys and 12 girls, then we can." Man, Goorjian thought to himself, I'll do whatever it takes to get that program going—if I do, we get Ben Simmons.
Goorjian and his players went to club basketball gyms all over Melbourne, passing out flyers about Box Hill SSC's basketball program and showing videos of their courts and weight room. His many friends in Melbourne's basketball community spread the word, too, and pretty soon, Goorjian had the 12 boys and 12 girls he needed to start his Year 9 program in time for the 2011 Australian school year.
Simmons was part of that first intake. "He fit right in," Goorjian says in a Californian accent undimmed by nearly three decades in Melbourne. Simmons started on the intermediate team with his fellow Year 9s and 10s, but throughout the season, he scrimmaged regularly with the senior team, which hadn't lost a game in over a year, and more than held his own.
In the lead-up to the Australian Schools Championships in Bendigo in late 2011, Box Hill SSC's senior team was hit by injuries and the departure of their star center, Deng Deng, to the U.S. for college trials. Goorjian decided to promote Simmons to the senior team.
It was a big call. It's unusual in Australian basketball for any 15-year-old to be playing with and against guys three years older, simply because the size and strength differential is usually too much for any kid to overcome, no matter how skilled he may be.
And Simmons would be stepping onto one of the most talented and successful high school teams in the country. Five of the other nine players on the roster—including Lucas Barker, Taylor Dyson and Dylan Hare—had been on the Victoria Metro under-18 team, which had made the 2010 national championship game.
Dyson, a 6'4" shooting guard, led Australia in scoring at the 2010 FIBA Under-17 World Championship and he, Barker and Hare were already playing against men in the D-League of the South East Australian Basketball League, a semi-professional association regarded as the second-best in the country after the professional National Basketball League.
Goorjian never doubted Simmons' talent, but he wondered how the teenager would handle playing with elite players three years older than him. He soon had the answer to his question: seamlessly.
On the court, it was clear that despite his incredible length—the 15-year-old Simmons was already 6'6" and still growing—he was most comfortable with the ball in his hands and facing the basket. But at the Australian Schools Basketball Championships, he never played point guard, as the team already had an established floor general in Barker. Instead, he embraced a role as a wing coming off the bench. And Goorjian made sure that his team used Simmons' elite ball-handling and passing.
"When you get a defensive rebound, push the ball,” the coach told Simmons. "Don't outlet it to the 1-man; you're the 1-man."
As a result, his teammates were treated to the sight of Simmons going coast-to-coast in transition and dunking on defenders at will.
"He was just a … kid loving playing basketball … and just having fun," Barker says.
Simmons was lethal coming off ball screens. "He had this unreal ability to just thread the needle through those gaps and find the guy who was cutting," Dyson says. "And it might've been the tiniest little bit of space. He might've had half a second to get that pass off, but he had that vision and he had the ability to make those passes."
He was—and is—a pass-first player. It was a trait that Dyson had noticed ever since he'd first encountered him as the 10-year-old little brother of his friend Olivia. When he wasn't inside playing video games, the kid rode his bike around the eastern suburb of Blackburn North, where his family lived, and played with the basketball that was always in his hands.
Simmons' unselfish mindset came as no surprise to Barker, Box Hill SSC's 6'0" point guard. The team-first ethos is deeply embedded in Australia's sporting culture and basketball is no exception.
"I think it's just the way he was brought up in Australian basketball," Barker says. "That's how you play. We don't really have too many guys that are just going to be selfish and shoot."
When Simmons did shoot, it was always with his left hand. Occasionally, when he was messing around, he would shoot right-handed. But when he stayed late after every Box Hill SSC practice for his individual session with Goorjian, he used his left hand to complete his extensive shooting drills.
"He'd sit 15 feet out and shoot," Goorjian says. "And then we'd do ... catch and shoot, shot off the bounce, two-dribble shots."
Simmons would "consistently" knock down shots and would keep shooting until he made a certain number. Neither Goorjian nor Simmons’ dad, Dave—who'd often pop by after school to rebound for his son—noticed anything fundamentally wrong with his natural left-handed stroke.
"We didn't change his shot or tinker with it," Goorjian says.
Simmons’ Box Hill SSC teammates knew that his shot was, relatively speaking, the weakest part of his game, but they didn’t think it was horrible. Hare, a 6’4’’ swingman, says Simmons "had a good follow-through ... I wouldn’t look at it and think DeAndre Jordan was shooting or something!”
Goorjian firmly believes that Simmons is a naturally left-handed shooter. Barker and Dyson—proficient shooters who have watched Simmons play since his under-12 days—concur and are mildly amused by the theory, which they saw constantly on TV during their four-year collegiate careers in America, that Simmons is shooting with his wrong hand.
That theory stems from the proposition that Simmons prefers finishing around the rim with his right hand.
Goorjian, Barker and Dyson disagree. They believe that Simmons is ambidextrous inside the foul line. Barker says Simmons has proven "that he can use his right and left hands when he needs to." Such is Simmons’ basketball IQ that Goorjian reckons he deliberately cultivated that skill in order "to protect his shot as he's growing up."
Dyson has an even simpler theory: "I think he developed that [skill] because he just always had a ball in his hand and he was always messing around [with it for fun]."
Simmons' American dad, Dave, wasn't messing around for fun when he arrived in Melbourne in 1989, after completing his NAIA collegiate career at Oklahoma City University, to play for the Melbourne Tigers in the NBL. The back-to-the-basket enforcer quickly established himself as a fan favorite with the physical brand of play he learned on the playgrounds of the Bronx. Soon he started dating Julie Blake, a divorced mother of four who happened to be the Tigers' head cheerleader. The two would eventually get married and have two kids together.
One of the Tigers' assistant coaches when Dave Simmons arrived was a 28-year-old American by the name of Brett Brown, who, some 27 years later, would become Ben Simmons' first NBA coach. In 1993, Brown was appointed head coach of the North Melbourne Giants—his first head coaching job. He won the NBL championship in his second season.
The crosstown rivals Brown’s Giants defeated in the semifinals—the South East Melbourne Magic—were coached by another American, Brian Goorjian, who, in 1989, had persuaded his younger brother Kevin to join him in Australia as his assistant coach. In 1997, he added a young Australian named Guy Molloy to his coaching staff.
In 2011, Molloy, by then the head coach of the Australian under-17 team, started a two-year program designed to win the country's first gold medal at the world championships. The "under-17" in the tournament's title was a misnomer—the players were under 17 when they qualified for the tournament, but by the time it started, they would be under-18s.
In early 2012, as Molloy began the final phase of his team's preparations for the tournament that would take place in Kaunas, Lithuania, from late June to early July, word reached him from Basketball Victoria: You need to have a look at Ben Simmons. Ordinarily, Molloy wouldn't even consider a 15-year-old for an under-18s tournament, but he trusted the judgment of the coaches who contacted him, so he brought Simmons into camp to evaluate him.
Molloy was blown away by Simmons' athleticism, length and exceptional passing ability. Simmons was clearly most comfortable with the ball in his hands, but the team had already been set up around a star point guard: Simmons' lifelong friend and future top-five NBA draft pick, Dante Exum, another Australian-born-and-raised son of an American NBL import.
Molloy told Simmons straight up: "Dante is our point guard and we are going to play with the ball in his hands. If you want to make this Australian team, the role I can offer you is small forward."
"Yup," replied Simmons eagerly. "I want to make the team. I want that role. I want to work and do it how you want me to do it."
By the time the tournament started, Simmons' cuts—typically finished with a dunk or alley-oop—were among Australia's most potent offensive weapons. And his passing was a natural fit for an offensive scheme that prioritized constant ball movement and cutting, always looking to make an extra pass to find the highest quality shot. Australia won silver, losing the gold medal game to a Team USA side featuring Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor.
About a year later, in mid-2013, Simmons left Australia for Montverde Academy in Florida. Every summer since, he has returned home to Melbourne and trained at Box Hill SSC. A few months ago, he was in his old high school gym playing five-on-five against Box Hill SSC's current senior team. Simmons' team lost the first game and won the second.
Simmons—then still yet to play a single NBA minute as he completed his year-long recovery from a foot injury—wasn't really supposed to be scrimmaging against a bunch of high school kids. As soon as the second scrimmage finished, Goorjian recalls, Simmons’ parents said, "That's it, now he can do some shooting." Simmons had other ideas: "There's no way that's it, Coach. Jump ball, it's one game apiece."
"Kevin," Dave Simmons said, "we're not supposed to play another one."
"Ben has to play another one," Goorjian said. "He has to win this thing."
As Goorjian walked up and down the court refereeing that third scrimmage, he had only one thought in mind: please win, Ben. He knew that if he lost, he'd keep playing until his team won. And, if anything happened to Simmons, Goorjian knew that his old friend Brett Brown might want to knock him out.
"Thank goodness they won and we stopped," Goorjian says. "But that competitiveness, you know what I mean?"
SB Tang is an Australian writer. He has written for ESPN, the Guardian, the New Statesman and Roads & Kingdoms. In the second half of next year, Hardie Grant will publish his first book, which tells the origin story of the great Australian cricket team of 1995 to 2007.