Simmons Set to Make Australian Basketball History at All-Star Game
In the 1890s, after a physical education teacher came up with the crazy idea to start putting some of Springfield, Massachusetts' peach baskets to use for roundball purposes, it took less than a decade - a relatively short period of time, given 19th century technological capabilities - for traces of this newfangled game to surface halfway around the world.
Back in America, basketball took off. The sport would become wildly popular in Australia, as well.
But in a country not even a tenth the size of the United States, player development at the professional level moved along at an understandably slower pace.
Now, more than 120 years since basketball surfaced in the South Pacific, Australia can claim a true, homegrown NBA All-Star, in Ben Simmons.
Simmons is one of 24 Australian citizens - present or past - to ever play in the NBA. None prior to him had ever attained All-Star status.
This Sunday at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, he’ll make history.
“I grew up knowing I wanted to be here and compete against the best and be one of the best players in the world,” Simmons said Friday, before scoring a team-high 28 points in the MTN DEW ICE Rising Stars exhibition (note the nod to the Australian national team colors on his Nikes).
While Simmons isn’t the type to hype up the magnitude of his own achievements, two men intimately involved with the 22-year old’s development paint the picture of an ascending superstar whose presence in Australia is growing larger than life.
And they would know.
Let’s start with Brett Brown, the Sixers’ head coach, who broke into the business Down Under. His wife is from Australia, and two of his three children were born there. The family returns to visit often.
“When you go into Melbourne, which I was there eight months ago, or you go into Sydney, and you look up at [the city’s] version of Times Square, you see this massive neon light billboard of Ben with Beats [headphones] on in a 76ers jerseys or hat,” Brown described recently. “Then, you walk the streets and you see a bunch of no. 25 [jerseys] and 76ers hats. I go down the coast of Australia to a beachside sea community, and even in a little town of two and a half thousand people in between Adelaide and Melbourne, you see a little kid dribbling the ball and wearing a Ben Simmons jersey.
“[Australians] love basketball. I think his impact is significant, it is far reaching, and I think him playing in the All-Star Game will only add to that.”
Dave Simmons, Ben’s father, can offer plenty of perspective about his son’s prominence in Australia, too. The elder Simmons grew up in the Bronx, but his professional hoops career later led him overseas.
By this point, we all know the story well. Dave Simmons wound up playing for Brown in Melbourne, the city where Ben was raised. Two decades later, here we are now.
“People back home are always telling me how big [Ben’s become],” Dave Simmons said earlier this week, before watching Ben and the Sixers play the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. “There’s a story, there’s something in the [Australian] paper every day. Ben’s sort of made a name for himself here in the U.S., but clearly back in Australia, since no one’s come along in a long time like this, it’s very exciting for the country.”
This time a year ago, the younger Simmons nearly pulled off the rare feat of earning an All-Star berth as a rookie. This season, there was no doubt he belonged.
“I think it means a lot - it’s that stepping stone, that recognition on the world stage that yes, now we Australians have an All-Star to go along with all the other countries that have produced some very good players,” said Dave Simmons. “I think it’s just a great honor as an Australian to represent your country on one of the biggest stages in the world.”
Heading into the All-Star break, Simmons’ numbers were sterling. He ranked third in the NBA with eight triple-doubles, fourth in assists, and is currently one of three players - along with fellow All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Nikola Jokic - to average at least 16.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per game.
Simmons is aiming to join Westbrook, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Fat Lever, and Oscar Robertson as the only players in league history to ever maintain these statistical minimums for an entire season.
While Simmons continues to break new ground for Australian basketball far, far away from the continent itself, his connection to home remains strong thanks to a support network consisting almost exclusively of immediate family members.
Go to a Sixers game, and you’ll often find Dave; Ben’s mother, Julie (born in Australia); or any of his siblings, particularly brothers Liam and Sean (pictured middle and right, respectively, in the picture below), seated courtside.
The ride, Dave Simmons said, has been crazy, but in the most rewarding of ways.
“We’ve been blessed that Ben has been able to do something he loves to do as a job, and include his entire family in this process as well. It’s been truly a gift, and we definitely don’t take it for granted.”