As Sixers players continued to talk, and as the silence between their lines continued to grow, you began to get the sense that the reason for their teammate’s absence was more holistic than had previously been disclosed.
Did Ben Simmons skip media day because his coach failed to back him with a full-throated defense at one of the lowest moments of his career? Sure, it may have been a factor. Was Simmons demanding a trade because he felt alienated by Joel Embiid’s suggestion that the turning point of the Sixers’ Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks was the point guard’s decision to pass up an open fourth-quarter dunk? At the very least, it probably didn’t help. Did Simmons see the writing on the wall after a season in which the Sixers tried to trade him for James Harden and then watched him disappear when the team needed him most? If he did, one couldn’t blame him.
Yet from the start of the Simmons saga, which began percolating in private shortly after the Sixers’ loss to the Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, none of the aforementioned variables, on its own, has made much sense as the definitive reason for this messy divorce. Even when you consider them in total, and factor in the long-standing on-court unease between the team’s two foundational stars, the sum of the parts hardly seems to rise to the level of warranting Simmons’ near-unprecedented decision to refuse to come back to town.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe the answer has been staring us in the face the entire time. It isn’t the coach that Simmons is refusing to play for, or the center that he is refusing to play with, or the organization that he is refusing to represent. Maybe it really is the town.
Throughout its history, the city of Philadelphia has done plenty of soul-searching regarding its relationship with its sports teams and the players who represent them. Warranted or not, it is almost always an exercise in futility, the equivalent of a leopard reflecting on its spots.
A fan base is not a monolith. Its behavior is not regulated by some central, singular galaxy brain. It is a crowd of individuals, each of them moving and cheering and groaning on their own volition. When a critical mass of those individuals are louder than average, and more passionate than average, and less inhibited than average, and more class conscious than average, the crowd is going to embody those characteristics. And in an environment where five millionaires spend two-and-a-half hours per night on a 4,700-square-foot hardwood island in a sea of 20,000 people, the line between us and them and us versus them is a tenuous one. There’s an element of social psychology. But as Tobias Harris noted on Monday, there’s also an element of math.
“There’s just a lot of fans,” the Sixers veteran said. “A small-market team, let’s say they have 100,000 fans — Philadelphia has five million fans. So there’s more.
“... It’s heightened. There’s just a lot of fans who care about basketball and that are very passionate for sports in general. That can be a bad thing when you lose, and that can be a great thing when you win.”
That makes perfect sense. But it’s what Harris said next that was most interesting.
“I think if you ask me, the fans, does that affect Ben, or has that led up to where we are now?” he said. “One-hundred percent.”
It would be a mistake to take exception to anything Harris said. His tone was matter-of-fact, not accusatory, or exculpatory. You can certainly take exception to Simmons’ inability to deal with the crowd, or the criticism, or the media, or the boos, or the jeers. You can question the wisdom of those who surround him: the agent, the family, the friends and mentors who have his ear and have thus far failed to convince him that running away is rarely in the best interest of an individual’s personal development. You can interpret the situation the way it appears: as a case of a talented young player whose biggest professional flaw is not the lack of a jump shot but the lack of a thicker skin, the lack of the sort of grit that would lead most athletes to stick out their chin and face down their demons and use present-day adversity to engender future success.
But you can also empathize. You can feel the emotion that Simmons’ teammates almost universally feel: not anger, or abandonment, or disgust, but disappointment. That was the word Embiid used. Not disappointment with Simmons’ performance, or his decision to demand a trade, or his refusal to report to training camp. Embiid’s disappointment, like everything about the situation, was more holistic in nature. A big part of disappointment that Simmons’ teammates feel undoubtedly lies in the fact that they understand why he feels the way they do.
So many of them have felt the same things. Embiid, when people insisted that he would never be in shape, that he’d never be healthy, that he’d never play with his back to the basket. Harris, after he struggled during the Sixers’ playoff loss to the Raptors. Danny Green said it took him a while to get used to the boos of a home crowd.
“I had never seen it before, us getting booed,” Green said, “and that was me learning Philly.”
We can smirk and roll our eyes, but that’s rarely a productive way to process someone else’s feelings. Feelings aren’t facts, but they are just as real. That doesn’t excuse the actions that Simmons has taken based on his feelings. Green, Embiid, Harris, and Matisse Thybulle, have each arrived at the conclusion that most athletes end up reaching: You’d rather play in front of people who care, and rely on your own pride and maturity when the wrong side of that double-edged sword inflicts its wounds. At the same time, on Wednesday, Embiid made a point that distilled this whole thing down to its essence.
“Not everybody is built the same,” the big man said.
And maybe therein lies the answer, both to why we are here and where this whole thing is eventually going to end. A city is a city. An individual is an individual. If one cannot handle the other, or vice versa, then the only thing anybody is learning is what was true knew all along.