76ers All-Star Ben Simmons returned to the city Monday, after a saga that began with him telling Sixers brass he wanted to be traded and refusing to attend training camp. The deluge of zingers from fans was a flood of indignation.
The resounding refrain from those who felt burned by No. 25′s decision: Nothing hurts like a missed paycheck.
Amid the snark, fans like Delaware County resident Isiah Irons have welcomed the three-time NBA All-Star back with open arms, hoping for the start of a redemption arc that ends with a ring.
“I’m always going to rock with my Sixers and until [Simmons is] gone I’m still going to rock with him,” said Irons, 32, a self-described diehard fan since the team drafted Allen Iverson in 1996.
Across Sixers fandom, the Simmons optimists have been swift to pepper online conversations with their high hopes, which hinge on the 25-year-old joining his teammates for games — including Friday’s preseason contest against the Detroit Pistons where Simmons’ status is still not decided. They’ve pushed back on anti-Simmons fans who are betting he will feign an injury to avoid playing time and fines.
“If we take our emotions out of it, we know who he is and how he can play,” Irons insisted, critical of the disparaging comments he hears Sixers fans make on call-in radio shows.
While other fans get ready to boo Simmons out of the Wells Fargo Center, Scott Hagstrom, 18, lauds the player’s basketball IQ, athleticism, and ability to go toe-to-toe against a powerhouse, like defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz.
“If Ben Simmons is able to play, and he can play like last year, we could beat the Nets,” said Hagstrom, a Montgomery County resident. “We could beat the Lakers.”
Analysts and fans have slammed Simmons throughout his career for not evolving his game enough. Free throws and three-pointers have been a particular sore point. Simmons has made only five three-pointers in his NBA career.
Hagstrom, however, argues that the 6-foot-10 Simmons has so many other merits, he doesn’t need to take threes.
“He brings energy to the team; he can get to the rim; he can score against Rudy; he can pass,” Hagstrom rattled off, much like someone who is used to litigating Simmons’ legacy.
The Sixers, Simmons fans argue passionately in online forums, might not get someone as good as him in a trade. They want critics to see the team is better with Simmons than without.
Irons beckons fellow fans to remember the 2020 NBA postseason matchup between the Sixers and the Boston Celtics. Simmons was out with a knee injury and the team was swept in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 1989.
Still, Simmons has been largely blamed for the Sixers’ collapse in June’s series against the Atlanta Hawks. Simmons shot 33% from the line and even his most ardent supporters say clips of Simmons bailing on a wide-open dunk and passing to Matisse Thybulle are difficult to watch.
Joyce Drayton, 74, can’t help but empathize with the man who appeared to be suffering from a mental block and later was framed as the sole cause of what was a team collapse.
“People do fall down, but they get back up,” said the Montgomery County resident. “I don’t know what could have been going on at that time; this is his one incident, now everybody is against him. Naturally, he would feel bad and not want to play in a place where he’s being hated on.”
Fans like Philadelphian Abraham Bushman add that Simmons did himself no favors by letting leaked rumors of his trade demands drag on for weeks.
Even so, Bushman, 41, is ready to shrug off Simmons’ response as immaturity. Bushman is banking on fans’ short memories.
“If [Simmons] gets back and starts shooting well, and we’re winning games, and no drama — we’ll forget that in less than six months,” said Bushman, who blames sports media for fueling the drama between the NBA star and franchise management.
While these fans insist that the detractors have let their emotions get the best of them, emotion drives their stance, too.
West Philadelphia resident Vernon Montague, 64, became a Sixers fan in his teens, just in time to catch the 1972-73 season, which yielded the team’s worst performance in franchise history. Montague would live to catch the team’s second-worst season during the franchise’s notorious rebuild, dubbed “The Process.”
“You don’t put a losing product on the floor because you want ping-pong balls [in the NBA’s draft lottery],” said Montague. “You don’t want to build your team through years and years of losing to get a good draft pick.”
Still, Montague said he went to games and stuck it out. He has even followed former Sixers like Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, after they’ve moved on.
Montague conceded it could be a “once a Sixer, always a Sixer” type of sentiment. Maybe it’s because Fultz had bad luck in Philly when he suddenly lost his ability to shoot and he worked hard to get better, he said.
This latest ordeal may just be par for the course in Sixers Land, as Montague and others are not ready to give up the hope of seeing Joel Embiid and Simmons carry the team to the NBA Finals.
Simmons supporters acknowledge that the city at large and other players may never forgive him, but they’re Sixers fans: What’s another week or month of wishful thinking?
“Either way I’m going to support him,” said Montague. “I’ll still watch his games if he’s traded.”