We’ve got to stop dunking on Ben.
It’s time we start admitting that Ben Simmons isn’t faking. It’s time we acknowledge that he very likely isn’t completely mentally healthy. He was cast as the savior of his franchise, but in the biggest moment of his career, in the toughest town on the planet, he choked, and he cost his team everything. He’s heard about it for the last five months.
After what he’s been through, the anxiety must be crippling. Have some empathy. Have a heart.
Simmons landed in Philadelphia as the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, the crowning piece of The Process, a rebuilding strategy so toxic the NBA changed its draft rules to make sure it never happens again.
Simmons, an Australian, spent his first NBA season, at the age of 20, injured. He spent his second season, at 21, converting from power forward to point guard, while starting in the NBA, for a playoff team. These were immensely stressful circumstances for a young man living in a new city and a foreign country.
His shortcomings on the court amplified these stresses.
His stubborn refusal to shoot from the outside and his poor free-throw shooting helped the Sixers lose their second-round playoff series in 2018, 2019, and 2021 (he was injured in the 2020 playoffs). In June, his refusal to dunk with less than four minutes to play in Game 7 against the Atlanta Hawks became perhaps the greatest instance of cowardice and betrayal in Philadelphia sports history.
After that game, superstar teammate Joel Embiid said Simmons not dunking was the turning point in the loss. After that game, coach Doc Rivers, a former NBA point guard, would not endorse Simmons’ ability to pilot a team to a title.
National analysts and worldwide media buried Simmons. He became a Twitter and Instagram punch line; even his date at Wimbledon and his new house purchase drew inappropriate ire.
That’s ... a lot.
If you expect a sheltered, spoiled, 25-year-old narcissist to emerge entirely mentally healthy from that maelstrom of adversity, you should have your head examined.
Simmons’ timing might have earned him some skepticism, but he shouldn’t be called a faker, or a liar.
Nobody doubts that Simmons’ mental health would improve tomorrow if he got traded today. That makes complete sense.
He considers himself a prisoner of a team and a town that betrayed and berates him. He believes he’s being held hostage by an organization that abandoned him at his lowest moment. People who have interacted with him — people affiliated with neither the Sixers nor Klutch Sports, his bumbling agents — report that Simmons is utterly miserable.
Of course, lots of us go to work in misery. Further, Simmons’ misery is largely of his own making. That’s irrelevant. If he’s hurting, he’s hurting.
It doesn’t help his cause that Simmons didn’t admit to seeking psychological help on his own in the offseason until after the season began and his situation seemed hopeless. The Sixers issued a series of fines amounting to about $2.5 million for skipping team-mandated gatherings and failing to meet with team-endorsed mental health professionals, then publicly stated that they would not grant his trade request until they received an offer they considered equal to his value.
That’s when Ben played the mental-health card. Said he’d been seeing professionals for weeks.
So what. That’s totally understandable.
We didn’t know about the mental struggles of Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, tennis star Naomi Osaka, or Eagles linemen Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks until they reached a tipping point. Simmons didn’t utter a peep about his issues during his training camp holdout, and he likely never would have revealed he’d already been receiving treatment for several weeks if the Sixers hadn’t tightened their vise.
Use your common sense. It’s obvious. The kid ain’t right.
Be decent. His team is.
The team has never publicly offered an opinion on Simmons’ mental state, but two Sixers sources say team execs do, in fact, believe that Simmons needs professional help in order to return to being his best self. There is some debate among the brass about whether Simmons, diminished, could help the team win now, especially with front-line players Tobias Harris (hip), Seth Curry (foot), Danny Green (hamstring), and Embiid (COVID-19) sidelined, but no one in the organization thinks that Simmons is close to being 100% mentally healthy.
You probably shouldn’t doubt him, either, according to one expert.
“I’m not skeptical. I take Ben Simmons seriously when he raises that,” said Dr. Joel Fish, director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia and a former consultant for the Flyers, Phillies, and, yes, the Sixers. “I understand some other people are skeptical about it.”
Fish isn’t working with Simmons, or for the Sixers, right now, but he has worked with hundreds of pro athletes over the last 25 years, and he’s basically seen it all, from every angle.
“Can someone use mental health issues as a reason not to perform? Yeah,” Fish said. “But nine out of 10 of the pro athletes who raised this issue with me are very serious about exploring it. Can one take advantage of it? Sure.”
Athletes usually won’t risk the lingering stigma of being cast as weak-minded in order to manipulate a situation. We see them as supermen and superwomen, but they can be just as fragile as the rest of us.
“Pro athletes are human,” Fish said. “Almost every team at the professional level now has someone like myself affiliated with that team. They understand these men and women are human.”
The pressures they face can be supercharged, and not all of them can endure them without help.
“To be a pro athlete — an All-Star — you need a one-in-a-million talent and a one-in-a-million personality,” Fish said. “There are such unique pressures — having to perform each day, on the big stage, at the highest level — and most of them are in their 20s.”
Fish worries that Simmons’ skeptics might detract from the importance of the issue.
“It concerns me that because there’s a lack of trust right now between him and the organization and the fans, it’s difficult to believe some of the things he’s saying,” Fish said. “And it’s watering down the significance of the progress we’ve made in understanding the importance of addressing mental health issues and wellness issues with our professional athletes.”
That’s why it’s crucial that we give Simmons the benefit of the doubt.
And so ...
So why are the Sixers currently fining Simmons again?
Because his mental health treatments do not, in their view, preclude him from being with the team during its six-game road trip. His refusal to travel will cost him at least $2.1 million.
Seems dire, no?
Frankly, it’s all fixable.
If Simmons were to publicly accept accountability, return to play, and play hard, Philly would forgive him. Fish, an Overbrook native who graduated from Lower Merion High School, understands the psychology of the notorious Philly fan perhaps better than anyone else.
“Does every player fit in every city? No. I don’t draw the conclusion that Philly’s too tough,” Fish said. “People can change. In my experience, athletes can overcome mental blocks to return to peak performance. I believe they can rebuild trust with the fans. There are some actions and behaviors that can leave Ben Simmons being able to perform at a high level in Philadelphia.”
“It’s about him owning up to the fact that, ‘I’ve got a strained relationship with the fans in this town. I take responsibility for creating that strained relationship. I understand I have to do some things differently. Part of that is being honest and clear about what’s going on. And I’m trusting that if I change my behavior, I’ll earn your trust back.’”
“Yes, I believe that’s possible,” Fish insisted. “And I believe that Philadelphia fans would meet him halfway if he took steps to own up.”
So do I.