Have you ever seen such cowardice? Can Ben Simmons ever live it down?
Those questions have consumed Philadelphia and the sports world since Simmons declined to dunk late in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last Sunday.
Of course we have, and of course he can.
We’ve witnessed worse incidents, and the worst of all of these wimp-outs led the Eagles to their first Super Bowl title.
On Dec. 4, 2016, Eagles tight end Zach Ertz sidestepped Bengals hit man Vontaze Burfict as Burfict pursued then-rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. Again: Ertz pointedly moved out of Burfict’s path as Burfict, the NFL’s dirtiest player, bore down on Wentz, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, while Wentz was still 3 yards inbounds.
“I understand how it looks on the film,” Ertz said at his locker three days later, trying to justify the unjustifiable. “I won’t get into the details as far as what happened on the play.”
The “details” were obvious. Ertz played chicken with Burfict. Ertz was the chicken.
Ertz’s mistake was far worse than Simmons’ choice to pass a basketball to a teammate. Nobody was going to get his brains scrambled because Simmons passed a basketball to a teammate.
Ertz was more of a wimp than Ricky Watters, too. Watters landed from San Francisco in 1995 as a three-time Pro Bowler and restricted free agent, and he debuted as an Eagle on Sept. 3 against the Buccaneers. It could hardly have gone worse: Watters stunk, and then he bailed.
Near the end of the game, Watters ran across over the middle but stopped short of a pass intended for him, the arms that signed the $6.9 million contract suddenly too short to catch a routine pass. Then, with an egotism usually reserved for royalty, Watters not only admitted his dereliction of duty, but he also tried to justify it:
“I’m not going to trip up there and get knocked out. For who? For what? I mean, there’s another day.”
What happened next?
We forgot. We forgave.
Watters went to two Pro Bowls during his three seasons in Philly, sold lots of jerseys and tickets, and is a popular figure whenever he returns. Ertz is one of the most beloved players in Philadelphia history. One day, even in Philadelphia, Simmons could be as popular as Watters or as beloved as Ertz.
After all, Ertz’s turnaround was much less likely.
Because Ertz gets paid to play a gladiator sport, but he avoided contact to leave a teammate in harm’s way.
Because Ertz’s job description begins and ends with blocking players like Burfict. Yes, Watters might need to catch a hospital ball now and then. Yes, Simmons should dunk when he’s at the rim. But at least Watters was trying to avoid injury in a lost-cause game, and Simmons sought to avoid the humiliation of a 34.3% free-throw shooter -- his conversion rate in the 2021 playoffs, the worst in NBA history.
Because Ertz consciously betrayed the well-being of his teammate and the ethos of his sport. Watters and Simmons acted involuntarily; Ertz had to move out of the way.
In this moment it seems impossible that Simmons would be accepted back to the 76ers locker room this fall, but then, this moment for Philly fans (and media) is charged by disappointment and outrage.
» READ MORE: Sixers meet with Ben Simmons’ agent about his future
Simmons offended more than just the people devoted to his team or tasked to cover it. He offended basketball demigods, such as Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, and, most deeply, Shaquille O’Neal -- who, after Game 7, said that had Simmons been his teammate, “I’d’ve knocked his a-- out.”
We’re riding a bilious wave of outrage, but the outrage will subside and the bile will recede. Sixers basketball will proceed apace, just like Eagles football did.
“Not everybody,” accountability
The day after Ertz’s olé play, Doug Pederson, in his first season as an NFL head coach, was asked if every player had played hard in Cincinnati.
“Not everybody,” Pederson admitted. This betrayal by their coach enraged Eagles players.
Two days after Pederson threw them under the bus, a group of veterans marched to Pederson’s office and railed at him. Pederson’s response: Fine. Police yourselves. If a player like Ertz bails on the team, you handle it.
They did just that.
They retreated into themselves and became the tightest in the league. Malcolm Jenkins, Jason Peters, and Darren Sproles headed a leadership council that made sure everyone showed up on time; paid attention in meetings; practiced hard; did extra film work; and stayed after practice to work on techniques. Right about that time Ertz began catching about 50 extra balls after practices, either from a quarterback or from a passing machine. His teammates saw this. Many began taking extra reps, too. Alshon Jeffrey even stopped by, once.
When 2017 arrived the Eagles had fused into a cohesive, like-minded unit of ego-less professionals. The resilience sustained them through the losses of Jason Peters, Wentz, and three other starters. Ertz? He earned the first of three straight Pro Bowl honors, then caught the winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl LII.
Perversely, Ertz’s greatest mistake, his lowest moment, had galvanized a locker room and brought home the most coveted item in Philadelphia -- the Lombardi Trophy.
What if, next year, late in a Game 7, Ben Simmons dunks a basketball, gets fouled, hits a free throw, and this time the Sixers win?
Stranger things have happened -- right here in Philadelphia.