It was a moment I had waited a long time for. Sure, watching the teams practice was an incredible experience, but being able to ask questions to the Gladiators you see compete each and every night was something I had dreamed of being able to do since creating this site. In fact, it was what sparked my passion to begin with. Being able to draw something out of a player that nobody else would think to do. To enhance an emotion, or trigger a powerful memory. That opportunity came today minutes before the Sixers took to the court for their first practice on English soil.
The scary part is that they had only landed just hours before. At 6AM UK time (1AM EST), several Sixers players were still active on social media, updating stories and struggling to settle on a trip that was bound to drain them. Jetlagged and on very little sleep, the Sixers took to the floor. Making his way into the center of a media huddle was Ben Simmons. Calm, candid and composed. Simmons took one step before the media blanketed him like a cloth trying to smother a fire. Yet still, that same fire burned in his eyes.
The same fire that you could see after a dominant dunk. The same fire that set the Wells Fargo Center on fire after a big win against Detroit just a few days ago. As the questions came flooding, the rookie who is on the edge of being named an All-Star seemed completely relaxed, despite questions understandably coming from a range of new topics and outlets.
“It helps to an extent.” An answer Simmons must have given a million times by now. “Playing the game is so much different than watching it and I’ve learned a lot more by playing it.” His response of course given to the question of his injury riddled 2016 that kept him sidelined throughout the season. But still, that same fire burned. I wanted to know what it was. It’s so rare. I had seen Kyrie Irving earlier that day. He looked a little sleepy, a little unwilling, a little disinterested. I had spoken to Brad Stevens and Aron Baynes. Both eccentric, joyful and appreciative of the moment. But none had this look that almost stared into your soul with such power. And then it dawned one me. There’s only one man who has that same fire, that same tenacious mindset.
Signed to the same agency, the cogs began to tick. I asked Ben a simple question. How much of a role has LeBron had in his early success? Simmons smiled a little. He perked up and made eye contact as if something sparked inside that warranted a response outside of the norm. “He’s just been a great supporter.” The Aussie went on to say. “If I need any advice or anything like that I can go to him, he’s been through it all. He’s been a great role model.”
From that moment on, nothing seemed to get past Ben. Sassing reporters who simply gave statements instead of questions and laughing with others, Simmons began to really enjoy the moment. And it’s a moment that may only come once in a lifetime. A sold out 02 Arena will play host to the Sixers and Celtics rivalry game on Thursday evening…an atmosphere that’s unpredictable and enticing. To stay calm in the heat of the moment in even the wildest of events, that’s something only the robotic like LeBron could do. Ice runs through his veins, or so they say. But then Simmons gave a response that implied a similar mindset.
“I’ve never played here so it’s gonna be a first for me.” Having played all over the world from Australia to the heat of LSU and now the City of Brotherly Love, this was going to be a completely new dimension. But then the Ice froze. “Once the ball is in the air, it’s gonna be second nature.” Full stop. Period. Silence. The joy of the moment had passed and the severity of it set in once again. That same mindset has bled into the Sixers locker room. Something Dario Saric was only too happy to talk about.
“He’s always the first guy on the court.” The Croatian explained to me just before he took to the court to practice. “Sometimes he’s hard, but a positive hard. Before you’re there, he’s already in the office. I got a couple open shots for me more during the game and his court vision is really nice, one of the top in the league. He’s a big big motor of our machine.”
Ben Simmons is more than just a rookie enjoying a breakout year. He’s a generational talent with maturity beyond his years and leadership qualities that some of the most dominant names in the league lack. Averaging 7.5 assists per game, Simmons is evolving on a weekly basis and pushing his team to do the same. The scary part? He’s only just getting started.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports