Basketball

Once revered for his on-court magic, basketballer Ben Simmons is now ridiculed for his brazen refusal to put up shots. What next for the out-of-sorts Aussie superstar? By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Ben Simmons and the yips

Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons gets past Atlanta’s Clint Capela during game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals in June.
Credit: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images / AFP

On June 21 this year, arguably the most gifted men’s basketballer in Australian history created an NBA moment. But it was not like Jordan’s iconic clutch jumper against the Jazz in the ’98 finals, say. Stills from the Ben Simmons Moment will never be framed and hung upon the walls of suburban dens – except, perhaps, as a dartboard for aggrieved Sixers fans.

The Moment came in the deciding game of the NBA’s Eastern Conference semi-finals between Simmons’ Philadelphia 76ers and the heroically overachieving Atlanta Hawks, who had pushed the best-of-seven series to its ultimate fixture. The top-seeded Sixers were at home and expected to win. But there were concerns about their star Simmons. He’d largely vanished in the playoffs – fearful, self-conscious, diminished – so much so that vexed fans were plastering “Missing” posters of him in the streets.

Never a gifted shooter, his 34 per cent accuracy at the free-throw line in this year’s playoffs was historically, almost implausibly bad, and suggested a tactic to his opposition: foul, force his weakness, shave some points and ruthlessly demonstrate what they think of his shooting. (In game 5 of the Atlanta series, when Simmons was forced to the line again, the camera panned to a fretful, wonderfully earnest Philly fan who was encouragingly miming the perfect free-throw technique. Simmons missed, but the footage went viral.)

Simmons’ shooting woes went much deeper than just free throws. Seemingly terrified of missing, he had stopped taking any shots at all. In the aftermath of the Philly disaster, Simmons’ shooting stats were pervasively shared online by bitterly astonished fans: in the series’ final quarters, their star had attempted just three shots in seven games, and none in the past four.

Which is context for the Moment in game 7, Sixers v Hawks. There’s three-and-a-half minutes to play in the final game. The Sixers are down by two when Simmons turns his defender in a low-post and finds himself alone under the basket. An easy lay-up beckons, but Simmons spurns the opportunity and illogically passes to a teammate who’s quickly smothered. The teammate is fouled, only one of two free throws are converted, and Simmons’ fear has denied his team a crucial point. The moment became a dramatic shorthand for what cricketer Steve Waugh might call a “mental disintegration”. And Philly lost. The game, and the series.

Simmons picked the wrong town in which to suffer the yips. Philadelphia’s nickname as the City of Brotherly Love contrasts hilariously with the reputation of its sports fans. They’ve heckled Santa Claus, stretchered players and their own debutants. They’ve deliberately vomited on the children of police officers, and rained batteries upon the field. They’ve rioted when they’ve won and they’ve looted when they’ve lost. In 1997, during an Eagles loss to the San Francisco 49ers, fans were sufficiently violent to prompt the City of Philadelphia into an American first: they established an ad hoc courtroom inside the stadium, where it remained until the ground’s closure in 2003.

No, Simmons would not be cushioned by brotherly love. Not from Sixers fans who were asked eight years ago to patiently “Trust the Process” – the term used by Sixers management for the rebuilding of the team, and which effectively meant a long period of tanking in order to slowly acquire priority draft picks, of which Simmons was a centrepiece.

In fandom, there’s an especially valorised athlete: the clutch player. The one who thrives on pressure, whose skill and influence seems to grow commensurate with it, the player who wants the ball with seven seconds left and their team down by two.

This is a moral appreciation, as much about notions of responsibility and grace under pressure as it is about athletic skill. Conversely, there are intimate and unforgiving judgements reserved for those seen to avoid responsibility. What fans thought most risible was not Simmons’ awful shooting, but his comic refusal to shoot. His grand flaw was moral, not physical. It was a failure of courage.

Which helps explain the public response. It was disproportionate, though this is too cool a word for the cinder and ashes that fell upon Simmons. What the Australian experienced was closer to hysterical contempt, and for about 48 hours he was America’s most derided man. Fans torched his jersey, pundit Stephen A. Smith’s criticism was furiously hyperbolic, and NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal said on live television that he would have “knocked his ass out” if he was in his locker room.

Twitter and sports talkback obsessed over Simmons’ faults, in tones that were variously derisive, bewildered and threatening. And there was much worse: Simmons’ own coach wouldn’t defend him after the game, and in the same press conference, his teammate and fellow superstar, Joel Embiid, suggested Simmons’ loss of nerve was the game’s disastrous “turning point”.

Everyone seemed to agree: Simmons was done at the Sixers. If their front office didn’t trade him, an indignant mob would likely run him out of town with pitchforks.

To be sure, a shooting phobia is a stark flaw for a No. 1 draft pick and All-Star guard on $US33 million a year – though this ignores his elite ball-handling and defence. But being paid many millions a year, while enjoying the conspicuous perks of stardom – such as dating Kardashians – does not encourage generosity. And neither does Simmons’ seeming reluctance to improve his shooting, or his defensive peevishness when asked about it.

 

Sports psychologist Dr Phil Jauncey does not believe in motivation, positive thinking or a good attitude. Why? Because they’re not observable. “I’ve got over 50 years’ clinical experience and a doctorate in psychology but I can’t control my mind and my emotions – what I can control are my reactions,” he tells me.

Jauncey’s résumé is impressive: he worked with the Brisbane Broncos in the NRL for more than 15 years, alongside legendary coach Wayne Bennett. He was the AFL Brisbane Lions’ “mental skills coach” for almost as long, including during their triumphant era in the early noughties when they won three consecutive flags. He’s worked with the Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi and Queensland cricket teams, and consulted with athletes in three Olympics. I asked him about Simmons’ crisis of confidence.

“I don’t talk about confidence,” Jauncey says. “What colour is it? How much does it weigh? I had a jockey come to me once, and he said, ‘I’ve lost my confidence.’ I said: ‘Where is it, in the wastebasket?’ You don’t need confidence to perform. For Simmons to hit free throws, he doesn’t need to be confident. He needs to shoot it in a way that the free throw falls. It’s not about confidence. If you say I have to be confident to make this free throw, then you’re stuck.

“It was the same thing when he didn’t take that shot, but he passed it. He was saying, ‘If I was confident, I’d take the shot.’ And see, that’s the mistake he made. He should have said ‘I’ll take the shot.’ A pure shooter says: ‘I’ve missed 10 shots in a row – pass me the ball.’ You don’t say: ‘If  I’m confident, I’ll shoot.’ No, you’ve got to shoot and that will get my confidence. You know, I remember Leroy Loggins with the Brisbane Bullets years ago. If he wasn’t shooting well, he really upped his defence, which he could do instantly. And he found that by upping his defence, the ball started dropping. He didn’t wait to feel confident to keep shooting. The same is true in relationships. You don’t wait until you feel romantic to act romantically. You act romantically to feel romantic.”

Call it faking it until you make it. Relatedly, back in 2019, former Sixers coach Brett Brown requested that Simmons attempt at least one three-pointer every game, regardless of outcome. “He will be liberated,” Brown said. “His world will open up and, in many ways, so will ours.”

The native Melburnian ignored the request.

Ben Simmons is not liberated yet, either from fear or Philadelphia. “He needs a fresh start,” Magic Johnson said back in June, expressing a popular belief, but at time of writing Sixers’ management are still deliberating on how to maximise their star’s sudden collapse in market value. His public eminence has also slumped back in Australia: his withdrawal from the Boomers’ Olympic campaign upset many, though retrospectively it’s hard to see how Simmons’ participation could have improved what was the Boomers’ most successful Games ever.

What now for Ben Simmons? We’ll see. Having just turned 25, he’s still young enough to write a distinguished future – and it will be fascinating to see how, and where, he might do that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 4, 2021 as "The yips are getting bigger".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.