Basketball

From Dream Team to Scream Team, the Brooklyn Nets have become the laughing stock of the NBA as the Ben Simmons–Kyrie Irving sideshow rolls on. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The sorry saga of the Brooklyn Nets

Kyrie Irving gestures to Ben Simmons during a game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Kyrie Irving gestures to Ben Simmons during a game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Credit: Justin Ford / Getty Images

For an example of operatic dysfunction in world sport right now, you can’t ignore the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. They have become sport’s manifestation of the curse of the monkey’s paw – the team that regrets getting everything it wished for.

In January last year, the Nets signed James Harden – scoring freak and strip-club philanthropist – thus completing a mouth-watering, historically gifted, trio. Brooklyn’s “Big Three” comprised Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving who, between them, had two league MVPs, seven scoring titles and 29 All-Star appearances. They were complemented by veterans Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, who shared 11 All-Star jerseys.

It was a preposterous concentration of talent – on paper, perhaps the greatest offensive league team ever. But Griffin, the wrong side of 30, looked constitutionally diminished, while Aldridge quickly retired after experiencing an irregular heartbeat (he re-signed almost six months later after medical clearance). Durant missed large chunks of the season with injury, while Irving refused to be vaccinated for Covid-19, thus making him ineligible to play all home games under New York City’s vaccine mandate.

Meanwhile, bonhomie was strained. Durant was annoyed at Harden for becoming overweight and sluggish; Harden wasn’t thrilled that Irving had made himself a part-time player. In Steve Nash, they had a mascot for a head coach – a Hall of Fame player, but one who had never served as even an associate coach in the NBA before, and to whom Irving condescended in the media.

Of a possible 116 games, the Big Three shared the court for just 13 of them. A frustrated Harden was traded to Philadelphia at the beginning of the year for, among others, Australia’s Ben Simmons – who, for reasons of physical and mental health, would not play a single game in the 2021-22 season – while the Nets were swept 4-0 in the first round of the playoffs.

But things would get much worse for the Nets.

 

Ben Simmons is the best male basketballer this country has produced. The NBA’s supreme draft pick of 2016, its 2018 rookie of the year and a three-time All-Star, Simmons in 2020 also led the league in steals. Before his debut in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers, Australians had collectively played more than 3000 games in the league – and in none of them had any scored a triple-double. Simmons had one in his fourth game.

But the man cannot shoot and, much worse, has developed a neurotic allergy to trying to in games. It has become an embarrassing vulnerability – and one that allows the opposition to better spread the floor. Coaches have implored him to shoot threes in games, regardless of how he feels. He has ignored the instruction. As well as elite defence and ball-handling, Simmons’ most conspicuous signature now is a stubborn refusal to take either responsibility or direction.

For a lithe, muscular and very wealthy athlete who stands 208 centimetres tall, Ben Simmons radiates vast quantities of what Donald Trump might call “low energy”. He’s often insipid, hyper-defensive, and his face seems permanently fixed in an expression of sour impudence, like a kid who’s strangely insulted when asked to show the homework he hasn’t done.

There’s a brittle vanity to Simmons – he seems enslaved by self-consciousness – and while he enjoys bling, his loudest adornment is surely self-pity. He has suggested the criticism of him is both insulting and myopic: his other, abundant gifts obviously compensate for his weakness. But there’s a prevailing view that they don’t; that he’s caught in an awful and self-perpetuating funk of self-doubt, and that his stubborn insistence on being valued for what he can do has damaged both his game and his reputation.

But if, when being interviewed, Simmons looks like a constipated man being interrogated by a super-villain, he has good reason. During the 76ers’ playoff series against Atlanta in June last year, which they were expected to win, Ben Simmons… vanished. So diminished and fretful was he on the court that it became common in the streets of Philadelphia to see stuck to the poles of streetlights ironic “Missing” posters featuring the player. In the final quarters of the series’ last four games, Simmons attempted no shots and, in a notorious moment in the deciding seventh game, which Philly lost, he gave up an open dunk and passed – presumably to save himself the embarrassment of being fouled and then having to shoot from the free-throw line.

To millions, this wasn’t a failure of skill but a flaw of character and, in an instant, Simmons became the subject of a national orgy of ridicule. In Philly, Sixers fans torched his jersey, lit up talkback radio with ripe and uninhibited judgements, while the game’s reporters and retired superstars turned derision into a sport.

It was hysterically disproportionate. But the most intimate criticism must have been the most painful. For his teammates, the spurned dunk wasn’t a lone offence but the final straw – and the moment that finally relieved them from their polite discretion. Their season done, the protection of feigned camaraderie evaporated and Simmons watched his colleagues and coach offer acidic assessments of him to the world. His coach questioned his suitability to the team; superstar teammate Joel Embiid suggested The Simmons Moment was disastrously pivotal. The die was cast. Simmons felt irrevocably betrayed. But many months passed before he was traded to Brooklyn.

In a recent profile of Simmons in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend, Simmons trash-talked not only his old team but also his former town. “That’s a blue-collar city,” Simmons said. “Not too many surprises. Sports, work, Eagles, Sixers, Flyers – that’s Philly. I had a great time there. I didn’t mind living there…  for a while. But I grew out of that.” This was hilariously gratuitous, and if Philadelphians get wind of this, it will likely extend their animosity well into the next century. Sixers fans and their ex-guard now resemble a bitterly divorced couple who are incapable of retiring their grievances – part of their identity is forged by their mutual contempt and sense of injury.

Meanwhile, after a year out from the game, Simmons has badly floundered this season. Kevin Durant has expressed his frustration subtly – jammed between his supportive platitudes – and after only a dozen games there’s already talk of trade.

 

Then there’s the problem of Kyrie Irving. One of the best players of his generation, he may also be the league’s greatest ever low-dribbler – watching him baffle opponents and threaten their ankles with feints and crossovers is one of the game’s purest pleasures.

He is also a pungent egotist who proudly derives his increasingly sinister world view from the rabbit holes of the internet. In 2016, he inspired one of sport’s funniest headlines: “Kyrie Irving apologises for saying that the earth is flat”. He never renounced his view but acknowledged that high-school science teachers now had to deal with impressionable students who, on the matter of Earth’s shape, were deferring to their athletic hero.

It was amusing at the time and it was briefly tempting to view Irving’s coy defences of his flat-Earth theory as some kind of elaborate commentary on the media’s obsession with celebrities – or our intolerance of boldly contrarian views. But it wasn’t.

Notwithstanding his great skill, wealth and fame, Irving resembles the grim philosopher cabbie, who, through a combination of YouTube, talkback radio and losing custody of the kids, has become a historically formidable scholar – fluent in psychology, history and geopolitical game theory. But alas, his prodigious knowledge brings no joy, only bitter persecution.

“I mean, history has shown even back then, our biggest scholars did think the Earth was flat,” Irving told The New York Times in 2018. “It didn’t just spark out of anywhere and then everyone just goes into their own groups. Definitely different scientists have come along and proved the law of gravity. Everything that science breeds, and you have specific scientists that are giving all this information. I wanted to open up the conversation, like, ‘Hey man, do your own research for what you want to believe in.’ ”

For confounding prattle, this rivals Trump. Just as energetically as Irving scores, so too does he spew sentences that are the intellectual equivalent of 30-car pile-ups in snow. So violently disjointed and insensible is so much of his speech, it resists formal examination.

The nonsense now includes his promotion on Twitter of a floridly anti-Semitic documentary – Hebrew to Negroes: Wake Up Black America – which, among other hateful claims, denies the existence of the Holocaust. “I can’t be anti-Semitic if I know where I come from,” Irving said to the press, in yet another example of his cryptic defiance. He also obtusely argued with a reporter about whether his tweet – he has 4.6 million Twitter followers – constituted a promotion of the film.

Irving refused to apologise for a week – courtside seats were occupied by Jewish protesters – while New York City was experiencing its highest incidence of anti-Semitic crime in decades. The Nets stood back, waiting for some face-saving contrition from Irving, but it never came.

Eventually, the NBA and the Nets began turning the screws, before a backdrop of fan protests and the public disgust of the Anti-Defamation League. The Nets have now indefinitely suspended their star, saying he is “unfit to be associated with our organisation”, and Nike has dropped its multimillion-dollar endorsement of him. Only after this did Irving issue a qualified apology for “pain caused” and “some unfortunate remarks”.

He also philosophised: “It’s not that I don’t believe in the Holocaust. I never said that. Never ever have said it. It’s not come out of my mouth. I never tweeted it. I never liked anything like it. So, the Holocaust in itself is an event that means something to a large group of people that suffered something that could have been avoided.”

Among this, the Nets started their season 1-5, and last week sacked their head coach, Steve Nash. Brooklyn is now flirting with rehiring their former assistant coach, Ime Udoka, to replace him. Udoka had been recently suspended for a year by the Boston Celtics for an “inappropriate” relationship with a staff member.

In June, before the season began, their best player Kevin Durant submitted a trade request. A few weeks later, he withdrew it and stayed. He must surely regret that now.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2022 as "Nets’ weight".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription