I’ve seen Ben Simmons in person twice: in Philadelphia, PA, and Sydney, Australia. First, I saw him live at a Philadelphia 76ers game against the Los Angeles Lakers in December of 2017. Simmons thrilled the Wells Fargo Center in what would be part of a historic “rookie” season (Simmons spent his first year in the NBA sidelined with an injury), posting a triple-double in a three-point loss to the Lakers, a team led by another star rookie, Lonzo Ball. More surprisingly, I saw him for the second time this past August at the famous Ivy nightclub in Sydney, Australia. After no more than 10 minutes at the place, one of my friends — who was from Philadelphia himself — had remarked to me that the guy surrounded by tall bodyguards just five feet away from us looked remarkably similar to Ben Simmons. Was this really the same guy who I had seen light up the NBA and bring back 76ers pride to the surrounding Philadelphia area?
In my confused but excited state, I googled pictures of Simmons as my friends and I stood next to him and his posse. I looked up at the 6’10” star again. It really was him. It wasn’t until the morning after that I realized he was Australian, and that he was in Sydney and Melbourne on a promotional trip. Following his rookie-of-the-year season, Simmons had come back to his home country for a little bit of everything before heading back to Philadelphia for pre-season; he ran a basketball camp, visited family, and made appearances promoting the new NBA 2k19 video game, in which he was the Australian cover athlete. And thankfully, he stopped by at the Ivy on that Thursday night in August.
Simmons was born and raised in Melbourne by an American father and Australian mother. His childhood was far from a traditional NBA star’s trajectory, Simmons grew up in a country where basketball was an afterthought for most young children interested in sport. While basketball was in his blood on his dad’s side — his father played in Australia’s professional basketball league following time at an American university — he grew up in a country where Australian rules football and rugby league dominate — particularly in Melbourne, a city with numerous professional rugby leagues and AFL teams. Subsequently, Simmons played rugby as a young child and eventually took up Australian rules football, as well. The national sport, AFL, or “footy,” as it is colloquially known, is a game much like NFL football, with fewerpads, more running, and a different scoring system. AFL has particularly grown in popularity in Melbourne, where the AFL Grand Final is held every year, attracting crowds similar to the American Super Bowl. Simmons played AFL alongside basketball, until he eventually committed to basketball. Simmons attributes his decision to focus on basketball due to his AFL coach not playing him in a forward position, which traditionally is a position that scores goals.
In January of 2013, Simmons moved to the U.S. to play high school basketball after being discovered by American scouts. He had starred at the Pangos All-American Camp, along with the FIBA U-17 World Championship and was recognized as a player with both the height and the scoring acumen of a guard who could fit nicely into the modern NBA game. Simmons played at Montverde Academy in Florida, a school that has produced other NBA stars like Joel Embiid, D’Angelo Russell, and Devin Williams. He went on to commit to Louisiana State University, and quickly became their best player during his freshman year. LSU, however, failed to make the NCAA tournament, and Simmons made the rather controversial choice of foregoing the rest of his college eligibility to pursue his NBA dreams. As Philadelphia fans know, the rest is history. Simmons was drafted first overall in the 2016 NBA Draft, and after sitting out the entire 2016-17 season with a foot injury, returned to lead the Sixers to the playoffs in 2017-18, winning the prestigious rookie of the year award along the way. Just one year into his career, Simmons is already regarded as a star, both as a player in the NBA, and back home in Australia.
The importance of Ben Simmons to the Philadelphia community is visible; as one of the best players in the Eastern Conference, he has propelled a perennially-losing team back into the spotlight as a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. However, his substantial impact on Australian sporting culture is often underreported in the American media. Simmons has inspired a generation of young Australian kids and has given Australians a team to root for. A rather unexpected connection, there are now thousands of Australian 76ers fans who buy Simmons jerseys, and wake up at ungodly hours — due to the 14-hour time difference to Eastern Standard Time — to watch the 76ers compete. While basketball has always been a popular sport in Australia, it has never come close to AFL or rugby. Simmons’ trip back home was partly to continue to promote the game in his country of origin. It’s clear that basketball is on the rise in Australia thanks to Simmons, as more and more young Australians turn to the fast-paced sport instead of the popular but often dangerous and violent, sport of rugby and AFL.
Perhaps Simmons’ most important impact has been on young athletes of color in Australia. A country with growing African and Asian immigrant populations, along with a historically marginalized Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander indigenous communities, Australia has often been exclusionary to these individuals in the sporting arena. Simmons’ very visible presence as a star Australian athlete of color has had a decidedly positive impact on how disenfranchised Australians see themselves represented to the world. Rugby and AFL, the two most popular sports in the country, have often been associated as truly “Australian sports,” with sports like soccer and basketball being “other-ized” as sports brought in by immigrants. Simmons’ presence as a star Aussie athlete in the biggest basketball league in the world has continued to bring basketball into the mainstream conversation, and has given the sport and its athletes an added sense of legitimacy in the national conversation around sport. In a multicultural 21st century Australia, Simmons’ presence on the international stage is one that has redefined what it means to be an Australian athlete. His commitment to his home country will only continue to strengthen this presence. Whether he’s at a Sydney club with star-struck Americans and Australians, or taking time to coach a basketball camp for disadvantaged youths in Melbourne, Simmons’ impact on Australian sporting culture will continue to grow.