IT'S 11AM ON A SUNNY TUESDAY MORNING and I’m standing in Ben Simmons’ living room overlooking New York. Beyond the balcony, I can see the Statue of Liberty to my left, the Brooklyn Bridge to my right, and twenty or so floors below, the city is in full swing. Despite the faint din of cars honking and construction work going on in the background, there’s a sense of calm being this high up; the vantage point providing a degree of separation from the chaotic cityscape beneath us. The feeling doesn’t last long. As the crew and I go about unpacking boxes of photography gear in preparation for today’s cover shoot, I catch a glimpse of Simmons’ 6’ 10” frame entering the apartment. I panic-glance at my watch. He’s not meant to be here for another two hours; there’s still lighting to be set up, cameras to be unpacked, and the apartment needs to be cleaned. Turns out, Simmons has finished training sooner than originally planned and, following his early start, wants to nap before we begin shooting. Crisis averted, we return to setting up, albeit in silence this time so as to not wake the slumbering giant.
When we’re finally introduced, I find the 27-year-old standing in his walk-in wardrobe, carefully winding the dial on one of his Patek Philippe watches. His rather impressive horological collection is placed in front of him, and he’s going about preparing each piece ahead of the shoot. I’ll be honest, the sight is rather intimidating. Not only because my scratched Casio seems rather paltry in comparison, but because his size really is quite formidable. NBA players are known to look like a special breed of human being; with their giant frames and long athletic limbs, they often resemble a homo sapien 2.0. But even among NBA players, Ben Simmons is special. Playing the point guard role, a position usually reserved for smaller, craftier players like Steph Curry, Simmons is a beast. Combining the physicality of a forward with the vision and playmaking ability of a guard, the Australian has been something of an anomaly in the modern NBA since entering the league five years ago.
“What’s up, man?” he greets me, his American accent all but concealing the Aussie twang that’s largely faded since he left Melbourne for the States aged 16. As he goes back to winding his Patek, I can’t help but think this is usually a job done by assistants. Though, as I’ll come to find out over the course of the next week, this new version of Ben Simmons is nothing if not hands on. From his house, to his wardrobe, his love of fishing and, most importantly, his training regime, the Brooklyn Nets star is meticulous about everything he does.
In many ways, he’s had to be. After all, the past few years have been rough. Enjoying a record-breaking start in pro basketball, Simmons’ fortunes changed following a disappointing end to the ’20/21 season. A trade request out of Philadelphia soon followed, which turned into a long and drawn-out affair, all while Simmons struggled with injuries that have hampered his return to form. Having barely featured in his first two years with the Brooklyn Nets, the Australian is now at a fork in the road: will he relight the flame of his former talent, or will he fade and become a mere role player, a secondary character in the grand narrative of sport? Basketball fans may be loyal but their patience only goes so far and, for many, this season represents a last chance for Simmons.
Amid the chatter—the fan forums, barber shops and constant airtime on NBA broadcasts, even while sidelined—Simmons has stayed largely silent. “I’d rather be able to talk my shit knowing I can step on the floor and back it up.” But now it’s time for Simmons to talk his shit. Focusing on rehabbing his persistent back injuries, he’s landed on a routine that, after a long and arduous two years, has finally started to pay dividends. His body, he’ll later tell me, hasn’t felt this good in years. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Because, for Simmons, the road to recovery begins at home.
A WEEK AFTER OUR COVER SHOOT, away from the cameras, stylists and hovering grooming artists, I catch Simmons on the phone for a more indepth chat. This time, he’s in his gaming room. It’s a rather elaborate set up that includes multiple screens and a chair that seems ripped from the cockpit of a fighter jet. In the corner of the room sits a Louis Vuitton trunk. Part of the influential FaZe Clan, a collective of streamers and gamers, Simmons is serious about his Call of Duty and his gaming space is just one of the many rooms in the apartment designed to get him in the right mindframe. After more than a year of planning, it’s finally complete.
“I’m very particular with everything I have going on in the house, from the wallpapers and furniture to the light fixtures,” he says. “I’m very into it. I would imagine a lot of NBA guys probably allow whoever it is to do it for them or they’re not as invested in the whole project. But for me, it’s personal. Where I’m going to lay my head is my home. So I want everything to be specific to what I love and want to see every day.”
The space is technically two apartments combined. On the one side is Ben’s “safe place”, designed to create the right environment for him to rest and recover. There’s a pilates room, his bedroom and a cinema room to wind down in. Then there’s the more communal side, created with visiting friends and family in mind. The whole apartment feels sophisticated but relaxed; think bachelor pad meets chic Brooklyn loft.
“I knew exactly what I wanted when I got these two apartments,” he tells me. “When I want to shut off [or] if I have games or whatever, I know I can be on this side of the house and no one’s going to bother me.
“I feel settled [in Brooklyn]. I’ve been here for about a year now. But finally having a home that I can actually call a home and have my stuff here, that’s been really nice.”
Like all athletes, there is a sense of dichotomy at play with Ben Simmons. On one side is the player; on the other, the person. And the two feed off one another. If the player is unhappy on the court, the person is unlikely to flourish off it. And visa versa. So, with his new home complete and now finally enjoying some stability, Simmons applied a similar process to his fitness, tinkering with routines until he found one that works.
“I did it my way,” he says proudly. “I built my own team around me. I got healthy, I blocked out whatever everybody thought I should do. I’ve tried what other people wanted me to do and it didn’t work. So I’m like, you know what, this is a chance for me to do it my way. I know it works for me. I’ve done this before. I’ve been an All Star, I’ve never missed the playoffs; I’ve been in those moments. At the end of the day it’s my career; I’d rather go out on my own sword.”
WE DON'T TALK ABOUT PHILADELPHIA. It’s not necessarily off the cards as a topic of conversation but Simmons has already said what he wants to say on the matter. Besides, this is, after all, a fresh start and today’s focus is the future. The thing is, even if we don’t discuss it, there are (very vocal) sections of the NBA community who still do. A lot.
For those in need of a quick recap, Simmons was at the centre of a rather large, and arguably unnecessary, drama at the end of his last season with the Sixers. In game 7 of their playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks, Simmons opted to pass the ball instead of taking what some considered to be an easy layup. The pass failed to result in points and the decision was deemed a costly one. After the game, when the 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers was asked if Simmons could play point guard on a championship winning team, he seemed unsure, telling reporters, “I don’t even know how to answer that right now.” Meanwhile, teammate Joel Embiid appeared to imply Simmons was responsible for the team’s loss.
“It didn’t work, but I made a play,” Simmons said recently in a rare media appearance. “People make hundreds of plays throughout the year.” It’s worth pointing out that Simmons finished that season as an All Star and a member of the league’s All Defensive First team.
The Australian didn’t react kindly to being thrown under the bus, requesting a trade out of Philadelphia soon after. With Sixers GM Daryl Morey refusing to trade him, Simmons spent most of the following season on the sidelines. Despite citing mental health concerns as the reason for his absence, the Sixers docked his pay to the point where Simmons now holds the title of most heavily fined player in NBA history. For a while there, things got pretty ugly. In February 2022, some eight months after that infamous night in Philly, Simmons was finally granted a trade out of the city.
But even without playing, the basketball world was obsessed with the Ben Simmons story: hero or villain? Pundits were split. On the one hand, there were critics like ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith who said Simmons’ actions were akin to “stealing money” from the 76ers, while others like former NBA pro turned pundit Gilbert Arenas appeared to empathise with the Australian. I remember looking at the scenario with mixed feelings. A complex dynamic, sure, but not an entirely new one. Because players have been looking for ways out of their contracts for years. Just look at Kevin Durant. The superstar and former teammate of Simmons forced his way out of Brooklyn to Phoenix in March after Kyrie Irving did the same thing just months before to Dallas, albeit for very different reasons.
In sports like football, contract disputes and trade movements are practically part of the game. Heck, you can even go back as far as ancient Greek mythology for an early iteration of the storyline. Just pick up a copy of Homer’s The Iliad. The year was 1200 BC, or thereabouts, and the Greeks were engaged in a decade-long battle with the Trojans. When the great warrior, Achilles, entered the fight he appeared to sway the odds in the Greeks’ favour. However, off the battlefield, Achilles was humiliated by the army’s general, Agamemnon. Scorned by the treatment from his leader, Achilles refused to go on fighting.
You see, the Greek warrior was expected to shoulder his humiliation in silence. Not only that, he was expected to come back the next day and go to battle. Achilles, like Simmons, refused. Pride, honour, whatever you want to call it—their reactions do at least seem relatable. And perhaps that isn’t surprising, for in the collective effort to prevail, the sporting field bears more than passing similarities with the battlefield: player or combatant, you give everything you have in pursuit of victory and you rely on your teammates/camrades to have your back. Both rely on causes bigger than the individual to stir emotion and rouse effort. For warriors, it’s patriotism; for athletes it’s the team’s fortunes. Without these things, what exactly are they fighting for?
Whether you agreed with them or not, Simmons’ actions in requesting a trade are not uncommon within the culture of modern sport. After decades of the status quo, athletes are pushing back against authority and setting new boundaries as to what they deem acceptable behaviour from their employers. Where players were once at the whim of their clubs, the power balance has shifted. In the face of mistreatment, players now exercise their right to say ‘no’.
It’s worth noting how the story ended back in ancient Greece. Without Achilles, the Greeks were getting slaughtered until finally Agamemnon was forced to apologise. In Philadelphia, meanwhile, things didn’t fare that much better. The man the 76ers brought in to replace Simmons, the former MVP James Harden, failed to help the team improve on their previous year’s performance and now appears to want out of the Sixers, having publicly labelled Daryl Morey “a liar”. I’ll let you read into that what you will.
RECENTLY, SIMMONS WAS sent a video that was doing the rounds on social media. It showed the basketball player in Brooklyn Nets uniform airballing a hook shot. The clip was significant because it appeared to encapsulate Simmons’ change in fortunes: his injury woes and apparent dip in form had now reached the point that he was unable to execute basic skills. For a player who entered the league as the No.1 draft pick, was labelled ‘the next LeBron James’ and earned three All-Star nods before the age of 25, this appeared to represent a new low. But, as with anything shared on social media, what if the brief clip didn’t tell the full story?
“I’m like, ‘Of course I did!’” says Simmons. “I had a herniated disc and my right leg wasn’t working!”
“This is what people don’t know,” he continues. “I was struggling walking and little things like going upstairs. I had pain in my knee and in my back just sitting down in cars. The smallest things to me that seemed normal were such a struggle. You could tell in the way I was breathing too. Because every time I would go to do something I would just be compressed and trying to get ready to brace myself. So to be able to stand up right after this interview and go walk around is a blessing for me.”
Over the past two years, Simmons tried to play through the pain, with little to no reward. “When I was out there knowing I wasn’t healthy, I wasn’t confident in my body at all,” he says. “When you’re getting hit, you’re getting pushed, and you can’t turn certain ways, you’re not even really thinking about the basketball game. You’re more thinking about what I can do and how I have to move instead of allowing your body to just go. That’s the toughest part for me because when I’m on the court, I just want to be able to go. I don’t want to be thinking, Can I step this way? Can I step that way? Can I change the direction? Nah. I’m like, Shit, let’s go hit somebody. Let’s go get a rebound. Let’s go do these things that I’m naturally able to do.”
His injury woes made for a rough season, with Simmons managing just 42 games last season in Brooklyn compared to the 91 he played in his rookie year, with his stats down in every major category. The player we saw in Philadelphia—the marauding drives into the paint, the clever passes to find teammates in space, the smothering defence—largely gone. To say Simmons was a shadow of his former self was an understatement. So, what did he do? He started again.
“And that’s what I’ve been doing all summer,” he says. “The first month I wasn’t jumping or running. So that was frustrating. I’m going to the gym every day, not being able to jump or run. And that’s just the process of it. I’m very understanding of what it takes and what I have in front of me and I have the right team around me that keeps it entertaining.”
One of Simmons’ biggest breakthroughs was discovering pilates, which he credits with improving his core and helping him feel “more in tune” with his body. As he edges closer to full fitness ahead of the upcoming season, his daily routine involves 20 minutes on the pilates machine, knee loading work—“once [my back] started hurting, my knee started getting a little sore because I was overusing it. So we got that back under control”. Then it’s on the court to work out, before doing some shooting drills, then some scrimmages. After that, Simmons will hit the weight room, and depending on the day, he might do some more shooting to finish. He hasn’t missed a single session all summer. No wonder he needed a nap.
“Just having that mindset of not missing one day or whenever I have the opportunity to get in a little bit more work, then I was going to do it. And that just came from seeing the progression of my health, getting better, getting active, moving more. That’s what really kept me focused. It’s hard if you’re working and you don’t see any progress. That was happening last season when I was rehabbing, it kind of felt like, What am I doing this for if I know it’s not working or helping? So I finally found progress in the work I was doing, which allowed me to stay focused and on track. I’m like, Let’s see how fast I can go, how high I can jump, how strong I can get.”
When I ask how he’s feeling ahead of the new season, it would be easy to imagine Simmons might have some sense of trepidation. Will he regain his form? Will his back hold out? Will he silence the doubters? Thoughts like these will permeate the mind of a lesser player. We’ve seen it happen time and time again: one, two-season wonders unable to live up to the hype or shoulder the burden of expectation. Simmons, on the other hand, doesn’t seem concerned. There’s even the faintest hint of a smirk, as if he knows a secret we don’t. Because, while the rest of the NBA community may have been wondering if he’s ‘lost it’, his best days behind him, Simmons never doubted himself. It was just his body that was letting him down.
“I feel amazing,” he says. “Now versus how I was playing last season, it’s night and day. Being able to go through a whole session; play, get hit, get up, sprint, dunk, do all these things and then be able to walk perfectly normal and feel like nothing happened is the best thing I’ve been able to experience in the last four or five months. Because all I want to do is hoop and do my job.”
Still, it’s easy to imagine the past few years haven’t been without their challenges. But while Simmons acknowledges his injuries have “played a toll on [his] mental for sure”, he says his love of the sport never wavered.
“I’m very appreciative of the game of basketball because it’s brought me here and given me and my family a lot… The love of the game is always going to be there because that’s where I get to be me; I get to create, I get to be an artist. Besides Call of Duty and other things like that, this is where I get to do my fun stuff. I get to be creative, I get to mess up, I get to do things that other people can’t do. And I think people take that for granted. There’s certain things I can do on the court that some NBA players can’t do. And I’m grateful for that because that’s a blessing that I have.”
He’s bold in his predictions for the upcoming season. “We have a great opportunity to start from scratch and build a team that can shock a lot of people,” he says.
“And then individually, I want to be back where I was. I want to be an All Star. I want to be better than an All Star. That’s where I want to be. I never try to live with myself. I’m never like, Well, hopefully, maybe I get a couple votes in an All-Star game. Nah, if that’s the case, I might as well be fishing.”
AND BEN SIMMONS sure loves to fish. If he’s not in the gym or enjoying the panoramic view of Brooklyn from his balcony, he’s miles out in the ocean, holding a fishing rod in his hand. It’s been a hobby since he was a young boy.
“I’ve just always been fascinated with the water, the ocean and what’s in there,” he explains. “They say 80 or some crazy percentage of the ocean hasn’t been discovered. That’s an interesting thing to me. And fishing is something that gives me a little bit of peace when I’m out there.”
It’s taught him the value of patience and, similar to basketball, the understanding that the more he learns about the details—“the knots, the lures, the hooks”—the better he gets. Over the years, he’s progressed from catching to spearfishing and now goes on trips whenever he gets a spare weekend.
“My idea of fishing is like, Let’s get in the boat all day, maybe for a night or whatever, and all we’re eating is going to be what we catch. So you can imagine if you’re not catching anything, you’re kind of like, ‘Shit we need to catch something!’”
If nothing is biting he knows not to panic or get frustrated, he says. Instead, he’ll try a new strategy until something sticks. And usually, it does. Focusing on a complex technical task like fishing, surrounded by nothing but the tranquil blue waters of the Atlantic ocean, Simmons has had a lot of time to think. I ask him what the biggest difference is between the rookie Ben Simmons and who he is today.
“I mean, I’m a lot wiser,” he says. “I try to do things with a plan now. What was it you called me the other day?” Simmons turns to his sister and marketing manager, Emily, who’s joined us on the call.
“Impatient and impulsive,” she says.
“I think I’m both of those still, but I’m more patient now. I’m more open-minded and I try to slow down and just review everything going on.”
In good news for Boomers fans, this plan involves playing in Paris next year. His rehab meant he missed the recent FIBA World Cup, but he followed the team’s progress closely. And, yes, he heard the talk that surrounded him not playing.
“I didn’t watch full games, but I would keep up,” he says. “I watched stats, scores and just what’s going on in that world, which was interesting because I live it, I get the media side. People are like, ‘Well you’re not Australian if you don’t want to play’, and all this stuff that comes with it. And I just laugh. I’m like, Alright. And I want my team to succeed all the time. So it’s just interesting seeing that go on and then when we get knocked out, people are like, ‘Okay, we do need him’. I’m like, Yeah, it would be nice to have me there because I’m one of the best players that’s come out of the country. So I love that respect, but at the same time it’s [about the] Olympics for me. That’s what I think about. Let’s get through the season healthy and play in the Olympics. That’s just going to be insane for me. I’m going for a medal, but just having that experience and to be able to represent my country, there’s probably nothing better than that.”
As Simmons acknowledges, that’s still a way off and involves, at the minimum, staying healthy all season long. The week after our interview, he’ll progress to full-contact five-on-five training in time for the start of the season. How he’ll fare from there is anybody’s guess. But if there’s one person who doesn’t doubt where this story ends, it’s Simmons.
“I think I’m just going back up,” he states. “Which is a fun thing for me. Even when I play video games, I’m the same way. If I play, I want to start from the bottom, whatever game. I want to start from scratch and earn everything I get.”
Throughout our time together, Simmons has appeared confident and comfortable. He’s warm and friendly with everyone on set and there’s even a sweetness to him. But you get the sense he’s just a touch guarded, as if he doesn’t want to share too much of himself. As we’re wrapping up our conversation and I ask him if we can expect a better player this season than we’ve seen before, his demeanour changes and I see something I realise we haven’t seen all that much of in recent times: a smile. The stoicness that’s characterised his courtside appearances the last two years is replaced by a big, boyish grin that’s now plastered across Ben Simmons’ face.
“Definitely,” he says. “That’s what I’m excited about because, shit, you can only take so much slander ’til you gotta just turn up on motherfuckers! And that’s the truth of it.”
Strong words. Of course, right now, that’s all they are. Simmons will have to turn them into action when he returns to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center later this month. Before then, Simmons tells me he’ll take one final break, a weekend fishing off the Caribbean islands of Turks and Caicos. Just him and a few friends on a boat. Once out on the water, he’ll carefully attach his bait, cast his rod and wait. Despite the sun in eyes, Ben Simmons will have a poised look on his face. The look of a man ready to seize his moment.
Photography: Arnaldo Anaya-Lucca
Styling: Wesmore Perriott of Defending Champs LLC
Styling assistant: Bryan J. Harrold of Defending Champs LLC
Hair: Louis ‘Ears’ Rexach Jr
Skin: Angie Parker
Digital technician: Norman Nelson
First assistant: Adam DiCarlo
Shot on location in September 2023 at Ben Simmons’ Brooklyn loft.
This story appears in the October/November 2023 issue of Esquire Australia, on newsstands October 19. Subscribe here.