In the closing minutes of the Sixers’ 99–90 playoff exorcism at the hands of the Miami Heat, I wasn’t really thinking about anything taking place on the court right that minute.
Why would I? The team was losing, with a whimper and not a bang. Philly’s fans were booing like the studio audience from Joker. Even Jimmy Butler, the Heat’s king of the hill, was a little shocked at just how limp his opposition was. That game — and the Sixers’ season — had been over long before the final buzzer. No, my mind wasn’t on Philadelphia’s decisive defeat.
It was on Ben Simmons.
After years of purposeful, pointed losing, the Sixers had drafted Simmons in 2016 to run their offense next to Joel Embiid, a job that the former held for four years. But Simmons hadn’t suited up in the red, white and blue since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2021. That night, he’d refused to attempt a shot in the fourth quarter and missed most of his free throws as the Atlanta Hawks fought their way to the victory. Philadelphia, the best team in the conference by win-loss ratio, wouldn’t make it out of the semis, and the city’s players, coaches and fans walked away convinced that Simmons was the culprit.
Charging that playing for the 76ers had done a number on his mental health, Ben Simmons refused to play for Philadelphia ever again, and the team traded him to the Nets in February for legendary — if aging — combo guard James Harden.
Embiid’s years next to Simmons had not been kind to the big man’s body. He was Philly’s best player, sure, gliding around the court with ballerina grace and bullet-train force. But he’d also been hampered by injuries, year after year. From a broken orbital bone in 2018, to a torn meniscus in his knee in 2021, to another broken bone in his eye in 2022, Embiid had needed a swift succession of surgeries, facemasks, knee braces, and waivers to keep playing through the agony that we thought would always be his.
Simmons had an injury, too; a back bug that sidelined him in 2020 and kept him out of the lineup for Brooklyn this season. But, where Embiid’s surprising rise to the top of the NBA made his wounds a kind of sports stigmata, a symbol of his dedication to championship glory, Simmons’ alleged injuries — mental and physical — drew accusations of laziness, fraud, and disinterest in the game.
“Take it serious,” rapped Kirk Franklin, “the demons in a man’s mind.” No one, it seemed, took Simmons’ demons seriously.
Ben Simmons wasn’t the only person to get cleared out of Philly at the end of that rebuild, known amongst the elect as “The Process.” Brett Brown, who coached the team through all of the lean years and three of the fatty years, lost his job when the team lost in 2020’s first round. Robert Covington and Dario Saric both blossomed into productive players on the Process Sixers, but Philly traded them, in 2019, to get Jimmy Butler.
And, for a team with such a ubiquitous plan, Philly also went through their share of general managers: Sam Hinkie, the architect of the Process, gave way to Bryan Colangelo. Colangelo was exposed for badmouthing his players on social media, and he was fired to give Brown managing powers as well as coaching powers. Brown lost those powers in 2019, when the Sixers brought in Elton Brand, and Brand lost those powers in 2020, when the former general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, got the job.
Every single last one of those moves were made by a team that once thought they had to lose to win. Every single last one of those moves reflected a team that wanted to win, right now. Because Embiid’s health was never a guarantee, and because the Sixers felt like championship contenders anyway, there really wasn’t any time to savor, or any time to grow, or any time to just be a fun team, until it was too late, and Philly’s relationship with Simmons was already over.
I wonder if Simmons was watching Game 6, since the Nets lost in the first round, and he didn’t have any other professional commitments. I wonder what he thought when he saw Embiid’s new facemask, the one he routinely re-adjusted when he got hit in the face. I wonder when he thought when Embiid grabbed his back, or winced, or tried to soothe the pain still searing his face.
More than anything, I guess I was wondering what it was like to see the pain that turned Embiid into an icon up-close, or to see the big man suck it up to continue his city’s dogged pursuit. I wonder whether any of these injuries ever really healed, or whether they’d follow Joel Embiid the rest of his life. And I wonder if it’s ever going to be worth it, championship or not.