Ben Simmons didn't play. In his absence, far more than the Nets' flaws came to light

Brooklyn Nets' Ben Simmons watches practice before an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers. (Matt Slocum/AP)

What’s happening? A lot. But right now, scrolling through the app that shapes perhaps too much of our discourse, the post-mortem on a basketball team is unmissable.

The Brooklyn Nets, with their flawed assembly of breathtaking talent, were swept in the first round of the NBA playoffs by the Boston Celtics, ending a season that will likely be remembered more for what happened off the court than on it. Explanations for the losses varied depending on the game. Some pointed to the failed strategies of head coach Steve Nash, others to the uneven performances of stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. But, as the series wound down to its uninspired end, talk habitually found its way back to Ben Simmons.

It often has during his career. Because there have always been warranted criticisms of Ben Simmons, The Basketball Player: His free-throw shooting has slot-machine odds of yielding points; his reluctance to pull up from long range changes the entire geometry of his team’s offence; and there’s a widely cited possibility that he has spent his professional career shooting with the wrong hand altogether.

But the stated problem with Simmons this time was that he did not dress for a game in Round 1, or any game this year with Philadelphia or Brooklyn after being traded to the Nets in February. That much is an inarguable fact — one that obscured the well-documented reasons for his absence, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes willfully, always underscoring the problems of a medium designed to be reductive.

What’s happening? The reason Simmons has not played since last season’s playoffs, when his 76ers were eliminated by the Atlanta Hawks in a series that put his in-game missteps under a searing spotlight, is his own health.

In recent weeks, that largely centred on the physical. Simmons had an epidural to treat a herniated disk in his lower back before the end of the regular season. Since then, his training ramped up, he attended practices. The possibility he may scrimmage with his teammates and make his return was right there, in view.

And then it wasn’t.

The lower-back soreness returned the day before what proved to be the Nets’ final game this season, so much so that it kept Simmons from sitting courtside in the decisive Game 4 against the Celtics on Monday.

A return to the NBA after a debilitating back issue, playing alongside teammates with whom he has never shared the court, in an elimination playoff game, would not have been putting him — or the Nets — in a position to succeed, though.

More than anything, with a little empathy, the idea of a return under circumstances like that should bring the other reason for Simmons’ absence back into focus. Having worn an NBA jersey is not necessary to imagine the way those conditions, after everything, could weigh on Simmons — especially since his own mental well-being has been on his mind since his last playoff appearance.

“The first thing I'm going to do is clear my mind and get my mental right," Simmons said after the ball — and the 76ers’ playoff hopes — had been in his hands last year, and he passed on what could have been a game-tying dunk. “You got to be mentally tough.”

The months that followed only fortified the presence of those concerns, as reports surfaced that Simmons was receiving mental health assistance from outside the franchise and had turned down Philadelphia’s internal help. (Perhaps that reluctance to accept the 76ers’ support should not have shocked anyone, given the team’s mishandling of Markelle Fultz.)

When the 76ers levied fines against Simmons for missed games this season, his agent, Rich Paul, chastised the organization, bringing the way franchises — and agencies — handle players’ mental health under a microscope.

Then, just before the Nets’ season slipped firmly into being a what-if on Monday, reports surfaced that Simmons and the team’s leadership had held a meeting to discuss the hurdles still impeding his pursuit of a return to play. Much was said during the meeting, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. But the need to keep addressing the mental side of the process was made clear — a point echoed by Nash right before Game 4.

“We're really pushing to support Ben in any way we can to help him improve physically and get back on the court,” Nash said. “The mental side of that is part and parcel — they're not separate, they're not something that we don't want to deal with. We want to help, if he needs help, in any aspect of his life and his game.”

Ben Simmons watches practice before an NBA basketball game, Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum, FIle/AP)

What’s happening? That’s the prompt Twitter presents a user before composing a tweet. At its best, the answer can create some approximation of communal joy, hitting refresh and seeing the timeline fill with recognizable names who are all sharing in the same moment.

But a platform built on hurling 280-character thoughts across the internet necessarily erases nuance, and in a space such as Twitter, where engagement is currency, empathy too often pays the price. 

Probably, this would be the case even if Simmons’ struggles — or any struggles, really — were reducible to a single word. Depression and anxiety have been in the public lexicon for years, and the broader understanding of what they entail and how to talk about them is a work in progress. 

But the impact of toxic environments? The paralysis of cumulative strain? The anxiety over trusting your own body? That language is harder to find and looking for it (or not) before deciding to hit send is a choice. Empathy is a choice. Kindness is a choice. What we say instead of picking those paths is one, too.

What’s happening? Over the course of this saga surrounding Simmons, those outside the Nets organization were rarely dissuaded from weighing in with loud opinions. Sometimes it was small-following antagonists, sometimes engagement-hungry contrarians, sometimes prominent figures. The one constant was the volume.

Early on, some argued that because the mental-health concerns were first made known once there were financial consequences for his absence from the 76ers’ lineup, they were fictitious; a devious ploy to exploit a loophole and avoid paying fines while biding his time for a way out of Philadelphia to emerge.

The timeline conspiracy was always flawed and never should have taken hold, so of course it did. Cynicism is easy. For those who wanted to see Simmons in a harsh light, the dots were there to connect, despite what those dots omitted.

Being honest about mental health — to oneself; to others; much less a globally known employer like the 76ers, whose involvement all but ensured the private struggles become public — is hard. When someone is ready to take that step, when they are ready for help at all, is not for anyone to litigate except the person struggling.

Still, as the Nets’ end drew near over the past few days, the noise continued in rapid-fire succession, sometimes in text, sometimes by turning national platforms into made-for-Twitter TV hits being clipped into an easy-to-react-to soundbite.

“In the hood we call this a punk move,” Shaquille O’Neal said Sunday night after news surfaced that Simmons would not play, diligently oblivious to his own history extolling the virtues of rehabbing on company time. “You know, when things are going good, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m going to play in Game 4.’ Now that [the Nets] lost, ‘My back hurts.’ Well, if your back hurts, get some Icy Hot. I’ll send it to you.”

The phrasing of the bit suggested it was meant at least partially in jest. And, in nearly every situation, there’s room for comedy. Sometimes, that’s the only way to make sense of a world where the richest man on Earth spent $44 billion to own a global communication platform in the name of saving free speech. Joking about the Simmons situation is not barred. Language still matters, though. Levity has its limits. 

Too easily, when the cameras roll or fingers type thoughts onto a screen, lines that aren’t worth crossing, are.

Reggie Miller fell back on outdated tropes of what it means to be a man, tweeting on Sunday that Simmons had zero competitive fire and should “#ManUp.”

ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, always one to have something to say, took it degrees of magnitude further, saying Simmons might be “the weakest, most pathetic excuse for a professional athlete we have ever seen in not just American history, but the history of sport.”

Skip Bayless blamed Simmons for not getting ready to play in time for Game 1 of the first round before noting, in all caps to capture his trademark tone, that something was wrong and it wasn’t just a back injury — which is, intentionally or not, entirely the point. It’s always been more than only the back.

Perhaps the most calcified comment came months ago, though, shortly after the trade saga with Philadelphia ended, when Simmons had the audacity to crack a smile while at the Nets practice facility with his new teammates.

“So much for Ben Simmons' mental illness. Amazing how that was just fine once he got traded. Insulting to those that really suffer,” Howard Eskin, a prominent Philadelphia radio personality, tweeted — as though mental health is linear; as though well-being somehow exists independent of environment; as though looking happy is proof of being happy.

Ben Simmons walks to the court before an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)

What’s happening? No matter how thoroughly any of us has excavated the depths of our own mental health, how well-versed we are in the language and the process, it still cannot provide any clairvoyant insight into what exactly Simmons is going through.

Because, while none of us are alone in the work of our mental health, we are all still individuals. There is only one Ben Simmons, one person who is the exact sum of all he’s dealt with, is dealing with, and will one day navigate. Our own experiences and curiosities don’t entitle us to specifics about his hardships, either.

What our own struggles do give us, though, is a reminder: It’s hard. Be kind.

“They should be happy I'm smiling, honestly," Simmons said during his introductory Nets press conference. “I've had some dark times over the last six months and I'm just happy to be in this situation with this team and organization.”

What’s happening? There’s no Both Sides to someone’s mental health crisis, regardless of if there is more than one perspective to account for. 

From what Simmons has said, his well-being and “the fans or coaches or comments made by anybody” in Philadelphia are not interconnected. The struggles he’s living through are not about a single moment but are instead a culmination — as debilitating mental health conditions can often be.

Even if the 76ers committed no unspeakable evils against Simmons, to persist in an environment that no longer satisfies your psychological needs is to force breath underwater; eventually, you drown.

“It was just piled up — a bunch of things that have gone on over the years, to where I just knew I wasn't myself, and I needed to get back into that place of being myself and being happy as a person and taking care of my well-being,” Simmons said. “That was the major thing for me. It wasn't about the basketball, it wasn't the money, anything like that. I want to be who I am and get back to playing basketball and being myself.”

Simmons needed a different environment; the 76ers needed an All-Star to pair with Joel Embiid who could suit up for games. Simmons wasn’t ready; the Nets needed a third star to bolster the Durant-Irving duo. In these cases, and in many more, two distinct realities can be true at once. But only one can ever be said first — only one can matter most.

Simmons should be commended, not condemned, for recognizing he needed a change and his limits after it. If only each of us was so lucky as to have the means of escaping the toxic environments we are trapped in, finding the support and understanding we need, as it appears the Nets at least want to offer.

And if, down the line, different facts come to light — or Simmons’ own understanding of what he experienced changes — the human thing, the kind thing, the correct thing is still to have believed him from the start. Reflexive cynicism is not a badge of honour to be worn proudly, but scar tissue to be worked through consciously.

Seeing the worst in his stated struggles always said more about disbelievers, and the medium for loudly sharing that disbelief, than it did Simmons.

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