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Waking Up With Ben Simmons in Australia

The rise of the NBA Down Under

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On February 5, Tim Watts, a member of the Australian Parliament, rose to address a matter of urgent national importance: why Aussie Ben Simmons had been snubbed from the NBA All-Star Game. “Frankly,” Watts told the chamber, “no one with two brain cells to rub together would want Goran Dragic on their team over Ben.” Noting that Joe Ingles was also left out of the 3-point contest, Watts wondered if there was an “anti-Australian conspiracy” afoot in the NBA. “If you thought that Australia was angry about The Simpsons vs. Australia TV episode, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, Yanks,” he added.

If you know about this “epic rant”—from ESPN, say, or Dragic’s incredulous response—it’s thanks to a 24-year-old who works in an office tower in Melbourne. Guy Neville’s job is to tend to the website and social feeds of Australia’s National Basketball League. But he’s always looking for a piece of content that will remind everyone of Australia’s growing place in the basketball universe. After learning about Watts’s speech from a friend, Neville ripped the video from the MP’s Facebook page and stuck it on the NBL’s social channels. It went viral, he said, because it showed everyone that NBA fans in Australia were just as gonzo as the ones back home.

When you live nearly 8,000 miles from the Staples Center, you express your NBA fandom in odd ways. In the old days, when everyone else wore footy jerseys, you sported Chris Webber. Years later, you subscribed to League Pass. Now, you elbow your way onto basketball Twitter like Matthew Dellavedova elbowed his way into the NBA. One morning last week, I hung out with Neville and his colleague Mike Corbett as they plotted their next series of exports.

It was 11 a.m. in Melbourne, which meant the Sixers-Heat game was just starting in Philadelphia. Simmons gets special treatment on the NBL-owned site basketball.com.au. After every game, Neville prepares a write-up and a highlight reel.

But how do you compete for likes against @World_Wide_Wob? It turns out the NBL has a cache of DigiBeta tapes of old games and TV specials. As the Aussie new wave crashed the NBA, Neville and Corbett realized they had footage of young Joe Ingles, along with the NBL-playing dads of Simmons, Dante Exum, and Sixers draft choice Jonah Bolden. What was once kitsch is now content. “It’s a like a perfect storm of everything,” Neville said.

In January, Neville tweeted his greatest find: a video of young Simmons dunking on a kiddie hoop with his dad. The video has been viewed 250,000 times.

Five years ago, no one in either hemisphere cared about Brett Brown content. Now that he’s coaching the Sixers, Neville and Corbett have unearthed the content trail he left behind when he was coaching in Australia in the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s. One video they found has Brown spinning a ball like Meadowlark Lemon and then punching it up and through the basket. Another—farmed out to a NSFW side account—has a mic’d-up Brown yelling, “Jesus! Bitch!”

A Simmons-versus-Dragic matchup is perfect for Twitter. It is also, however indirectly, a beef. “There’s a long history of us hating Goran Dragic,” Neville said. Four years ago at the FIBA World Cup, Dragic complained that the Aussies tanked a game in the tournament to avoid playing the Americans.

Now, by taking a spot in the All-Star Game, Dragic had denied the golden child of Australian basketball a step in his coronation. Neville showed me a #snubbbed tweet he’d used regularly since the All-Star roster was announced. “Anytime we can say he got snubbed, we will,” Neville said, flashing a smile. “Because it’s gold.”

For most of three decades, it was incredibly frustrating to be an NBA fan in Australia. You could feel the growth of the association from overseas but you couldn’t always see it. The great Australian player Andrew Gaze told me he had to watch Magic and Larry’s 1979 NCAA title game on 16-millimeter film. There was an Austral-American basketball magazine called One on One (“the best of both worlds”) that printed Gaze’s NBA diaries as if he were a Cabinet minister. Junkies would read every page two or three times. “Pre-internet, we had nothing,” said Roy Ward, who covers basketball at the Melbourne newspaper The Age. “By the end of the week, you’d just be starving for this stuff.”

You could buy basketball shoes in Australia but it was hard find an authentic jersey or T-shirt. If someone showed up at school with one, that almost always meant they had been overseas and snagged the precious gear in person. Australians were as bad at picking a favorite NBA team as soccer-curious Americans were at picking a Premier League side. Corbett rooted (“barracked”) for the Timberwolves because they drafted Luc Longley … and then he was stuck with them.

At NBL headquarters, Corbett’s cubicle is like a shrine to the Australian basketball stars of the ’90s—a period when most Americans’ ideas about Australia were demarcated by Paul Hogan, Outback Steakhouse, and Foster’s commercials. There’s a picture of Longley shooting a jumper. Shane Heal, with his trademark blond highlights, on a Fleer rookie card. A photo of Gaze, who won a ring with the Spurs in 1999, wearing an NBL jersey with a Kmart logo.

Australia had NBA role players but it lacked a signature star. “Andrew Gaze dominated the NBL and led the Olympics in scoring,” Ward said. “Then he gets beaten out for a roster spot in Seattle by Vincent Askew. People look at that and go, ‘Is that the best we got?’”

Australia became an NBA satellite state thanks to a confluence of better players and better technology. The internet allowed once-scarce merch to flow freely into the country. “This is Mitchell & Ness,” Luke Sicari, a local radio producer, told me as he pointed at his Cavaliers T-shirt. “Five years ago, you couldn’t find Mitchell & Ness in Australia.”

More importantly, Australians could finally watch the games. According to an NBA spokesman, Australia has more League Pass subscribers than any country besides the United States. During the 2016-17 season, the number of subscribers increased by 21 percent—and that doesn’t count the Aussies who buy the cheaper European or Asian versions of League Pass and watch via VPN.

Like the Premier League in the United States, the NBA is a mid-morning sport in Australia. “Lunchtime is prahm-time,” ESPN’s Aussie-accented announcer says when plugging a Friday doubleheader. In Melbourne, late West Coast games start at 2:30 p.m. The whole schedule is wrapped up by the end of the workday.

For this reason, the NBA has become an intense object of desire for Australian gamblers. According to the online book Sportsbet, the NBA had the third-most action in 2017, behind only the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League—the country’s two biggest football codes. Australian sports books love the NBA. When gamblers bet on Aussie rules football, the books are obliged to give a cut of the money back to the league. With the NBA, they keep everything.

Australians ooze with swagger when they talk basketball now. It hardly matters if you’re talking about their NBA players or the homegrown NBL.

“Terrance Ferguson came down before getting drafted,” said Corbett, referring to the gap year that Ferguson, the Thunder’s first-round pick in 2017, spent in Adelaide.

“And he got worked,” said Tommy Greer, a former NBL player who’s now an announcer with the league.

Before the two younger Ball brothers went to Lithuania, there was talk they might play in Australia. “We’d get all these tweets: ‘@NBL, make it happen!’” Corbett said. “They’d get eaten alive down here.”

Basketball will probably never displace Australian rules football, cricket, or the country’s two rugby codes in the imagination of the Aussie sports fan. (Indeed, Neville and Corbett often compare hard fouls to AFL penalties.) But basketball is making a strong run at fifth place. Before last season, three Australian teams came to the U.S. to play preseason games. When the Melbourne United nearly knocked off the Thunder, sports fans took notice. Sicari showed me a picture of two sports-radio hosts suddenly glued to the TV in the middle of their show.

There are now eight Australians in the NBA. Most of them—Dellavedova, Patty Mills—fit the tougher-than-he-is-talented stereotype of Australian stars of the ’90s. Still, several members of the new wave—including Mills and the recently released Andrew Bogut—won rings, meaning they attracted an outsized amount of attention for their skill sets. Only Longley got that kind of airtime with the ’90s Bulls.

“We shouldn’t disrespect what they’ve done,” said The Age’s Roy Ward. “But you have to convince people we’re not just the role-player factory of the world. We can produce stars.”

That’s where Ben Simmons comes in. His photo runs regularly in The Age and Herald Sun newspapers. Neville and Corbett tweeted that if the country of Georgia could make a run at getting Zaza Pachulia into the All-Star Game, then Australia, with seven times Georgia’s population, could do the same for Simmons. Simmons, who wasn’t shy about saying he’d been snubbed, gladly retweeted the love. “If he loses the Rookie of the Year to Donovan Mitchell,” said Sicari, “the whole country will burn down.”

That kind of pride is what makes good web content. “We have to find a balance since we’re big-upping him a lot,” said Corbett.

“Big-upping?” I said, begging for a translation.

Neville smiled. “Leveraging him, you might say.”

Seven minutes into the first quarter against the Heat, Simmons hit a 12-foot jump shot from the left-hand side. Simmons’s jumper has been balky enough that a made basket counts as content. Neville tweeted out the highlight.

Some of the content Neville and Corbett generate fits snugly into Twitter’s sweet spot: Here’s a video, from a small or obscure place, that’s amazing or funny or sad. This month, SportsCenter gladly scooped up footage of Brisbane Bullets point guard Travis Trice putting two defenders on the floor with his dribbling. The video has 374,000 views.

“If there’s a Twitter beef, we’ll do a little rundown,” Neville said. Bogut, when he’s not showing interest in alt-right types, has been feuding with Liz Cambage of the Australian women’s national team.

But Neville and Corbett’s best tweets come from the mostly unmined stash of Australian basketball IP, which they raid with the help of statistician Mark “Statty” Slocombe. When Donovan Mitchell got a spot in the slam dunk contest, his teammate Joe Ingles jokingly asked on Twitter if he could offer Mitchell any tips. Right on cue, Neville tweeted out footage of an 18-year-old Ingles dunking in the NBL—one of the few times anyone has seen Ingles dunk. Mitchell retweeted it and tagged their Jazz teammates.

Simmons is big enough that even his family videos are content now. Neville and Corbett tweeted a 1997 video of Dave Simmons and his Newcastle Falcons teammates doing a sketch—apparently inspired by The Full Monty—in which they appeared onstage completely naked, holding basketballs over their privates. The ’90s were a weird time for basketball in Australia.

With Joel Embiid on the bench, Simmons and the Sixers trailed the Heat by 24 in the third quarter. But Dario Saric and newly acquired Marco Belinelli brought them back. With four minutes left and the game tied, Simmons found J.J. Redick for a 3-pointer to put them up for good. The assist gave Simmons his sixth triple-double of the season.

“What you got, Dragy?” Corbett said.

“Your move, Slovenia,” Neville said. When Dwyane Wade missed a potential game-winner for the Heat at the buzzer, Neville began typing out a triumphant post-game tweet: “The @sixers completed an incredible 24 point comeback…”

It was a great Australian basketball moment. There was a tight game, some throbbing national pride, and, most importantly, the promise of sweet, relevant content for years to come. Somewhere in the capital city of Canberra, I suspect there was an Australian politician following along online, ready to pander to a nation of fanatics.