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It’s Always Funny in Philadelphia

Just when it seemed like the Sixers and Ben Simmons might have reached some sort of détente, the former no. 1 pick got himself tossed from practice. Good thing we’re not on the doorstep of a new NBA season!

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

We have written a lot about Ben Simmons. There’s really no avoiding it, despite everyone’s fatigue. But of all the things that have appeared on this site regarding the Sixers mercurial off-and-on-and-who-knows-what-now point guard, perhaps the most prescient was penned by Dan Devine, in the kicker to an excellent column:

Maybe you can go home again. When home is Philly, though, you’re probably going to be in for one hell of a welcome.

No kidding. Simmons’s abrupt homecoming started as an awkward comedy of errors and has since morphed into the utter disaster that everyone feared. On Tuesday, while the media and fans waited for Simmons to hold his first press conference since last week’s unannounced arrival—when he reportedly texted general manager Elton Brand out of nowhere to gain access to the team facility in order to take a COVID-19 test—news suddenly broke that Simmons had been suspended one game for conduct detrimental to the team.

Worse, according to Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Simmons was kicked out of Tuesday’s practice for “not being engaged.” Hard to imagine, considering the day before Simmons had phoned it in and done... whatever this is. And all that barely 24 hours after head coach Doc Rivers told reporters that the relationship between Simmons and the team “will grow” and “come back.”

So much for that. On Tuesday, Rivers said Simmons’s presence “was a distraction.”

“I didn’t think he wanted to do what everybody else was doing,” Rivers said. “I just told him he should leave then.”

Then Rivers added that “every single moment I’m going to give Ben a chance to join the team”—a statement he made moments after kicking Simmons out of practice because Simmons did not seem like he wanted to join the team.

Rivers was more diplomatic than some. Joel Embiid wasn’t interested in playing any version of nice. Embiid revealed he hasn’t spoken with Simmons since the point guard’s return and offered that “our job is not to babysit somebody.” Then he went so much further.

“I don’t care about that man, honestly” is certainly a mood. There was some speculation on Twitter (as well as questions from our copy desk) about whether Embiid meant “I don’t care about that, man, honestly”—as though inserting an extra comma would somehow change the meaning from Embiid not caring about Simmons to Embiid not caring about the Simmons situation. Except in the very next line, Embiid said, “He does whatever he wants.” No amount of grammar manipulation alters the underlying sentiment. (For what it’s worth, a smart reporter I trust who was there heard it as the first version.)

Judging by online and in-person conversations, Embiid’s take on the matter is shared by a preponderance of Sixers fans. And so now, as ever, we are left to wonder where it is that Simmons and the Sixers go from here. (Short answer, with a spoiler: likely nowhere good.)

There are people I know and respect, in the NBA and the media, who believe it’s a bad idea for Simmons to play for the Sixers again. It would be better (and easier) if Simmons receded back into the shadows until Daryl Morey can book him a ticket to parts unknown for players to be named later. Understandable.

It was my hunch—and nothing more than a hunch, at least until Simmons dropped his ball on Tuesday and went home—that Simmons returning to the team, “practicing” with the Sixers (to the extent you can call it that), and scheduling a press conference (that never materialized because everything went to shit) was all part of the necessary preamble that would have led to him playing for the organization again and rebuilding some on-court value until he could go off and play for some other organization.

But now all of that appears in flux once more—not that anything with the Sixers was stable in the first place. It’s hard to imagine Simmons playing for the franchise, given how ugly all this has been and continues to be. But when it comes to the Sixers, things can always get uglier.

If by some chance Simmons plays for the Sixers this season (Woj reported that the Sixers remain “steadfast” on not moving him just to move him) we will witness something entirely predictable—and wholly unprecedented. Everyone knows that Simmons will get a loud and angry reception if and when he steps on the Wells Fargo Center court. He was recently serenaded at a wrestling match, and I heard the same sentiment expressed by restless fans at last Thursday’s disappointing Eagles home game. No one will be shocked when Simmons hears that and more, even though history suggests it will be a unique event unlike any that have preceded it.

Here is where you, perhaps hailing from a place that is not Philadelphia, might be confused. Because by now you have been conditioned to think of it as the city that boos. You have heard the same tired tales about J.D. Drew and batteries, and Santa Claus and snowballs, regurgitated by lazy broadcasters on national telecasts for decades. And so you might find nothing at all remarkable about the greeting that would undoubtedly await Simmons were he to suit up for the Sixers again. But while some of that grim and gruff reputation is earned, the reality is different and more nuanced.

The people who point out that Philly fans have a tendency to boo their teams usually leave out the inconvenient and crucial context: Booing in Philly is almost always situational or circumstantial. When they’ve booed athletes wearing Philly uniforms, it has often been because players screwed up a play or a game. They’ve booed Donovan McNabb for firing balls into the ground at a receiver’s feet, Evan Turner for over-dribbling, and countless Phillies pitchers for blowing leads.

But most of that was in-the-moment stuff and generally ephemeral. Booing people rather than their specific actions is far more rare. Usually that kind of treatment is reserved for members of the Dallas Cowboys. Or anyone from New York. Contrary to the public perception, Philly fans don’t tend to boo guys in home uniforms just for breathing.

While Simmons certainly deserves criticism for the disastrous playoff series he had against the Atlanta Hawks, Philly fans have an all new set of reasons to boo him now. Asking for a trade is one thing. A slow trickle of leaks about how he’ll forfeit millions and sit out all season rather than playing for the Sixers again, refusing to meet up with his teammates when they reportedly offered to fly to L.A. to make peace, and then showing up after all that only to get booted out of practice for petulance is something else entirely.

As my fellow Philly fan Michael Baumann recently said to me, “There’s ‘mean, demanding Philly’ and then there’s ‘insular, defensive Philly’ and Ben got the protection of insular, defensive Philly for so long.” So true.

Even up through Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, you could still hear local fans cheering Simmons at the foul line despite his well-documented troubles. Alas, that support system has crumbled. At this point, even mainstream media members otherwise inclined to defend Simmons have called his behavior “unprofessional.”

I took an informal poll of the Philly fans in my life about the history of athletes playing for Philly who got booed for reasons beyond poor performance. The best we could come up with was Scott Rolen declining that massive contract offer and not wanting to play for that iteration of the Phillies (who could blame him?), and Eric Lindros demanding a trade after the Flyers botched a bunch of his injury issues and he fell out with management (same). We probably need to throw Michael Vick on that list, too. There was a segment of the fan base that was not initially cool with the Eagles signing him after he was released from prison for his role in a dog-fighting operation. But any lingering animosity about that dissipated pretty quickly when Vick got back on the field and played well. I was there and I covered that team and if there were any boos after his first game back, they were fewer and hushed.

But while all three of those guys caught some heat while still wearing Philly uniforms, they didn’t play during peak social media season. Not to mention that any feelings of ill will for Simmons have festered over a summer of speculation and background quotes to the media. Whatever uncomfortable fan-athlete exchanges have come before this were minimal when measured against what Simmons is sure to experience if he plays for the Sixers again. It’s impossible to imagine anything remotely comparable. Which is another reason why it has to be handled with some forethought, should the time come for it to be handled at all.

We know Simmons won’t play in the opener at New Orleans. I don’t think he should play at home versus the Brooklyn Nets on Friday, either. The atmosphere is far too charged and, given the teams and the outsized story lines, it would make matters even more combustible. Better to wait until the Sixers go on the road for games 3 and 4 of the regular season against OKC and the Knicks. Let him get a little media exposure (first in a small market, then in a much bigger one). Let the fans see him in a Sixers uniform again. Maybe that would take a little hot air out of an overinflated situation. Then they could try to stitch up the still-open and raw wound when they return home to play the Pistons at the end of the month. That’s not much of a plan, and it will likely fail to defuse an increasingly tense atmosphere, but what are the alternatives now other than paying him to go away?

Even if the Sixers bring him back slowly after a road trip, Simmons will obviously be in for it once the team returns home. (Maybe he can convince himself they’re saying Boo-en.) That says so much about how this whole thing has been mismanaged—despite Philly’s reputation for being mean bastards, and despite how the national media is likely to incorrectly spin the reception as little more than Philly being Philly.

Years ago, Allen Iverson would cup his hand to his ear Hulk Hogan–style and whip the crowd into a frenzy. He called it his favorite song. The city used to sing for Simmons, too. Maybe it will again, though the tune will be different this time and unlike anything he or anyone else has heard before.