Being a professional athlete is hard. That’s a simple statement, but it probably warrants underlining, considering some players have recently been in their feelings.
And yet there are certain times when being a professional athlete should not be hard, or at least times when they could maybe make things easier on themselves. I’m reminded of this while monitoring the ever-deteriorating Ben Simmons situation in Philadelphia. On Tuesday, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey reported that Simmons told the “Sixers brass he no longer wants to be a Sixer and does not intend to report to training camp.” Anyone who has paid attention to this soap opera has known it was headed for a messy divorce since Simmons’s ill-advised playoff pass. The only thing less surprising than this turn of events was Sixers fans taking to the social media town square to wish him good riddance.
The thing that has stuck with me through all this, though, the thing that has surprised me and always surprises me, is how badly Simmons botched what should have been some relatively simple management of expectations through public relations. More simply, he was never too concerned with playing to the crowd.
Philadelphia is one of the easiest cities to pander to and I'm always surprised that guys like Ben and Carson can't figure it out - Bryce Harper figured it out in 2 seconds— Allen Ivermectin (@FanSince09) August 31, 2021
Allen Ivermectin (soooo good) is absolutely right. Just look how excited Sixers fans were back when they won the lottery and secured the right to draft Simmons with the first pick. Thousands of people gathered at the Rights to Ricky Sanchez party that year and absolutely lost their minds.
Couldn't have done it without the Colangelos pic.twitter.com/o7X1LU09mA— Jawn Gonzalez (@JohnGonzalez) May 18, 2016
That leaping lunatic on the second-floor balcony toward the end of the video is my friend Mike. He nearly jumped (for joy) to his death, he was so happy. That’s the kind of blind-mad unconditional love Simmons somehow couldn’t tap into. To borrow from Nicky Santoro, “in the end, we fucked it all up. It should have been so sweet, too.”
Some people might argue that Bryce Harper has been better for his team than either Simmons and Carson Wentz were for theirs. And in fairness, we should also note that Simmons and Wentz probably weren’t properly prepared for Philly’s unique and intense form of brotherly love. Simmons grew up in Australia and parachuted into American sports with a brief crash landing at LSU, while Wentz is from one of the Dakotas (who can keep them straight?) and never got to prove his worth by field-dressing a deer on the city’s behalf. Then again, Joel Embiid is from Cameroon and spent one quick year in Kansas—hardly a feeder system to Philly—and he’s cracked the fan code about as well as anyone ever has or will.
That last part is important. Unlike Embiid and Harper, Simmons and Wentz failed to shield themselves from potential heat by eschewing cursory community outreach. And it wouldn’t have even taken that much. Harper managed it quickly enough by donning a Phillie Phanatic headband, a Jawn beanie, and a Clearwooder shirt—all regional favorites. And, importantly, he never failed to issue the obligatory but necessary sound bite as needed: “That’s why I came here,” Harper said about a month ago. “That’s why I wanted to be a Phillie, because of this fan base.” In total, that’s 18 words. If he never utters another, he’ll never have to buy a drink in Philly again.
Of course, this is not a phenomenon that’s unique to my hometown, and Simmons and Wentz are hardly alone in their unforced errors. Just this week, the New York Mets created an unnecessary and ill-advised controversy when they—hilariously—decided to boo their own fans. (Who among us hasn’t given in to the urge to boo Mets fans?) As my Ringer teammate Michael Baumann wrote, there were some deeper issues there and that had been building for a while, but it probably would have been easier and less painful for the Mets if they had just placed a bunch of rakes all over Citi Field and spent the afternoon stepping on them.
The same could really be said of anyone who has ever run afoul of an East Coast fan base and media contingent. Back in March 2000, after a last-second loss to the Raptors, then–Celtics head coach Rick Pitino picked an all-time oh-no fight with Boston that remains a classic of the genre more than 20 years later.
He wasn’t wrong. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish didn’t walk through that door again—but Pitino walked out of it not long thereafter. Years before that, Phillies Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt neatly summed up what it was like to play in Philadelphia, though he probably shouldn’t have. It was the only city, he said, “where you can experience the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day.” Schmidt wasn’t wrong, either. That sentiment was as true in his day as it is right now. Just this past season, the good folks at the Inquirer outdid themselves in a way that I’m not sure will ever be topped.
I get it. The fans and the media—on the East Coast in general, and in Philly specifically—can be a lot. But there are certain pitches the players probably shouldn’t swing at and others they should never miss but often do. When I worked in Philly, there were certain reporters who used to ask some variation of the same question, usually before the season began or after a big win or during the playoffs: “How much do you want to win for the fans?” It’s a question crafted to produce an easy sound bite that usually made the rest of the reporters in the scrum roll their eyes and snicker. But it’s also a slow-pitch softball that the players ought to smash Bryce Harper–style without fail. How much do I want to win for the fans? Sooo fucking much. That’s the answer every time, but you’d be surprised by how many athletes whiff on that big fat grapefruit of a gift tossed right across the middle of the pandering plate.
To be clear, as a member of the media I want the players to be as candid as possible. It’s part of why I’ve always loved Kyrie Irving, especially when he was at odds with Celtics fans. That was tremendous content and a win all the way around (except for Boston). But as a fan, you’re generally less inclined to appreciate unvarnished honesty. Sugarcoating tends to be more welcome. Or, you know, just lying straight to our faces about how awesome we are and how our town is the greatest town in the history of towns. A couple of quick words here and there about how hard you’re working, maybe a photo of you playing tennis with another member of the organization out in public. Done. People eat that shit up.
Sometimes you don’t even have to be any good and you’ll still get a pass. To this day, former Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan—who never won a playoff game for the franchise—is revered. He was folksy and talked tough about the Cowboys and one time he choked on a pork chop and didn’t die, which is probably the most Philly thing anyone could have ever done and no one has shut up about him since. I mean, the ’93 Phillies, who did not win the World Series, are still beloved because they drank beer and smoked cigarettes in the clubhouse and uttered all that gritty bring-your-lunch-pail-to-work nonsense. That team had Lenny Dykstra and Curt Schilling and is somehow still remembered fondly.
None of this means that fans are rubes. We know when we’re being lied to; it’s just that sometimes, when it comes to the interaction between players and the people who root for them, the lie is more comforting than the truth. Let’s once more consider Ben Simmons, who a couple of years ago said the Sixers had played so well at home because they were “scared to lose” in front of Philly fans. It was an attempt at humor and an able effort at currying favor, though it missed the mark—mainly because everyone sensed that, deep down, Simmons was probably being serious. Which is sort of how it played out over the long haul. A lot of truth is indeed said in jest. Just a couple of months ago, Danny Green said something similar about Philly fans but without his tongue planted in his cheek: “I love our fans, but when things aren’t going well, they can turn on you. That’s the one thing I would disagree with or dislike.” Fair enough. In an era of shorter contracts, more player power, and more movement to various teams through the course of their careers, it’s easy to understand why they might be a little less inclined to be like, “Catching heat rocks, love your passion.” But with respect to Danny Green, who is well-regarded by almost everyone who’s been in his orbit, his speaking up doesn’t carry quite the same weight as Simmons’s wanting out.
Contrast that approach with Embiid, who is perhaps better at playing to our particular crowd than anyone in recent memory. First Embiid flattered Simmons and suplexed the media—easy win; who doesn’t hate those guys?—then he came off the top rope for the finisher.
For clarity, I love the criticism, I love when I’m told I can’t do something. It makes me work harder to prove everyone wrong but not everyone is built like that.— Joel “Troel” Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) September 1, 2021
Loves criticism and it makes him want to work harder? Plus he managed to simultaneously and not-so-subtly bury his future former teammate? Incredible work. That tweet is a textbook example of how to stimulate the city’s sports erogenous zone. It ought to be taught at Philly Fandom University.
It might bother some people that I’m suggesting the collective love of various fan bases and cities is often for sale and can be bought on the cheap by players and coaches and general managers with minimal expense. I understand that. I own it. I just try to write as hard as I can every day. Because that’s what my hometown readers deserve. You can’t half-ass your words with them. They know words better than anyone. And I just want to say I really mean it when I tell you there are no better readers in the world than Philly readers. I write words because of them.