COVER: The Education of Ben Simmons

Photo by Sean Richardson

Ben Simmons will soon be a global superstar. For now, he’s happy to be a student.

Editor’s note: This is the cover story from our 2015-16 Basketball preview. To subscribe to Tiger Rag’s print magazine, click here. To subscribe to our digital eRag, click here.

Here comes Ben Simmons.

On his road to NBA stardom, the player who has every chance to be the defining talent of his generation is taking a 10-month tour of Baton Rouge. For one school year – and, barring the most unforeseen of circumstances, no more than that – he will walk among the stately oaks and broad magnolias of the Old War Skule, casting shadows as large as any who’ve ever traversed the same path. His presence, like his game, transcends his 6-foot-10 frame, attracting statistics and star-stricken students with equal ease.

He’s the best player on one of the fastest-rising basketball programs in the country, a 19-year-old, Nike-wearing, hoverboard-riding, Snapchatting, Instagramming, autograph-signing, ever-smiling, accent-wielding star-in-the-making. This time next year, he’ll be the face of a franchise, the owner of a million-dollar professional basketball contract that will pale in comparison to the shoe deal he’ll inevitably sign.

For now, however, his feet sport LeBrons, Kobes, Jordans, CP3s, or KDs. The Simmons shoe line is a speck in the future, a light at the end of a journey still to come, and before he arrives at his very lucrative destination, Simmons will walk the same campus Shaquille O’Neal, his childhood idol, did 25 years ago, the same Shaq who, when Simmons signed with LSU in November of 2014, called him “the best player in the world.”

One day, Ben Simmons, like Shaq, Kobe, and LeBron, will be an NBA superstar. In the meantime, he has some things to learn. Before he becomes a master, he must first be a student.

 

BEFORE HE COULD CRAWL, Ben Simmons could ball.

His toy of choice as a toddler wasn’t stuffed or soft. Baby Ben wanted the same accessory that never seemed far from the hands of siblings and his father: a basketball. Dressed in diapers and sporting a ball befitting his size, he began dribbling with both hands before he was even taking steps with both feet.

“It started as soon as he could walk,” recalls Liam Simmons, Ben’s older brother. “Even before could walk, really. We weren’t thinking we were going to develop a super baby basketball player or anything. It’s just what he wanted to do.”

Youngest children have a way of mimicking their elders, and young Ben Simmons was surrounded by athletes, including a few basketball players. His father, Dave, a Bronx native, played at Oklahoma City University, before embarking on a professional hoops career in Australia, where he met his wife, Julie. Liam played three years at San Diego Christian College. One sister, Olivia, would go on to play for Arizona State’s women’s basketball team, while another, Emily, was an all-conference rower at Washington State.

“I was always around basketball,” Ben says. “My dad played, my brothers played, my sisters played. It was a family thing.”

Family, for Ben, isn’t just genetics. His godfather was a pretty good hoops player himself. David Patrick, now LSU’s assistant head coach, lived with the Simmons family for a time. He first befriended Dave 25 years ago as a teenager with the Melbourne Tigers, where Simmons was a star and Patrick was a future star, a junior training with the pros.

“He was a mentor to me,” Patrick says. “I was brought up in Australia by a single mom, so Dave and some of the other guys took me under their wing.”

Simmons brought Patrick back under his wing after the latter wrapped up a stateside college career and returned to Australia to play professionally. While Patrick was still searching for his first house, he lived with his teammate and his many basketball-loving children, his godson, big Ben, included.

“Ben always had a ball in his hand,” Patrick says. “He was dribbling and shooting.”

And dunking, too. Like his hero, Shaq.

“He loved Shaq,” says Patrick. “He was a Shaq fiend. That’s all Ben wanted to do at the time was dunk, just like Shaq.”

His love for the slam wasn’t his only commonality with his hero. Like Shaq, Simmons was blessed with size from a young age, a factor that Patrick says actually made basketball seem a less likely route.

“He was always so much bigger than everybody his age, but you never would have thought basketball,” Patrick says. “He was so big. Australian Rules Football is big there, and he was good for his age, so I was thinking he was going to be a hell of a football player, not thinking hoops.”

Still, Ben was always on basketball teams, as young as four. Dave made sure his physically advanced son played with older teams. It helped that he had the size of kids three and four years his senior, but it didn’t help that he preferred the view from the sidelines.

“I’d sit on the bench, but I wouldn’t actually play in the game,” Ben says. “I was one of the best players on the team, but I’d just sit there. My mom would try to convince me to play, but I would just practice.”

Even without the game minutes, Ben’s practice paid off. With one foot in football and another in hoops, Simmons developed into quite the athlete, always big for his age. By the time he was 13, he was still undecided on which sport to pursue, an alarming development for Australian basketball legend Andrew Gaze, a seven-time NBL All-Star for whom the league’s MVP trophy is named. When Gaze, a former teammate of Dave Simmons, saw Julie and teenaged Ben at a gym in Melbourne six years ago, he came away concerned.

“I remember Julie saying that Ben really loved basketball but also Australian rules football,” Gaze told the Syndey Morning Herald in August. “At the time she wasn’t sure which game he wanted to play. I just remember thinking ‘Crikey, I hope we don’t lose him to footy.’”

No worries, Andrew. That’s what family’s for.

 

DAVID PATRICK HARDLY RECOGNIZED his own godson. The last time he’d seen Ben play, Patrick saw an awkward 13-year-old who’d grown too fast. Simmons’ skills and balance were still catching up to his frame.

Two years later, they’d more than closed the gap. Playing alongside 16-year-old Dante Exum, who’d go on to be the No. 5 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Simmons was shining. The fundamentals he’d gained growing up with basketball in his blood and the frame he’d inherited from his parents impressed Patrick, then a scout with the Houston Rockets, to no end.

“He was dunking, passing, moving,” Patrick recalls. “I distinctly remember telling Dave, ‘If those two were in America, especially Ben, he’d be a top 50 player in the country,’ not knowing how good he really could be. Just with his skillset, athleticism, and size, I knew he’d have a chance to get a good scholarship to go to school.”

Liam, who hosted Ben on several trips to the states while working at Phoenix Northwest Christian High School in Arizona, observed similarly when his younger brother came for a visit. The two really only saw each other in the summers when Liam would come home during the school break, so when his no-so-little brother arrived in Arizona, all grown up, Liam phoned home.

“When I saw him at 15, when he came to stay with me in Phoenix, I almost immediately called my dad,” Liam recalls. “I’m like, Pops, I think he’s got a next level kind of body. If he works at it, he’s got a chance.”

When Ben got that chance, he took it. Established in Australia’s national picture but still a relatively unknown quantity in the States, 6-foot-8, 15-year-old Ben had his coming out party in 2012 at the Pangos All-American Camp in Long Beach, California. There, he met Jarell Martin, not yet committed to LSU and his roommate for the camp, and fellow future Tiger Jordan Mickey, while impressing the scouts in attendance with his length, athleticism, and guard skills.

Eventually, the family made the decision to send Ben stateside.

“Ben was the only [sibling] left in Australia,” says Patrick. “And he wanted to come to the States. He was so tall, he was always put in the center position on his Australian teams, so he couldn’t develop his guard skills. Here, he’d be able to do that.”

Simmons eventually landed at Monteverde Academy a few miles west of Orlando, where his childhood idol, Shaq, had gotten his professional start. After his success at Pangos and finishing up his sophomore season at Montverde with a national championship, Simmons was firmly entrenched as a top 30 prospect in the Class of 2015.

Which kind of ticked him off.

“He’s super, super competitive,” says Patrick. “When he saw he was ranked 30, he decided to do whatever it took to get to number one. He put the time in the weight room and the floor to get to number one. He doesn’t believe anyone’s better than him. That gives him an edge. By the time he was a junior, you could tell he was the best kid in his age group on the high school scene.”

 

IF JOHNNY JONES CUT YOU OFF on Essen Lane on October 14, 2013, you’ll have to forgive him.

He’d just received the best news of his coaching career.

While motoring down one of Baton Rouge’s most notoriously-crowded streets that memorable Monday, Jones got a call from Ben Simmons, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2015 and the top priority for LSU’s recruiting class for that year. The weekend prior, Simmons had just visited LSU unofficially, tagging along with Montverde teammate Jalyn Patterson, who was on an official visit. Patterson had committed, giving LSU a key addition to its 2014 class and, they hoped, more traction with Simmons in 2015.

“I was on Essen Lane going to a speaking engagement when I got a call from Ben telling me he was coming to LSU,” says Jones, a smile stuck on his face. “I thought he was just letting me know he was coming down on another unofficial visit or something, because I knew they had plans to come to town again. I said, ‘Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing you.’ And he said, ‘No, no. I’m coming to LSU.’ He was committing.”

At this point, Jones admits he may have violated a minor traffic law or two, swerving across Essen to pull over into a nearby Piccadilly parking lot, where he could process the news without endangering his fellow drivers.

“He went crazy,” Ben recalls, a smile to match his coach’s.

Simmons’ path to LSU was much more pleasant journey than a drive through Baton Rouge during rush hour. While other schools pursued him – hard – he was, it seems, always LSU bound.

Having his godfather on staff didn’t hurt things.

“Because of the relationship David had with Ben’s family from such a young age, it had a great deal to do with Ben being here,” says Jones. “The good thing was that it was the relationship with the family, not the athlete.”

Still, for Patrick, it wasn’t always easy sailing selling Simmons on LSU. Recruiting your godson requires an entirely different approach.

“It was a little tough early, because I wasn’t really selling myself,” says Patrick. “I didn’t have to tell him he could trust me. He knew that. I was selling the program, and at the time, we had only been here a year. We hadn’t made the tournament yet. I was trying to paint the picture for him that we were going to be good and get it back to the days when LSU was going to the tournament frequently.”

It turned out to be a relatively easy sell. In addition to his ties to Patrick, Simmons also had a comfort level with Martin, his Pangos roommate, and Mickey, who he’d played with before, as well. Most importantly, Simmons and his family bonded with Jones almost immediately.

“When I got to spend time with Coach Jones and shake his hand and talk to him, he struck me as a genuine guy who’s really interested in people rather than just basketball,” says Liam. “His whole process has been about putting Ben in a situation where he’s comfortable and getting taken care of. Whether he’s an NBA prospect or not, you want your brother to have a great experience at the college level. You hear these horror stories about kids getting cussed out every other day, so you hope the head coach is the guy that’s going to invest in you on and off the floor. I remember my college days. It’s important that you develop those relationships with your head coach, because for you, they’re always going to be Coach. From the start, Coach Jones struck me as a people person, genuinely interested in developing young men, which I appreciated. It felt like I was talking to my dad.”

“As soon as I met Coach Jones, I knew he was a good coach and a good person,” adds Ben. “Besides basketball, me knowing Jalyn Patterson, talking to Jarell, and just being here and experiencing what LSU was about, I loved that part of it.”

Meanwhile, the product on the floor was visibly improving. After missing out on postseason play in 2012, LSU welcomed in a highly-touted 2013 recruiting class, led by Martin and Mickey, and it was obvious the Tigers were on the right track. They’d finish that season in the NIT and the next one in the NCAA Tournament, destinations with road marks the Simmons family had foreseen. They were sold.

“Once they got comfortable with Johnny,” says Patrick. “I had no doubt he would come here. Coach Jones did a magnificent job recruiting him and getting to know him and his family. When you put me being here, plus his trust and Coach Jones and the success we had on the floor, he could see we had turned the corner, and he could come in here and win and compete for a national championship.”

So, shortly after his unofficial visit, before the rest of the college basketball world knew what was about to hit them, Simmons called his coach and committed.

In one phone call, the best player in the country changed the direction of an entire basketball program. And somehow, Jones managed to avoid totaling his car.

 

IN SOME WAYS, SIMMONS HAS very little in common with most 19-year-old freshmen – most notably the fact that he’ll almost certainly be worth eight figures this time next year.

In other ways, though, Simmons is a typical teenager.

Just ask Keith Hornsby.

“This morning, he cooked eggs and left the skillet by the sink with the leftover egg mush in there,” says Hornsby, Simmons roommate at LSU. “It’s not very appetizing before going to class. My girlfriend had to pick it up.”

As teenagers typically do, Simmons was armed with an excuse.

“I was cooking breakfast this morning, and the alarm went out,” he offers, grinning. “So I had to rush out and leave it there.”

Hornsby accepts, reluctantly and knowing it could be worse. Other than a few unwashed dishes and some strange quirks – according to Hornsby, Simmons is a 70s-lover who enjoys “dancing and prancing about” beneath several disco balls he’s hung from the ceilings – Simmons has turned out to be a model roommate for the 23-year-old senior, who’s well-aware of the reasons his coaches paired him with a freshman.

“I figured they’d put him with the other new guys, but they wanted to put him with me because they think I’m the father-type guy, to keep him under control,” says Hornsby. “I’ve never had to reach out and get him out of trouble. That’s not him. He’s not the guy to put himself in that situation. I’m resting easy so far.”

It’s not just Hornsby’s age or academic experience that appealed to LSU’s coaches when they were assigning roommates. Yes, he’s a grinder who sets the tone for his entire team on the floor and in the classroom, but Hornsby, you might have read, is also the son of a Grammy Award-winning musician, with a keen understanding of fame and its pressures.

“Keith’s a hard worker on the floor and in the classroom, and for Ben, he needed that structure right away,” says Patrick. “He probably didn’t need to learn it on the fly like other freshmen. Being the son of Bruce Hornsby, Keith gets a little more attention away from the floor, and he’s able to deal with it in a great way. It’s a good learning tool for Ben, with all the attention he’s getting here.”

That attention is only growing with time. When Simmons walks the quad on the way to class, well-wishers swarm him like mosquitos in the summer, and kind kid that he is, he never swats them away.

“The way my dad used to deal with fans, he always addressed them and was kind to them,” says Hornsby. “That’s what Ben does. He’s still just a down to earth kid despite all the attention he’s gotten. It’d be easy for him to be one of those guys who tries to be above everyone else, not able to talk to people beneath him. But he’s not like that. He’s really friendly to people.”

If he’s fitting in well socially, the pass-happy Simmons is getting along even better with his teammates. On the team’s five-game preseason tour of Australia, he dished out a team-high 27 assists in five games, to go along with averages of 20 points, 9 rebounds and 3 steals a game.

“That’s my style of play,” he says. “I like to pass the ball around. Assists are one of those things I usually have a lot of. The opportunity for us to score, there’s a lot of varieties. It’s a natural instinct. If I see the open man, I throw it to him. If not, I take it to the hole.”

And boy, can he take it to the hole. One play, in particular, brought a rare mid-game grin to his coach’s face. In the Tigers’ third game in Australia, Simmons rose to block a shot, retrieved the ensuing loose ball, dribbled the length of the floor, spun past a defender, and slammed it home with one hand, bringing the crowd – and his coach – to a smiling stand.

“It was an exciting play,” says Jones. “But for him, he would just call it routine.”

In 2015-16, get used to Simmons making the spectacular look routine, a feat he won’t have to do on his own. Around Simmons are talents like Hornsby, a sharp-shooting senior with two NCAA Tournaments under his belt; Tim Quarterman, a jack-of-all-trades point guard with pro aspirations; Antonio Blakeney, a five-star shooting guard and fellow future first-round pick; and a host of other talented Tigers, whom Simmons hopes to lead to the promised land and beyond.

The only bad news for Tiger fans is he only has a year to do it.

“He’s one of the few guys who comes to school and you can say, barring something unforeseen, he’s definitely one-and-done,” says Patrick.

Actually, Simmons is so good, he could have been none-and-done. Like Exum, his Australian teammate, Simmons had the chance to bypass college altogether, playing overseas or returning to Australia for a year before entering the draft as a surefire lottery pick.

But that’s not Ben Simmons’ journey. The people who know him best say college was always part of the plan.

“You go back to when he’s 13 or 14 and we’re having Christmases or Easters together as a family, and all the siblings are home from college,” says Patrick. “Most of his siblings played in college, whether it was rowing or basketball. The stories of the social life, the football games, the fraternities, the sororities, just college life in general, I think is the reason he wanted to come to school.

“What he’s experiencing now as a college student, being able to go to class, being with his teammates at football games, you can’t do that if you don’t go to school. If you go straight to the NBA, you don’t have an association with a school once you get done playing. Those factors played in him wanting to come to college.”

Could they play into him staying for more than a single season? Unlikely, but not impossible. In the Simmons family, a degree means something. According to Liam, Ben’s journey in basketball began with the intention of getting a college scholarship. The NBA came into the picture later, after the foundational desire to go to school had already been well-established.

“The most important thing with my family is education,” Liam adds. “A lot of people are sure he’ll be there for one year and leave, but the whole idea of going to college is that he gets an education. If he’s there for four years, he’ll get his degree. If he’s there for one or two years, he’ll finish it at a later time. Our focus as a family has always been to use sport as a tool to get your education.”

So here comes Ben Simmons, every bit a good enough player to spend this season in the NBA, but too eager to learn to bypass a year in college. Come next year, he’ll surely be a global superstar pulling in hefty paychecks and putting up heftier numbers for some lucky franchise.

For now, however, he’s exactly where he wants to be, a student of the game learning his way to the top of the basketball world, eager to take LSU there with him.

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