Air Simmons. Our Ben is flying high.

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This year’s US National Basketball Association (NBA) season has marked the emergence of our very own Australian-born superstar, Ben Simmons, taking the NBA by storm as a rookie. “I want to win but I also want to have fun”, said Simmons at an All-Star media day event in February. This could be the secret to his success, and why he’s currently dominating in the first round of this year’s NBA Playoffs. 

Photo by Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty Images

Simmons was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers with the number one overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft, making him the third Melbourne-born number one overall pick in 11 years – Andrew Bogut and Kyrie Irving being the two before Simmons.

For the past 20 years, Australian basketball and the NBA have shared a healthy relationship. With eight Aussie players currently contracted to NBA teams, the bond is stronger than ever, and with Simmons’ electrifying performances this year, the relationship can only get better and better.

Simmons’ personal impact on his Philadelphia team mates, and the respect they have for him, was made genuinely clear when his team held their own Australia-themed event in honour of Simmons on the night we were celebrating Australia Day here in his birth country. The crowd at the US event enjoyed meat pies and a free limited-edition T-shirt featuring a boxing kangaroo, with Australian Heritage Night overlaid in green and gold.

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He’s really flying, but it was a bit of a shaky start. Unfortunately, after an injury sustained during preseason, Simmons was ruled out for the entire 2016–17 season after tests revealed he had broken his right foot. Some experts were worried that Simmons would struggle after a full season on the sidelines. How wrong they were! Simmons leads the race for this year’s Rookie of the Year Award, is breaking records galore and has been instrumental in his team making its first appearance in the NBA playoffs in five seasons.

Many are now saying Simmons is the heir apparent to LeBron James and in a few years will take over the mantle as best player in the league. Simmons has this to say on the topic, “People say a lot of things about LeBron, but he just keeps having a good mentality and grinding. That’s what I try to do, proving people wrong by what I do on the court”.

It seems a far cry from his beginnings, born back here in Fitzroy, an inner Melbourne suburb, to American-born father Dave and Australian mother Julie. Basketball is clearly in Simmons’ blood and he was destined to play, his dad David starting his own basketball career at Oklahoma City University, before moving to Australia where in 1989 he turned professional with the Melbourne Tigers in Australia’s National Basketball League.

Of course, like many young gifted sportspeople, Simmons could have chosen a number of sports to pursue as a career. As a teenager, he played for his school Whitefriars College and junior club basketball with Knox Raiders.  He also showed talent at Australian Rules Football playing at Beverley Hills Junior Football Club where he won many best and fairest awards for his team, club and the whole league. He loved both sports but made his choice to pursue basketball at age 14.

Ben with childhood friend, Christian Petracca. Sydney Morning Herald

Simmons and childhood friend Christian Petracca played basketball and AFL together. In an interview, Petracca said, “He was a really good tap ruckman and used to feed it down my throat in the midfield. I reckon if he played AFL he would be a superstar”.

It seems many young Australians are renewing their love of basketball and following in his footsteps, Simmons commenting, “I’ve heard the percentage of kids playing basketball has gone up. Which is amazing. That means a lot, to be a face and an inspiration to a lot of Australian kids”.

Simmons left Australia to pursue his basketball career in the US through the college system, as most young hopefuls do. His talent and maturity were on display early; after the first and only season with his Louisiana State University (LSU) Tigers college team, he was awarded ‘consensus first-team All-American’ and the USBWA National Freshman of the Year. He was selected with the first overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft by the 76ers.

Despite having dual citizenship Simmons has told Australia that he’s keen to represent the Boomers at the 2020 Olympics Games in Tokyo. Basketball is Australia’s highest overall participation sport, so for many, the next two years can’t fly by fast enough. 

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