PHILADELPHIA — Nine hours ahead of tipoff in front of fans that will assuredly jeer him, against the team that threw him under the bus before trading him to the Nets for James Harden, star forward Ben Simmons said he can’t be worried about salty 76ers fans.
Simmons, who will play at the Wells Fargo Center in front of a world-renowned rowdy Sixers fan base for the first time since the 2021 NBA Playoffs, shrugged off the idea that fans are still disappointed he and Joel Embiid were never able to make it past the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs during their time as a dynamic duo in Philly.
“What do I think about that? I mean, I can’t worry about everybody’s feelings,” he said at his old home arena after Nets shootaround on Tuesday. “At the end of the day, I’m not here to make everyone happy.”
And yet it’s a demon Simmons will need to exorcise: the vitriol guaranteed to spout from a fan base whose last memory of the All-Star forward was him turning down an open dunk on a game-swinging play that Embiid said cost the team the series in that fateful Game 7 against the Atlanta Hawks two seasons ago.
The feeling towards Simmons is so ingratiated in the city that Stateside Urbancraft — a local Philadelphia vodka distillery — allowed fans to trade-in their Simmons jerseys for a $20 store credit.
Just so they could be petty and donate all the Simmons jerseys to the homeless in Brooklyn.
“It’s going o be a hostile environment for Ben like it was last year,” said sharpshooter Seth Curry, who also arrived with Simmons in Brooklyn as part of the blockbuster Harden trade. “Philly fans are passionate. I’m sure they got some stuff they want to get off their chest when Ben’s out there on the floor.”
Simmons quickly said it’s not about him, that it’s about the team staying locked in to secure a victory that will inch them closer to .500 on the season. When pressed, he said he has no choice but to separate personal agendas from team success.
“Yeah, if we want to be a great team, I’ve gotta do that,” he said. “That’s on me to do that. Obviously, there’ll be a lot [of emotions from the fans], but I’ve got to do that as a leader of the team.”
Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn said after Sunday’s victory against the Memphis Grizzlies that the environment waiting at the Wells Fargo Center will be “great for” Simmons. As a reminder, Sixers fans waited outside of the Nets’ hotel to boo Simmons when the two teams faced off on March 10.
They also booed him while he was on the court for pregame warmups in a game he wasn’t playing.
“It’s just like Portland, where he had to step up and make free throws when they tried to foul, [and he] makes three out of four,” Vaughn said on Sunday. “It’s the same sort of mental and physical hurdle that he’s going to have to get through. Which is great. He’ll have his teammates behind him. He’ll have a coach that believes in him and overall we’re looking forward to going and play.”
Simmons says he still has a lot of love for Philadelphia. He said it’s where he “became a man,” calling the Sixers fan base special.
Despite Embiid throwing Simmons under the bus after Game 7 — blaming Simmons without naming him by saying “I don’t know how to say it, but I thought the turning point was we had an open shot, we missed it and we made one free throw” — Simmons said there is no bad blood between the two former teammates, though their relationship isn’t as strong as the bonds other co-stars have formed across the league.
“We had a lot of highlights and we got a lot of great times,” Simmons said. “I got a lot of love for Joe too. Obviously didn’t work out but that’s life. Not everything works out in your favor. So I wish him the best. Obviously not a championship against us, but the best.”
Simmons said he hasn’t spoken to Embiid since the two were teammates. For reference, Curry said Embiid FaceTimes him “every once in a while” and he still has a good relationship with both him and Sixers budding star Tyrese Maxey.
“I mean, you’re not cool with everybody. You’re not texting everybody,” Simmons said. “I think there are certain people that you just don’t talk to all the time. I got friends that I will talk to all the time, but we’re [Embiid and Simmons are] still cool, but that’s just how life went.”
Embiid is out against the Nets with a mid-foot injury, as are both Maxey and Harden.
Is it anticlimactic for Simmons to make his return against his old team while they’re missing their three best players?
“The fans will make up for it. Yeah, so I’m looking forward to it. It’s gonna be fun,” he said. “I’m so excited to play. I’m so excited. I can’t wait. It’s gonna be fun. This is gonna be an opportunity for me. I’ve never been in this situation. So I gotta appreciate it and really take it all in.”
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