Ben Simmons’ Philadelphia return was the NBA at its soap-operatic finest

<span>Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images

It was the type of night that only the NBA in all its soap-operatic, meme-friendly, hyper-petty splendor can deliver. Ben Simmons’ first appearance in Philadelphia since demanding a trade from the 76ers over the summer was always going to be extra in all the messiest ways, but Thursday night’s wildly entertaining homecoming somehow managed to exceed the weeks of mounting hype that preceded it.

And not because the game itself was in any way competitive, for it certainly was not. The sellout crowd of 21,408 rollicking fans who came to release more than nine months of pent-up frustration wound up booing their own team in the fourth quarter as the visiting Brooklyn Nets led by as many as 32 points in a wire-to-wire 129-100 beatdown of the hometown Sixers.

The prevailing tenor of Philadelphia’s most anticipated regular-season game in two decades was more WWE than NBA. Three weeks after landing with Brooklyn in a trade he’d spent months lobbying for, having been branded the primary culprit of a disastrous playoff exit at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks, Simmons returned to South Philly as a larger-than-life heel: the devil wears Louis Vuitton. That he didn’t even dress for Thursday’s game as he continues to recover from a back injury and work back to match fitness after a 54-game holdout was almost immaterial.

Philadelphia is a city where people care a little too much about sports and the mania around Thursday night’s nationally televised matchup did little to dispel that reputation. While Simmons attempted to keep a low profile around town, he was mobbed by angry hordes the few times he surfaced in public in episodes that were quickly disseminated on social media. Both of the city’s two 24-hour sports-talk radio stations took calls from so-called Benablers confessing their sins and debated for hours whether he was Philly’s most hated athlete of all time (with the consensus pointing to yes). Queues of ticket-holders formed outside the entrances of the Wells Fargo Center more than an hour before doors opened. And from the moment Simmons emerged from the tunnel roughly 55 minutes before the opening tip in a sleeveless black tee, a deafening chorus of boos cascaded down from the mezzanine on par with anything you’d see on Monday Night Raw.

Ben Simmons
Ben Simmons of the Brooklyn Nets makes his way to the bench before the start of Thursday’s game. Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images

After the starting lineups were announced Simmons took his seat midway down the Brooklyn bench wearing an eye-catching yellow and black designer football shirt that stood out amid the Nets’ signature monochrome. While it was officially the Sixers’ 65th contest of the 82-game regular season, an unmistakable playoff atmosphere crackled in the building with every seat of the 20,478-seat arena occupied, standing room tickets fetching $250 on the open market and gaggles of famous athletes (Allen Iverson, Julius Erving and Jalen Hurts) and rappers (Meek Mill, Lil Baby and Travis Scott) watching courtside. A heightened security presence including both uniformed and plain-clothes guards was evident around the Brooklyn bench, their intervention thankfully not necessary until the ejection of one lone heckler in the fourth quarter.

James Harden, the 2018 NBA MVP who joined the Sixers in the Simmons trade, crossed half-court to greet several of his former teammates during the pre-game shootaround. Simmons had no interaction with any Philadelphia player – hardly a surprise amid this week’s legitimately hilarious news that he changed his phone number without telling anyone on the team – though he did say a quick hello to Sixers coach Doc Rivers before the start of the second half.

The intensity of the BS sideshow made it easy to forget there was an actual basketball game to be played. It wasn’t immediately clear that the Sixers remembered either. Philadelphia entered Thursday’s affair having won all five of their contests with Harden in the lineup, but the Nets represented the new-look Sixers’ biggest test yet and, regrettably, their 10-time All-Star combo guard shrunk from the moment.

Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry combined for 49 of Brooklyn’s 71 first-half points, taking the sting out of the “Fuck Ben Sim-mons!” chants that echoed through the arena as the Nets raced out to an early lead and never let the Sixers back within touching distance. “I think all of us look at Ben as our brother,” said Durant, who scored 18 of his team-high 25 points before the intermission. “We knew this was a hostile environment. It’s hard to chant at Ben Simmons when you’re losing by that much.”

Ben Simmons
The shirt of a Philadelphia 76ers fan depicting Ben Simmons. Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images

While Thursday’s game turned out to be a dud, the buzz in the room somehow never dipped, at least until the very end, and the enthusiasm carried over to NBA Twitter. The sight of Durant and Joel Embiid jawing with one another near the end of the first quarter brought the crowd to its feet and prompted LeBron James to chime in from the couch. Even after the proceedings had long since gotten out of hand with eight minutes left and the Sixers down 30, the building exploded in another round of thunderous boos when Simmons stood up from his seat to retrieve a dead ball for the referees.

When the horn finally sounded, Simmons congratulated a couple of his teammates in front of Brooklyn’s bench before abruptly turning and disappearing into the tunnel. “It was a good environment to start, but it didn’t feel that way when we got off the court,” Durant said. “No matter who were playing tonight, we were locked in.”

Simmons’ evolution from franchise player to Philadelphia’s most despised sportsperson ever isn’t as straightforward as a star player leaving town for greener pastures. After the Sixers chose him with the No 1 overall pick of the 2016 NBA draft and made him the centerpiece of an audacious and controversial rebuild known as the Process, he showed early promise in winning Rookie of the Year honors and making three All-Star teams. But Simmons’ inability to drill the weaknesses in his game – shooting, most notably – were too often nakedly exposed when the lights burned brightest.

It all came to a head during last year’s shock Eastern Conference semi-final defeat to the Hawks, where game by game he shot less and did less, missing more foul shots than he made overall and effectively reducing the Sixers to 4 v 5 on offense until the spiritual coup de grâce: his mystifying passed-up dunk in the closing minutes of Game 7. But until the end, Philadelphia’s notoriously critical fans offered steadfast support of their flawed star in the hopes that he could turn things around. All of it has informed the divorce with a particularly acute pain.

The good news? The best may be yet to come for pair of star-laden clubs with intertwining fates separated by 100 miles of Interstate 95. The Nets entered Thursday’s game having lost 17 of their previous 21 games, but made it clear that when everything is clicking they’re among the NBA’s most fearsome packages. And with the Sixers holding near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, there’s a reasonably good chance these two teams could meet in the first round of the playoffs. “This is only our sixth game together as a unit,” Harden said. “I’m still trying to figure things out. But tonight was good for us. We got our ass kicked.”