Dismiss the Ben Simmons mental health conversation at your own peril

·10 min read

News of Ben Simmons joining his Brooklyn Nets teammates prior to Monday's win over the Sacramento Kings was met with a cacophony of criticism. Philadelphia sports talk radio host Howard Eskin was the most vocal of several local and national media members who dismissed the mental health struggles Simmons listed among his reasons for not rejoining the 76ers in the months following his trade request.

"So much for Ben Simmons mental illness," Eskin, 70, no stranger to incendiary and insensitive takes, wrote on Twitter. "Amazing how that was just fine once he got traded. Insulting to those that really suffer."

Far more insulting is the assumption — without any personal insight — Simmons never suffered at all. It is entirely possible, probable even, the three-time NBA All-Star came to equate playing for the 76ers with returning to a toxic work environment, and Thursday's trade to Brooklyn alleviated very real concerns.

Had Simmons concocted mental health struggles as a ploy to prevent the Sixers from fining him $360,305 per game absence, that would be a disservice to a necessary conversation. Discrediting Simmons' mental state does greater damage. He owes no explanation. His actions and what little he and his representatives have shared on the matter have provided more answers than any questions we might feel entitled to ask.

The dehumanization of Ben Simmons

You can bet those who disregard Simmons' mental health struggles were fine psychologically diagnosing his shooting woes. Eskin has been on that jag for four years and said in June, "He is so afraid and he’s so dismissive. I can’t say enough bad things about Ben Simmons." He doubled down in October and added in January, "At least Simmons state [of] mind was good enough to get engaged." It requires a stunning lack of humanity to suggest someone battling mental health is unworthy of love, and that is what he is saying here.

In that same tweet, Eskin begged Sixers executive Daryl Morey to "dump Simmons ass." He has called Simmons "a stiff," "a bad teammate, all about himself and a fraud" who "can't succeed in Philly." Peruse Simmons' social media mentions, and you will find similar sentiments in an echo chamber of virulence.

How are we to interpret that assessment, other than to infer Eskin's belief that Simmons is not mentally fit to perform in the city where he is repeatedly dehumanized by its longest-tenured sports talk radio host?

Locals were not the only ones piling on Simmons over the past year. The ESPYs awarded Simmons a mock "humanitarian" award for "building orphanages ... completely out of his playoff bricks." During the league's announcement of this year's All-Star starters on "Inside the NBA," TNT analyst Shaquille O'Neal called Simmons "soft" and "a crybaby" who "I don't respect." It took a text from Simmons for O'Neal to concede later, "He’s going through some things right now, so I’ma back off. ... I have to be sensitive to what he said."

As best I can tell, the favorite argument among armchair psychiatrists is this: Simmons only informed the Sixers "he's not mentally ready to play" once the team withheld a quarter of his $33 million salary, and that obstacle is no longer an issue in Brooklyn, so any mental health struggles must have been a charade. At best, this is a disingenuous summation of his timeline. At worst, their argument is entirely manufactured.

Ben Simmons sits on the sidelines during his final days in a Philadelphia 76ers uniform. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Ben Simmons sits on the sidelines during his final days in a Philadelphia 76ers uniform. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The beginning of the end in Philadelphia

Let's start from the beginning of the end. Morey, who assumed the reins of Simmons' career in November 2020, offered him for James Harden, the same player for whom he would eventually be traded more than a year later. Morey has since expressed regret for failing to establish a working relationship with Simmons.

In between, Simmons continued playing at an All-Star and All-Defensive level for months for the first-place 76ers. In April, his sister accused their half-brother of molesting her as a child, leading to a prolonged legal battle. A stomach illness also "knocked him out" for almost two weeks prior to the playoffs. His free-throw shooting fell from 60% for his career to 34% in the postseason. He conceded his struggles were "mental" following a Game 5 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Then came Game 7.

In the hours before a decisive game against the Hawks, "many within the team" suspected Simmons had drummed up a COVID-19 exposure and was trying to avoid playing, ESPN's Ramona Shelburne reported. He did play in Game 7, and in the waning minutes he shockingly passed up a potential game-tying dunk. Afterwards, Simmons admitted, "The first thing I'm going to do is clear my mind and get my mental right."

Meanwhile, Sixers co-star Joel Embiid pointed to Simmons' passiveness as "the turning point" in the 103-96 loss, and when asked if they could win a championship with Simmons at point guard, coach Doc Rivers responded, "I don't know the answer to that." There is truth to both, but what they said hits differently when you are on the other end. We all understood in that moment that Simmons' time in Philadelphia was done.

"Philadelphia, being a very unforgiving town, they don't know how to let off and lay off, and they're going to constantly berate him," ESPN's Stephen A. Smith said on "First Take" the following morning. "And it's mental. With him, I don't think he can overcome that in the city of Philadelphia. You've got to move him."

This feeling was universal. Morey's tepid support of Simmons made that clear in his exit interview. Trade talks between the Sixers' brass and Simmons' representatives four days after Game 7 were a formality.

The mental health conversation

Over the summer, Simmons reportedly sought the mental health services of a counselor through the National Basketball Players Association. His agent, Rich Paul, said he communicated to the Sixers over the course of the offseason that his physically healthy client was not mentally prepared to play for Philadelphia.

That information was met unsympathetically in October, when it became public shortly after news broke of the team's decision not to pay Simmons. He reported to training camp late and unannounced. Rivers threw a disengaged Simmons out of his third practice and suspended him for conduct detrimental to the team.

Embiid told reporters, "I don't care about that man," and, "We don't get paid to try to babysit somebody."

Three days later, on Oct. 22, Simmons personally informed Rivers and his teammates that he was struggling mentally. He also conferred with the team's medical staff, and the Sixers offered their own mental health services. Simmons was initially reluctant to share his affliction within the organization, as anyone might be, especially given the team's public mishandling of former teammate Markelle Fultz's struggles.

It is easy to understand why a team might be frustrated by the unavailability of a star player and his diminishing value, considering how much its success is tied to his. That the team only stands to benefit from a clean bill of mental health is no consolation to a player in the throes of anxiety and/or depression.

The Sixers resumed fining Simmons on Nov. 4, when they anonymously informed ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski of his "refusal to provide basic details of his course of mental health meetings," as if there is a definitive roadmap to resolving someone's mental health struggles. Simmons relented and met with the team's recommended specialist. That did not prevent the 76ers from continuing to fine him $360,305 per missed game. Those penalties reportedly amounted to more than $19 million before his trade to Brooklyn.

“I truly believe the fines, the targeting, the negative publicity shined on the issue — that’s very unnecessary and has furthered the mental health issues for Ben,” Paul, the Klutch Sports CEO, informed The Athletic's Shams Charania on Nov. 11. “Either you help Ben, or come out and say he’s lying. Which one is it?”

Nobody is arguing that Simmons handled this deftly, even if mental health concerns might explain his shunning of teammates and coaches, unannounced late arrival and disengagement once he rejoined the team. But ask yourself which is more likely: Simmons concocted his struggles at great risk to his reputation as record-breaking fines mounted; or Simmons, who left last season needing to "get my mental right," sought help and informed coworkers he was still not fit to play at this season's start — all as his family endured personal trauma and the power players on the 76ers abandoned him in his lowest professional moment — was being truthful when he expressed concerns about returning to ridicule in Philadelphia.

It is amazing how anyone in the same breath can dismiss Simmons' mental health concerns and belittle him for feeling incapable of shouldering the considerable pressure of satiating everyone's expectations of him.

From 'dark times' to encouraging signs

Simmons faced 15 minutes of questions about his mental state during Tuesday's introductory news conference. He made no direct correlation between his well-being and "the fans or coaches or comments made by anybody" in Philadelphia. He described his struggles as an amalgamation of occurrences during his tenure there that festered into "some dark times over these last six months" and led to his trade request.

"It was just piled up — a bunch of things that have gone on over the years, to where I just knew I wasn't myself, and I needed to get back into that place of being myself and being happy as a person and taking care of my well-being," he said. "That was the major thing for me. It wasn't about the basketball, it wasn't the money, anything like that. I want to be who I am and get back to playing basketball and being myself."

Foregoing $19 million to invite this conversation for all the NBA world to see takes a degree of courage, knowing the public scrutiny that awaits in locker rooms, on the court, in the stands and on the airwaves.

"I just wasn't in a place [in Philadelphia] to do that, and a lot of things happened over the summer to where I didn't feel I was getting that help," he added. "It is what it is. It wasn't a personal thing towards any player or coach or owners or anything like that. It was about myself getting to a place where I needed to be."

Brooklyn felt like a step in that direction for Simmons. He tacitly said the Sixers were aware of personal issues that preceded last season and expressed optimism that the Nets can help him overcome them. He is reportedly continuing to see his therapist and encouraged that he will be mentally prepared to play soon.

When asked if he will feel up for Brooklyn's game in Philadelphia on March 10, Simmons said, "I hope so."

That is the thing about mental health. As Simmons' critics commiserate about the next sports topic du jour, the one-time All-NBA selection is left to his own devices to emerge from this hole, understanding that even if a change of scenery provides the respite he seeks, there is no guarantee he will avoid another obstacle.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach