Nets’ Simmons preps for hostile return in 1st game in Philly

Sports

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Ben Simmons tilted his head in bemusement at the suggestion enough time had passed since his bitter split with the 76ers that his Philadelphia homecoming might be greeted with more affection than acrimony.

His look, which became an instant meme, had the appearance of a player who knew better.

The details of Simmons’ long-building split with the Sixers are too fresh for that. Like the time former coach Brett Brown asked him to shoot just one 3-pointer per game, or coach Doc Rivers simply asked Simmons to report on time and participate in practice — Simmons did niehter.

Or when management and an entire fanbase that only wanted Simmons to embrace the city, play up to his contract and the talent that made him worthy of the No. 1 pick and chase championships with Joel Embiid could not get an honest answer on why he wanted out of Philadelphia.

Simmons knows that won’t all be forgotten so fast.

“You guys are going to make titles or headlines or whatever it is, but I’m excited to go play,” Simmons said.

Like it or not, Simmons is in for much worse than a scornful scowl from jilted Philly fans when he returns Tuesday night with the Brooklyn Nets to play the Sixers for the first time since a February trade.

The three-time All-Star watched from the bench as he recovered from a back injury when the Nets played in Philly in March. Simmons drew derisive cheers from the moment he stepped on the court and was heckled most of the game.

“I know what’s coming,” Simmons said to laughter following a win Sunday.

Just wait until he actually plays.

“One thing about Philly fans, they’re incredible,” Simmons said. “They’re diehard Philly. Everything Philly, whatever it is. I respect that about the city. It’s a sports town.”

When Simmons sat out last season’s home opener, fans mocked the absentee guard. The most popular form was a Mister Softee T-shirt with an ice cream swirl on Simmons’ head.

“It’s great for him,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “He’ll have his teammates behind him, he’ll have a coach that believes in him and overall, we’re looking forward to go play.”

It’s still at times almost implausible to fathom that the 76ers and Simmons couldn’t patch up any differences stemming from his refusal to take an open dunk in a Game 7 loss to Atlanta in the Eastern Conference semifinal.

Rivers and Embiid made passive criticisms of Simmons, and the relationship unraveled from there. Simmons had back issues and later said mental health woes played a role in his trade demand in the summer of 2021 that led to a contentious few days in training camp. Simmons was sent home for good, filed a grievance after the Sixers said he breached his contract (it was later settled in a confidential agreement ) and then shipped to Brooklyn in a trade for All-Star James Harden.

Simmons couldn’t shake the drama in Brooklyn, either — though thanks to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, there’s plenty to go around in the borough — and has played only 12 games this season. He’s rounding into form and coming off a season-high 22-point game against Memphis, his first 20-point game since for he played for the 76ers in the 2021 playoffs.

“I haven’t had many opportunities to get the reps in, so I’m getting my reps in now,” Simmons said.

Simmons averaged 15.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists over four seasons with Philadelphia, which drafted him out of LSU, where he played only one season. His omnipresent headaches, such as his refusal to shoot beyond 15 feet — he was a 5-of-34 career 3-point shooter with the 76ers — outweighed his otherwise gifted defensive and playmaking talents.

Simmons made a surprise return to the Sixers shortly before last season opened but was promptly kicked out of practice and suspended for one game. The punishment didn’t matter; the No. 1 pick of the 2016 draft never had any intention of playing.

He’ll face a scuffling 76ers team playing without an injured Harden and Tyrese Maxey and now Embiid — his former All-Star partner and franchise cornerstone whose friendship has since dissolved.

“There’s a lot of history, but there’s really no history. It’s just a regular game,” Embiid said.

It’s going to be loud and wild inside the Wells Fargo Center. Simmons insisted he won’t get “psyched out” and vowed he will come to Philly ready to play.

Even if he feigns interest in what all the fuss is about.

“Something going on?” he said, laughing.

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AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney in New York contributed to this story.

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