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An open letter to Ben Simmons from Etan Thomas

An open letter to Ben Simmons from Etan Thomas

Dear Ben, 

This was my conversation with my daughter, Baby Sierra, a few mornings ago as she was eating her breakfast:

Baby Sierra: Ben Simmons is trippin' daddy.

Me: What, you been watching ESPN or something?

Baby Sierra: You was listening to people talk about it yesterday on your phone. Honestly, he’s trippin. I know you was trying to take up for him, but naw, he’s acting like a little brat right now. Like, he’s throwing a whole tantrum. Why come there if you’re not really gonna practice? He’s trippin'.

Me: A little.

Baby Sierra: A little? If I did that at practice you would come on the court yourself to come get me. I know you be wanting to take up for the players all the time, but naw not this time, daddy. He’s lunchin'. He’s way too grown for that.

Me: (Laughs) Okay, okay you made your point.

Listening to sports talk radio, reading various articles and watching every show on ESPN, FS1 and everything else in between, most of the basketball world agrees with Baby Sierra. 

On the latest episode of my podcast "The Rematch," I spoke with former 76ers great Eric Snow, who Allen Iverson once gave credit for much of the success that he had in Philly. With the Simmons situation not going anywhere anytime soon, I asked Eric where he thought his former team can go from here.

“I firmly believe it will be hard for Ben Simmons to come back and make a full commitment if Joel Embiid doesn’t fully embrace him," Snow said on The Rematch. "I think that them collectively would have to make that call. It can’t be just Ben... If Joel doesn’t feel the same, it’s not going to work.”

Before the 76ers' season-opener against the Brooklyn Nets, Embiid addressed the crowd: “A lot has happened in the past few months and I urge you guys to continue to support us and our teammate, Ben, because he’s still our brother."

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. Brothers should never throw each other under the bus to the media after a season-ending loss. And yes, Embiid’s statement was quite a big jump from “I don’t care about that man” a few days prior.

But it is possible that Embiid was previously operating under the assumption (like my daughter) that you were simply throwing a tantrum because you weren’t getting your way. And after you faced the team and sincerely told them that you were not mentally ready to play, he changed his tune. That could’ve been what led to his and Tobias Harris’ public statements of support for you. 

Hopefully, you all have (or will) speak behind closed doors, and you'll receive an apology — which I do believe Embiid and Doc Rivers personally and publicly owe you. After that, hopefully you all can do whatever needs to happen to make this right, because as Eric Snow said, this doesn’t have a chance of working if you two aren’t on the same page. 

Let me reiterate that I fully understand why you feel the way you feel. 

We can start with Embiid basically blaming you for the Game 7 loss in the playoffs last year. I’m a big fan of his, but no player should never do that to a teammate, especially not to the media. That started a narrative of the fans blaming you for the loss as well, so I get why that would make you feel a certain way toward him. And Doc not expressing his faith in you to be the point guard for the team after the loss was a huge mistake too, and it has been done before.

In our conversation, Snow pointed to the fact that when Larry Brown started publicly criticizing Allen Iverson, everything started to go downhill for that team because of the impact it had on AI and his coach/player relationship, which then affected the entire team. 

Teams always talk about being a family and having each other’s back with an us-against-the-world type of mentality, so what Doc should have done (with all due respect to him, of course) was publicly express his support and confidence in you as his point guard. And he didn’t do that, so I get it.

But all of that aside, if your ultimate goal remains to get traded as repeatedly reported, you have consistently continued to put yourself in very difficult positions to be able to have any leverage in this situation. In fact, this entire saga could be a lesson for all players to pay attention to. It's a game of chess that you have been losing until recently. 

Let me break it down.

After it was announced that you were suspended for conduct detrimental to the team, Kendrick Perkins said on ESPN that he believed Doc set you up. That may have been true, but Doc wouldn’t have been able to set you up if you were fully engaged in practice and didn’t give off the “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” vibes. So in essence, you put yourself in the position to allow Doc to be able to set you up (if that was his intention, as Perkins described).

There is a big difference between demanding a trade after refusing to participate in practice, and doing what Jimmy Butler did in Minnesota. Instead of going through the motions, he beat the Wolves starters in practice with the third-stringers, then demanded a trade. (Still an epic story, by the way.) 

On his Instagram, Gilbert Arenas also spoke on Doc kicking you out of practice as being a set up. Gilbert said the team needed a reason to justify not paying you, so that was always the plan. And again, that may be true as well.

But to be honest, you should have known that if you didn’t play your cards right, this was what was going to happen. This is chess, not checkers. You have to realize that when the opponent has more pieces on the board than you, they have a clear advantage. So if they make a move to try to bait you into making a move in response, they are going to capture a piece that is valuable to you. They may make you think you’re in the driver’s seat, or that you can make a move to get the advantage, but it’s really a trap.

So in this situation, the trap was for you to come to practice and rebel in some way. Of course they weren’t going to let you blend in practice or hide in practice. Of course they were going to try to irritate you or call on you to display a defensive drill in front of the team, or run extra sprints by yourself, or something to poke the bear — because that’s what coaches do. But if you take the bait and react, then they got you. In fact, Doc just basically said, “Check.” 

And no, you’re not the first player to ever get kicked out of practice. Throughout my career, I have seen that happen to plenty of players. But the team didn’t tell the media what happened, and wouldn’t have unless they were doing it for a strategic reason. But again, the Sixers wouldn’t have been able to do that if you didn’t put them in a position where they were able to do that (if that was their intention).

So then, the 76ers really had the advantage on the chessboard, as they positioned themselves to gear toward a checkmate. They had the option to throw you to the wolves (and by wolves, I mean Philly fans), and make you sit on the bench for the team opener, knowing the type of public shaming you would endure. They could've just sat back and smiled as you were forced to endure the wrath of the fans. Make no mistake about, the cameras would’ve been on you the entire time to analyze your body language, facial expressions, if you went into the huddle with the team, if you clapped when the team was doing well, if you stood up and gave Embiid a high five when he came out the game — all of it. And if you failed to do any of that, the media would’ve ran with, "See, he is a cancer. He is not a team player. He’s selfish and has a bad attitude." And again, the organization would’ve said, “Check.” 

Doc had already publicly stated that all of drama was muting the fun of opening night for Philadelphia.

The smear campaign was ready to go. I’m sure articles were already being written in preparation for what was surely to take place, and it would’ve largely been your own fault because the media wouldn’t have been able to do that if you didn’t hand them the brush to paint you however they chose. 

What you should’ve done was come back to practice and come early to work out by yourself before anyone else arrived at the facility, so when they walked onto the practice court, they saw you going through drills at top speed. You should’ve been first in every sprint, worked hard in every drill and shined in every preseason game and into the regular season, all while exhibiting a great attitude and interactions with your teammates and coaches the entire time. That would’ve raised your value to the entire league, and allowed your agent to work the phones behind the scenes to get you to the best destination possible. Then, you would’ve gained the advantage instead of being in the situation you are currently in, where the team is in the position to punish you financially and suspend you for whatever length of time they choose. And they will be justified because the entire world saw you come to practice disinterested, in sweat pants, and heard that you refused to do a drill that Doc asked you to do.

So now, your value around the league is at the lowest point that it has ever been, public perception is definitely not on your side and you are now at the will of the organization. 

Sixers president Daryl Morey made another chess move by publicly saying that it could hypothetically take four years to resolve this. He is telling you in no uncertain terms that acting out is not going to get you traded. He also said that either you are going to play for the 76ers, or they will have to get back a difference maker for you. Meaning, he has no plans on trading you just because you want to be traded. His "check" this time would’ve been followed by him saying "mate" in three turns.

I guarantee that any hint of any kind of disruption would’ve resulted in further fines and suspensions. They may have tried to set a precedent and suspend you for the rest of the season for conduct detrimental to the team, and that means they would’ve legally been able to keep all of your money and wait for the deal they want.

Then, to make matters worse, you reportedly came to the arena, told them your back hurt, got some treatment and left after. Well, that was only going to work for a little while, and probably only made the 76ers even more upset. Organizations don’t like to be embarrassed or shown up, and that was the perception of what you did. So from that point on, you would’ve had to walk on egg shells when you did come back, because any slight infraction would've meant the stage was set for them to react as drastically as they chose. That would’ve been checkmate.

But then, you made a move that has shifted the advantage back over to you. 

It was reported that you met and spoke with the team and Doc, and informed them that you aren’t ready mentally to play. That was a great move on your part.

Now, for the record, I am not one of the many media pundits or fans or general public who are currently challenging the validity of your statement to the team regarding not being mentally ready to play. I think it is cowardly, cruel and vicious when the media, fans, and public criticize an athlete’s mental health. I thought it was brave of you to say that, especially after we just witnessed how a greater portion of the world attacked Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles when they came forward about their mental health issues. But you did it anyway, and it sounds like your teammates have your back. 

But strategically, this was a good move largely due to the fact that NBA has successfully differentiated itself from other sports leagues where it comes to player mental health. Their full embrace and support for players like DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love shows the turning over of a new leaf. This support was not given to past players under David Stern, just ask Royce White.

The NBA’s only option for a move now will be whether the team doctors and specialists deem you as mentally fit to play. But if you have a diagnosis from a specialist outside of the team or NBA network, which I’m sure you will, the NBA will be in a very tough position — whereas the way they handle it could severely have a negative impact on all they have gained in the area of mental health. 

Furthermore, there is a clause in the collective bargaining agreement that protects players’ salaries for failing to render services “if such failure has been caused by the player’s mental disability." Now, I’m no lawyer, but I would imagine you would have a strong case in the event the 76ers attempt to enforce a suspension of you moving forward.

In an interview with Yahoo! Sports, NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts has publicly expressed support for you, and publicly called out Morey.

"Really? Is it so hard to believe that Ben's not mentally at a place to compete? Professional athletes—like the rest of us—have difficult periods in our lives that require time and energy to heal. We have and will continue to provide Ben with the support and resources he needs to work through this," Roberts said. "Threatening the prospect of 'another four years' serves no one's interests. Like Tobias [Harris], I say let's respect Ben's space and embrace him while allowing him the time to move forward. So, take a breath and count to 10: We are all too good to continue to play this perpetual game of chicken."

So now, the pendulum is swinging more in your direction. 

I hope that you take the time you need while this process works itself out, and eventually it will reach some conclusion. But whatever happens, when it’s time for you to come back to the court, I hope you come back with a whole different perspective, almost a Mamba Mentality.

Destroy everything in your path with laser-sharp tunnel vision, and don't let anything on Planet Earth rattle you or knock you off your game and focus. Completely ignore all of your critics and naysayers — whether it’s media or fans or former players or anyone else in between — throwing stones from afar at your character, your passion for the game, your heart and your overall ability to play basketball. People are really trying to act like you can’t play when you’ve been making your mark since you got in the league. 

In the last three NBA seasons, you’ve been a three-time NBA all star, made an All-NBA Third Team and been on the All-Defensive First Team twice. All of this was without shooting threes, so all of the people knocking your skills now need to check your resume. 

Snow offered words of encouragement to you.

“He’s been an All-Star as a point guard. I wouldn’t change that. I don’t think he needs to shoot threes, but he does need to make free throws," Snow said. "Missing threes will make you drive to the basket. Missing free throws will make you not want the ball. I don’t think he ever needs to be a three-point shooter, if he’s making free throws. He can still punish teams by posting the little guys and taking the big guys off the dribble from the perimeter, attacking and playing in transition. Making free throws will make him much more aggressive to score, which will make him more aggressive to make plays for other people. I would play him the exact same way, just find more ways to utilize him in the paint.”

"All Ben Simmons has to do is 1) make a public statement saying he wants to be in Philly, 2) compete and play hard. They'll see the passion & they'll respect that, and 3) just win. If those things happen, trust me, all will be forgiven."

I don’t know what’s going to happen if you’ll be traded or not, but whatever happens, I hope for your sake that you will be able to have the opportunity to shut all of your critics and doubters up. I’m rooting for you sir 

Sincerely,

Etan Thomas 

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