It’s been eight months since Ben Simmons has spoken publicly. Eight months listening to others debate the legitimacy of his mental health concerns, of being called a bad teammate, or a selfish one, and of battling the issues that he said have taken him from one of the things he loves the most.
And eight months since his then-teammate, Joel Embiid, stood up in front of the media and said in clear terms that Simmons’ decision to pass the ball rather than take an open dunk at the end of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals cost the 76ers the series.
A lot has happened in the interim.
Simmons asked out of Philadelphia, he was suspended a game for what was deemed conduct detrimental to the team, and he was traded to the Nets in the blockbuster deal that sent James Harden to the 76ers and welcomed Andre Drummond and Seth Curry to Brooklyn.
He hasn’t played since that Game 7 last June, and he still needs to get his body ready for the rigors of NBA play, but Tuesday, flanked by Nets coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks, Simmons took a first step and decided to finally clear the air.
He doesn’t know when he’ll be back to playing, he said, but he hopes it’s soon. Physically, he feels strong — a body trained by lifting and pilates and work with trainers — and mentally, he’s getting there. He hopes he can at least be ready by March 10, when the Nets go to Philadelphia.
Before anyone could ask him any questions, he thanked the 76ers' organization and its fans, and said he held no ill will, and that the moves he made were because he believed he needed to. Asking for a trade, he said, was separate from his mental health issues, but still, "I’ve had some dark times over the last six months," he said.
"I wasn’t myself and I needed to get back to that place of being myself and being happy as a person and taking care of my well-being," Simmons, 25, added. "That was the major thing for me. It wasn’t about the basketball, it wasn’t about the money, anything like that. I wanted to be who I am and get back to playing basketball at that level and being myself."
Though Simmons made it clear the mental part of the game was still very much a work in progress — "it’s an ongoing thing to just stay on top of that but I think I’m headed in the right direction" — he said he was excited to join Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant as the newest leg of the Nets' Big 3.
"I think it's gonna be scary," he said. "Having those guys run alongside me, multiple different weapons on the floor and I think at the pace we want to play at, it's going to be unreal."
Simmons was the worst free-throw shooter in the league last season (minimum 230 attempts) at 61.3%, but said he’s worked on his shot and has seen definitive progress. But Nash has already made clear that shooting in general — Simmons’ weakness — isn’t necessarily what the Nets are focused on. He’s an elite playmaker, strong in transition and can finish at the rim. Technically a point guard, what he does on the court can, at times, transcend position. Given his 6-11 frame, the 76ers did experiment with him at power forward.
"I think I try to compare it to my earlier seasons with JJ Redick, Ersan Ilysaova and Marco Belinelli," he said of his role in Brooklyn. "We were playing Miami in the first round and just the way we were flowing and playing — that's how I know how to play basketball. I'm the kind of player where I like to see everybody scoring and contributing whatever way they can. That's the way you've got to play to win. If you want to be a winner, you've gotta play with all the guys on the floor and maximize the abilities that everybody has."
His time in Brooklyn won’t be about looking at the past. Sure, he took time Tuesday to say that his mental health concerns were very real — despite whatever armchair pundits have said in the past months — but he added he didn’t blame people for speculating otherwise.
"We’d be here for a while," he said when asked if there was anything specific that he wanted to clear up.
"This is the first I’m really speaking up, so the last six months, I had everybody saying something," he said. "Not everybody knew, so I can’t really say anything negative toward anybody that was saying something because they just didn’t know. I’m not the type of person to try to put somebody down for something [they] don’t know about."
On Monday, during the Nets' win over the Kings, Simmons was on the sideline, smiling and cheering on his teammates. A new environment, he said, could aid in the mental recalibration.
"A lot of things had happened over that summer where I didn’t feel like I was getting that help," he said. "But 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 need to be."
Mentally, that place is one where he can be comfortable on the floor. Physically, that place might just be Brooklyn.