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This is boring," says the presumed No. 1 pick of the NBA draft, who spent three days in late May doing presumed No. 1 draft pick activities -- commercial shoots, photo shoots, interviews. Ben Simmons is learning that the more of a star you are in basketball, the less basketball it seems you get to play. He was telling this to his sister Emily as the clock struck two hours since he began waiting in a director's chair in a production studio in downtown Manhattan. He was shooting one of those draft-coverage commercials for ESPN in the run-up to the big day on June 23 that was also a promotion for the movie Independence Day: Resurgence. In the commercial, which is spliced with footage from the movie, ESPN's Rece Davis and Jay Bilas are trying to get to the draft, but there's an alien invasion. They finally pick up Simmons for the ride. "Man, how late are we to this draft?" is Simmons' line. It's funny.
He's surrounded by his people -- Fara Leff, the COO of Klutch Sports Group, his agency; his older sister, Emily Bush; his older brother, Sean Tribe; his best friend, Cisco Silva.
Ben is at home in this circle. Around journalists, he's more than a little reticent after constant attention (and scrutiny) during his short-lived career at LSU. "He was a media darling for the first six months," Emily says, "and then some things were written about him that were horrible." There were the stories wondering about his shooting ability, wondering if he's overhyped, making fun of his academic record at LSU. Predictable stuff. But when they start talking about his character when they've never met him? And they want to know if his mental game is ready, if he can handle the pressures of the NBA? That's unacceptable to Emily. Of course he can, she says. Just talk to him and you'll see how prepared he is. He knew there would be pressure. He didn't just train for basketball all those years; he trained for this too, all of this that comes with it.
It's not that he hates the media, Ben tells me later; he's just careful: "I just try and say the right things. Well, I say how I feel but in the right way. I won't say anything crazy just because -- if I'm thinking something, I'll say it, but I won't say it to where it's too out there."
Being careful is a tricky thing when you're this conspicuous. Ben is 6-foot-10. Everywhere we go over the weekend he leaves a trail of men and women in fainting spells, including a waitress in Cleveland who appears to have an aneurysm just trying to take his order.
He's used to it. He arrived at LSU as a freshman last year to over-the-top fanfare: the "He's coming!" promotions and suddenly packed games at a school that doesn't really draw big crowds to basketball games. "Even in Kentucky, we'd go there and we'd have more fans," he tells me. Kentucky! Soon enough, in Baton Rouge he wasn't going out to eat alone. Maybe he could get gas or something, but he couldn't just walk around campus by himself.
He's far from alone now, waiting at the TV studio. And he's still bored. Finally, he is called in, asked to put on a military helmet -- by the time Simmons enters, the other guys have taken cars and boats and planes, so difficult is travel during an alien invasion -- and reads his line. But the line doesn't work. Simmons, who is Australian, has been living in the States since he was a sophomore in high school. Most of his accent is gone, but some words, like draft, he still says as drahhhft. It was disconcerting for a one-liner. Also, the "man" didn't really come off so clean. Eventually, Simmons' line is adjusted to "How late are we?" all while he did that neat ball-spinning trick on his finger. None of this was in the script, but Ben goes along.
Sure it's boring. But Ben knows this is happening only because he's the best basketball player in the draft, and that's been his goal since he can't even tell you when -- from when he watched his father retire from professional basketball in Australia, from when he played against 12-year-olds in the gym when he was just 7, from when he moved to the States from Australia to play at Montverde Academy as a high school sophomore so he could become the Everything Player of the Year, get noticed, get some sponsorships, get drafted.
When Chris Broussard interviews him for SportsCenter the next day and asks how long he's been waiting for this day, Ben's answer is swift: "Since I was 7 years old." He doesn't take his media duties or the fan weirdness as a burden, although, yes, he'd rather be playing basketball. He knows this is part of NBA superstardom, and NBA superstardom was always the plan. And my god are things going according to plan.
Except, of course, when they aren't.
IN EVERY STORY, both journalist and subject learn new things. During my time with Ben, I learn a lot about the draft, about all the pressures of being outrageously talented from a young age and what it's like to be 19 and far from home; during his time with me, Ben learns the word "starf---er."
"Yeah," he says, nodding, his brows furrowed, eyes filled with possibility -- a revelation. Finally, a word for the people who just wanted to be his friend now that he was in the big time; a word for the girls who lined up to talk to him after he started at LSU. This is one of the times he is animated around me. Mostly he is reserved, choosing every word carefully, taking long pauses before speaking. He is polite and nice. But when he turns a few physical degrees toward his family, his large, angular face opens up to a magnificent and welcoming beacon. When he turns back to me, as he does when we sit down together, he is attentive and polite in a way that no 19-year-old actually is. It's just possible all those questions about his game and all that scrutiny from journalists have had an effect. Emily uses the word "jaded."
He's telling me about how from the minute he got to LSU, suddenly everyone wanted to get cozy with him. "Hey, man, do you need anything?" they'd ask. No, he did not. Girls would come over and start talking to him, but Ben has a rule for that: "I have to talk to the person first. If I'm going to talk to the person and date that person, I'll have to go up to them. So if they're like, 'Hey, what's up?' I'm like, 'Ugh.'"
There are no vacancies on Ben's roster right now. Sticking to the plan means keeping his circle close and closed. His family is enough for now; it has been until now too. His father is Dave Simmons, a Bronx, New York, native who moved to Australia to play basketball. Ben is the youngest of six, all hoops-obsessed, which is convenient now that they also handle his affairs. Emily, who is married to former Raiders running back Michael Bush, does his marketing and is also his manager, fielding his media requests, saying no to most of them. Sean, 30, who had been running an import/export clothing business out of Australia, left it behind to come live with his brother and be his assistant.
And then there's Cisco, who has been around long enough to have been absorbed into family status. They attended school together in Australia, both intent on basketball stardom, and then Cisco dislocated his shoulder while guarding Ben. He was out a little while, rehabbed, and then, first game back, same injury, guarding the same guy. The third time it happened, Cisco knew it was over. He began supporting Ben in his career ambitions, taking video of him during practice and splicing it all together into an amazing highlight-clip show.
In 2012, Ben left school and went off to camp after camp, and Cisco became depressed and gained 130 pounds. They FaceTimed and Skyped for hours every day. Cisco lost the weight and dedicated his time to just being there for Ben. Eventually, Ben asked Cisco if he would like to come to the States and go to school for sports management in whatever city Ben gets drafted to. So here he is.
Cisco joins Ben for obligations and meetings, shooting the ball with him during breaks, and afterward they go back to the apartment, where they watch This Is the End or Blue Mountain State, or they play FIFA or Call of Duty -- just not NBA 2K, because Ben won't play until he's drafted and in the game. He also won't watch ESPN (he tells the writer from ESPN), except for a straight-up game, until he's safely on an NBA team.
(And yes, maybe that's a lot of time to spend explaining Ben and Cisco. But does teenage best-friendship like that ever happen again? And if you had enough money and enough say in how life goes for you, wouldn't you keep that friendship going? Because just maybe with enough money you could have anything you want?)
The other people in Ben's circle are the Klutch crew and particularly his agent, Rich Paul, who has had an eye on him since way back when Ben first came to the States. He built the relationship carefully, through Ben and his family, knowing how valuable that family closeness was.
And, of course, Rich is LeBron James' agent too. Ben thinks of LeBron as a big brother: "If I ever need advice, he gives it to me." He was flattered when he was compared to LeBron and Magic Johnson -- both guys who, even at their size, are versatile and quick on the court -- but now he wants to be, well, himself. "I want to be Ben Simmons," he says.
As soon as Simmons left LSU in March, he began trying to manage his grown-up life. He already has money coming in from sponsorship deals with Upper Deck and Beats. He's not worried that money might change him. "I don't need to buy people things, I don't need to buy houses, I'm not like that," he says, "just because I know it can be taken away from you like that." He continues, "I don't think much will change besides -- I mean, attention, of course; that will change. But me as a person, you know, I'll do the same things."
And yet for someone so focused on adhering to his own plan, Ben's day-to-day life is already dictated by the circle around him. Rich arranged an apartment in Cleveland for him to live with Sean and Cisco while he trains in daily workout sessions organized by Klutch. He was supplied with a personal chef who helped him get from 225 to what he is now, 240, and who helps keep him there.
He met with stylist Wesmore Perriott and his business partner, who helped parlay his loungewear leanings into GQ cover material. Emily introduced him to her husband's financial adviser, who in turn introduced him to a jeweler who sold him a gold Rolex, which he'd wanted because he always saw his father wearing a nice watch, and it meant a lot for him to be able to buy one of his own.
Simmons found a jeweler who custom-made him a diamond-spangled flag-of-Australia necklace. On a May trip to LA, where they were taking meetings with Adidas (they'd also met with Nike in Portland -- he later signed a contract with the Swoosh), Fara introduced him to a jeweler who sold him two hamsas -- the symbolic hands of God. They're also diamond-crusted, and they're nearly the same size and chain length, meant to be worn together. The woman blessed them, and when Ben showed them to me while he was getting his makeup done for ESPN's photo shoot, he said the woman told him the hamsas were a symbol of God looking out for him. And here is when I taught him something else: I told him that wasn't entirely true; hamsas were also a symbol to ward off the evil eye. But it didn't matter. Ben isn't superstitious. He feels that right now, all along and forever more, what happens next is in his control.
Ture Lillegraven for ESPN
Ture Lillegraven for ESPN
Ture Lillegraven for ESPN
IF YOU'RE LATE to practice at Klutch training camp -- a day when trainers and coaches and agents and all your people gather in a gym to help prepare you for your inevitable NBA career -- you're fined: You have to buy lunch. Rich Paul's job, as he sees it, is not to sugarcoat things: "I don't sugarcoat anything because life doesn't."
Ben is on time on this Saturday. We'd been together for three days, and he'd grown accustomed to my face and my presence, and it feels almost normal for him to be driving through downtown Cleveland in his brand-new Range Rover, listening to Drake. Over the course of the photo shoots and the video shoots and the interviews, he'd lost a bit of his aw-shucks persona, and maybe a little bit of the jadedness.
Over breakfast, he tells me it annoys him when people bring up what is reputed to be his lackluster shooting when he averaged 19.2 points a game at LSU and shot 56.0 percent from the field (though just 33.3 percent on 3-pointers). "I feel like people are just trying to find things that I don't do well," he says. "You know, everyone has them, but of course I'm under a microscope because I'm the best player in the country, so of course people are going to try and find those things to say about me, and that's fine."
And it's not that he doesn't want to be compared with LeBron and Magic anymore. "I want to be my own player, and I've always wanted to be my own player," he says. "When I was younger, I wasn't a pro, but now I'm about to be a pro and it's a business, and I'm not looking up to these guys while I'm playing against them, no. I'm going at them. It's a job, and I want to beat them every time I step on the floor."
But he's also learning -- just like we all learn at 19, whether we were exceptional or not -- that just because you want something doesn't mean you get it. The more people line up for his autograph, the more sponsorship interest rolls in, the more closely people look at him, the more he actually loses control of the conversation. The closer they look at his life, the more questions they have, like why he seemed so checked out at times during LSU games, or why he was benched reportedly for academic issues.
He has answers. He tells me that he once took a test for EQ -- emotional quotient -- and that his headmaster at Montverde always told him, "It's not about your IQ but your EQ." His EQ score "was up there," so he decided not to worry too much. And, well, he decided not to go to class either. At LSU, opposing-team fans would chant "GPA!" at Ben. "People just don't understand," he says. "I mean, if you could leave and go to the NBA, you would too." And that's probably true. What's truer: There isn't any academic probation in the NBA.
This was all part of the plan, he tells me. After all, he landed at LSU because of family, at least in the form of former LSU assistant coach David Patrick, who, uh, just happens to be Simmons' godfather. No regrets, he tells me. But it is a rare thing to be a top draft pick who didn't make it to the NCAA tournament, and these questions will only get louder.
It's his sense of control that got him here. And now that's over. You can buy two hamsas; you can buy 10 of them. And a woman can bless each one, she can bless each one twice and still you'd have to know you are losing control of your destiny. Hell, he's up for the drahhhft! You put yourself on a career path that requires its most successful players to give up all control over where they even live.
Simmons could at least decide which school to go to as a freshman; he could decide to stay one year or four. But now, still under the illusion that what happens next is up to him, he has given all control over to everyone else: his family, his agent. He has no control over what goes into this story, no matter how guarded or polite he is with the media. Come June 23, once he's selected, he'll no longer be the No. 1 draft pick anymore; he'll just be a rookie on a (probably bad) team of more experienced players.
At Cleveland State University, in a subterranean gym, Ben warms up while Rich Paul tells me he likes that Ben is compared to the greats. But he thinks Ben has a preternatural gift for this business, for the details, for self-control. He surrounds himself with good people. He has a lot of faith in Ben.
"He's not LeBron," Rich says. "He's not Kobe. He's not KD. Ben Simmons is the next Ben Simmons. There's no one like Ben Simmons."
Ben Simmons would agree.
Over on the court, Ben takes off his shirt and goes to work. Before long, his body is gleaming with sweat, and his face changes once again. It isn't the interview face, and it isn't the family face. It is his basketball face. His interviews are done. The starf---ers are at bay. Eventually everyone takes a break and it is just him and Cisco shooting again. Cisco passes, and Ben takes control of the ball.