This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's November 23 How to Raise a QB issue. Subscribe today!
KICKOFF BETWEEN AUBURN and LSU is still two hours away, but the main artery around Baton Rouge's Tiger Stadium is barely passable. As four towering basketball players try to snake their way through the masses, a man passes by, his long hair spilling from under a white baseball cap, an LSU T-shirt wrapped across his barrel chest. Without breaking stride, he folds his hands in prayer and casts his eyes upward, as if to the heavens. Instead, he's staring up at Ben Simmons, the 6-foot-10, 19-year-old freshman who has traveled from Australia to resurrect LSU from its swampy hoops grave.
"Please, God,'' the LSU fan says, "just beat the hell outta everybody this year.''
There have been a few saviors in high-tops here before -- Pistol Pete, Shaq, Big Baby -- but not like this. Simmons is the No. 1 freshman basketball player in the country, which makes him the No. 1 college player in the country, an athlete so gifted he defies a position (hybrid point center might be the most accurate). Not coincidentally, his choice to break rank from traditional college hoops powers and don purple and gold has raised more than a few eyebrows, the rumor mill percolating like a good pot of gumbo. Surely money was exchanged, critics have carped. LSU even took early criticism in May for a ticket-sales campaign proclaiming "He's Coming," alongside Simmons' No. 25.
But now that he is actually here, the revival is on in all its full-throated glory. Crisscrossing through the starstruck crowd to his seat for the mid-September football game, Simmons finally finds anonymity among the 102,320 other spectators. It doesn't last long. At the end of the second quarter, he escapes the heat, heading to the cool bowels of the stadium and running straight into the biggest man on campus, the Big Aristotle himself.
Shaquille O'Neal called Simmons "the best player in the world" when he introduced him to his Instagram followers last November. When the two reconnect, just a day after officially meeting, they bro hug in the casual way men do. Shaq says something quietly before he's pulled away by a group of girls looking for a picture. As he squats down to pose, he pauses, stretching out one long arm and tugging on Simmons' shirt, motioning for him to join the picture.
"You're the man now,'' he says. "Not me.''
EVEN AT A casual pickup game on campus, Simmons and his teammates have managed to draw a crowd. Keith Hornsby, son of Bruce and the top returning scorer, is on the court; so are Tim Quarterman, the junior who has played himself into a top pro prospect, and Antonio Blakeney, a McDonald's All American.
But all eyes are on No. 25.
Simmons stands on the wing, dribbling and waiting for an open seam. He finds his crease, heads toward the rim and passes. The no-look kick-out is brilliant, the perfect setup for a clean look as everyone else collapses toward him. On the next possession, he corrals a rebound and uncoils his legs almost casually before springing up and slamming a one-handed dunk that makes those under the stanchion shake.
In the words of Shaq: "He's the real deal. I know it."
Maybe so, but don't count on Simmons to buy the hype. Humility, after all, comes easily when you're the youngest of six. Even now, his brother Liam doesn't miss an opportunity to take a dig. "It's like when he went to the ESPYS, he's meeting all these cool people, hanging out with millionaires," Liam says. "He's like, 'I saw J.J. Watt. We were hanging out.' And I'm like, 'Dude, J.J. Watt is not your friend. You don't have any money. Mom wants you home by 10.'''
"Yeah, I didn't really get away with anything," Simmons says. He pauses, perhaps realizing his siblings will read this. "Well, I mean I got away with some things."
Growing up in Melbourne, Simmons hardly felt like a prodigy among his siblings. He'd always get picked last when the kids chose sides for a game, for instance. The man? The real deal? No, he's Benny, the runt of the family who was stuffed in the car like an extra pair of sneakers, packed off to watch someone play something somewhere.
Melissa, Emily, Liam and Sean are mom Julie's children by a first marriage. Julie, a divorced single mother, was working as an aerobics instructor in 1991 when she met Dave Simmons, a Bronx-born basketball player recruited to the Melbourne Tigers, the local pro team. Three years later, they married and soon added Olivia and Ben to their brood.
The age gap between the kids is huge -- Melissa is 15 years older than Ben -- but it's the only one dividing the family. They are inordinately close, raised as brothers and sisters, not half this or half that. "They helped him grow up," Julie says. "He's an easygoing, quiet kid, but he also has a cheekiness to him."
The kids were athletic, with all but Emily following in their dad's basketball footsteps. (She chose rowing.) Liam, 13 years older than Ben, remembers returning from college to find his baby brother dressed in his Allen Iverson gear, a boxful of sweatbands at the ready, waiting for someone to take him to play. Usually Liam or Sean did, the big brothers filling in the gaps when Dad was on the road with his own basketball career. They taught Ben as their father taught them -- pass first, score second. Dave's own game, honed by the legendary coach Abe Lemons at Oklahoma City University, was built more on force than finesse, but years overseas in the 1990s turned him into a convert. He preferred the way Europeans played, welcomed the fluidity of movement and appreciated the art of the assist. Simmons' deft ballhandling and savvy playmaking? That's all from Dad. "I still think I'm a better passer,'' Simmons says of his own skills. "I can score when I want, but I enjoy passing the ball more. It's one of those things where I can see a play happen before it happens. I get excited.''
Among his peers, Simmons has always been better than good. At 4, he played with 7-year-olds; at 7, with 12-year-olds. At 16, he was on the Australian national team. But Australians don't place the same focus on youth sports as Americans. Weekdays are for school, weekends for sports, summers for leisure. Simmons split his allegiances between Australian Rules football and basketball, spent his summers fishing and swimming. There were no recruiting services to chart his exploits, no YouTube clips of him slicing and dicing as a toddler.
That's why for years Simmons and his good buddy Dante Exum, now a point guard for the Utah Jazz, existed in relative anonymity. Exum's father, Cecil, played with Dave on the Melbourne Tigers, and the boys grew up together, shagging rebounds after games, having sleepovers and playing on various teams together. When Exum was drafted by the Jazz in 2014, the fifth overall pick, he was a virtual mystery man. "It's not crazy over there,'' Exum says. "It's just not.''
Crazy can do things to kids, make them jaded before they hit high school, feel entitled before they've achieved anything. Not in Simmons' case.
"I didn't have people in my head," he says, "no one but my family."
ON THE FIRST play of the Australian high school championships in 2012, Dave watched his 15-year-old boy score on a reverse layup.
"Didn't know he could do that,'' he thought.
Then Simmons dunked a tip-in.
He turned to his lifelong friend, David Patrick, for confirmation. "That's not normal,'' Patrick assured him.
Patrick first met Dave when he was playing with the Australian junior national team and working out against the Melbourne Tigers. Simmons became a mentor and, eventually, de facto family. When Ben was born, Dave and Julie named Patrick his godfather.
By 2012, Patrick had traded in his playing days for a coaching career at Nicholls State and Saint Mary's and was working as a scout for the Houston Rockets. When he returned to Australia to see his godson play for the first time in years, he was blown away. Simmons' talents, he was certain, would translate beyond Australia. So he phoned an old connection -- Dinos Trigonis, who runs the Pangos All-American Camp, an invitation-only showcase near Los Angeles. Patrick called in a favor, begging Trigonis to give up a coveted roster spot for his godson.
It paid off. By the end of camp, Frank Burlison, a recruiting guru with more than 40 years of experience, wrote this about Simmons on his site: He is only 15 years old, a member of Australia's 17-under national squad, and might have been as good a prospect as there was in camp. If he eventually relocates to the U.S. for the remainder of his high school classroom and hoops educations, pencil him onto the roster for the McDonald's All-American roster three years from now.
The kid who came as a charity-case nobody emerged as the somebody to watch, outshining four- and five-star players, even current NBA players Cliff Alexander, Zach LaVine and Stanley Johnson. "It was easy to see how good he was and how good he could be," Burlison says.
It was also enough to persuade Dave to move his son to the States. In January 2013, Simmons enrolled at the Orlando-area Montverde Academy, promptly helping the prep school to a 25-2 record and a national championship. By the end of the season, the forward had climbed into the No. 4 spot in the 2015 class rankings.
The American recruiting game was on. Thing was, Simmons wasn't interested in playing it.
SIMMONS TOOK HIS first unofficial college visit just after the start of his junior year. On Oct. 11, 2013, he arrived on the LSU campus in time for the Tigers' football game against Florida. The phone lines, per NCAA rules, had opened between coaches and Simmons just four months earlier. Official visits (school-funded) hadn't even begun.
Simmons had only half a season of American high school ball under his belt, and he didn't take part in the summer circuit, playing with the Australian U17 team instead. Consequently, college coaches were just starting to take notice. Duke and Kansas were expressing interest. And yet on Oct. 14, three days after visiting LSU, Simmons called Tigers coach Johnny Jones and said, "I'm coming."
Jones knew Simmons was planning to set up an official visit, so on the phone, stuck in traffic, he gave a no-big-deal response.
"He said, 'No, Coach, I'm committing. I'm coming to school,'" Jones says, shaking his head at the memory. "I was like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, let me pull over.'"
Baton Rouge is hardly a destination for basketball luminaries. Of the top five ESPN 100 players in each of the past five recruiting classes, six went to Kentucky, five to Duke and two each to Kansas, UCLA and Arizona. The last time the top player didn't choose from this group was 2010, and Harrison Barnes didn't exactly go far out of bounds with North Carolina.
LSU, meanwhile, is not so much a sleeping giant as just sleeping. Attendance barely creeps toward 9,000 for most games, and it made its first NCAA tournament appearance in six years last season. It's been two decades since the Dale Brown heyday, which ended with the stain of scandal. Standout forward Lester Earl accused the coaching staff, most notably Jones himself, of paying him to play there in 1996. The NCAA cleared Jones, Earl apologized and Brown's replacement, John Brady, even managed to take LSU to a Final Four in 2006. But two years later, Brady was fired following an 8-13 start.
When Simmons announced his intention to attend LSU, his Twitter feed erupted with allegations. Some were more colorful than others, but the thread was common: "People say I got paid,'' Simmons says, shrugging off the accusation with a laugh.
But why else would he choose LSU?
Almost immediately after the Pangos basketball camp, David Patrick, Simmons' godfather, received a yearlong suspension from the NBA for violating the no-contact rule during the lockout. (Patrick says he was merely talking to an Australian player he has known for years.) Out of work, he started considering his options. Three weeks later, Patrick landed at LSU as an assistant in the basketball program. Jones, whom Patrick has known since he moved to Baton Rouge for his final year of high school, persuaded him to come.
In NCAA parlance, godfather-turned-assistant-coach sounds conveniently like the beginning of a package deal. But while Patrick insists he didn't want Simmons to feel obligated to follow him to LSU, yeah, he felt confident that his godson would pick the Tigers. Better than any other coach, he knows how Simmons is wired. He knew, in fact, that other coaches would have a hard time even reaching Simmons. The kid doesn't answer phone calls if he doesn't recognize the number.
Even more, Patrick knows the importance of family in the Simmons world, and Ben's is spread quite literally across the globe. Mom, Dad and Melissa are in Australia; Liam is an assistant basketball coach at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri; Olivia is there with him; Emily, who is married to NFL running back Michael Bush, splits her time between Louisville and Scottsdale, Arizona; Sean is in Los Angeles. And Patrick is in Baton Rouge. That was absolutely a selling point.
Sending their kids away for college isn't new to Dave and Julie, but what Ben is about to go through is. He may have emerged from the high school pool of piranhas seemingly unscathed, but now he's jumping into the deep end, the cesspool of agents and hangers-on all looking for a piece. "I have a lot of concerns," Dave says. "I'm not big on all this hype. So far he's managed it quite well, but he has to stay focused.''
This summer Simmons walked out of his campus apartment to find a van full of people with armloads of gear for Simmons to sign. "Creepy, very creepy," he says. He called Patrick, who called the campus police, who made the people go away.
"I'm his godfather," Patrick says. "Not guardian or whatever that word means today. It's real."
Ultimately, Simmons says, he wanted to go where he was most comfortable. "People don't realize that," he says. "They think it was for some other reason. It was just school and family."
Plenty of people tried to persuade Simmons to look at other colleges, especially after his junior year ended in another national championship and he had a breakout summer on the camp circuit. Simmons starred at the LeBron James Skills Academy, shined in his first AAU experience with Florida-based Each 1 Teach 1 and found himself slotted as the No. 1 player in his class by September 2014. More top college coaches came calling, suggesting he reconsider his nonbinding verbal commitment. Instead, at 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 12, 2014, Simmons made it official and signed a letter of intent with LSU.
By the end of the season, Simmons' last at Montverde, the Tigers had the biggest prize in the 2015 recruiting class. Simmons won yet another national title, was named Gatorade National Player of the Year, Naismith High School Player of the Year, Morgan Wootten Player of the Year and a McDonald's All American, and he made even conservative recruiters trek in hyperbole.
"I'm not saying he's as good as LeBron," Burlison says, "but I don't think there has been anyone at this age, with his size, who can do so many things so well, with or without the ball, since James."
ONE AFTERNOON THIS September, Jones blows the whistle to start a preseason workout. Simmons grabs a ball at half court, turns to the basket and heaves a shot. He doesn't really try, doesn't leave his feet, barely puts any muscle behind it, and the ball is dead-on, falling shy of the rim but grazing the net on the way down.
Minutes later, the players divide for drills. On one end are the big men, oafishly trying to dribble a basketball in each hand. On the opposite side are the guards, scooting the ball between their legs, crossing over and around cones placed in a zigzag on the floor. Simmons is here with the guards, not where he belongs at 6-10. His movements are fluid and relaxed, without a hint of hesitation or awkwardness. But there is one thing that separates him. When they finish the drill, most pull up for a soft jumper. Simmons goes to the rim for a backboard-rattling stuff.
This is what it has all added up to -- the sibling ribbing and the parental guidance, the risky debut in California and the coming-out party in Florida -- a player so complete, so advanced, yet somehow nonplussed by it all.
"It's still just weird to me," he says. "When people say stuff like, 'You're one-and-done, No. 1 pick,' it sounds so crazy, even though in reality it could happen. Like I could put on an NBA jersey and play against LeBron, KD, the greatest players in the world. I feel like yesterday I was talking about it with my best friend in grade nine."
That dream is now tantalizingly close, probably just months away. But first, the unlikely prospect from Down Under will have to prove himself to the rest of the world from an even unlikelier place -- Baton Rouge.