PHILADELPHIA — The 76ers’ star power was missing, but Philadelphia’s manpower was there. Tens of thousands of Philadelphians showed up to badger the hated Ben Simmons.
Simmons’ friend-turned-rival Joel Embiid sat Tuesday with a foot sprain, and guards James Harden and Tyrese Maxey missed Simmons’ return, too.
“The fans will make up for it,” Simmons correctly predicted hours before the Nets faced the 76ers. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be fun.”
In his first game back in Philadelphia in 520 days and his first in a different uniform, Simmons was mercilessly booed as soon as the national anthem was finished. Immediately, tremendous jeers filled the air before the Nets’ lineup was announced.
Simmons, who started, was the first to be called. As the Nets’ other starters were called, the volume did not taper off: They all were directed at Simmons.
Soon enough, a “F–k Ben Simmons” chant broke out.
“This is a Vince Vaughn, earmuffs night,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said, referring to the “Old School” scene in which the actor implored a child to cover his ears. “It ain’t got nothing to do with the weather, either. I think he should embrace it. Enjoy it. It’s a part of sports. Philly, they have great fans.”
Simmons had not played at the Wells Fargo Center since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on June 20, 2021, in which he scored five points on four field-goal attempts and, most notably, passed up a dunk in the closing minutes of a close game that the Hawks would win.
Simmons, who had lost his offensive confidence and shot 33 percent from the free-throw line in the series, became the scapegoat. After the loss, coach Doc Rivers said he didn’t know if Simmons could be the point guard for a championship team. Embiid called Simmons’ pass, rather than a dunk, the “turning point” of the game.
Simmons did not play another game for Philadelphia, requesting a trade and sitting out until he was sent to Brooklyn in February.
Fans, who were already bitter at the talented, uniquely gifted point guard for his playoff struggles, were further infuriated by a player who cited his mental health in staying away from the organization (although Simmons eventually would require back surgery, too).
“I can’t worry about everyone’s feelings,” Simmons said at shootaround about the 76ers fans. “At the end of the day, I’m not here to make everybody happy.”
“Everybody” includes Embiid, whose public persona of an agitator and troll is the polar opposite of Simmons’.
Simmons said he has “love for Joel” and wishes him the best, but only from afar. They have not spoken.
“You’re not cool with everybody. You know, you’re not texting everybody,” Simmons said of Embiid, the duo never having made it past the Eastern Conference semifinals together. “I think there are certain people that you just don’t talk to all the time. I got friends that I will talk to all the time, but we’re still cool, but that’s just how life went.”
Simmons bemoaned never winning a championship with the 76ers, but he was trying to look more ahead than behind. Vaughn was more focused on the fit — Simmons started alongside center Nic Claxton, putting two big men with virtually no jump shots on the floor at the same time — than the atmosphere.
Simmons, who has improved as the season has gone on, said he simply feels better after offseason back surgery.
He said he was ready for the venom the fans were about to spew, but downplayed the significance of facing his demons head-on.
“Every game is a hurdle for me, in terms of just building and coming back from the injury and then being away from the game for a year or whatever it is,” Simmons said. “So I take it day by day.”
Some days — and games — are more difficult than others.