If Ben Simmons needs advice on how to deal with animosity from the fanbase of his previous team, all he needs to do is seek out No. 11.
Boston-area fans booed Kyrie Irving every second he was visible at the TD Garden in the Nets’ loss to the Celtics on Sunday. They chanted “Kyrie sucks!” after Irving turned in a performance below his own superstar standards in the Nets’ six-point loss to a division rival.
Simmons can expect the same type of visceral reaction on Thursday against the 76ers from the very Philadelphia fanbase he ostracized with his decision not to participate in training camp activities or join his teammates for games this season. The 25-year-old Australian forward held-out and ultimately forced his way to Brooklyn in the blockbuster James Harden trade.
He will not play in the Nets’ March 10 matchup against the Sixers – the first matchup between newfound rivals since the Feb. 10 Harden deal – but he will sit with his teammates on the bench.
Which means the fans who once cheered him will heckle him to the high heavens, just like they did Irving in his return to Boston.
Irving, at least after the Nets’ loss to the Celtics, said he and Simmons hadn’t spoken about dealing with vitriol from a scorned fanbase. He said it’s not quite the same because Simmons will be a spectator, while Irving has played at the TD Garden five times since leaving Boston for Brooklyn in the summer of 2019.
“We all react differently, and we all prepare in our own ways, and me as one of the leaders on the team, it’s just to be there for him and support (him) every moment that we’re together out on the floor,” Irving said. “Off the floor as well, but it’s never easy to get traded, to leave a team in free agency. We’ve seen people burn jerseys. We’ve seen people throw things from the crowd. We’ve seen fans go on social media, we’ve seen so much of our game be turned into somewhat of a spectacle for people to enjoy and cheer for and the emotions run high.
“Everybody reacts differently to it. As long as his focus is on the game: I said when I was here last year in Boston, if you focus on the game, then I don’t think there’s any bad blood, but in terms of the criticism that people like to bring from watching (from) the audience or yelling things from the sideline, and you’re calling somebody out their name, some people react differently.”
Celtics fans chanted “F*** Kyrie!” in his return to Boston at the TD Garden in the Nets’ first-round playoff series last season. He responded by stepping on the halfcourt Celtics logo – Lucky the Leprechaun – after a standout performance in Game 4. In response, a Celtics fan threw a water bottle at Irving on his way into the locker room and was later arrested for his actions.
“People call me out my name here in Boston, or they’ve said some over the line things and it’s a natural reaction to be able to go out and respond.” Irving said. “But ultimately we get paid a lot of money to do this. We have to keep our calm, we have to keep our cool, and we have the refs out there to protect the game. We have our security and it’s just (that) we want to go out there and enjoy it, and I want Ben to enjoy it and have fun doing what he loves to do.”
It remains unclear when Simmons will make his Nets debut. The Philly Voice’s Kyle Neubeck reports that league sources expect Simmons to file an official grievance against the Sixers some time after Thursday to reclaim the $20 million he has been docked in fines by the team this season. The Sixers fined Simmons because he did not go to a team doctor to address his mental health issues and never submitted documentation to the Sixers proving he sought and addressed those issues with an outside doctor.
The Sixers – both his former star teammate Joel Embiid and head coach Doc Rivers – also threw Simmons under the bus after his poor performance in their upset second-round playoff exit to the Atlanta Hawks last season. The Nets have listed Simmons as out due to conditioning and back soreness.
Nets head coach Steve Nash told reporters in Charlotte on Tuesday that going back and facing that Philadelphia crowd – even if just as a spectator – could be good for Simmons’ growth.
“I don’t think he’s naive to think he’s not going to get some boos. I hope he enjoys it, it’s a part of the game,” Nash said Tuesday morning. “He’s on our team. He needs to be with his teammates and get the whole Philly thing out of the way a little bit. Maybe it never goes away, but the first time it’s always nice to kind of deal with it and move on.”
Irving knows those boos never go away. He called Celtics fans “the scorned girlfriend who just wants an explanation on why I left but still hoping for a text back,” and knows Simmons is going to be subject to the same kind of visceral reaction from the fans he left this season.
“Going back to Philly, of course it’s going to be crazy,” Irving said. “Even for us: I didn’t play (for) Brooklyn my first year, and Boston Celtics fans were still chanting ‘Kyrie sucks,’ and I put out an Instagram post about a bunch of things in life meaning more than this game, and those are the moments where you just realize sports has its own political atmosphere, and it has its own rules and you’ve got to adjust to it.
“So when I was talking to fans at the end of the game, I’m like ‘I love this, man. We’ll see you again. One game.’”