PHILADELPHIA – Through a series of continual happenstance, the Philadelphia 76ers have come to represent the evolution of Australian basketball.
With two sons of NBL alumni on the basketball court, a former Australian Boomers coaching controlling what has become the NBA’s most fascinating franchise, and an organisation which has been defined by the likes of Allen Iverson and Julius Irving - Philadelphia has become the tangible touching point for a generation of parochial basketball fans halfway around the world.
Much of that is, of course, thanks to the Sixers winning 2016’s NBA draft lottery and the right to select Ben Simmons. The presence of Jonah Bolden and Brett Brown help amplify the franchise’s importance to the sport in Australia, as does that of former Perth Wildcat and 2014 NBL champion James Ennis, but it is Simmons on which everything rests.
It is he who became the nation’s first NBA All-Star last weekend as a member of the Sixers. Simmons’ Sixers jersey became the third highest selling jersey in Australia during 2018, ranking behind only LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, two names that have defined the NBA’s decade of player empowerment.
As Simmons’ career morphed from conception into actualisation, the 22-year-old Melbourne native has predictably fostered two sets of fans: those from the nation he hails, and those who currently surround him in the City of Brotherly Love. Given Simmons’ stature as a basketball prodigy, none of this is surprising but his presence, along with that of Bolden and Brown serves to merge two international markets.
These men have introduced the Sixers franchise to a new set of global fans, and at the same time, they are the means by which the NBA community gets a glimpse into Australia. They are the inspiration for the night that was seen on Thursday at the Wells Fargo Center.
Australian Heritage Night was more than an idea in Philadelphia tonight. It was a celebration of a foreign land that has been inserted into the Philadelphia sporting psyche. On the surface, the evening featured many of the clichés that flood foreign minds when thinking about Australia.
Green and gold balloons were stationed across every exhibit within the arena. As Men at Work blasted over the loudspeakers, the fans in attendance laid witness to meat pie eating contests, Australian Football Rules lessons and slang demonstrations.
These were the public-facing ornaments that entertained the crowd but for the Sixers head coach, a deeper meaning was permeating, and this was something that no platitude could quantify.
“All over the place Australian heritage night means something,” Brown said tonight. “I am honoured and thrilled to be a part of it.”
Brown first arrived in Australia in the 1980s, during his twenties at a point where he was looking for meaning in his own life. As a native of Maine in America’s north east, the east coast of Australia was literally a foreign environment. And while Brown would go on to lay the roots of an Australian basketball revolution, he also found stability in his own life whilst away from his homeland.
Brown married an Australian. He lived in the country for 17 years. It was the place where two of his three children were born and where his own family began. These historical landmarks for the Brown family, in concert with everything that has transpired on the basketball court during the prior four decades, combined to make tonight more than just a ceremonial illustration.
"Let’s start with where the sport is at [in Australia], it has never been healthier,” Brown explained when asked to describe his feelings on Australian Heritage Night. “I’ve been involved with Australian basketball since 1985 and that is a long time.
“When you look at the quantity of players, both male and female, in the United States collegiate system - I think you are up over 200 athletes - they are respected as tremendous competitors and English speakers. It is a highly recruited nation and if you look at their chances for a medal, it has never been stronger. The quantity of NBA players from Australia now in the league has never been bigger.”
Brown has arguably done more in publicising Australian basketball in North American than any other person in the sport’s history. He doesn’t change narratives on the court, and Simmons’ evolution into NBA superstar will one day speak louder than any words from the pressroom, but Brown’s voice has been the jukebox for eternal green and gold optimism since he was given an NBA head coaching platform in 2013. It won’t be long, either, before he gets another chance to head back to his home away from home.
After every NBA season, Brown has a ritual: he flies to Melbourne, rents a hire car and undertakes the four hour drive to Port Fairy, a seaside town on the outskirts of Warrnambool in Victoria’s south west.
“I hide there for about two and a half weeks and fish and do work,” Brown explained.
Brown’s annual trip to his hidden treasure allows the Sixers leading man to decompress after the burden of an unrelenting NBA season. But his prominent point guard makes it impossible for Brown to fully escape the reality of his professional world.
“On my way down to [Port Fairy], which is one of the most incredible remote parts of Australia, you will see Ben Simmons jerseys," Brown said. “When I go through Melbourne, I look up like I am going through Times Square and you see Ben Simmons with his Beats [headphones] on, on a 50-foot neon Times Square type of sign.
“It’s tremendous, with the growth of the sport and the notoriety that the 76ers have in Australia, it is something that I am proud of.”
Brown speaks in awe over the popularity of Simmons and in turn the Sixers franchise. In doing so, he overlooks a key figure in everything that he waxes poetically about: himself. Brown is just like Simmons. He too is a leading NBA stakeholder, who doubles as an Australian sporting icon. Tonight was just the latest example.
On the court tonight, Simmons led the Sixers to a 106-102 victory over the Miami Heat. The All-Star scored 21 points while adding seven rebounds and four assists as Philadelphia secured victory.