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From Kalgoorlie to Philly: Ben Mallis on chasing dreams and living the Sixers beat
Growing up in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, Ben Mallis had never even seen snow before, prior to his first trip to the United States. Life at home had a much higher risk of heatstroke than frostbite, and the American winter he landed in was a world away from the desert outskirts of his hometown. As an aspiring NBA writer, the US was the ultimate destination for him; as a sun-loving Aussie, it was a challenge.
"It was the first time this soft boy from Perth had ever been in a cold weather environment," Mallis shared.
He was there to cover the NBA on the ground for the first time, hopping from city to city and team to team in the early months of 2017. 18 months after that trip he would be back in the country, based in Philadelphia for a full season and working as a beat writer for the 76ers. He wasn’t to know that at the time, though - on first impressions, Philly was just another city that was way too cold for his liking. "A snowstorm hit the northeast two days before I went to Philly so it was cold, it was miserable and I was sick," Mallis laughed.
When it comes to the cold weather, nothing has changed. "This man would legitimately complain about the cold each and every time I saw him," Ky Carlin, editor of Sixers Wire, said. "Ben could never get used to it, he would moan and complain and say 'I miss 80 degrees every day'."
When Philadelphia finally did win Mallis over, it had nothing to do with the weather. It wasn't the Sixers either, as they were crawling through the season on their way to a 28-54 record. No, it was the stairs from the film Rocky. "Having watched those movies as a kid, I instantly fell in love with that and doing the run up and down the steps," he said.
When he next returned to Philly, he finally saw the city at its finest. The Eagles had just won the Super Bowl, the Sixers were riding a hot streak, and the positive energy was palpable. "It was the happiest that city’s ever going to be... I fell in love."
Dreams being set
There were no thoughts of an overseas escape as Mallis grew up in Kalgoorlie. In fact, it wasn't even basketball that took his fancy. It was a sport much closer to home, and one of Australia's broadcasting icons, that inspired him. "I just remember falling in love with Dennis Cometti... I wanted to be him as much as I wanted to be the actual athlete," Mallis said. While he grew up playing football, cricket and basketball, it was Mallis' fascination with the media that drove his aspirations. Even as a youngster, he would start every day by picking up the newspaper and flipping straight to the sports pages.
It made perfect sense, then, that Cometti would be his muse - after all, Australian Rules football has long been the most accessible and most covered sport in the country. During Mallis' formative years, professional basketball was still something of an oddity. "I grew up playing basketball, I knew what it was, I watched Space Jam and did all that as a kid, but it didn’t really take hold," he said.
That didn't change until 2007, when a pair of players on the other side of the world grabbed his attention. It all started with Game Five of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, where LeBron James scored the final 25 points for the Cleveland Cavaliers in a double-overtime win over Detroit. After arriving home from school that day, Mallis says he saw the game highlights by chance and was captivated by The King's performance. "I just remember watching LeBron play against the Pistons and it really spruiked my interest," he said.
That led him to dip his toe into the world of NBA basketball --"as you do, going on the internet and Googling around"-- and soon he was researching the prospects in that year's draft. Unsurprisingly, there was one college player that stood out to him. "[Kevin] Durant was obviously being trumpeted as the next LeBron or the next big thing," Mallis said. "I got stuck in the YouTube rabbit hole of watching Kevin Durant highlights."
That small window in 2007 sparked what would become a lifelong passion for Mallis, but it took a little while for that spark to really catch. When Durant landed in Seattle, Mallis became what he calls a "loose fan" of the Supersonics, citing their Aussie green and gold uniforms as another factor. It wasn't until a few years later that he found himself truly hooked during his time at university. A broken ankle suffered while playing soccer meant two months stuck in the house, leaving ample time to watch the NBA's early morning contests.
That ritual stuck with him, even once his ankle had healed and as his studies escalated. "Being a lazy university student, which is what I was for a couple of years, and being able to go out all night and chill every morning, it really just allowed me to binge basketball games," he said. "That period is when I fell in love with the real [depth] of the game."
With a lifelong interest in the media and a newfound love for hoops, it might have seemed obvious that Mallis would move into sports writing. It took some time for that dream to emerge, though; he earned a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Western Australia and began working in accounting and business advisory.
Still, with NBA fandom came a host of new media content to consume. While shows like Pardon the Interruption were regular viewing, it was the writing of NBA veterans such as Bill Simmons and Michael Wilbon that really caught Mallis' attention. "It really just struck a chord with me, and I was hooked from literally the first time I gave the NBA and the NBA media some time," he said. Later, the analytical style of Zach Lowe and Bill Barnwell began to shape his own style of writing as he searched for a niche to fill in the media landscape.
He thought he had found one as he first started writing in 2014. "In my mind, there was a real gap for that about AFL football," Mallis said. In the lead up to that AFL season, he says he poured days and weeks into preview content, using the league's limited available stats to power prediction models and other analysis. "I had every intention to write full-time about the footy that year," he said.
That hardly lasted to the start of the season, with some key realisations bringing Mallis to an abrupt stop. "It wasn’t the right fit in terms of the style I was writing in," he said. "I realised that the footy media wasn’t conducive to what I wanted to do." Even then, basketball remained in the background as he took almost two years off from writing, first to focus on climbing the corporate ladder and then to travel through Europe for two months.
Basketball takes over
By the time he returned from that trip in late 2015, he had finally decided to bring his two great passions together. "I just knew that I had to try to merge this want to write basketball stories and cover NBA games," he said. Without a real starting point or outlet to publish his work, he says he simply practised finding newsworthy stories and writing drafts. The end goal was the emulate those American writers he had so long admired. "A lot of imitating guys like Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe and trying to copy what they did," he said with a laugh. "Even though I’m sure those first stories were horrible and cringeworthy now."
Still, he must have been doing something right in those early copies, as just a few months later he reached out to The Pick and Roll and joined the team almost on the spot. It was a rapid journey, fuelled by a new determination to give writing a red hot go. "The middle of 2016 is when, in my head, I really wanted to commit to this and really go to some effort," Mallis said. "I think that goes hand in hand with some mentorship and some guidance from Kein [Chua] and the team at The Pick and Roll."
At the same time, Mallis was struggling to find total satisfaction in his day job. While the work had its rewards, both financial and otherwise, there was something missing. "I enjoyed the work I was doing, but it wasn’t something that I really loved and it wasn’t something that I could see myself doing for the long term." It was then that the idea of travelling and working in the US, for years a distant dream in the back of his mind, became an undeniable pull. "I got the urge to start writing and start thinking and dreaming about one day going over to America and just scratching that itch."
It was still very early in Mallis' writing career, but with the guidance of The Pick and Roll's editor Kein Chua, he quickly found his feet. A working trip to the US was in his plans when he first joined the team, but there was no set timeframe when he met with Chua in Melbourne shortly after. In the space of one conversation over a coffee in Richmond, that quickly changed. "He literally loosely said ‘yeah, we can get you into any NBA game you want [subject to availability]," Mallis said. "That kind of blew my mind."
Two weeks later, he'd booked flights for a six-week trip across America. Four months after that, he touched down in the US for the first time.
Feet on the ground
The earliest memory Mallis has of the United States? Running through four inches of snow in Salt Lake City, wearing a West Coast Eagles hoodie and a cotton tracksuit, and searching for a place to buy winter clothes. He had landed in San Francisco before connecting through Utah; his bags had stayed put in the Bay Area. "It was about three degrees and coming from Perth I had never been that cold before... no luggage, no jackets, I'd never seen snow before," he said.
Eventually, his clothes caught up to him and he was able to get to work. When planning that first itinerary, there was a fairly simple science behind it. "I literally just got a list of all the Aussie guys in the NBA up and ticked them off," Mallis said. That meant visits to Dante Exum and Joe Ingles in Utah, Patty Mills in San Antonio, Matthew Dellavedova and Thon Maker in Milwaukee, and of course, Philadelphia for Ben Simmons' redshirt year.
With Salt Lake City the first stop of the tour, Mallis was quickly thrust into action at a Jazz home game. Some back-and-forth with agents and team representatives ended in a post-game interview with Ingles, and Mallis soon found himself walking through an NBA locker room among some of the league's biggest names. It wasn't until he had waited around for players to shower and change, and then wandered around chatting with Ingles, that the full situation hit him.
"I remember how surreal it felt and also the rush of excitement that came from actually doing something that I’d dreamt of doing," Mallis said. "That was as much being in an NBA locker room as it was actually talking to Joe."
Importantly, it wasn't just players that he was connecting with. While chasing one story, he emailed Bleacher Report's Howard Beck; for another, he spoke with ESPN writer and analytics legend Zach Lowe. At All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, he met a handful of Australians plying their trade in the States, writers like Nick Metallinos and Believe The Hype podcasters Benyam Kidane and Tom Read. "Meeting those guys really got it into my head that I want to go overseas and give this a crack," Mallis said.
It was only a small taste of working around the NBA, but Mallis was hooked. "I didn’t say it out loud necessarily but I knew right then that I wanted to go and live in America and give it a real go," he said. As soon as he touched back down in Perth, he started planning for a full season working in the US - organising a visa, applying for media credentials, saving every penny and, most importantly, leaving the corporate world in a way that would allow him to return if he ever needed to. "I knew that if it all blew up on the writing side and I had to come back home and it didn’t work out, I always had that as a fallback option," he said.
18 months after his first trip ended, he was back in the States for a longer haul. This time he would be covering a single team, and once again that decision was a relatively simple one. "I literally just landed on that because Ben Simmons was there."
Working the beat
Mallis realised very quickly that working as a beat writer for one team was very different to the fly-in, fly-out style of his last visit. For the most part, that change was a positive. "The amount of access is incredible, you’re speaking to the players before and after every game, at shootaround before every game," he said. With that access came some added pressure, an expectation that he would build relationships with Sixers players and a constant grind to find content every day. "It was a bit overwhelming at the start because it was so full on. The games were coming thick and fast and the access was so great," Mallis said.
Those challenges aren't unique to Philadelphia, but they are exacerbated somewhat by the crowded Sixers beat, unlike Kane Pitman's experience in Milwaukee. Ky Carlin travelled to Orlando for an away game against the Magic, and was met with just four local beat writers. In Philly, that number is well into double digits. It makes sense, given the team's recent success and the city's rabid sports fans.
"Philly fans man, Philly fans. Passionate, they are very passionate people," says Carlin with a laugh. With that passion comes the good and the bad; after defending coach Brett Brown in an article, Carlin received messages on Twitter saying to "go screw myself, in a couple of different words".
As a journalist trying to sell stories back to Australia, Mallis needed to make sure not to stand out from the crowd for the wrong reasons. "You can’t just be the token Australian that comes in and asks the Australian questions, but at the same time, you can’t be just standing there doing nothing." That's a tightrope that fellow Aussie Leigh Ellis has walked for years while podcasting with The Starters and No Dunks, and he became a mentor for Mallis after connecting through The Pick and Roll. "It’s just as important for Ben to not be a cheerleader for Ben Simmons or any other Australian he covers," Ellis said. "If you look like you’re just there to cheer on your countrymen, then you won’t have a long career."
With so much to take in right away, it took Mallis a couple of months to find his feet. Going from no access to all-access left him scrambling to find his niche in the market, and to zero in on the questions and stories he wanted to chase. Once that transition was done, it was clear that he wasn't out of his depth. "I saw a progression all throughout last year," Carlin said. "He was already good to begin with, but he kind of got more comfortable."
As he found that comfort, Mallis says he was able to enjoy the experience more and more. Interacting with NBA players became less of a surreal experience, even when the Sixers featured superstars that were among the league's biggest names. Jimmy Butler was one of those big names, and he brought an even bigger personality with him when he arrived in Philadelphia via trade early in the season. "He was really speaking in a direct and confronting manner and speaking his truth in a way that no one else in the Sixers did," Mallis said. "I’m a sucker for people that just tell it how it is... I enjoyed hearing Jimmy speak if nothing else because it was going to be interesting."
Away from the game
Working life at the Wells Fargo Center was undoubtedly a big adjustment for Mallis. Even bigger, though, was the move to a new city in a foreign country. With little motive behind the move to Philly specifically, other than the presence of a certain Aussie All-Star, he arrived with plenty of questions, both inside the locker room and outside in the city. Luckily, he found the perfect guide very early on in Ky Carlin-- or rather, the perfect guide found him.
"I found this tall, skinny dude with a funny accent, and I was like 'yo, what’s up man, where are you from?'" Carlin said. "He goes 'I’m from Australia'. I was like, that’s dope as hell, what are you here for? Ben Simmons?"
As two guys of similar age, and both obsessed with basketball, it made sense that they struck up a friendship right there on the spot. It was an important relationship for Mallis as he settled into his new home. "Ky was an absolute godsend for me," he said. "Having someone that you can chew the fat on and get to know socially and someone that you can call a mate over there... it really helped me fit in."
They became road trip partners when covering away games, driving to games in the nearby states. When the Sixers would were scheduled to play back-to-backs, they would crash together on the night in between games before an early morning departure. Ahead of one such trip, a home-and-home series against Washington, Carlin gave Mallis the ultimate Philadelphia experience: Wawa. "It’s like 7/11 on steroids," Carlin said. A staple of the area, it's a 24 hour superstore and, as Carlin tells it, the only place to get a chicken sandwich, a can of Pringles and a Gatorade at one in the morning.
"We walk in there at one in the morning and Ben is like 'this is what you love?'," Carlin said. "He’s looking at me like I have 15 heads, and he was like 'this is ok with you? Because this kind of looks like garbage'." Even a year later, the disappointment in Carlin's voice is obvious. "I was like 'don’t you ever disrespect the greatness of Wawa ever again'." Early the next morning, they drove to D.C. to cover the game against the Wizards.
Despite his tireless saving over 18 months, there remained plenty of cuts Mallis was forced to make during his time in Philadelphia. Some were simple, like swapping expensive domestic flights for buses and trains. Others were a little less convenient. "In my apartment, my mattress was on the floor for the first couple of months," Mallis said. Paying for a bed frame fell into the "luxury bucket" of expenses, and so didn't happen until a few months into his stay.
On top of that, the Greyhound and Bolt buses were rarely a pleasant experience. "It is what it is, it’s no frills. But when we’re talking about a couple hundred dollars for a plane ticket or ten dollars for the bus, you quickly select the bus." The positive, though, came once he stepped out of the stuffy combines of the cabin and into a handful of cities he never would have dreamed of visiting. One trip to Toronto saw him stop in Buffalo along the way; another road trip had a layover in Memphis for an afternoon, where he visited the National Civil Rights museum.
"The massive silver lining is that you learn a lot about yourself and that you get to see things and experience places that you wouldn’t otherwise get to," Mallis said. "These cities that I had heard of but, if I’m being honest, I never would have had any desire to go to if it wasn’t for this crazy opportunity that came up."
With freelance work often hard to sell to Australia, every corner he cut made a difference. With the goal to stay in America through Philadelphia's entire playoff run, but with no idea how long that might be, getting creative was a must. "You’d be amazed how resourceful you get when you’re away in America without a steady income," he said. "When you’re overseas and there’s no money coming in, you literally have nothing to lose so you do get busy and try things."
A cloudy future
As it panned out, the Sixers' playoff run lasted until the Eastern Conference semi-finals, where a Kawhi Leonard dagger sent them home in seven games. Of course, Mallis was sitting just a few rows back from one of the modern NBA's most iconic moments. "He hit that shot right in front of me, I can still vividly recall it as I sit here and talk to you."
It's moments like those that drove Mallis to travel to the US in the first place, and it's those same moments that make him hungry to return. In fact, he had planned to be there at this very moment, once again working during the NBA playoffs. With COVID-19 potentially restricting travel well into 2020/21, he admits it's tough to know when he'll next set foot in the Wells Fargo Center.
The world is full of doubt at the moment, but the one certainty is that Mallis will be back on the Philly beat at the first opportunity. Those that know him best are certain, too, that he'll find his way there permanently sooner rather than later.
"Honestly, if I could put a number on it, I guess 120% confident," Carlin said. "There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be ok, because the dude works his ass off, the dude gets done what needs to be done, he understands the game, he understands how relationships work."
Now that he's taken the first steps in the US, Ellis is similarly confident. "It takes incredible courage to be able to do that and then to become very good at it," he said.
And Mallis himself? He's happy enough to bide his time, work on his craft and spend time with his family back in Western Australia. The West Coast hoodie and tracksuit pants can stay in the closet for a while longer, but it surely won't be too long before he's back in the snow in the City of Brotherly Love.