By Titus Falodun
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — In a moment of social unrest with a heated battle for the highest title in the land, the Philadelphia 76ers are bringing worlds together via a trio of talented rookies.
First overall pick Ben Simmons of Australia in 2016, 12th pick in the 2014 NBA draft Dario Saric of Croatia and Twitter legend and third pick overall in 2014 Joel Embiid of Cameroon represent not just the potential greatness of the Sixers, but also the quintessential fabric of Americana, which at its heart is a beautiful blend of global diversity.
In recent years, the Sixers have played the role of a franchise without an identity, lacking true talent and foundation, leaving players miffed about the team’s direction and fans largely disinterested.
Prior to the arrival of former GM Sam Hinkie, the Sixers brain trust, occupied at one time or another by the likes of Billy King, Doug Collins, Rob Thorn and Tony DiLeo, relied on drafting United States-born and bred players from major conferences with at least a couple of collegiate seasons under their belt.
How did that work out?
Now, Simmons, Saric and Embiid stand as pillars of a brotherly love that embodies the city’s colorful mixture of culture and personality.
Max Rappaport, freelance writer for Complex and premier Sixers blogsite LibertyBallers.com, welcomes the influx of foreign flavor to the roster as he sees bigger and better things on the horizon for each player and the team.
“Ben Simmons is such a flashy and marketable player that if he pans out for the Sixers, he can be a guy that owns that entire market,” Rappaport said.
As of Thursday, Sept. 29, “Ben Simmons jersey” is the most popular search on the NBA’s store website.
“Australia is such a huge basketball country…I think it makes a huge difference when a country has someone of their own to root for, who’s leading a team like that,” Rappaport explained.
Saric, the 6-10 versatile big who hails from the basketball oasis of Croatia, which produced former Chicago Bulls champion and one-time Sixer Toni Kukoc, is already an online hero with a stellar nickname to boot after an Embiid tweet on Sept. 3, 2014.
During a team visit to Spain that year with then point guard Michael Carter Williams and big man Nerlens Noel, Embiid posted a picture with the three of them posing outside of the venue hosting the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, in which Saric was playing.
The caption to the pic read: “Watching the homie Dario in Spain #Alwaysmad #Philly,” thus Saric’s popular moniker as The Homie.
Moments like that capture the rapport the players have amongst themselves, as well as the undeniable charm of Embiid whose Twitter fingers stay ready. You can catch him trolling his teammates or trying to holla at a celebrity on any given day.
At the Sixers Media Day, the 7-foot-plus center and his 6-10 running mate in Simmons joked about their FIFA soccer game battle.
“I beat him in FIFA, ask him about that,” Simmons said with a smile.
Embiid, whose moment with the media followed Simmons, responded by saying, “First of all, we play on Xbox; I only play PlayStation. I told him if he wants to play on PS4, we can–he’s scared. He hasn’t played me. So whenever he’s ready, just let me know.”
That feud has spread to Twitter, of course.
But the same joy Embiid and Simmons share online is matched by a loss experienced off the court. Both players lost a close relative to fatal car incidents.
Embiid’s 13-year-old younger brother Arthur died after a vehicle reportedly rolled down a hill and struck him back in October of 2014.
Just this summer, Simmons’ 21-year-old cousin Zachary died after being struck by an SUV while crossing a street in Hoboken, New Jersey in what was reported as a hit and run on June 25, just a couple nights after the Sixers selected Ben as the top pick in the NBA Draft.
Despite that pain, and the adversity of not being fully healthy to play for so long for Embiid and the disappointment of missing the NCAA tournament with the LSU Tigers for Simmons, both players are bonding quickly and making many hoop heads dream of a combination never before seen on an NBA court.
“Philly had Moses Malone back in the 80s; I feel Embiid can be that guy that big man, that next big star,” sports analyst Jonathan Marshall said.
“Ben Simmons is that quiet, smooth operator. His passing may look fancy but it really is effective for him like Jason Williams (White Chocolate). It looks flashy but there really is skill in it.”
Marshall added that both Embiid and Simmons have superstar talent.
Embiid, who has been getting the Hakeem Olajuwon praises since he first touched the ball several years ago, said he wants to dominate the post on both ends of the floor as he studies film of big men like Marc Gasol, Patrick Ewing, Tim Duncan and others.
But he’s peeping the guards as well.
“(I’m) watching a lot of guards because I feel like one day I’m going to need to use those skills,” he said.
Simmons is so unlike any other current player, outside of LeBron James, who he trained with over the summer for about a week as they share the same sports agent in Rich Paul of Klutch Sports.
“I believe I’m a leader no matter what it is, if we’re playing Scrabble or monopoly, Pictionary…whatever the game is,” Simmons joked.
And don’t forget about The Homie Saric, whose versatility makes him a Draymond Green-type of player in terms of role and impact since he’s already been a winner on various levels.
At best, the Sixers are a budding juggernaut a la last year’s Minnesota Timberwolves or yesteryears OKC Thunder and dare I say, Golden State Warriors.
All three players can handle and dish the rock, with high ceilings when it comes to getting buckets.
At worst, they are three guys who will at least make Philadelphia’s pro basketball scene sunny again, which hasn’t been the case since Allen Iverson left.
“When we’ve got all these players from around the world playing in Philadelphia and those broadcasts are going back to their (home) countries and they’re hearing the name Philadelphia and they’re seeing beauty shots of the city…that all contributes to people getting to know us a little bit more,” said Larry Needle, executive director of PHL Sports, an executive division of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We love for example when Joel (Embiid) is out on social media and saying what he’s saying. And he’s certainly a great ambassador for Philadelphia and I’m sure Ben (Simmons) will be as all well and his other teammates.”
There are only so many advertising dollars the city can spend to make a real dent internationally, so this trio of possible basketball stars can make a huge and positive impression that reverberates beyond the city limits.
“Our tourism team is hosting a tour for travel writers from Australia in late October,” Needle said. “And when they come in, we’re working with the Sixers to bring them down to a game and let them see and even talk to Ben Simmons.”
There’s no telling what impact Simmons and the crew can have on the city’s tourism and commercial growth, especially if they restore this once illustrious franchise to championship glory.
But just their presence alone brings Philly a world of optimism and hope.
Titus Falodun is a producer at SportsRadio 94WIP.