When the LSU Tigers were pummeled by Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament semifinals last spring, college basketball pundits across the country cast the season off as a failure. The main target of their ire was Tigers forward and super freshman Ben Simmons. Simmons, who was the consensus High School Player of the Year coming into Baton Rouge, had blossomed into the best player in the country, leading his team in every statistical category — the first player to do so at any program.
Off the court, however, Simmons faced criticism for his academics after being left off the Wooden Award’s finalist list because he failed to achieve a 2.0 grade-point average. The grading controversy, coupled with the Tigers missing the NCAA Tournament, brought further criticism on Simmons' commitment to college basketball.
But Simmons, born and raised in Australia, never sought this commitment growing up.
“I was born in Australia. I didn’t grow up watching the NCAA Tournament," Simmons admits in the Showtime documentary appropriately titled "One and Done." "That was never a big deal to me. It was high school and the NBA. It was never college.”
The documentary, released Nov. 4, chronicles Simmons journey from his native Australia until his draft night in 2016.
Throughout the film, Simmons is faced with the juggling act of fulfilling his obligations as a student athlete while living the life of a professional one. Sports agents and shoe company reps sat courtside through many of Simmons’ home games in Baton Rouge, jockeying for position to get his signature the moment he turned pro.
Rich Paul, an agent, also has a bond with Simmons. It is Paul who frequently FaceTimes Simmons before and after games, reassuring him things will be OK through the dog days of the season.
The Simmons arms race started in 2013 for Paul, the owner of Klutch Sports, when he hired Simmons’ sister Emily as a consultant. During the film, Emily, who had a marketing career prior to joining Klutch, plays the role of Simmons' second mom while he’s in the States, buying him clothes, groceries and anything else Simmons needs during his time in college.
“I mean, I don’t get paid,” Simmons says in the doc. “I have to worry about everything I do, who paid for my food, who paid for my gas.”
“Everything Ben has, I have a receipt for it.” Emily says.
Despite Emily’s contributions, Simmons still struggles to make ends meet. This is evident when he has to spend $140 on bedding, leaving him with $50 to last him until his next check.
“The NCAA is fucked up, man," says Simmons in the most viral line in the film. "Everybody’s making money except the players. We’re the ones that have to wake up early as hell to be the best teams and do everything they want us to do. And then the players get nothing.”
Simmons, like many other basketball players in his position, is a prisoner in the “one and done" system. The company line is that these players are brought into a university to play a sport and get an education. In reality, they’re in the school to provide a service, impress boosters and bring in more money for their programs. As Simmons saw firsthand, it’s impossible not to blur the lines of student and athlete.
“Going to school and being in college is not a job. Everybody knows who I am because LSU marketed me and put me everywhere," he says. "They treat me like I’m a superstar and then they say that ‘you’re just another student athlete.’ They can’t expect me to act like everyone else when they don’t treat me like everyone else.”
"One and Done" provides a cautionary tale to anyone striving to be a student athlete at a major university. Simmons’ journey provides a peek into the hypocrisy in the NCAA structure and will hopefully promote change.
Whether it was his childhood intent or not.
A Bay Area resident rooting for all things Los Angeles.