If it were up to his mother, Ben Simmons would be playing Australian football for the Essendon Bombers.
It is one of the interesting revelations to come out of Simmons' interview on 60 Minutes Australia, an offshoot of the popular American news magazine on CBS that's been a TV staple down under for nearly 40 years. The interview aired Sunday night in Australia (Sunday morning Philadelphia time) on the Nine Network.
Here's the full interview:
The interview was done by Tom Steinfort, who just joined 60 Minutes Australia in January after years as a morning show host and European corespondent for various Nine Network shows. He also recently spent time reporting from North Korea.
"I'm a bit of a sports nut, so this story was one that I pitched on my first day at the show," Steinfort told the Inquirer and Daily News. "It actually was a bit of a hard sell to the boss because basketball very rarely gets major media coverage here."
Simmons' parents, Dave and Julie, are featured prominently in the interview, which follows the young phenom over several days in March, including the Sixers 118-110 win over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 15.
Simmons' father was a basketball star in his own right, playing 13 seasons for the the Melbourne Tigers in the country's National Basketball League, who retired his No. 25 jersey. The American native was a fan favorite, and during his time (part of which he spent under then-Tigers coach and current Sixers coach Brett Brown), he cut many promotional videos for the team, including one featuring a young Ben Simmons.
In an interview with the Inquirer and Daily News, Steinfort talked about Simmons' popularity in Australia, how the basketball star nearly became an Australian football player and the awkward moment he asked about Simmons' girlfriend, Tinashe. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I'm a bit of a sports nut, so this story was one that I pitched on my first day at the show. It actually was a bit of a hard sell to the boss because basketball very rarely gets major media coverage here — keep in mind it's probably the sixth or seventh most popular sport in Australia, which actually makes the number of Australians currently doing well in the NBA even more remarkable.
For us it was all about access — if we could really be a fly on the wall for a few days to Ben's lifestyle, then we were in — and thankfully an old colleague of mine, Nick Johnston, is now head of media for Australian basketball, and he helped link us up with the right people at the NBA and the Sixers, and the rest is history. I think they were keen to help make it happen because we are a huge growth market for the NBA — surging interest here has helped make Ben Simmons into the top 10 most purchased jerseys this season.
We spent four days in Philadelphia and also a night in New York for the game there against the Knicks. We went to Sixers training and spoke with [head coach] Brett Brown and [general manager] Bryan Collangelo and also spent time at home with Ben's fantastic parents Dave and Julie, who just about steal the show in the story.
We loved his matte black Ferrari, although not sure how someone that big fits in it. Also when we did the interview last month, we asked Ben about his girlfriend, Tinashe, and he was very coy before his management jumped in … but they've since gone very public on Instagram.
Philadelphia was fantastic, and I love how much the city lives and breathes sport. I'm from Melbourne (also where Ben grew up), which is absolutely sports mad, and it was great to see the passion among locals for the Eagles and the Sixers. My brother also lived in Philadelphia for a while doing his master's at the University of Pennsylvania, so he gave me some good tips for what to see and where to eat. As for the Sixers themselves, they seem like a really well-run organization — and I've taken the saying "trust the process" home with me.
Basketball is a long, long way down the pecking order in Australia, which makes the number of Australians excelling in the NBA even more remarkable. It was doing well in Australia in the mid-'90s but really slid for a couple of decades.
But over the last couple of years, under new ownership and leadership in Australia, it's having somewhat of a renaissance. We've got your national team playing at a 60,000-seat stadium later in the year, and Andrew Bogut has just signed to play for the Sydney Kings in our national competition.
There's a real excitement about the sport at the moment here, and I loved talking to Ben Simmons about him combining with the likes of [Utah Jazz] Joe Ingles, [San Antonio Spurs] Patty Mills, [Utah Jazz] Dante Exum at the next Olympics. He told us nothing would make him happier than potentially beating the USA at Tokyo 2020, and who knows, maybe even winning gold.
It's only really this year that Ben Simmons has become box-office in Australia. Even when he was drafted number one, it wasn't very big news here — bizarrely three of the past 13 number one NBA draft picks were actually born in Melbourne [Andrew Bogut and Kyrie Irving] I'm telling you, we are the best sporting city in the world!
But as I mentioned with jersey sales, Australians are catching on fast. Barely a day goes by now without an article on Ben in the papers, and the deeper the Sixers go in the playoffs, the bigger that will get.
Funny enough, I had three different people tell me yesterday they are well and truly on the Sixers bandwagon now. Brett Brown has great links in Australia, having coached our national team at three Olympics, and even coaching Ben's dad in the NBL. But realistically, it's Ben that has put the team on the radar here — and I'm very pleased to say I've got his signed jersey now hanging above my desk at work, too.
Kicking the footy with Ben was fantastic — that's my favorite sport in the world, and to be honest, when you're born in Melbourne you don't have any other choice. I'm going to watch my team Richmond play on Sunday, and there should be a crowd of just over 90,000 — my friends in Sydney often joke that Melburnians are so obsessed with sport that they'd fill a stadium to watch two snails race up a wall.
Ben was an exceptional talent at Aussie rules football and could've played that professionally, too, but very wisely chose basketball instead. He says it was not only a no brainer, but his heart was always for basketball as well…despite his Aussie mum pushing him toward the local game.