Sixers Talk podcast: Ben Simmons adds muscle; more NBA players test positive for COVID-19

Even as basketball activity ramps up and workouts have shifted from voluntary to mandatory, Brett Brown estimated Wednesday that “99 percent” of the team’s conversations in recent Zoom calls have been about racial injustice.

At first glance, it might seem a bit incongruous to be focusing on issues bigger than basketball with your head coach. But it’s something his players appreciate.  

“I think Brett, that’s one thing I’ve loved about him since … my rookie year,” Glenn Robinson III said Thursday in a video conference call. “Yes, we’re basketball players and we come in and we have a job and we’re here to work, but he’ll flip our minds and flip our brains to get us thinking, just to get us to open up the discussion and communicate more with each other.

“He does a great job of that. Lately, the Zoom calls, he’ll keep basketball to a minimum, 3-5 minutes talking about that. He’ll go straight into everything that’s happening in the world, Black Lives Matter and what do we think about it. He wants to hear our opinion and hear from his players. 

“You don’t get that a lot, and the great coaches do that. Steve (Kerr) was doing that when I was with the Warriors, (Gregg) Popovich does it. I heard about it from my dad. A lot of coaches will do those type of things to keep that engagement going with the team. And it’s just important for us to know that Coach cares about us.

For better — and arguably for worse in this tumultuous historical moment — basketball is a distraction. When we’re wondering about Robinson’s role or Ben Simmons’ health, our attention is drawn away from other issues. That’s a concern which was expressed recently by a coalition of players led by the Nets’ Kyrie Irving and the Lakers’ Avery Bradley. 

If Brown and the Sixers want to make a deep playoff run when the season resumes at Disney World, at some point those team conversations will likely have to contain more than 3-5 minutes of conversation about basketball. 

Simmons is determined to use his platform regardless. On June 2, he called President Donald Trump “cowardly” on social media for threatening military force against those protesting against racism and police brutality around the country, and he advocated for “equality and unity.” He is not planning on neglecting those topics now that the resumption of the season is getting closer.

In a conference call Thursday, Simmons shared his outlook as someone who grew up in Australia with an African American father and an Australian mother. 

Just being an African-American Australian kid growing up back home, there’s always been racism that the indigenous people of Australia — I’d even compare them to the Native Americans here — that don’t get treated fairly,” Simmons said. “They don’t have the same opportunities, they don’t have great healthcare, they don’t have opportunities to learn, they don’t have the safety that the majority of people will have back home. 

“So for me seeing the incident with George Floyd and so many other people, it’s not fair. I believe in equality. I think at the end of the day, everybody deserves the same opportunities. Hopefully we can do that for the kids back home in Australia. My team and I have been working very hard to come up with a few ideas and things to do back home to give those people who don’t have the opportunities to get an education. … At the end of the day, that’s what everybody’s asking for, is equality.

The NBA is planning to paint “Black Lives Matter” on the courts at Disney World, ESPN reported last week. Additionally, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts told The Athletic’s Michael Lee that the union is looking into a project to address police accountability. But, if the season is able to conclude with a champion despite the risks of playing during a global pandemic, it’s not difficult to imagine racial injustice and police brutality fading further into the background of many fans’ minds. 

“It’s never a shut up and dribble situation,” Thunder point guard Chris Paul told reporters last week on a conference call. “You’re going to hear us.”

Robinson sounds like he’s on the same page as Paul. He’s proud of the non-profit foundation he founded, Angels are Real Indeed (ARI), which has a mission of “empower(ing) fathers with essential resources that will allow them to be the best dads they can be” and “provid(ing) assistance to fatherless children and families.” 

The foundation has partnered with organizations that support Black people in Robinson’s hometown of Gary, Indiana, and has launched a fundraising campaign, with Robinson pledging to match donations. He is also donating $22 to the ARI Foundation for every point he scores this season.

“I think it’s very important,” Robinson said. “We’ve heard a lot of players talk, and whether you agree or not, I think it’s very important we don’t forget about everything that’s going on with the restart of basketball.

“I know a lot of players have that goal in mind. … I’m from Gary, Indiana, which is a rough city. I think the families there, the kids there, they need people to give back. Without me giving back to that city, who else is doing it? So it’s very important to me.”

Robinson, who said with a smile that Brown has expressed interest in helping the ARI Foundation, has a proposal to provide greater visibility to organizations like his own. 

“I think the NBA should allow player-led foundations to be represented while we go play,” he said. “I think that there should be some type of fundraising aspect for that. I want to give the world my platform, as a Sixers player. I have teammates who want to do the same thing and have their own platforms that I think should be recognized by the world. 

“We put a lot of hard work into that and many of us come from cities that really, really need that help. I think it would be a great idea to just give the world our platforms that we work on and try to build a brand for ourselves and our teams every day. That’s just my idea.”

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