At First Gaze, Ben Simmons Looks Like a Game-changer

Lindsay Gaze is a legendary figure in Australian basketball, a retired coach of such renown that he is in four Halls of Fame, most notably the one in Springfield, Mass.

Think Phil Jackson, with a cooler accent.

So when he says his fellow countryman, Ben Simmons, “has the ability to change the game,” it carries considerable weight.

Gaze, 79, once coached Simmons’ dad, Dave, in Melbourne. His assistant for a time was none other than Brett Brown. Gaze has watched the younger Simmons develop his game to the point that Brown’s Sixers made him the top overall choice in last week’s NBA draft. And while he cautioned that Simmons, listed at 6-10 and 240 pounds, must continue to bulk up, Gaze has no doubt about his skill set.

“I don't think we should assess Ben as a ‘standard’ small forward,” he said via email this week. “In fact I don't think we should assess him as ‘standard’ anything. Ben has guard/playmaking skill which could be exploited, as LSU was able to do to some degree (last season). I think he has the ability to change the game as the great Kresimir Cosic did for the former Yugoslavia.”

Others have offered up Draymond Green (minus the kicking game), Magic Johnson or even LeBron James as analogues to Simmons, but Gaze’s frame of reference is a fellow Hall of Famer, a 6-11 Croatian who led Yugoslavia to four Olympics, winning gold in 1980 in Moscow (i.e., the Games boycotted by the United States). Cosic, who died in 1995 at age 46, also played at BYU, becoming the first foreign-born player to earn All-American honors in 1972 and ’73. And while he was twice drafted by NBA teams, he chose instead to play professionally overseas.

“Few believed a 212cm player (i.e., 6-11) should, or could, play effectively as a guard,” Gaze said, “but he did, and changed the conventional beliefs forever.”

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Gaze, his nation’s Olympic coach in four Summer Games between 1972 and ’84, also coached the Melbourne Tigers for 35 years, ending in 2005. And it was during a barnstorming tour of the States with that club in 1989 that he learned of Dave Simmons, a 6-9 forward who had played at Oklahoma City University and in such nations as Costa Rica, Colombia and Venezuela.

The two of them met and settled on a contract. And in eight years with the Tigers, Simmons proved to be “a brute around the basket,” Gaze said, a guy who set “horrendous screens” that repeatedly freed up teammates for scoring opportunities. With another American, Dave Colbert – they called themselves “the Double D’s,” according to Sydney Morning Herald – he led Melbourne to its first National Basketball League playoff berth in ‘89.

Lindsay’s son Andrew, who also played on a Seton Hall club that reached the NCAA championship game in 1988-89, was part of that Melbourne team. And Brown was on the bench, having approached the elder Gaze about a job after arriving from New Zealand the previous year.

Only problem was, Gaze had nothing to offer.

“However, I thought we might be able to ‘manufacture’ a position of promotions officer and marketing, which Brett accepted,” he said.

He would double up as Gaze’s assistant through 1993, when the Tigers won the first of two NBL championships. That team included not only Simmons, Colbert and the younger Gaze but also former Sixer Lanard Copeland and future Sixer Mark Bradtke.

Meantime, Dave Simmons had met a woman named Julie, who would become his wife. Brown has said that she was the team’s head cheerleader. Lindsay Gaze has no recollection of that.

“But,” he said, “she certainly became Dave’s chief cheerleader.”

She had four children from a previous marriage, and after she and Dave wed in ’94 she first gave birth to a daughter, Olivia, then Ben in 1996. That also proved to be Dave’s final season with the Tigers; he spent the last five seasons of his 13-year Australian career playing elsewhere.

Gaze saw the younger Simmons on occasion during his mid-teens, notably when he “nonchalantly” slam-dunked during a practice with the national youth team.

“Anyone standing next to me at the time would have heard me say, ‘I like that,’” Gaze said. “It was clearly apparent we had a star in our midst.”

In 2013, Simmons became the youngest player to play for the national team, at age 16. By then he was already enrolled at Montverde Academy near Orlando, the same school that had provided a landing spot for Joel Embiid when he came over from Cameroon a year or two earlier. Simmons was there for two and a half years, playing alongside D’Angelo Russell, among others.

Then came a season at LSU. And now, Gaze believes, something special.

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