The title of the latest Showtime sports documentary One & Done is quite fitting. Not because of the obvious subject material, but the fact that Ben Simmons’ name is missing from it. The doc focuses more so on what it means to be a top-flight NBA prospect in the NCAA’s currently constructed system than it does Simmons. And it serves to make the NCAA, at best, look archaic and, at worst, like the most corrupt sports organization this side of FIFA.
This isn’t to downplay the human side of Simmons that’s on display throughout. From his upbringing in Melbourne, Australia with his sister and step-siblings, to the impossible task of trying to have a normal day on a college campus as the talk of the basketball world, to his heartfelt Skype conversations with his bipolar disorder-suffering sister, this works well as an intimate look at what’s made Simmons the person he is today.
What will draw the most attention, however, is the way the doc paints a negative portrait of the NCAA and the NBA’s draft eligibility requirements. Simmons knows he was good enough to enter the 2015 NBA draft and compete right away. Everyone who had seen him play as an amateur knew that. So why go through the motions of having him haphazardly go through the college system? So that NBA general managers can save their asses when they make bad picks on high schoolers in the draft? So the bureaucracy of the NCAA can make millions in profits off unpaid labor?
“I know I’m ready to play in the NBA right now. It’s always been my dream since I was eight years old. It was never college,” Simmons states after his high school graduation in the documentary.
Don’t give me, “Well, he gets paid in education and room and board.” That’s bullshit. He doesn’t need that education. His education is on the court. Look at it from the perspective of, say, a wunderkind computer programmer who got a full scholarship to a college or university. They’re paying for his or her schooling and housing and meals. That’s great, but that student is also allowed to use his or her talents and go work at Microsoft or Apple or Google and make tons of money in and out of the school year. Simmons cannot make money off his basketball talents while enrolled in college or even off his own damn name. There’s a huge dichotomy here.
“I have to worry about everything I buy. Who pays for my gas? Who pays for my meal?” Simmons says, as his sister keeps a receipt for every purchase he made in college. “I can be a voice for everyone in college.” Simmons is trying to blaze the trail for systematic change to the amateur system.
“They’re gonna ask, ‘Ben, why didn’t you go to class?’” Simmons ponders rhetorically. “Well, you can’t get a degree in two semesters...”
“You just have to pass the first semester and you’re eligible for the rest of the season. I got Bs and Cs,” Simmons says regarding his complete disregard for attending class during the second half of the season. If the NCAA is going to play him, why not play the system right back and focus on furthering his career in a way that no classroom could prepare him? It doesn’t take away from the other non-athlete students. They’ll go to class and go about their lives regardless of whether Simmons attends.
“Well, he could’ve played in China for a year,” is the answer they’ll fire back to the quandary of him hating the NCAA’s demands. Why should Simmons be forced to go to an unfamiliar country where he doesn’t speak the native language and try to adjust to that culture all the while competing in a professional basketball league at 19 years old? That’s a lot to ask for someone who just wants to make money off his God-given talent.
Simmons picked LSU because his godfather is an assistant coach there. The fact that he only had his parents with him in high school for just his senior year and then had to leave them behind so quickly was likely a hard process, so it makes sense that Simmons chose a school where he’d be around a family-type figure as opposed to making the leap to a team like Duke or Kentucky. “I feel comfortable here,” he mentions to a fellow LSU student on campus. It’s unfair to force someone into another gigantic, cross-continent adjustment to Asia just so that he can play basketball professionally.
One oddity from the doc is Simmons speaks about forming a legacy in basketball as a high schooler. Will that rub some people the wrong way? Certainly. Does Simmons later on pondering which sneaker endorsement contract he’s going to take seem pretentious? A little bit, sure. It could come off as Harrison Barnes-level corniness where a kid is worrying about the longterm strength of his brand, as opposed to focusing on basketball, but what else is he supposed to think when the world’s been telling he’s the next LeBron fricking James since he was 17?
And if he’s really supposed to be the next LeBron James, then maybe it would’ve made sense to allow him to forgo the formality of wasting away for a year as a cog in the NCAA’s machine.