Patrick: rise of godson Simmons is surreal

  • David Patrick has just been hired as head coach of UC-Riverside Highlanders
  • Harshest critic but biggest fan: Ben Simmons, left, has been a rookie sensation in the NBA, much to the delight of David Patrick, his Bermudian godfather (Photograph by Chris Szagola/AP)
  • Australian connection: Patty Mills, right, was recruited by David Patrick to Saint Mary’s after being the Bermudian’s ballboy in Canberra when he was a youngster (Photograph by Darren Abate/AP)

The NBA play-offs tip off on Saturday, and one of the assocation’s biggest young stars — as well as a couple of former champions — have Bermudian connections.

David Patrick, who is the new head coach at the University of California-Riverside, was born in Bermuda and is the godfather of Ben Simmons, the 21-year-old Philadelphia 76ers superstar and former No 1 overall Draft pick who is one of the favourites to be named NBA Rookie of the Year.

Patrick left Bermuda with his mother aged 10 for Australia, played basketball there, in college in the US with Syracuse and Louisiana-Lafayette and in Europe before his career was ended by knee injuries. He moved on to coach in the NCAA, where he recruited Australian future NBA champions Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova to Saint Mary’s College in California, before helping Louisiana State land Simmons.

Patrick says he is Simmons’s “harshest critic”, but also admits that he tried to steer him away from basketball towards Australian Rules football. He says Simmons’s rise is “surreal” but that his hard work is paying off and that “he’s never played and not been good!”

But Patrick’s own journey began in Bermuda and took him to many places along his way to Riverside, where he will lead the Highlanders in NCAA Division I’s Big West Conference.

“I was born in Bermuda and when I was in Bermuda as a young kid, I attended Saltus primary school and I played soccer and ran track,” Patrick told The Royal Gazette. “Then I moved to Australia with my mother as a young kid when I was about 10 and started picking up the game of basketball.

“Soccer was not very big in Australia at the time, so I picked up basketball at a pretty young age and was able to develop to play on the junior national teams and state teams in Australia and play at a pretty high level over there.

“I got recruited to go to a high school in Louisiana in my senior year and I’d always wanted to come to the States to come to school because most of my friends back in Bermuda were either going to high school in Canada, or the US, or London, but I was always yearning to come back to this side of the world and my basketball ability enabled me to get a high-school scholarship at Chapel Trafton in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“I played there for a year and was state player of the year there in high school. I was blessed to receive a lot of basketball scholarships from the likes of LSU, Miami, Mississippi State, Temple and so on and so forth and I decided to take my basketball scholarship to Syracuse University up in New York state.

“I did that in 1995, played there as a freshman. That year, we went to the national championship and lost to Kentucky. But what I didn’t know, as a young kid, I didn’t realise it snowed in Syracuse. Coming from Bermuda, then Louisiana, then going to a place where it snowed in September and October was a little bit of a shock for me at 18 years old.

“I wasn’t playing a lot as a freshman, and I didn’t understand that, and combine that with the cold weather and it wasn’t the experience I wanted. So I went down to Louisiana-Lafayette for my last few years at college. From there, I was able to go on and play professionally in Australia for three years for the Canberra Cannons, and from there I tore my knee and went on to Chester Jets in England for a year and then on to Spain. Then I tore my knee again and decided that you know what, the playing part is over for me.”

Then, his coaching journey began, and he was able to start Mills and Dellavedova on their journies to greatness by recruting them from Australia to Saint Mary’s.

Mills, the San Antonio guard who was part of the Spurs’ 2014 championship team, was Patrick’s ball-boy at the Canberra Cannons, and Dellavedova, the Milwaukee Bucks guard who won a title alongside LeBron James for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, played with him on the same club in Melbourne.

It was playing for Canberra that would lead to him eventually recruting Simmons to LSU.

“My high-school coach got a college coaching job the year I hurt myself at Nicholls State, in Louisiana,” Patrick explained. “When I finished playing he asked me if I wanted to coach and I said no and then my wife got pregnant, or we got pregnant, and we were living in New York, and I said OK, let me coach, I’ll do it, because she was from there and it was close to her family.

“I was there for year and along the journey I got asked to coach at Saint Mary’s. At the time, they were recruiting a kid named Patty Mills, or Patrick. Well Patrick was my ball-boy when I played professionally in Canberra and I used to take care of him when he was 9-10 years old, so when I moved to Saint Mary’s and it was time to recruit him it was an easy sell. He was comfortable with me and the family was as well.

“On that team, the Canberra Cannons, my best friend was David Simmons. And his little kid, Ben Simmons, was just born. So he made me his godfather. When I moved to Melbourne with my mother I played on the same club team that his fater played on. Then when I finished college and I graduated and finished as a player, that was his rookie year, so he took me under his wing and he asked me to do the same for his son as he grew up.

“At that time, as Ben grew up, I thought he was going to be an Australian Rules football player, and I was the always the one saying: ‘forget basketball, play Aussie Rules, you’ll make more money’. So what do I know!

“So I went to LSU and when the time came for Ben to get recruited, it was another simple sell. They trusted me, I’d been around him a long time. Dellavedova followed the same line, played for the same club I did in Melbourne. So I think the relationships that I was able to maintain over the years have enabled me to land some of these better players.”

He still sees Simmons play whenever he can

Patrick said: “I try to go up there once a month, or once every other month, and I’m probably his harshest critic, because everybody tells him how good he is and what he does and it drives me nuts! He doesn’t get 15 rebounds every night! I see it from a different lens because I know how dominant he can be, but it’s great to see the accolades that are coming for him.

“He sacrificed a lot. He kind of followed what I did. He wanted to do what I did as a kid. He came here for his last two years of high school just to get a scholarship. Nobody thought it would be the NBA, or No 1 pick in the Draft and rookie of year. That was all by his hard work and God’s blessed him with some big size and he’s got a very good family and circle around him so to see it now is surreal, but he’s never played and not been good!

“I do think when you go up in Australia or Bermuda, you don’t pigeonhole yourself into one sport. He was good at football, track and basketball, so he hasn’t even scratched the surface, He’s good at playing X-Box, because he probably does that more than he anything, so I think as he matures his game’s going to go to a whole other level.”

And Patrick hopes to help develop the game here, one day.

“When Sullivan Phillips was there playing, I tried to stay in touch with them,” Patrick said. “My hope one day is to try to be involved with the national programme there. I will say that I’ve reached out a couple of times and didn’t get too much response, which is OK. I’ve been asked to coach the Australian national team and other teams. My hope is to one day be involved or help in any way I can.”