Inside Ben Simmons’ difficult, freezing road back to Nets

Nets fans have waited awhile to finally see Ben Simmons healthy, both mentally and physically. And though they didn’t see all the work that he put in to get healthy — and will have to keep putting in to stay that way — it’s been a long road.

“I’ve put myself in position. I’ve been working on myself this past year to get back on the floor and play at a high level,” Simmons said this week. “I deserve to take this opportunity to get back on the court, so I’m excited to team up with these guys, these coaches.”

Simmons — acquired at the February trade deadline for former MVP James Harden — missed all of last season due to mental health issues and a herniated disk. He worked with a therapist on his mental health, and the back injury eventually required microdiscectomy surgery in May.

Now finally cleared for action, Simmons has been playing pickup at the Nets’ HSS Training Center for weeks, and with training camp having started on Tuesday, he’s working to build cohesion with his teammates, including Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

“It’s good to see him back out after a stressful year for him physically and mentally,” Durant said. “So to see him have a good time on the floor is cool.”

Ben Simmons #10 of the Brooklyn Nets speaks at the podium during a press conference at Brooklyn Nets Media Day at HSS Training Center on September 26, 2022.
Ben Simmons is poised to play for the Nets this season after missing all of last season due to physical and mental health issues.
Getty Images

Irving added, “With that level of talent and the IQ and the motivation and drive, anything’s possible. [Simmons] has that inside of him, so now we just have to develop it where he knows he can just go out there and be himself. We want him to be his highest potential of himself … be able to accomplish things on the floor he wasn’t able to do the last few years and just have some fun being at peace.

“It’s going to take time obviously health-wise, but we’re patient. Just wait for him to look like he’s in All-Star form again, which I know will happen soon.”

Taking up cryotherapy 🧊

Simmons has tried a range of treatments and therapies to regain better physical and emotional health. He spoke openly last season about having gone through “dark days,” and knows maintaining his mental health is a constant process.

“I feel everybody has dark days, but we’re able to address it and work toward getting it to the place where we need to be,” Simmons said. “That’s where I am. For me, I work on myself every day.”

That credo applies to physical maintenance as well.

Brooklyn Nets guard Ben Simmons practices before an NBA game against the Indiana Pacers on April 10, 2022.
Simmons underwent back surgery in May, and said he has developed more careful routines for taking care of his body.
Corey Sipkin

“I think the older I get, the more I know I need to take care of my body,” he said. “So, food-wise, nutrition, and then every day massage therapy, Pilates. I’m staying on top of my body this year. So it’s a lot, but you know it’s a must.”

In addition, The Post has learned, Simmons underwent repeated cryotherapy treatments last season in California.

He frequented Muscle Lab in Pasadena for the stretching and cryotherapy sessions. Heat guard Tyler Herro is another NBA client.

Cryogenic therapy is used to help reduce inflammation, pain and other symptoms. The body is exposed to very cold temperatures for a short time, often three minutes. The nitrogen-based cryotherapy machines at Muscle Lab reach temperatures as low as negative 220 degrees (“Like a bad day in New York,” Muscle Lab founder Andy Treys joked). Treatments generally are administered two or three times a week.

“Cryotherapy helps your body reduce inflammation — that’s one of the main points that people use it for – and it helps you recover faster and helps you on any pain management that you have,” Treys told Sports+.

“It’s basically a chamber. … There’s a window, so if you need some air [or] it’s just too cold, you give a knock and we lower the window. Your entire body — even your head and your face — everything is inside this human freezer for three minutes. You pick whatever song you want, and you make it through.”

A view of a cryotherapy chamber at Muscle Lab in Pasadena, Calif.
Simmons did cryotherapy treatments in a chamber like this one, exposing his body to ultra-freezing temperatures for a few minutes at a time.
via Facebook/Muscle Lab

Cryotherapy has become increasingly popular among NBA players over the past decade or so. Among the first in the league to make use of it was the late Lakers icon Kobe Bryant. Famously competitive, Bryant wouldn’t tell other players about it to try to keep every edge to himself.

Treys said cryotherapy also can be beneficial for one’s mental health.

“Well, I know Ben was struggling through some mental health issues — it actually does help that as well,” Treys said. “It does release endorphins in your body. It’s almost like your body thinks that it’s dying, and it starts fighting. So there’s a lot of very interesting things that happen during the session. … You’re just more refreshed after, almost like a very cold shower.”

(In an article published by HuffPost, Dr. Michael A Gleiber wrote, “Cryotherapy can boost endorphins and adrenaline, and get your blood flowing. These things may result in a temporary boost in mood, which in theory could be helpful for people with anxiety and depression. However, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that cryotherapy is actually a viable treatment for anxiety and depression. Although it may be a good supplement to treatment, these conditions are really best managed by a mental health specialist.”)

‘I put a lot of time and effort into myself’

For Simmons, who missed all of last season partially due to mental health issues, it’s vital to do everything possible to get in – and stay in – the right headspace. Irving, who took a personal leave from the Nets in the midst of the 2020-21 season, spoke to the importance of that process for any player and especially for Simmons.

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) reacts during Game 3 of the first round of the NBA playoffs against the Boston Celtics on April 23, 2022.
Kyrie Irving spoke of the Nets being “supportive” of Simmons as he tries to find peace and joy in playing basketball.
Corey Sipkin

“It means they come in with a peace of mind and they enjoy the game of basketball,” Irving said. “It’s a profession, for sure, I don’t want to knock that — [there’s] a seriousness about it. But building team camaraderie takes that ability to go through some uncomfortable moments, and you’ve got to be balanced mentally, spiritually, emotionally, to be able to handle things like that.

“I definitely have first-hand experience. I don’t want to make mental health a trend, but in actuality it’s one of the most important things that you need out here to be great in anything you do. We all are supportive. We all go through our own things, but we can understand and meet him where he’s at, and have him enjoy the game rather than make it feel like it’s something he’s forced to come through.”

So why is Simmons confident he can stay in a good headspace? All the work that it took to get where he is now.

The young All-Star has heard all the trolling and mockery about his lost season and the reasons for it. Simmons just chooses to tune them out in favor of keeping his eyes on the greater prizes: his own mental health and a pursuit of a title.

Ben Simmons of the Brooklyn Nets attends a game between the Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers during the 2022 NBA Summer League.
In his ongoing work on his mental health, Simmons said, he has tuned out critics and focused on winning an NBA title with the Nets.
Getty Images

“I put a lot of time and effort into myself,” Simmons said. “We could be here all day talking about [the details]. A lot of time and energy was spent on getting myself to a place where I want to play.

“I don’t care about narrative. People are saying certain things. I can’t control that. All I can do is focus on what I can do on the court: Win games and help this team win a championship. That’s the end goal for the Nets, obviously. We’re here for one reason.”