Long Shots Chapter III: Short Sight, Tall Plans
At 5-foot-7, Nedrie Simmons is the Vanier Mavericks’ smallest player, and perhaps the most reckless. But he’s head and shoulders above when it comes to confidence in his talent, writes Morgan Campbell.
2 June 2003 – Toronto Star
Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2003
Nedrie Simmons launches jump shots alone in the gym at Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary School, 20 minutes before basketball practice.
He’s still counting on a scholarship offer but, the truth is, no American college coach even knows who he is yet. He’s got a lot going against him. For one, he’s small – at 5-foot-7 he’s the shortest player on his team. Second, he plays in such a hurry that he often makes mistakes. And third, he doesn’t shoot well.
By the end of the day he’ll have a fourth problem. Today is the last day for students to apply to Ontario universities and Nedrie hasn’t applied anywhere yet. He’s still holding out for that scholarship south of the border.
“Does the term ‘double cohort’ mean anything to you?” an observer asks as Nedrie shoots, referring to the double graduation of Grade 12 and OAC students this spring.
“Hmph.” He smirks. He shrugs. He sinks a jumper. Splash.
“I know it’s an oxymoron,” he says.
“Because.” Splash. “It’s two words that mean the same thing. Double, then cohort. ‘Co’ means two, like together. It’s, like, an oxymoron.” Splash.
While most graduating students clamour for university spots, Nedrie is indifferent to what Ontario schools have to offer. In the past month a pair of Nova Scotia schools, Acadia and Dalhousie, have each sent him recruiting letters. The head coach from the University of Waterloo has also invited him to campus. Most Canadian schools, however, don’t give athletic scholarships, and Nedrie – who washes dishes part-time at the Royal York hotel – says he can’t afford tuition.
By the end of the day, as the Ontario application deadline passes, Waterloo will no longer be a choice. His options are running out.
That’s Nedrie. He gambles on the court and he gambles with his future.
On March 7, 1984, Dawn Simmons gave birth to a son. She wanted to name him after her favourite basketball player, former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas. Her husband, however, wanted to name the baby after another pro athlete.
So Isiah Simmons became Nedrie Anthony Simmons. He’s got his dad’s nose and almond-shaped eyes. He’s got his mom’s smile and caramel-coloured skin.
Nedrie Simmons Sr. was born in Guyana and moved to Toronto as a teenager. He already knew how to box, and by the time his son was born he was making a living with his fists. Fighting under the names “Nedrae” Simmons and “Nedrick” Simmons, he had more than 35 bouts in Canada, the U.S., Guyana and Australia. He even held the Canadian lightweight title in the mid-’90s.
For a few years in the late 1980s, the Simmons family moved to New York City while Nedrie Sr. competed on the more lucrative U.S. fight scene. That’s where Nedrie Jr. first learned to box. Not long after learning to walk, he’d follow his “pops” to the gym.
Watching Nedrie play basketball, you’re not surprised to learn that he boxed for a decade. He’s got a fighter’s fast feet, fast hands and uncanny reflexes. A boxer reads his opponent’s body for clues that a punch is coming: a widening of the eyes or a dip of the shoulder. He needs to. If he waits until the punch is on the way, it’s too late. He’s been hit.
Nedrie does the same on the basketball court, reading opponents’ body language, deflecting and intercepting passes as soon as they’re thrown.
But Nedrie the boxer and Nedrie the baller differ in important ways. On the court Nedrie’s an unrepentant gambler. He likes big plays. He’ll toss 50-foot passes that can lead to slam dunks. Or he’ll try to rifle passes into openings only he sees. Sometimes his passes land in an opponent’s hands or sail into the stands.
But Nedrie seems to accept mistakes as the price of success. Just as many of those passes get home, and big plays result. It’s like a boxer who’s willing to swallow a few shots in order to land big punches of his own.
Nedrie was never that kind of fighter. In the ring he’s all patience and subtle skills. He’ll throw a left jab and when his opponent lurches forward, Nedrie steps back and wails him with the right uppercut. That’s the “push-pull.” Learned it from his pops.
Once during a fight in Peterborough, some kid was trying to knock Nedrie out. Nedrie was 14 and weighed barely 100 pounds. The kid stormed from his corner, pinned Nedrie against the ropes and swung with all his strength. He threw six big, looping punches, each meant to end the fight. Nedrie bobbed beneath each one of them. The kid paused half a second. Nedrie circled to the centre of the ring, then rained lefts and rights on him until the kid turned away in tears. The ref stopped the fight.
A man in the crowd proclaimed greatness in Nedrie’s future. “Mo-hammed Ah-lee!” he shouted in a thick Jamaican accent. “Float like a buttah-fly. Sting like a … bee!”
But Nedrie never dreamed of boxing titles. He had other interests. He loved basketball and soccer. In Grade 8 he played a little trumpet.
Nedrie says his dad only wanted him to box. He says the more pressure his father applied, the less he enjoyed the sport.
He stopped boxing for good after a fight in the fall of 1998. A few days before the bout Nedrie bruised the knuckles on his right hand while training. In the first round of the bout, he dislocated his left shoulder. The joint slid back into place, but his arm went numb. Unable to punch with his left hand and unable to bear the pain of striking with his right, Nedrie circled the ring for the rest of the bout. He lost by decision.
After the fight, Nedrie says, his pops accused him of quitting. When they returned home, Nedrie says, his dad told Dawn the same thing. Nedrie wimped out. Nedrie quit.
Nedrie swears he’d never quit in the ring. But that night he quit boxing.
When his hand and shoulder healed, he joined the basketball team at his school, the George Henry Academy in Don Mills. He averaged 30 points a game that year. By the end of Grade 11, Nedrie – all 5-foot-7 of him – knew he wanted a basketball scholarship to an American university.
He didn’t think U.S. scouts would find him if he stayed at George Henry. He needed a bigger stage, so he transferred to Vanier.
Was his pops disappointed that he dropped boxing? Nedrie thinks so.
His dad was in Nedrie’s corner for nearly all of his 23 bouts, but he hasn’t been to a basketball game since Grade 9.
As Nedrie continues to warm up in the gym, Oliver Prince limps into the Phys. Ed. office wearing his school uniform and a pair of black loafers. He’s got a sore ankle and he’s not practising today. In his hand he carries a letter handed to him by head coach Don Marchione.
Oliver hobbles out to the bleachers, plops down in the first row and rips open the envelope. He scans the first few paragraphs, frowns, then tosses the letter on to the bench next to him.
Dear Oliver Prince and [Parent(s)], the letter starts. We believe you may be an excellent candidate to play at the U.S. university/college level.
… it’s important for you to know that College Prospects of America can maximize your opportunities. Coaches regard us as an “essential recruiting tool” and also believe that College Prospects of America is “the best approach for the majority of high school athletes.” We have dealt with tens of thousands of student-athletes like you who have received billions of dollars worth of scholarships and other financial aid.
The letter ends with a paragraph urging Oliver to call CPOA’s regional director to “discuss the opportunities that await you.”
Oliver, the team’s star player, was excited at first because he thought it was another recruiting letter from an American university. They’ve been arriving in the mail for him since Grade 9, and he’s always happy to have more.
But this letter was from a corporate headhunting firm, charging a fee to pitch Canadian student-athletes to U.S. schools. For about $1,000 they’ll tape your games, prepare your athletic resume and try to sell you to coaches down south.
Unlike Nedrie, Oliver neither wants nor needs their help.
“I’m not responding to that letter,” he scoffs as he practises his free throw stroke.
“‘We want to help you with recruiting.’ For what? They (NCAA schools) will find me. If I keep doing what I’m doing, they’ll find me.
“Texas found me, and they’re at the bottom of the map.”
|Copyright ©2003 Toronto Star|