An Encounter With La Salle's Lionel Simmons, Last Of The Local Gods

He was still the coolest guy in the building. Stylish sneakers, dark jeans, a navy-colored vest puffing out from a navy-colored sweatshirt. He was a little heavier now, and his close-cropped goatee had gone salt-and-pepper, but behind his black-rimmed eyeglasses he still wore that familiar sleepy look of perpetual unsurprise.

“Was that Lionel Simmons?" I'd overheard someone saying.

"Oh," someone else had responded, "I remember him."

Lionel Simmons. The L-Train. The freaking man.

Simmons was holding court in the hallway outside the media room, looking more or less like the same guy who back in the late 1980s could hang a smooth 40 on any five chumps who walked into the gym. It was halftime at the Liacouras Center, where Temple was hosting La Salle on a late February evening—my La Salle, the L-Train's La Salle. The Explorers were back, and so was Simmons, cheering his old team to a surprise NCAA tournament berth, the first in 21 years. Over the next month, in fact, as La Salle embarked on a Cinderella run in the tournament itself, Simmons would become a sort of ambassador, dispensing happy quotes to reporters in search of some historical point of reference to explain La Salle to the country.

Philadelphia Big 5 games tend to feel like raucous family reunions, and with Simmons in the house this one had a special meaning for me. I was a kid when he was at La Salle, from 1986-1990, during which time the small forward became one of college basketball's great all-around players, a 3,000-point scorer with an easy, liquid game. When it came time for me to choose a college, Simmons had left enough of an impression on me—a Yinzer way off in Pittsburgh, which might as well be Des Moines, as far as Philly is concerned—that I decided to go to La Salle. (I enrolled in 1993 and graduated in '97.)

I was here now to interview Simmons, ostensibly as a journalist, but really I was here to tell him how much he'd meant to me. He was the last of a certain kind of a star from a certain kind of place. I keep thinking of something Philadelphia Daily News columnist Rich Hofmann once wrote. He was talking about a fellow sportswriter named Phil Jasner, but in a broader sense he was talking about La Salle and Simmons and Hank Gathers and Billy Cunningham and the Palestra and Howard Porter and Wilt Chamberlain. "Philadelphia basketball," Hofmann wrote, "is less a sport than it is a community." It was the first line of an obituary.

* * *

I never actually saw him play ball—not live, certainly not in person. La Salle is a tiny Catholic university (combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment: 7,331) situated in a rough North Philly neighborhood with a student body that's almost exclusively from the city, its suburbs, and South Jersey. Its sports programs rarely resonate much beyond that region.

In fact, the Explorers during the Simmons era were almost never on television; they played in the small-time Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, and the only way to follow them from afar in those days was to read about them—in magazines, a Street & Smith's preseason annual, maybe, or The Sporting News's glossy season-preview issue, or in tiny agate type next to the bowling scores in a newspaper sports section. That's how I first came across Lionel Simmons's name, and La Salle's—an exotic name that seemed to leap off the page, way above all those prosaic and ubiquitous Big Ten and Pac-10 and ACC schools.

So Simmons existed first in my imagination. I could tell you he was bigger than most guards and smaller than most big men, but I couldn't tell you, as his former La Salle teammate Craig Conlin recently told me, that he "wasn't real exceptional in one skill. A good comparison would be like a five-tool guy in baseball. He just had every part of it down." It was only much later, when I finally saw videos of him, that I learned how Simmons looked on the court—smooth, fluid, relaxed, as if it were absolutely nothing at all to stuff a shot from the weakside, then finish off a break with a flossy little finger roll.

"He wasn't over-emotional on the court, and I think that really helped him play the way he did," said Tim Legler, another former teammate who's now an ESPN analyst. "I think that if he was a more emotional guy, a more temperamental guy, I think it would have been harder for him to have the kind of career that he had. He had the perfect temperament for the kind of career that he had, playing on the kind of team that we had."

He could shoot, but he wasn't a shooter. He could put the ball on the floor, but he wasn't a slasher. He could post up, but he didn't camp out on the block like some Easter Island moai. He took long strides and had long arms, but his combination of size and skill allowed him to play both bigger and smaller as needed, no matter where he was on the floor, as you can see in this video:

"His position wasn't power forward or small forward or two-guard," said Temple head coach Fran Dunphy, who recruited Simmons to La Salle when he was an assistant there. "His position was basketball player. He never got out of character, trying to do more than he could do. I don't remember ever saying to him, 'You know, you might want to take that extra bounce or shot-fake.' He knew everything.

"It was just an extraordinary feel for the game, especially for a [guy with a] forward's body versus a guard's body. Guards sometimes come off making great decisions all the time, but bigs sometimes have a problem with that. But he was just so terrific with that."

In 1990, Arkansas's "40 Minutes of Hell" and Georgia Tech's "Lethal Weapon 3" got all the way to the Final Four. UNLV thumped Duke in the title game. The consensus first-team All-America list included Derrick Coleman, Larry Johnson, Gary Payton, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who at that time was still going by Chris Jackson. But it also included Simmons, who beat out all those guys to become the consensus national player of the year. To this day, only Pete Maravich and Freeman Williams have scored more career points in college than Simmons's 3,217. Simmons also grabbed 1,429 rebounds and shot a remarkably efficient 50.1 percent from the floor. He had 248 blocks and 239 steals, and he scored double figures in 115 consecutive games, which is still an NCAA record. In November 2011, Grantland ranked the L-Train No. 9 on its list of college basketball's 50 greatest players.

"I bring it up all the time," said Legler, one of three future NBA players with whom Simmons shared a court at La Salle (the others were Doug Overton and Randy Woods). "I had 1,699, and I always tell people I had 1,700 points in college, which was a lot, it was quite an accomplishment, yet I was able to do that with a guy that scored 3,000. And I joke, I say, 'You can't play with a guy that scores 3,000 points—there's not a lot left.' So for me to get 1,700, that was pretty hard to do considering he came in from day one and was a 20-point scorer."

* * *

No one pegged Simmons for a superstar in his high school days. Born and raised in South Philly, he attended Southern High and was the MVP of the Philadelphia Public League in 1986. This was the Pub's golden era, when it regularly produced basketball players who went on to star in college and beyond: Pooh Richardson, Brian Shorter, Bo Kimble, Gathers, Overton, Woods, Mik Kilgore, Aaron McKie, Kareem Townes, Rasheed Wallace.

But Simmons wasn't getting much recruiting attention beyond the Big 5. Dick "Hoops" Weiss of the New York Daily News, who was at the Philly Daily News at the time, told me Simmons had struggled to score during a high-profile camp the summer before his senior year.

"A lot of schools backed off him," Weiss said.

Joe Mihalich, now the head coach at Niagara, was an assistant at La Salle in those days along with Temple's Dunphy. Mihalich told me he and Dunphy pursued Simmons from the beginning, and in those days the recruiting rules allowed them to go to pretty much all of his games.

"We recruited the heck out of him," Mihalich said. "Back then, it was a time when if [then-Temple coach] John Chaney wanted a Philly guy, John Chaney got a Philly guy. But they just weren't as aggressive early on as we were."

While everyone on La Salle's staff knew Simmons would be a solid get, Mihalich said, no one had any idea he'd blossom into a guy who'd score 3,000 points. And as far as bigger programs were concerned, Mihalich said Simmons's versatility would actually still work against him today.

"People would still say he's a tweener—he's not really a 4, he's not really a 3. People would have questioned his outside shot," Mihalich said. "Even in today's age, I think he would have slipped through the cracks."

Bill "Speedy" Morris, La Salle's head coach when Simmons was there, said Simmons's high school coach, Mitch Schneider, had been steering Simmons to stay in the Big 5 anyway.

"Funny story," Morris told me. "Rollie Massimino at Villanova got involved late. He'll deny it, but he recruited a guy named Barry Bekkedam. He had signed him, and he really wasn't showing any interest in Lionel until they had a showcase game, and Lionel had 40 points and just dominated the game. [Massimino] tried to get involved, but Lionel wasn't interested."

An Encounter With La Salle's Lionel Simmons, Last Of The Local Gods

In those days, thanks to the power of the Big 5, Philly hoops was a self-contained ecosystem. A local youth star could become a local college star, never seriously entertaining the idea of leaving town, and he would play several games a year against other local teams stocked with other local products. In that kind of environment, it was inevitable that Simmons would become a civic treasure.

Things were changing, though. In the mid-'80s, the Big 5 schools started playing city games in their own buildings instead of at the Palestra, that wonderful little gym on Penn's campus that really belongs to everyone in Philly who's ever loved basketball. The idea still seems like sacrilege. But the home teams wanted the revenue, and that was that. After Simmons left, the schools dropped the round-robin format, whereby every Big 5 team annually played the other four teams, and opted instead to play just two games a year against the rest of the city. The ecosystem was crumbling. The return to the round-robin format in the 1999-2000 season couldn't undo what was happening all around the country: Everything, even Philly hoops, was national now.

Today, it's hard to imagine even an underappreciated recruit like Lionel Simmons staying close to home. He'd be a known quantity, with his own DraftExpress profile page and a mixtape on YouTube and an AAU team featuring players from all over the map. The current system is certainly better than the one Simmons labored under—for the very best players, it's a sort of limited, unacknowledged, de facto free agency—but it also ensures there won't be many more stars like the L-Train. He was one of the last of the local gods.

* * *

Everyone has a guy, even sportswriters. No matter how worn-down big-time sports leaves you, no matter how calloused over, no matter how much age or professional custom or slackening interest prevents you from caring as deeply as you used to about the games and the athletes who play them, there is still someone out there who'll bring out your inner 12-year-old, who'll make your brain fall down your throat when you finally meet him.

The first thing I did when I met Lionel Simmons was tell him he was the reason I'd gone to La Salle.

"I feel proud," he said, smiling and somehow not running for the closest security guard. "I'm humbled, and I'm obviously very, very appreciative, It's just a good feeling for somebody to say that. It's a humbling feeling."

I asked Simmons about any games he remembered. "I always remember the losses," he said, mentioning a game against Temple when he was a freshman. The Explorers blew a big lead. Nate Blackwell had a huge game for Temple, and Simmons happened to be at the La Salle-Temple game on this night with Blackwell. "He reminds me of that a lot," Simmons said.

I asked about his final game, a loss to Clemson in the second round of the NCAAs in '90. With a 29-1 record and a 21-game winning streak, La Salle had earned a No. 4 seed in the East Region. In the first round in Hartford, the Explorers beat Southern Mississippi by 16—their last NCAA tournament victory until this year. They drew Clemson next. La Salle led by 19 at one point, and was up by 11 with just less than 13 minutes to go. But with Elden Campbell and Dale Davis muscling the Explorers, Simmons didn't score for the next 12 minutes. La Salle lost, 79-75.

"I've gotten over that," Simmons told me. "They kind of figured out that we were small, and they kind of pounded us inside in the second half." But in a radio interview with Philadelphia's WIP on March 19, Simmons had this to say about that game: "That loss in the tournament is probably the one that stands out the most for me at La Salle."

An Encounter With La Salle's Lionel Simmons, Last Of The Local Gods

In that same radio interview, Simmons said he now plays "very, very, very, very little" basketball. Injuries had cut his NBA career short, and Simmons was asked about his knees. "They're doing well, as long as I don't play." About six or seven years ago, Simmons said he went by 25th and Diamond, the playground home to some of Philly's most renowned pickup games. When he saw a bunch of guys running full, he immediately had one thought: "No, this is not for me," Simmons told WIP. "I just came to shoot a couple jumpers."

Simmons was drafted seventh overall by the Sacramento Kings. He finished as the runner-up to Derrick Coleman for rookie of the year, though he did miss a few games that season because of tendinitis brought on by playing a hand-held video game. He managed to earn more than $21 million in an NBA career that lasted seven seasons.

"You wish you could play 20 years, but you never know," he told me. "I have no regrets."

After our conversation, Simmons went back to his seat. Some young dude, who looked like a student reporter, approached me. "Is that Tim Perry?" the kid asked, looking toward Simmons but referring to another former Temple star from the same era. "No," I said, floored by the question. "That's Lionel Simmons." The kid kept looking at him. "Oh, OK. I heard Tim Perry was in the building."

After the game, Simmons repaired to the concourse area, where he lingered for a bit with a crowd that now included Speedy Morris, his old coach, and Morris's sons, Brian and Keith. Mike Missanelli, a Philly sports-radio guy and former Philadelphia Inquirer writer, came over to say hello. A small crowd was starting to gather. The community was there to pay its respects.

Simmons looked up and noticed me watching the scene. He walked over with Keith Morris—another former teammate—and put his hand on my left shoulder. "This guy ..." he said, looking at Keith but talking about me. Before Simmons could finish his thought, I told Keith why I was there, about how I had come to La Salle all the way from Pittsburgh all those years ago, all because of Lionel Simmons. "Oh yeah?" Keith said. "Get out." I couldn't tell if he was impressed or weirded out.

I said something about a mutual acquaintance, Brother Robert Schaefer, Brother Bob, my journalism teacher in high school who'd roomed with Conlin at La Salle and who'd known Simmons a little, too. Keith said he knew him. Simmons stroked his chin as he tried to call up a face. At last he said, "Oh, yeah. That had to be 25 years ago."

Then the L-Train indicated it was time for him to go. "I'm with Temple guys," he explained.

He walked over to say goodbye to Speedy Morris. Simmons shook some more hands and gave a theatrical salute toward someone in the distance, though I couldn't tell who it was. Then he turned and left. He walked toward the exit with those long, easy strides, then rounded the corner and was totally out of sight.