Bobby Simmons: On The Way Back Up

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday.

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Bobby Simmons
(D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images)

Inside the Spurs practice facility, Bobby Simmons is spilling a story of rejection, heartbreak and murder. He is recalling the time the Washington Wizards waived him, the day he showed up at D-League training camp and found a pro boxer running the point, the moment he learned his brother, Tizoma, had been shot and killed.

In the same interview, another story emerges, one of acceptance, triumph and elation. After pulling off his sweat-soaked jersey, Simmons recalls a string of memories, the time he was embraced by his idol, Michael Jordan, the day he made it back into the NBA, the moment he won the league’s Most Improved Player award.

He considers where he’s been, where he’s gone, where he’s come. Looking high up at a wall from which hang four championship banners, the small forward releases a smile that stretches from here to his hometown of Chicago. Then he breaks into a laugh.

He may not have a guaranteed contract. But after sitting on the bench with the 12-win New Jersey Nets, Bobby Simmons believes he’s in a good place. “It’s a new beginning,” he says. “My goal is to be on a championship team, and if it means giving 250 percent, that’s what I’ll do.”

What a turn that would be -- from worst to first -- and how fitting for a life marked by extremes. Simmons knew poverty as a child, NBA riches as an adult. Tragedy in high school, glory after college. Dejection in Mobile, Ala., jubilation in Milwaukee, Wis.

His roots are in Altgeld Gardens, Chicago’s largest public housing development, a neighborhood Simmons calls “the projects.”

A Medill News Service report fills in the details: “Altgeld Gardens looks like a war zone. From burned out CHA (Chicago Housing Authority) structures to potholes deep enough to make streets unpassable, it looks and feels more like war-torn Baghdad than Chicago. ... a few things are within walking distance: A Wastewater treatment plant, a rolling mountain range of Chicago’s garbage, a polluted river. A decent grocery store, however, is three bus rides away. This is where President Barack Obama did his community organizing.”

This is where Bobby Simmons learned about life. After his parents separated, Bobby at age 6 moved into an apartment in the mostly African-American community with his father, Bobby Simmons Sr., three brothers and two sisters. “It was crowded,” young Bobby says. “But a lot of families that were big lived like that.”

A nearby landfill emitted a stench that choked the neighborhood. Gangs menaced the streets. Dealers sold drugs. Bobby Jr.? He played ball. His siblings did not -- not even Tizoma, the older brother whom young Bobby idolized. As dad worked two jobs and police rounded up dealers, no one recognized the gold in the midst of poverty. The Illinois Warriors, an eighth grade AAU team, featured three future NBA players: Corey Maggette, Quentin Richardson and Bobby Simmons Jr. Recalls Bobby Simmons Sr.: “I told him, ‘If you keep it up, you can go far.’”

At 13, young Bobby had game. At Simeon High, he stretched out to 6-6 and dominated. Heads turned. College coaches descended. And then, during his junior year, a call came from his sobbing mother. Tizoma was dead.

Details remain fuzzy. Police never found his killer. Young Bobby shakes his head when asked what happened. “Wrong place, wrong time,” he says, and he points to the tattoo on his right shoulder. Tizoma’s name and the date of his death -- 12-16-97 -- cover a large swath of skin.

Somehow, Bobby Jr. soared through the pain. Ranked as one of the Top 40 high school players in the nation, he went to DePaul and became a second-round NBA draft pick. He joined the Wizards and met his boyhood hero. Michael Jordan embraced him, picked him to play on his summer team and autographed jerseys. “That was the highest of highs,” he says.

The lowest of lows soon followed. The Wizards released him in 2002 and Bobby Jr. wound up with the D-League Mobile Revelers. ”Culture shock,” he says of his first foray into Alabama. And then there was shock in the gym. The starting point guard on his new team: Roy Jones Jr., world champion boxer.

Was this a small town carnival act? Bobby Jr. thought so until he saw Jones handle the ball. “He didn’t have a knock down jumper but he could get to the basket pretty quick,” Bobby Jr. says. “He played great D and when he had the ball, nobody would foul him. Why? Maybe they were afraid he’d punch them out.”

Bobby Jr. wanted out of the D-League and went on a tear. He averaged 17 points and lasted 14 games. The Clippers signed him, and his return to the NBA marked another high. He climbed higher with a break out season in 2004-05, averaging 16.4 points and winning the league’s Most Improved Player award.

Not long after, a younger brother, Shawn, was killed in a drive-by. Mystery shrouded that shooting as well.

A month later, Simmons signed a long-term, big-dollar contract with the Bucks. With his wealth, he put his father in a beautiful, three-bedroom apartment in Selma, N.C. Bought him a gleaming white truck. Took care of all his needs. “He’s a great kid,” Bobby Sr. says.

An ankle injury cost Bobby Jr. the 2006-07 season, pulling him into that cycle again: screaming high, crushing low. Asked about another hard time, sitting last season for a team that lost 70 games, he shrugs it off, saying he’s on his way back up.

“I’ve got veteran coaches and veteran players who know how to play the game,” he says. “Or these banners wouldn’t be up here.”

Maybe because of his past, Bobby Simmons Jr. dwells only on his future. He doesn’t know what tomorrow holds but he offers one word to describe it. “Promising,” he says, and his eyes sparkle with hope.

He looks up at that wall and beams. It’s good to be on the climb again.