Jonathon Simmons Teaching Children Important Lessons During Holidays

By John Denton
Dec. 24, 2017

ORLANDO – On Monday morning, 9-year-old De’Norie, 8-year-old Jaeda, 7-year-old Jordynn, 6-year-old Journey and 4-year-old Brielle will wake up to something that their father, Orlando Magic guard Jonathon Simmons, didn’t always have: Christmas presents under the tree.

Not to ruin the surprise, but Simmons’ plan is to get the kids a bulldog puppy as one of their gifts because they have been asking their dad for months for a pet. Simmons plans on honoring that request, but he has no intention of fully spoiling the kids with the latest electronic devices or hottest toys of the season just because his salary as a NBA player allows him to do so.

No, Simmons wants his five children back in his hometown of Houston to get more out of this Christmas than just gifts. He wants them to learn a lesson and to think about those in need. After all, Simmons – and his kids, for that matter – were once very much in need and he still has fresh memories of times being lean around Christmas.

``I’m trying to get my kids what they want without spoiling them,’’ said Simmons, who noted that his all-time favorite Christmas gifts as a child were a boom box bought by his grandmother and a Ludacris CD. ``That’s kind of what we do now in this generation as parents – we’ve gotten away from reminding them that other people have it hard and aren’t as privileged. I want my kids to be humble and know that things aren’t always easy just because of the way we have it now.’’

Simmons, who has seen his NBA career as a starter blossom in his first season with the Orlando Magic, grew up in the hardscrabble Fifth Ward section of northeast Houston. He knows plenty about hard times around the holidays – both as the oldest of LaTonya’s Simmons’ four children and as someone who became a first-time father at age 17. Simmons had all five of his children – De’Norie is the only boy, while the other four are girls – by his 24th birthday and long before he reached the NBA.

Now 28 and living the life he always wanted as a pro basketball player, Simmons doesn’t have a financial worry in the world. But that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten by any stretch what it’s like to struggle on a day where families often shower one another with gifts to show their love.

``There never were times where I got nothing at all, but maybe when I was 15 of 16, it started decreasing,’’ Simmons said of his Christmases in the past. ``I was always a kid who kind of understood what was going on. I have younger siblings – I’m 4½ years older than the twins and eight years older than my sister – so I always played that big brother role. I didn’t care much about presents; I just wanted to be with family. I was happy because I had a basketball goal (in the park) and that’s all I needed.’’

TRYING TIMES AND THE $150 TRYOUT

Simmons’ story – quite possibly the best in all of sports now because of the unconventional path he took to get to basketball’s highest level – has always been about fight, grit and perseverance through tough times. Even today, he refers to himself as ``a one-percenter,’’ because he knows full well, ``I wasn’t supposed to make it out of the neighborhood I’m from.’’

Still, he did make it out and he also made it to the NBA. Someday, his rise from obscurity to the big time, from against-all-odds to being an overachiever, might appear in a best-selling book or a Hollywood movie because of the almost unbelievable arc to his career.

LaTonya Simmons raised her family on the salary she made as a ticket-taker for United Airlines at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Jonathon, who also got help from his now-deceased grandmother, attended Houston’s M.B. Smiley High School, an institute of higher learning once dubiously known as ``The Dropout Factory’’ because some 40 percent of freshmen students never made it their senior year.

Simmons almost didn’t make it out of high school himself, especially after fathering his first child at 17 years old and a second at 18. But when he went from 5-foot-7 to 6-3 in a relatively short period of time, Simmons started blossoming as a basketball player and recruiting letters poured in from the likes of SMU, Texas A&M and Marquette. Not once ever, Simmons noted with a laugh, did he ever consider going to college before basketball provided him a path out of Houston’s Fifth Ward.

Academic issues led him from Paris (Texas) Junior College to Midland (Texas) Junior College to sitting out a year before eventually winding up at the University of Houston. In 2011-12, he led the Cougars in scoring and declared for the NBA Draft, hoping it would be a way to finally provide for his family.

Not only was he not drafted despite possessing a jaw-dropping 38-inch vertical leap and a distinct toughness to his game, Simmons wasn’t even invited to a NBA camp that summer, leaving him to play for the Sugar Land Legends of the now-defunct American Basketball League (where he averaged 36.5 ppg. in 16 games).

There was little money at the time for Simmons to support his growing family and he never would have been able to pursue his dream without his mother and grandmother helping raise his children. At that time, Simmons had little idea at all what direction his life would take him and he was broken-hearted that he couldn’t provide much at all, especially around the holiday season.

``Having five kids when you’re 24 is a struggle. Not having a promising future or a promising career, you don’t know where your life is headed. That’s the rough part – the uncertainty of your life,’’ he said before a recent Magic game. ``It was really tough, but I’m just blessed that I had people around me who cared about me and helped me along the way. People like my mother and mentors along the way, they helped me deal with things that I needed. I had babies, so they just wanted a baby doll (as a Christmas present) and it was just about making sure they had food and clothes. I just always tried to make sure they had what they needed.’’

SIMMONS’ BIG BREAK

The big break that Simmons needed came on Sept. 28, 2013, when he scrounged up with $150 to try out for the Austin (Texas) Toros, the then-G League affiliate of the San Antonio Spurs. He was one of 60 hopefuls at Concordia University that day, but his coach, Ken McDonald, claims that the 6-6, 195-pound Simmons easily stood out because of the hunger and athleticism he exhibited right away.

The combo guard averaged 9.8 and 15.2 points in his two developmental League seasons, but he often pondered quitting so as to find a better way to support his family. Skilled in the art of cutting hair, LaTonya even once mentioned to him about possibly attending barber school if he ever left basketball behind for good.

Simmons attended the Orlando Pro Summer League in 2015 as a player for the Brooklyn Nets only to get a call from his agent that changed everything for him.

Impressed with what they had seen from Simmons in the G League and at a mini camp for minor league players, the San Antonio Spurs offered the guard a two-year contract. Gregg Popovich, he of the five NBA championship rings, took an immediate liking to Simmons because of the perseverance shown throughout his career and the in-your-face toughness he played with while in San Antonio.

``He’s got a big heart and he’s come a long way,’’ Popovich said. ``He’s a guy who paid his way to come to a D-League tryout and here he is with a contract and it’s a whole different world for him. I’m glad he has this (NBA) life now.

``He’s obviously a talented player and I’ll tell him, `it’s all between the ears’ and `how long you are going to last is dependent on how you handle things on an emotional and mental basis,’’’ the Spurs coach continued. ``The talent is there and he did a great job for us last year. He came a long way in regard to his mental discipline and being more efficient on the court. Hopefully that will continue for Orlando.’’

Simmons, a standout fill-in last spring in the playoffs when San Antonio lost Kawhi Leonard to an injury, left the Spurs back in July to sign with the Magic. The lucrative, multi-year contract that he signed with Orlando meant he would have the ability to not only change his life, before positively affect the lives of so many struggling to get by every day in his home section of Northeast Houston.

``We all grew up the same way and now I try to spread the love. Obviously, I can’t take care of everybody and I have to say, `no’ a lot,’’ said Simmons, who signed what could potentially be a three-year deal with the Magic. ``But I try my best to help because I’ve been there. Sometimes, back in the day, my uncles would throw me a couple of dollars here and there, so that was always important to me to help them.

``For sure, what I’ve been able to do changed my family,’’ he said. ``That’s why I’m still on everybody now to better themselves. At the end of the day, (NBA players) have to be selfish. Everybody out there doesn’t go through what we go through at this highest level dealing with people on the outside. That’s why I’m always on people (in his family) to try and better themselves. I try to let them know that this NBA isn’t going to last forever and I’m always going to be someone who strives for something better in my life.’’

The bigger role he has gotten in Orlando has helped his career take off. He’s averaging a career-best 15.3 points per game and has been a starter now for 15 games. Already this season, he’s scored in double figures 28 times and he’s hit the 20-point plateau eight times compared to scoring in double figures just 27 times with only one 20-point night during his 133 games in San Antonio.

LESSONS FOR HIS CHILDREN

Simmons’ only regret, of course, is that by playing in Orlando, he will won’t be home in Texas for Christmas. Instead, he’ll have to use the FaceTime app to see the reaction on the faces of his children when Christmas morning rolls around. He can’t wait to surprise them with the puppy they have long been asking for and see their delight.

Soon after, Simmons will likely remind his children that not everyone has it so good on Christmas Day and the family needs to count its blessings. Those blessings have come because Simmons didn’t get down when times were tough, because he didn’t quit ``The Dropout Factory’’ and he didn’t quit when he was in basketball’s backwaters chasing a dream. He is where he is today because of the lessons he learned and the undying support he received along the way. That lesson is the most important thing – including the Christmas Day presents – that he can pass along now to his children in this holiday season.

``What was going through my head back then was really just, `How I was going to make it? How I was going to feed my family? Should I just go and get a job? Or should I continue to play basketball?’’’ Simmons recalled recently. ``Even when it was hard, my mom helped me a lot with the kids. It just made it a lot easier for me to not just give up because I had people that believed in me more than I believed in myself. My mama raised me to be a man and handle your business. If you make a decision, deal with your decision. You have to make the best of it.’’

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