Career at the Crossroads : Simmons Keeps Eye on the Diamond Despite Success on Hardwood

Times Staff Writer

During the college basketball season, Enoch Simmons was Loyola Marymount’s version of the Lakers’ Michael Cooper: an instant spark off the bench, an added dimension of physical presence and speed who kicked the team into another gear, usually when opponents were already having trouble keeping up with the starters.

Though Simmons was rarely among the scoring leaders on the nation’s highest-scoring team, Coach Paul Westhead often singled him out for praise after games, noting his hustle or defense or his ability to go inside and rebound at 6 foot 4. He often called him “my sixth starter.” “He knows we think he’s a terrific kid,” Westhead said this week.

Simmons is clearly a favorite of the coach. He’s also the only returning senior on the roster for Westhead, who puts a lot of stock in senior leadership.


But in Simmons’ mind, he may be Loyola’s version of Dave Winfield: a big, multitalented, multisport player who may forgo basketball in favor of a potential baseball career.

If things work out, the 21-year-old Simmons hopes to sign a pro baseball contract, spend the summer playing minor-league ball, then return to Loyola for his final year of basketball. Part of Simmons’ dream came true when he was drafted Wednesday in the fourth round by the Oakland A’s. Simmons said he will meet with the ballclub early next week.

If things don’t go as planned, however, Simmons said he will choose one of the sports and play it full-time.

All of this is confusing to some Loyola followers, who know that Simmons is one of the basketball team’s top players but rarely saw action under baseball Coach Dave Snow, whose regular players put in a fall season, then practice or play almost daily from January through the end of the season. Simmons didn’t join the team until mid-March.

In the past year, Simmons played in all 32 basketball games, starting two. Helping the team to win its first conference title in 27 years, he averaged 8.9 points, was third in three-point baskets with 43 (on 47% shooting) and was second in assists.

In baseball, he played in only 15 of the team’s 64 games and had only 16 at-bats. He managed to bat .563 with two doubles, one home run and eight runs scored. He appeared in NCAA playoff tournaments in two different sports within three months, a rare collegiate double.

At Riverside North High School, Simmons was an all-star guard and was drafted in baseball. He saw basketball as his best game then. But Simmons is looking at a future he sees as diamond-studded.

“I’m gonna play either/or next year,” he said in an interview during the NCAA Regional Tournament at Oklahoma State University. “I don’t want another year where I’m (on the bench) without using the (baseball) skills I feel I’ve got.”

Simmons’ basketball assets--a well-muscled frame, jumping ability, speed, good three-point shooting touch and an ability to go inside--usually draw the attention of scouts watching the Lions. But it’s that athleticism that made him attractive to baseball scouts, despite his relative lack of experience.

“I would want to continue one more year with Coach Westhead,” Simmons said, “(but) I don’t see myself having a future in basketball. If I did, I probably would lean towards it.”

When Simmons made his recruiting visit to Loyola, he chatted with Snow, who checked his credentials and told him he’d be welcome to join the team when basketball season was over. Simmons joined the baseball team his sophomore year.

Last summer, Simmons decided to test his baseball skills. He spent the summer in a competitive San Francisco league and did well enough to impress some major league scouts.

“I did well, and I realized how much potential I had,” he said. “It was a confidence builder. . . . I think if I’m out there 10 months, 12 months of the year, I’ll be much better because I’ll be consistent.”

He recently discussed his situation with Westhead, who stressed that whatever decision he makes, the coach would like to see him return to school and get his degree.

Simmons was the only freshman recruited when Westhead became Loyola’s coach in 1985. Simmons admitted they have a “special relationship” that could sway him.

“He told me about senior experience, he said next year is supposed to be my year. He put pressure on me that way. I’ve known him the longest, played for him the longest. I’ve played under him for three different types of ballclubs. I kind of know how he likes to do things, what he expects, how things should be run.”

He said Westhead also knows how to motivate him.

“He always expects more,” Simmons said. “When I think I’m doing well he says, ‘You could be doing more.’ I like that attitude: Never be satisfied. It gives you incentive to do more. People say, ‘You had a great year, E.’ But I’m not satisfied. I think I could’ve done more.”

“Enoch has been a terrific guy for three years,” Westhead said. “He’ll take into strong consideration our relationship, but ultimately he’ll do what is best for his life. In the best scenario, he would sign, play (baseball) this summer, then not only come back to complete basketball, but graduate as well, then go off into his baseball career.”

Westhead said he would not try to pressure Simmons to play basketball.

“I would not ever try to influence a guy. He’s a marvelous athlete, he has skills to play several sports. He’s a smart guy. He can evaluate the situation and do what’s best for him. It’s not like he’s a 17-year-old freshman who’s confused.”

Simmons’ baseball experience--or lack of it--at Loyola only has whetted his appetite for more.

“The biggest obstacle I had to overcome was going to a team where I’m not able to participate, knowing I’m good enough to go out there,” he said. “I look at it as incentive, dealing with adversity, building my personality. If I go to the minor leagues, I might have to face a similar situation where I have to prove myself. I can accept (sitting on the bench at Loyola). Guys have been out there since September. I can deal with it.”

Simmons, whose long-legged outfield lope is reminiscent of the graceful Winfield--who also played baseball and basketball in college--said he was sometimes relaxed when he got to bat for Loyola, but other times he felt the pressure “to do something, right now.”

So he began thinking of dropping basketball a year ago. He decided to try balancing both sports for another season.

“I had made a commitment to basketball and wasn’t in a position to leave it,” he said. “I figured after this year, I would be more mentally ready to eliminate one of the sports.”

Simmons said he was “extremely excited” Wednesday after hearing that Oakland had drafted him, but he said that when he talks to the A’s, he will continue to hold to his commitment to finish school.

“I’ll look into (signing), but I want to make sure I get my education in,” he said. “I didn’t expect to get drafted so high. But if it doesn’t look right, I’ll be back in school next year.”

Whichever direction Simmons takes, he hopes to reach a level of consistency that he feels is the measure of success. He said basketball followers haven’t seen his complete game since he had knee surgery before his sophomore season.

And, he said, nobody has seen his complete baseball game because he has never had a chance to put in a full season.

“Consistency is what I think it takes to get the job done, day in and day out,” he said. “It’s like that in life--you can’t be on a roller coaster, you can’t be unpredictable.”