He Left His Mark : Simon Set '60s Scoring Records, and Still Finds Time for His First Love

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Although he shoulders the burdens and responsibilities of middle-age, Walt Simon still can't get basketball out of his blood.

As an Orange County deputy probation counselor, Simon, a former Fullerton College and University of Utah basketball standout, supervises a staff of 15 that has its hands full coping with the growing problem of gang violence in the county.

And as a single father, he has a daughter, Charisse, 24 and a student at Cal State Fullerton, and a son, Miles, 16 and a sophomore basketball standout at Mater Dei.

But Simon, 46, still finds time for his first love. In addition to following the development of Miles at every Mater Dei varsity game, Simon works as an assistant to Roger See for the men's team at Fullerton College.

"He's a basketball junkie," See said. "If he had his choice, he'd be doing this for a living. He's trying to coordinate his day to watch his son, do his job and help us."

"Everybody should have a dream," Simon said recently before a Fullerton practice session. "But there should be a balance in life. I tell Miles there's lots more to life than sports. Most young kids are so brainwashed by the media that they are consumed by their dreams. You have to be realistic."

If Simon is having a hard time getting basketball out of his system, the dozens of great players who have performed for Orange County community colleges over the past 26 years have had a much tougher time getting his name erased from the record book.

Though Simon left Fullerton for Utah in 1966, most of his county community college scoring records still stand.

Despite the addition of the three-point field goal and shot clock to stimulate scoring in recent years, Simon remains the most prolific career scorer in county history with 1,708 points in two seasons, 1964-66. His 27.1-point average is still the standard. He also holds the single-game record with 51 points against Chaffey in 1965.

"He's in a great job doing something very important in dealing with kids with problems," See said. "He's helping them get their act together. As for 27 points per game, that was a tremendous amount of points to score in two years."

Simon grew up with his mother, a younger brother and sister in the Aliso Village housing project on the southeast fringes of downtown Los Angeles. Even in the early '60s, Aliso Village would never have been confused with the set for "The Donna Reed Show."

"My mom (Helen) was a big influence," Simon recalled. "She told us we have to know the difference between right and wrong. Alcohol was the big problem drug. We heard of marijuana, but nobody knew anyone who smoked it.

"In a lot of ways, I'm proud of my neighborhood. I had a good high school and good friends, and, really, I didn't know anything else."

Simon attended Roosevelt High, which had an open gym on weekends. There, he had the opportunity to polish his skills in pickup games against some of the top players of the era: Edgar Lacey, Caldwell Black, Malcolm Strong, Edgar Clark, Leonard Guinn and Walt Hazzard.

As a 6-3, 185-pound center in high school, Simon averaged 30.4 points and led Roosevelt to the city finals his senior year in 1964. He was the Los Angeles city player of the year and named to just about every All-American team.

But despite being recruited by more than 100 schools, Simon couldn't find the classroom quite as well as he could find an open jump shot from the three-second lane and wound up at a junior college.

Jerry Tarkanian, then the coach at Riverside City College, appeared to have all but wrapped up Simon, who sat on the bench as the Tigers, led by Bob Rule, stormed to a 34-0 record and the state championship. But then a tall, elegantly dressed, meticulously coiffed man named Claude Retherford--the coach at Fullerton College--paid a visit to Aliso Village.

"I really didn't want to go that far away to Riverside," Simon recalled. "Then one day my coach (Blaine Crowther) asked me if I wanted to go to Fullerton. I didn't know where Fullerton was. Then he introduced me to Retherford. It was almost unbelievable. I was in awe of him. He had that pompadour hairstyle, wore a suit and was puffing a cigar. He drove a two-seat Mercedes. I didn't even know what a Mercedes was."

Under eligibility rules in effect at the time, Simon would have had to move with his family to Riverside in order to play for Tarkanian. But Retherford saw to it the moving van took the Riverside Freeway off-ramp in Fullerton instead.

The chorus of moans and grumbles from opposing coaches and administrators in the old Eastern Conference was soon drowned out by the roar of capacity crowds packing gymnasiums to watch Simon's spectacular play.

Retherford's offensive coaching strategy was remarkably simple. Give Simon the ball and let him operate.

"Walt played with his back to the basket in high school," said Retherford, who now heads the Tulare County Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse and is a three-term Tulare city councilman. "So I moved him to guard and put the ball in his hands. He was a great free-throw shooter and, boy, did he have the moves down low."

Unleashing an array of floating jumpers, twisting drives and acrobatic hang shots, Simon averaged 27.9 points as a freshman, smashed every Fullerton and Orange County scoring record and was named state junior college player of the year. Perhaps most dramatic was a 28-point performance in a 75-65 victory over Tarkanian and Riverside, breaking the Tigers' 42-game conference winning streak in front of an overflow crowd at Fullerton.

Retherford moved on to Idaho State after 1965, but Simon stayed at Fullerton and averaged 27.1 points under the new coach, George (Moe) Radovich.

"I've never met anyone like Retherford since," Simon said. "But I had already made a commitment to play for Coach (Jack) Gardner at Utah. But I often wonder what would have happened if I had gone to Idaho State. I probably would have won the national scoring championship. I liked Radovich, though. I've been lucky, because I've always had good coaches."

Simon continued his career at Utah, playing in the same backcourt as All-American Merv Jackson. His senior year, Simon was All-Western Athletic Conference and WAC defensive player of the year and drafted by the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics and the Denver Rockets of the old ABA. After signing with Seattle, Simon seemed to be on a fast track to a successful pro career.

But danger signs had been appearing in the form of acute stomach pains Simon suffered before games. At Utah, the ailment became progressively worse.

"It would especially tense up before a big game, but it seemed to loosen up afterward," Simon recalled. "That summer, I was working at North American Rockwell in Downey while getting ready for the SuperSonics' training camp. I ate an egg-salad sandwich at work, and my stomach started acting up. Then the pain became unbearable."

Not only was Simon's basketball career in severe jeopardy, he was about to battle for his life. He was rushed by ambulance to Orange County General Hospital (now UCI Medical Center) where surgery revealed he had a severe case of intestinal gangrene.

"My small intestine had been twisted around the wrong way for so long, all 22 feet of it was dead," Simon recalled. "So the doctors removed the intestines and put 12 feet of it on a table and put heat packs on it to try and revive the tissue before reattaching it. The mortality rate for an operation like that was about 95% in 1968, but I was in such great shape, my body survived the shock."

Simon's weight dropped from 195 to 130 during his six-month stay in the hospital. He spent the next six months trying to regain his weight and his strength for another shot at the pros.

In 1969, Simon tried out for the ABA's L.A. Stars, which featured at the time Mack Calvin and Willie Wise. But his weight had increased to only 154, and he was still too weak to make it. In 1970, he tried out as a free agent for the Portland Trail Blazers, then an NBA expansion team. He held on through the exhibition season until the final roster cut to 12.

"Portland was probably my best chance ever to make it in the NBA," Simon said. "After I cleared waivers, I had an offer to play in the Eastern League, but I had to get a job. I had a wife (Aleta) and daughter to support.

"Jim Hatchet, who I had met . . . in the pickup games at Roosevelt, worked for the Orange County Probation Department. He told me one day, 'Walt, come work for probation.' I went in, and he introduced me to his boss, and I was hired on the spot."

After working in probation for three years and completing work on his bachelor's degree at Cal State Fullerton, Simon got a job in 1974 as assistant coach for Ed Gregory at Fresno State. At the NCAA convention in San Diego that year, he was introduced to the owner of a European professional team from Stockholm. Simon was hired on the spot as a player-coach.

"When I went home and told my wife we're going to Sweden, she said, 'No we're not, I'm pregnant,' " Simon recalled with a smile. "A week later, she finally said I could go. She joined me later, and Miles was born in Stockholm on Nov. 21, 1975. He's a U.S. citizen, but under international rules, he's eligible to play on the Swedish Olympic team."

Simon and his family spent two years in Sweden.

"We really had a great time," he said. "My daughter went to a Swedish school, and I got a chance to play and make some money and travel. I finally had a chance to get it (playing basketball) out of my system."

In 1977, Simon returned to Orange County to confront the hard reality that his playing days were over. In addition, he was going through the trauma of a divorce. With two kids to support, it was a period of deep soul-searching.

"Something clicked for me," Simon said. "I realized there's more to life than just sports. Ninety-five percent of the people in this country have to get up and go to work every day, and I am the same. Some athletes become so spoiled. You have to be in tune with the real world, and it's hard to get adjusted to everyday life."

At first, Simon tried to get into coaching on the community college level.

"I interviewed for everything," he said. "I'd always get to the interviews for the final two or the final four, but I never quite made it. It got very frustrating. Finally, I went back to the probation department. I think I've got the best job for me. I really love my job. I get to deal with all different segments of people, and it's really a challenge."

In his role as a probation counselor for the county's most troubled youth, Simon views with growing alarm the increasing incidents of gang violence.

"It's definitely an explosive situation that needs the attention of the police, schools, courts, parents, everybody," according to Simon.

Simon admits coming up with solutions will be difficult.

"When it comes to dealing with drugs, you have education," he said. "You can start educating kids when they're 4, 5 or 6 years old about drugs, and that's really going to have an impact on the problem.

"With gangs, this is much more difficult to do. Gangs replace the family structure for people who are doing poorly in school, who are illiterate, live in poverty or have a bad situation at home."

Simon has increasingly focused his personal life on guiding Miles' progress.

"As far as I'm concerned, Miles is doing better on the basketball court than I ever thought he would," Simon said. "He has a sixth sense, and it's been fun seeing him do some of the things he's done. I never go to him to offer advice. He usually asks me, and he uses my advice. I grew up learning on the playgrounds. Miles' program (at Mater Dei) is more structured with organized games in the summer and sophisticated weight programs."

Monarch Coach Gary McKnight is very high on Miles.

"Miles has the potential to be as great a player as anybody we've ever had here," McKnight said. "Usually, the son of a coach or a great player has plenty of basketball smarts."

Notre Dame, Syracuse, Arizona and UCLA are a few of the major schools tracking Simon's progress, McKnight said.

Having a former great basketball player for a father is a big plus, Miles admits.

"I try to play like him a lot," he said. "My dad's friends have told me about how great a player he was. I really admire what he did. He's taught me a lot of things to improve my game, and he's a great role model. He told me that very few players make the NBA. He's insisted on education first, then basketball."

Said Simon: "Kids have a tough time in today's world, and it's a tough time to raise them. But it's a big challenge, and I love it."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°