Hardscrabble Youth Prepares Simmons for Success : Basketball: Forward who has seen it all before is the main candidate for Big West freshman of the year.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Raimonds Miglinieks handles the ball like a yo-yo with his left hand and points to a spot on the floor a few feet away with his right.

Kevin Simmons obediently moves out from under the basket and takes a rock-solid stance on the designated spot as Miglinieks dribbles past, leaning in and scraping off his defender against Simmons' body.

The player guarding Simmons instinctively moves to cut off Miglinieks and Simmons spins away toward the basket. Miglinieks loops a pass, Simmons snatches it from the air and slips in a short bank shot, all in the same motion.

The pick and roll is as old as the game, but it's still beautiful to behold in its purest and simplest form . . . especially when everyone in the arena knows it's about to happen.

The UC Irvine point guard is one of college basketball's best passers, but a great pass without a basket on the other end doesn't excite him at all. So Miglinieks learned early this season to focus his attention on Simmons, a freshman forward from Brooklyn who has the moves and the moxie to score or draw a foul.

"I know I can get him the ball," Miglinieks said. "And I know he will finish."

When he isn't hammered on the way to the hoop, Simmons' forte is finishing. In traffic, with hands in his face and double teams converging, he still manages to coax the ball over the rim most of the time. He leads Irvine in scoring, averaging 14.8 points, tying him for ninth in the Big West Conference, and rebounding (7.5), which ranks sixth in conference.

Wednesday, when the coaches' votes are counted and the Big West freshman of the year is named, Simmons will win--it's a slam dunk.

"He's a great player," Pacific Coach Bob Thomason said. "He's got all those great spin moves. He's so active and athletic and he's only going to get better. He's already one of the better players in the league and I doubt if it will be very long before he's the best."

Simmons' ability to handle the ball and shoot from the perimeter give him dimensions uncommon for 6-foot-8 players who compete in the Big West. He does most of his scoring inside, but he'll hit an occasional 15-foot jumper or three-pointer to remind defenders they must guard him all over the court.

And he can handle the ball well enough to create scoring opportunities facing the basket. Unlike many big men, you don't cringe every time he puts the ball on the floor.

"Most guys his size in this league just stay inside," said Irvine guard Zuri Williams, "but he's a big man who can take his man outside and then take it to the hole. And we don't have to force it inside to get him the ball. He can come out and get it, and that's a big advantage for him."

Simmons honed his skills on the playgrounds of Brooklyn where "you have to be able to dribble and shoot outside or you don't ever get the ball," he said.

But there is another major factor in Simmons' instant success at Irvine. He has displayed a poise and maturity seldom seen in a freshman.

"What I like in him best," said Miglinieks, "even when he has not a very good game, you can never see in his face frustration."

Frustration? Given his childhood, a few bad bounces of a basketball aren't going to faze Simmons.

"I never have a problem with losing my temper on the court," he said. "Growing up like I did, you learn fast that things don't go right all the time. You've got to expect that and just keep on going."

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Kevin Simmons grew up fast, to be sure, but this is not the way you want a kid to grow up.

"There was never a time that I questioned Kevin's ability on the court or his ability academically," said Brooklyn Tilden High Coach Eric Eisenberg. "All the problems he had came back to the fragility of his base. You can't build a castle on sand and because of his early childhood, he didn't have a very strong foundation.

"So whenever he had a lot of stress, he had nothing to fall back on."

Simmons' father was gone before he was old enough to remember what he looked like. When he was 9, his mother left him, a brother and four sisters with a foster agency, where they were separated and placed in different homes.

Growing up in Brooklyn, guns and drugs are a fact of everyday life. Crack dealers and the crack of gunfire are just around every corner.

"Drugs were everywhere, guns were everywhere," Simmons said. "There was no escaping drugs and guns. And there were plenty of times when I was on the edge of going the wrong way, but my friends turned me away from it.

"They always told me I could be somebody with basketball."

After three years and numerous foster houses, Simmons found a real home when Emily Durant took him in and eventually adopted him. The Bedford-Stuyvesant project in Brooklyn is among the seediest and most crime-ridden in the world, but a home has more to do with the love inside the front door than the discarded syringes on the stairs and the dealers in the foyer.

"I look back at when I was young, and now I think it all helped me in a way," Simmons said. "I've been on my own a long time, I know what's going on on the streets and I've learned to depend on myself.

"And since (Durant) took me in 12 years ago, everything has worked out just fine. I talk to her about everything. No problems."

Simmons got little attention from his real mother and father, but he has since been blessed with a wealth of parental-like love and support. The list of surrogate parents begins, of course, with Durant, whom he calls "my mother" and telephones every day.

It includes several former and current coaches, a reverend and his daughter, and--crazy as it sounds--some of Brooklyn's notorious drug dealers.

"All the dealers in the neighborhood knew me and knew I played basketball," Simmons said. "They liked basketball, used to come to all my games, so they would never let me get near them.

"They'd tell me that I could do something with my life. So they helped out the way they could."

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Simmons' high school career mirrored his adolescent years. He went from the foster-home hop to the private-public-prep-school bop.

His resume includes a Brooklyn catholic school (Christ the King), a Virginia private school (Oak Hill Academy), a Brooklyn public school (Tilden) and an upstate New York prep school (Redemption Christian Academy).

He didn't start playing basketball until the ninth grade--he preferred baseball--when his buddies persuaded him that his fluid athleticism and increasing height were magnets to the hoop.

"I didn't know anything about Christ the King until a kid on their team told me the coach (Bob Oliva) wanted me to come there," Simmons said. "I was all set to go to public school."

Simmons, then 6-5, was named one of New York's top 10 freshmen and soon was recruited by Riverside Church, the city's most prestigious Amateur Athletic Union team.

"Christ the King was a good experience for me," he said. "At first we lived four (subway) stops from the school, but then we moved to another area of Brooklyn and it was a two-hour trip on a bus and two different (subway) trains.

"I had to get up at 5:30 and my grades started to slip. So Coach Oliva suggested Oak Hill and I said, 'Whatever will help.' "

After moving to his on-campus room at Oak Hill, he had some second thoughts, though.

"We had to wear ties and everything," he said. "The school was on top of this hill and the closest thing was a McDonald's about two miles away. Then I got into a fight with a kid on the team from Chicago. They say I was suspended, but the coach (Steve Smith) told me over the summer it was my decision.

"Anyway, I had already decided to come home and play at Tilden."

Eisenberg, of course, was happy to have him, although it took a court battle before Simmons regained his eligibility.

"Kevin was gifted with great skills," Eisenberg said, "and he's always had a high basketball IQ, a feel for the game. He had played basketball in the Riverside program with and against the best players in the world at his age group.

"Going through the prep school and dealing with the discipline matured him. And I like to think that when he got here, he got something else that's been key to his success. He got love and attention for things other than his basketball skills."

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Still, basketball was his passion, his savior, his glory, his grace. When he twice came up short on state tests required for high school graduation, he was "very disappointed."

So was Irvine Coach Rod Baker and assistant Greg Vetrone, who had worked so hard to get a top prospect such as Simmons to play at a school referred to as "Where the hell is UC Irving?" in Brooklyn.

"The guys back home, they either hadn't heard of it or had no idea where it was," Simmons said. "Everybody was into the big-name schools, but I tried to explain to them that you don't have to go to a big-name school to be seen."

So Simmons ended up at a long-name prep school--Redemption Christian Academy--with a long list of don'ts and a very short list of dos: study, practice, go to church, study some more. It was a spartan, military-like existence. And it was a turning point for Simmons.

"I'd heard that he was a loose cannon, a kid who was used to getting his own way," said Rev. John Massey, who runs the school. "So I picked him up personally from the bus station and told him, 'Son, you're just a boy inside a man's body and I won't tolerate any foolishness and if you don't like it, you can get right back on the bus.'

"I think he was a little shocked. Kevin never had a father figure, someone who disciplined him or yelled at him when he needed to be yelled at.

"We showed him a lot of love by showing him tolerance, patience and by being stern. Kids like Kevin are begging for structure in their life. They usually won't admit it, but they respond to it."

Massey's version of tough love, along with the gentler hands of his wife and daughter, Melinda, helped Simmons open up, especially in the classroom.

"We get kids from worse situations than Kevin's and we understand the extreme difficulties they've been through," Massey said. "However, if they ever expect to obtain any goals, they can't live in the past. I tell them, 'Whatever happened in your past or to our ancestors, we can't do anything about that. And we're not going to sit around waiting for reparations. The only thing anyone owes you is an opportunity and you better make the very best of it.' "

Massey says his daughter was the one who discovered Simmons' "hidden intelligence." She also talked her father out of kicking Simmons out of school for staying up too late.

"He was so shy and intimidated in the classroom, he would never speak up," Massey said. "Melinda started helping him and stayed on him about his studying. By the time he left, he was our best student."

Melinda Massey accepted a basketball scholarship at Concordia University in Irvine so she could be close to Kevin, who visits her almost daily.

"She came out here to take care of me," Simmons said, smiling. "She just wants to see the best for me."

The year at Redemption Christian allowed Simmons to retain four years of Division I eligibility, learn how to study effectively, and, of course, refine his basketball skills.

He wasn't the only one sweating, though.

*

Vetrone had risked a number of treks through parts of Brooklyn he hopes to never visit again. Baker had invested time and a significant part of his meager recruiting budget to woo Simmons.

Would he change his mind?

"Kevin and I had a relationship that goes way back," said Vetrone, who had been an assistant at Farleigh Dickinson and Long Island University before coming to Irvine. "But in this business, any time a player of Kevin's stature becomes available again, you get very worried.

"And we had to weather some rocky times when UMass and Maryland and Cincinnati became involved. But Kevin is a very loyal person."

The Anteaters have only 11 victories this season, but Vetrone speculates that number would be cut in half without Simmons, who has started every game and is second only to Miglinieks in minutes played.

Simmons has scored in double figures 20 times this season and averaged 22 his first time through the Big West, before opponents changed strategies in their second meeting with the Anteaters.

"Any time you get a freshman, even one this good, you expect some ups and downs, spectacular one night and playing like a freshman the next," Vetrone said, "but Kevin's been really consistent.

"He's given us a legitimate inside scorer and rebounder. (Opponent) coaches have to say, 'We can't let Simmons go off.' And the rapport he's developed with Raimonds is incredible.

"I think one of the most impressive things about him is his unselfishness. The other night against (Cal State) Northridge, he had 17 points. A lot of guys would have been thinking about going for 30 or 40, but he wants everybody to be involved.

"The kid's a warrior and a winner."

Simmons likes to say that "the past is the past," but Eisenberg said Simmons admitted he felt a parental void the most when things were going well.

"Kevin always felt good that his adoptive mother really loved him, but he was sorry he never had the chance to share some of these things with his real mother and father," he said. "Now that he's having this success, both on the court and in the classroom--because we're talking about an academic situation here, not Mickey Mouse State--I imagine that sorrow has manifested itself even more."

*

On July 19, 1994, two weeks after arriving at UC Irvine, Simmons and fellow recruit Tchaka Shipp went to a see Riverside Church play in Torrance. After the game, they borrowed a friend's rental car. Simmons fell asleep shortly after they left Torrance and Shipp, who was driving, nodded off behind the wheel on a street adjacent to the Irvine campus.

The convertible hit a tree, flipped over and slid about 200 feet. Shipp was in a coma for nine days. Simmons escaped with cuts and bruises.

"When I woke up, the first thing I thought was that it was over," Simmons said. "I kept saying to myself, 'Oh God, I might be done.'

"There's no question that basketball is a major part of my life right now. It's carried me a long way. Without basketball, I'd probably be caught up in the streets somewhere. I'd be nothing without basketball."

Someday, he said, he will be able to evaluate his self-worth without a stat sheet, but for now, he'll focus his energies on the hoop.

"I want to make it to the (NBA) so I can take care of everybody who has taken care of me," he says. "And I want to get my whole family back together in one big house."

Maybe a tree grows in Brooklyn after all.

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