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Three days after Cedric Simmons witnessed the Chicago Bulls honor their first coach and longtime announcer Johnny “Red” Kerr, Simmons was in Shallotte for another ceremony—this one honoring him.
“I feel really blessed to have my jersey retired,” Simmons said in an interview two days before West Brunswick High School retired his No. 44 jersey. “Anything like that is (an honor) at any level, high school or college or pro. It just shows all my hard work from high school, middle school, even when I was younger, finally paid off.”
Dan McGougan coached Simmons in high school, and Simmons said McGougan worked tirelessly with him “not only in the summer but in the fall, when the other guys were playing football, and in the spring, when guys were running track.
“I would always be in the gym with him working on my jump shot, my hook shot, different moves,” Simmons said. “He showed me the things I needed to do to be successful and play Division I basketball.
“Before school even started, at 7 o’clock, I was shooting jump shots, working on my free throws. He really helped me out a lot. I really can’t thank him enough to this day.”
As a senior, Simmons averaged 17.3 points points and 11.8 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-9 Simmons blocked 199 shots in 28 games. He played in the 2004 Oasis Shrine East-West All-Star game in Greensboro. But the highlight of his high school career, he said, was hitting the game-winning hook shot and then blocking an opponent’s potential game-winning 3-pointer in a state-playoff game.
A teammate who rivaled Simmons statistically (16.7 ppg, 10.2 rpg) was Chris Bland.
“He was always one of the better athletes at the school, playing all three sports,” Simmons said. “He and Ray (Bland) and the other guys on the team, if they hadn’t gotten better, our team wouldn’t have gotten better and I wouldn’t have gotten better.
“Ray, a good point guard, just gave me the ball. And Chris was the other guy on the (post). It was a great honor to play with him. I am thankful for those guys.”
In his two years at North Carolina State University, Simmons was coached by Herb Sendek.
“He pushed me to the limits,” Simmons said. “I pretty much had never been pushed before (like that) as an athlete. In Division I, everyone has talent, but there are certain things you have to do to stand out. You have to know the game. You have to really study the game. You have to play hard every night. Those are the things he taught me. It showed me what it would take to get to the next level—which is the NBA.”
A highlight for Simmons was the Jan. 18, 2006, game at Duke his sophomore year, in which he scored 28 points, had nine rebounds, blocked seven shots and made three steals—all team highs—in an 81-68 loss.
“And playing my freshman year with Julius Hodge,” he said, “and that great team that we had, going to the Sweet 16.”
State beat defending national champion Connecticut to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1986.
Simmons said he remembers “getting off the plane and all the fans meeting us at the airport, the people waiting at our practice facility for us when we got off the bus.”
As a sophomore, Simmons was on the ACC All-Defensive team and was honorable mention All-ACC. He left for the NBA after two years with the Wolfpack, but he did so in consultation with Sendek. When Simmons was projected as No. 15-25 in the draft, “he told me to really think about it. That is something that could change not only my life but my family’s life also.”
Now with the Bulls and in his third season in the NBA, Simmons said “it has been a real learning experience for me as far as staying mentally strong and trying to stay ready.”
Before the All-Star break, Simmons was averaging fewer than six minutes a game for a team challenging for the No. 8 and final seed in Eastern Conference seed in the playoffs.
“I haven’t been getting the playing time that I want,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of injuries here and there. It’s a test to see if I can make it out of all of this and try to stay positive, try be hungry.”
The ceremony honoring Kerr gave Simmons some perspective about the history of the Bulls, a team that had its first run for a championship in the 1970s but faded until the arrival of Michael Jordan.
“This is a team with a lot of history,” he said. “It goes back to Johnny Kerr and Jerry Sloan and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Those guys were there last night. It was just great seeing those guys and being part of a ceremony that was historical.”
Simmons had no chance to talk with Jordan during the ceremony, and Simmons would have liked the opportunity. In a biographical sketch in the 2004-05 N.C. State media guide, Simmons said the person he’d like to switch places with for day was Jordan.
“I’ve only seen him from a distance or in a crowd,” Simmons said, “but I’ve never really introduced myself to him or said hello to him.”
Bulls assistant coach Pete Myers, a former Jordan teammate, had to guard Jordan in practice and gave Simmons some insight into Jordan.
“He competed every day in practice,” Simmons said. “He never took a practice off. He played hurt. (Myers) told me some of the tough things he did to separate himself from everyone else—that made him Michael Jordan.”
In the NBA, Simmons has competed against two players he admired when he was in high school and college: Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan.
The player Simmons most pretended to be when he was a kid playing basketball was Garnett.
“He was a taller guy, but he didn’t do the things that the big men did,” Simmons said. “He could shoot. He could dribble. He was always one of my favorites growing up. He was somebody that stood out to me. “When I was playing on the courts, I imagined being Kevin Garnett or being in his position.”
Simmons recalled the first time his played against Garnett. Simmons, a rookie with the Hornets, played against Garnett when he was with the Timberwolves.
“It was great,” Simmons said. “I don’t want to sound I was starstruck. I wanted to prove to myself that I could guard him and compete with him. It was great being on the same floor with him. That’s when I really knew I had made it to that level.”
Garnett first made news when he skipped college and went to the NBA directly from high school. But Simmons said that aspect of Garnett’s career was not a motivating factor for him.
“During high school, I always thought about going to college first,” Simmons said. “Even before I left to go pro, I never imagined leaving after two years of college. I always thought I would graduate, or at least (finish) my junior year and then decide whether I want to enter the draft.”
Simmons’ sports role model was Duncan because “of the way he handled himself. A real professional, kind of a calm demeanor. He really didn’t get too upset or too rattled. He always had the same look on his face, when they were up 20 or down 20. And he is very skilled around the basket.”
When he was with the Hornets, Simmons first played against Duncan. Simmons recalls “the strength of him and the ability that he had, how he kind of set me up for different things. I kind of took some of those things with me, and that’s when I knew I had to get stronger.”
Playing in the NBA is fulfilled dream for Simmons—but it was his second dream. His first dreamed of playing Major League Baseball.
“Growing up, playing Little League baseball was always my favorite sport to play,” said Simmons, who was 5-8 when he was in the fifth grade. “Basketball was always second. We always went to the basketball court after my baseball game. I just enjoyed throwing the ball and catching it and being outside.”
Simmons was a pitcher, first baseman and outfielder.
“I guess once I got in eighth grade,” he said, “I just had a change of heart. I really fell in love with basketball and playing indoors. Baseball was hot summer days. But still, to this day I watch baseball and I follow it real closely.”
When Simmons tells people he is from Supply, he also has to give them a geography lesson.
“I have to say Wilmington or Myrtle Beach and give them a couple of minutes north or south. They understand a little bit.”
Then he tells them something else.
“I tell them it is a small town, close to the beach. Real laid back. It’s a nice place to live and a great place to grow up.”
MICHAEL PAUL is the sports editor at the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or at email@example.com.