Jan. 9, 2009
By Gary Peterson
Moraga, CA - It takes a lot to intimidate Diamon Simpson, who banged countless shoulders and braved scores of flying elbows en route to breaking the career rebounding record at Saint Mary's.
A couple hundred sixth-graders did the trick.
"It wasn't (easy), honestly," Simpson said Thursday, recalling a recent appearance he made before a group of kids on behalf of the Hayward Youth Academy. "It was easy because it was sixth-graders, but at the same time it was like over 200, 300 people in there. So you're still kind of nervous."
Knee-deep in his senior season -- 13-1 Saint Mary's opens West Coast Conference play tonight with a home game against Santa Clara -- both Simpson and his game continue to grow. He's averaging career highs in minutes and rebounds (11.9). He's blocking more than two shots per game (he set that career record last season). If his scoring is down slightly (to 12.8), it's because that chore is effectively handled by a talented committee.
By the time he's done at Saint Mary's, Simpson may hold the career steals record as well. At his current scoring average, he's a lock for the top five in school history. He could conceivably crack the top three.
He's always been the kind of guy -- friendly, hard-working, humble -- you want to root for. When he stood before that group of kids, he became the kind of guy you pretty much have to root for.
"Diamon's not exactly an extrovert," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "For him to do that is pretty impressive. He's got a big heart."
The idea was the brainchild of Chris Major, president and CEO of the HYA. The academy's mission, as stated on its Web site, is to "promote the well-being of children, families and others in need." Simpson, the son of a single mother, was once one of those children in need.
It was a natural fit, Simpson's clinical aversion to public speaking notwithstanding.
"(Major) came to me and asked me to help him with this program to get YMCAs going back in Hayward, because they're all closed down," Simpson said. "I was like, 'Yeah, I'll help you.' So he set it up to where I talked to two (elementary) schools. And they came (to Saint Mary's) to a few games. It was a good turnout.
"Talking to the kids afterward, they got a lot out of it. Half of them probably didn't know Saint Mary's was out here. I was just trying to motivate kids to stay in school, basically. Hayward's closing down a lot of schools now, school (class sizes) are getting bigger. I was just trying to help them stay in school."
"They gave him an opportunity to do it," Bennett said, "then he did it again because he saw the joy it brought to kids. I think he gets it."
This is a new phase of life for Simpson. Everywhere he goes, people are looking up to him. Breaking Tom Meschery's rebounding record elevated his profile. The more he learned about Meschery, the more impressed he was with what he'd just done.
"I didn't realize how big it was," he said. "The guy whose record I broke is in the Warriors Hall of Fame. It was definitely a big accomplishment."
He's part of what could be an historic team at Saint Mary's. The Gaels reached the NCAA Tournament last spring for just the fifth time in school history. Their 13-1 nonconference record includes nine games away from McKeon Pavilion.
"I want to win league so we can get a banner up in (McKeon), so I can point to that," Simpson said. "And it would be nice to go far in the tournament."
But those goals are so in the moment. The qualities that define Simpson are classically timeless. Try this the next time you see him. Suggest that his elevated profile gives him a responsibility to conduct himself in a certain manner.
"It's a good (responsibility) to have," he said Thursday.
Now drop Charles Barkley's name, and that whole "I'm not a role model" shtick of his.
"I think that's just selfish and stupid," Simpson said, shaking his head.
Yeah, he gets it.