Where the Heart is

Photo by Dylan Huebner by Erik Schmidt

Johnny Simon wasn’t meant to play basketball. He looks like a chump anyone could shut down at the third court of the Rec Center, squat and stumpy and strangely proportioned, destined to be confined by earthly limitations and the annoying persistence of gravity. He wasn’t constructed to ascend effortlessly into the rarified air around the rim or perform dazzling miracles with a little orange ball. His anatomical inadequacies are glaring: legs and arms too short, torso too bulky, a running form so awkward and inefficient that his high school football coaches made him do sprints in front of his entire team as an example of how not to run. He should be a wrestler, a linebacker, a bouncer, a weightlifter, a firm and immovable pillar at the bottom of a human pyramid. But then again, Johnny Simon doesn’t give a crap what he should be doing. He’s stubborn. He’s defiant. He wants to prove the world wrong. So when he looked in the mirror as a boy and realized he was built for lower ground and slower speeds and not to play basketball, he said, “Screw it, I’m doing it anyway.”

The thing is, Simon doesn’t need anyone’s approval. He does things his way, always has, from his formative days back home in St. Louis to his three and half years at Marquette to his current, post-graduation venture in Washington, D.C., he’s always been a dissenter of the status quo. Twenty-two years old, 5-foot-7 and 200 pounds, he’s a living paradox, a cultured sophisticate who wears 150 dollar cuff links yet isn’t above primal threats of bodily harm if you look at him the wrong way, a man who is simultaneously the yin to his yang, the LeBron to his Kobe, the rebellion and the evil empire, his earthbound, mortal body merely a vessel for his divine gift: a shooting stroke, honed to perfection during long, lonely practice sessions at Chaminade Prep back in the Gateway City, that has come to be his unstoppable weapon.

When Simon is at the Rec holding down the middle court, it usually goes like this: He’ll start off with a sharp jab step, quick and to the point, a subtle declaration of “F*** off,” and after he has your attention he goes to work. He’ll crossover, switch hands, then, POOF!, he’s gone like Houdini, streaking down the court with a head of steam, ready to pull up from five, ten, 100 feet behind the three-point line — it doesn’t really matter — and fire off a high-arcing rainbow jump shot, releasing the ball in one smooth motion, arm straight up, fingers wagging and dancing back and forth as the ball turns end over end in the air. It gives off the distinct appearance that Simon is a magician guiding the sailing sphere via some sort of pagan witchcraft voodoo. He poses for a moment as the ball gently falls through the net, arm still stretched out like he’s waiting for a high-five. Then he smiles. Game over. Thanks for coming out. Better luck never.

“Next,” he says.

He trudges off as his next victims head onto the court, chest puffed out, eyes a hazy blue. He knows he’s the best, and even if he’s not, he’s still going to act like he is. Double him. Foul him. Fight him. Doesn’t matter. You can’t ever beat him. See, that’s the game he plays. Simon Says. And you always lose.

But sometimes, for a brief second, you can catch a hint of fear in Simon’s pupils. It’s a small, fleeting sign of weakness, barely noticeable if you’re not already looking for it, but it’s there. He’ll grab at his chest, tug at his shirt, pound on his heart as if he’s trying to kick start it. Is he tired? Is he beaten? Is his overmatched body succumbing to the physical stress of taking on longer, faster, more proficient athletes? No. That can’t be it. Simon never gives up. Never takes shit from anybody. Yet something is definitely wrong.

 

…………

The Helfaer Tennis Stadium and Recreation Center opened in 1975. Back in the day, the Rec, as it’s known, meant fuzzy green balls, rackets and Golden Eagles tennis. Now it means people like Simon, wayward basketball players who come to play the only game they’ll ever love. That’s really what all this is about. It’s a love affair between a boy and a game. The people who come could have given up years ago. Moved on. Learned to realize that as days go by and responsibilities pile up, things like basketball become a little less important. Yet they come. Day after day, from the halls of Marquette’s dorms to the shoddy campus apartments to the surrounding, local housing, they come.

They put everything aside for a couple hours on the hardwood, all alone with their fickle mistress if it wasn’t for the dozens of other forlorn lovers trying to do the same. Their homework and exams and projects and jobs and chores and spouses and children, for a moment in time it doesn’t matter, and they pretend as if it’s the first time they’d ever laid eyes on Dr. Naismith’s perfectly imperfect creation.

The courts are awash with suitors. Bony freshmen with jerseys hanging off their bodies like sad, droopy smiles, limping veterans fending off time and rationality as they drag their creaking joints up and down the lane. Future doctors and lawyers and dentists and advertising consultants. Former high school jocks and homecoming kings. Has-beens. Never-beens. Wannabes. And everyone in between. They all come.

When Simon comes, people take notice. He busts through the doors of the Rec smiling a villainous smile, clutching his discount Nike’s high and tight under his heart like the grubby shoes are the Crown Jewels and he just swiped them from under the Queen’s nose. He knows what’s about to happen, you don’t.

“Like wudduuuuup,” he says. “It’s gonna be a long day for all y’all. Don’t even know why you bothered showing up.”

“Oh, White Man!” responds the mob. “You ain’t shit!”

“We’ll see about that,” says Simon, toothy grin now curling up menacingly on the corners like the Grinch when he stole Christmas. “We’ll just see about that.”

Playing high school ball back in St. Louis, Johnny Simon knew he had a choice. He could either accept that, as all physical and concrete evidence indicated, basketball was not the sport for him. Or, quite simply, he could work harder than everyone else. For a teenager, that’s not an easy decision to make, and it’s a choice that ultimately came with great sacrifice.

Other kids, the tall ones, the talented ones, could have their fun. They could spend their free time playing video games or ding dong ditch or chasing girls at the movie theaters. It didn’t matter if they weren’t practicing. They had something to fall back on. If all else failed, they still had height and speed and hops. There was no backup plan for Simon. No margin for error. He was predestined to fail from the very beginning. So he spent most of his time in the gym and in the weight room, getting better and stronger, making sure that nobody would ever overlook the short, white guy again.

“I know I wasn’t supposed to be doing what I was doing,” says Simon. “I know that, given my size and athletic ability, I shouldn’t have been starting on varsity, or getting recruited by Division 1 schools, or nearly walking on to Marquette’s team my freshman year. It’s funny, man, people, like kids back in high school, would ask me what my secret was, like it was some great mystery how I got so good. It’s no secret, man. I tried harder than everyone else. That’s it. I practiced more. Eight hundred, 900 hundred shots a day, ya know? Other people had the natural talent. I had the heart.”

At the Rec, much unlike the glitter and razzle-dazzle of AAU or prep ball, heart is not an overlooked commodity; in fact, it’s almost a requirement. That’s what you get with a gym full of cast-offs, a bunch of marginalized high school players who were this close to making it to the next level, only to fall short at the very end. But failure breeds success. And by and large, the Rec Center is a place overrun by failures, something that has helped establish the do-or-die, win-or-walk culture of Marquette’s marquee gymnasium. Players are chippy. They’re aggressive. Sometimes they’re downright mean. Verbal sparring sessions are common, pushing matchups frequent, fisticuffs not totally frowned upon. This is a place where the strong survive, just like Darwin intended. Losers walk. And the faint of heart don’t make it out alive.

 

…………

Simon is a testament to this. He pours his body, all 67 inches of it, all over the court. He dives for loose balls, runs the break, locks up the other team’s best scorer. To hear him tell it, it’s his heart, and not his shooting touch, that makes him the player he is. His heart defines him. It gives him the strength to do what nobody else can. His heart is the reason he got to where he is today, which is funny, because it’s almost the reason he never played basketball again.

His sophomore year of high school Simon suddenly collapsed during a practice due to severe chest pains and shortness of breath. Turns out he has a heart condition that constricts blood flow to the rest of the body, an obviously dire problem for an athlete who only survives because of his constant motor. No more basketball, the doctors told him, unless he wanted to risk more serious complications, possibly even death.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Of all the people to have this problem, why me? Basketball is such a huge part of my life, there was no way I could ever give that up, ya know? So I just chanced it. I kept playing. I mean, there’s only a very small chance that anything really bad happens, but it’s still there. It crosses my mind whenever I play. Pete Maravich died that way. Just collapsed on the court out of nowhere. I always wonder, could that be me? So when I’m out there and I grimace or grab my chest, that’s what it is. This pain, this reminder that I’m risking more than everyone else. It might be corny or whatever, but I always figure the pain would be a lot worse if I stopped doing what I loved.”

 

………

Simon knows here at the Rec, in downtown Milwaukee, at a school celebrated for its grace and dominance in the sport of basketball, everyday is a blessing. He knows this is where history is made, where legendary head coach Al McGuire turned dreams and prayers into trophies and magic, where 1970s scoring machine Dean “The Dream” Meminger rocked the Afro and short-shorts, where current NBA professor Doc Rivers taught his first class on the hardwood, where Dwyane Wade went from a nobody to nobody-can-stop-me in one mind-blowing season. It’s where basketball happens.

As Simon walks back onto the court for the next game, he suddenly reaches for his heart. Not because of that nagging pain. No, he pounds his chest to show his opponents what he’s all about. What the Rec is all about. Desire, passion, dedication, strength, purity, love for the game, nothing else. It’s all heart, baby.

Oh, and that heart condition?  The one that almost ended Simon’s basketball career before it had even started, the one that made him pass out during a practice and fear for his life every time he stepped on a court in St. Louis at Chaminade Prep, and here today at the Rec? Well, it turns out Johnny Simon’s heart is too big for his body. Go figure.