Throughout his four-year career at LaSalle University; Lionel “L-Train” Simmons was the best kept secret in college basketball – tucked away on the tiny campus just above Broad and Olney in Philadelphia. When it was over, Simmons was the third all-time leading scorer in Division I history and the only player to score 3,000 points and grab 1,300 rebounds and on his way to becoming an NBA Lottery pick of the Sacramento Kings.
And he did it all without making a sound…
Lionel Simmons’ game is reminiscent of a lava flow; consistent, silent and above all, dangerous. Those who take this phenomenon for granted are often left to survey its damage. In four seasons at LaSalle University, Simmons went through opponent after opponent regardless of team, conference, or historical significance (Simmons holds the record for most points by a visiting player in the University of North Carolina’s Dean Dome 37pts.).
Many would think that being the big man on a campus that measures about a square mile (or less) would only enlarge the ego of the 1990 Naismith and Wooden award winner.
Not at all.
Truth is, Simmons has never been comfortable with being the man. It always appears that he’s been in the shadow of someone else, which was fine with him. Simmons honed his skills on the tough playgrounds of South Philadelphia where grit is a requirement – not an option. Young Lionel often played with players advanced in age and skill level, often leaving him as the last player chosen. It was here that Simmons learned to sit back and watch older players, learning from their mistakes. Through this rite of passage Simmons gained humility along with learning the finer points of the game; passing and rebounding -knowing his day would eventually come.
As a senior, Simmons would go on to win the 1986 Philadelphia Public League Boys Championship averaging 32.8 ppg. that season. Even in his finest hour Simmons seemed overshadowed by the presence of 6’7″ junior power forward Brian Shorter out of Simon Gratz High School. Shorter at the time was considered the best college prospect in the country. It seemed that Simmons had finally stood alone, after all as junior he had lost in the Championship game to Dobbins Tech led by Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble.
Simmons’ low profile seemed to be a perfect fit for LaSalle University, a school that was in Philadelphia’s Big 5, but whose glory days were long gone. LaSalle courted one of the great NCAA teams ever in winning the 1954 National Championship led by the legendary Tom Gola. Gola was a three-time consensus All-American and won the NCAA tournament MVP in 1954. He was LaSalle’s all-time scoring leader with 2,462 points.
LaSalle’s Big 5 existence, played second fiddle to Villanova, who was fresh off of their NCAA title victory and Temple University who was back in the national spotlight thanks to coach John Chaney.
While the lure of the power college basketball conferences called friends Gathers, Kimble (USC/Loyola Marymount) and Jerome “Pooh” Richardson (UCLA), Simmons chose to stay close to home. LaSalle played out of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC).
Leading up to his senior season Simmons was one of the best players in America that no one knew about – a dead ringer for James Worthy of the Los Angeles Lakers, Simmons likened his play to Worthy’s teammate Magic Johnson, who was Mr. Do-It-All for the Lakers. Simmons was averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds at LaSalle and at the end of his junior season a decision had to be made.
Lionel is the youngest of five children, his mother Ruth was the sole provider for the family and work was beginning to wear on her body. Watching two of his older brothers go in and out of jail made Simmons realize he had to be the backbone of the family and step past many of the shadows that he stood in and become the man of the house.
Simmons was in a position to leave LaSalle and become an NBA Lottery pick which at the time would bring him no less than a $6 million deal. But Simmons was reminded by his mother of a promise he made when he enrolled at LaSalle.
Simmons promised his mother that he would graduate in four years.
A son’s dream is to tell his mother she doesn’t have to work anymore. A mother’s dream is to have a son that keeps his word and sees the job through.
Simmons’ senior season would be one of the most remarkable in collegiate history. Simmons would average 27 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks and a steal in a season that would not soon be forgotten.
History, Heartbreak and Honor.
The Explorers finished the season 30-2 with a national ranking. All eyes were on Simmons as he closed in on becoming only the 5th player in NCAA history to score 3,000 points. On February 22, 1990, the historic moment came at the free throw line as Simmons dropped the first of two free throws. Simmons would finish his career behind only Freeman Williams and Pete Maravich with 3,217 points.
Less than two weeks later, Simmons joy would be replaced by sorrow.
During their MAAC Conference Tournament final against Fordham, the basketball team was informed of the collapse and passing of Hank Gathers. Gathers had returned home weeks prior as Loyola Marymount handed the Explorers one of their two loses. Simmons was told of the news during the game and could be seen weeping on the court for his on court rival and friend, a timeout was called as Simmons left the court inconsolable.
The Explorers regrouped and prepared for the NCAA tournament. Entering as a #4 seed, the Explorers would cruise past the Southern Mississippi, before being ousted by Clemson led by the inside duo of Elden Campbell and Dale Davis. Although his collegiate career was over it was time to reap the rewards of his labor as Simmons would win the Naismith and Wooden Awards signifying the national college player of the year.
Simmons would go on to become the 7th pick in he NBA Draft, he was selected by the Sacramento Kings. He would finish second to Derrick Coleman in the 1991 NBA Rookie of the Year voting. In seven seasons with the Kings he would average 12 points and 6 rebounds per game before retiring due to chronic injuries.