Two things are clear on this 100[degree], rock-garden-variety
Arizona day. One is the sky. The other is that Miles Simon did
not outfit himself at the Tucson National golf shop.
Bottom to top--which happens to be the direction of the story
line that follows--Simon, the Most Outstanding Player at the
Final Four last March, is resplendent in Nike Air Max SCs
trimmed in Day-Glo citron, Tommy Hilfiger blue denim shorts, a
gray Phat Farm T-shirt, an industrial-strength gold chain from
which hangs his uniform number, 34, and diamond earrings. And
while most of those playing today's Wildcat Dream Invitational
charity golf tournament carry titanium in their bags, Simon,
Arizona's 6'5" senior guard, has that substance gracing the
bridge of his nose, in the form of gunmetal-gray Oakley
sunglasses. "Lightest ever made," Simon says.
Naturally. Don't want to weight the cranium down unnecessarily
out here given golf's way of messing with one's head. The
tournament is seven holes old, and so far Simon has whipped up
such a mulligan stew of shanks of this and slices of that that
he's threatening to quit early.
Oops. Simon whacks an air ball over the next green. "That
foursome on the next tee box?" cracks an insurance salesman
who's one of Simon's playing partners. "It's now a threesome."
Then it happens--as unexpectedly as a six-victory dash through
the NCAA tournament field by a team that hadn't won that many in
a row all regular season long; as effortlessly as floater after
floater over discombobulated Kentucky defenders on a sceptered
Monday night at the end of March. Facing a 40-foot approach to
the pin, Simon lofts a chip shot. It sails 20 feet through the
air. It runs another 20 on the ground. As if sentient, it snakes
to the right. And it drops. "I'm Tiger Woods!" Simon cries out.
Now all is different. All is redeemed. With the prospect of
repeating his feat, Miles Simon plays out the round.
Abiding struggle followed by sudden vindication is something the
Wildcats know well. During the 1990s the likes of East Tennessee
State, Santa Clara and Miami of Ohio limited Arizona's NCAA
tournament stays to a single game and occasioned much
borscht-belt-style hilarity in college basketball press rooms.
(Did ya hear about the house rule at coach Lute Olson's bar in
downtown Tucson? Everyone gets kicked out after one round.) Last
season South Alabama had Arizona fitted for another first-round
collar: the Jaguars led 53-43 with 7:34 to play when 17 straight
points, nine of them from Simon, delivered the Wildcats from
further ridicule and put them on the path toward beating
Kentucky for the title.
But Simon knows this pattern personally as well. Set aside the
final month, and he would just as soon not repeat last season.
The trouble began in the spring of 1996 when Simon tried to drop
an algebra class in which he was struggling. But through what he
describes as a combination of his own negligence and
administrative sloppiness, the class was never officially struck
from his record. As a result Simon, already snorkeling
academically, went under and was declared ineligible for the
first semester, in the fall.
Enter Miles's dad, Walt. His first instinct was to turn to an
old friend, Milton Grimes, the Santa Ana, Calif., lawyer who
represented Rodney King in his civil rights complaint, to try to
get a court order against the university that would result in
Miles's reinstatement. But Grimes, the self-made son of
sharecroppers, asked Miles to write him a letter outlining the
circumstances of his case. When Grimes read it, he was given
pause. He decided that no one capable of composing so impressive
a letter should have gotten himself into such a predicament. He
talked things over with Walt, who is a juvenile probation
supervisor, a man whose business is disciplining young men and
returning them to the side of righteousness. "He wasn't going to
blame it on the school," says Miles. "It was all on me. He's my
dad, so he supported me--but the one thing he doesn't like is
people making excuses."
So Miles bent his head to the books, figuring that he would get
his grades up and be back after missing only seven games. Only
things didn't go quite that smoothly. Although he passed all his
fall classes, his scores weren't high enough to boost his
cumulative grade point average to the level needed. He went home
for Christmas believing his career at Arizona was over.
He considered transferring to Utah, where his father had been a
star back in the late '60s, or abandoning college to play in
Europe or the CBA. There was one other option. He could take a
three-week minisession over the break, and if he got an A, it
would nudge his GPA above the eligibility line.
The matter was resolved as the Simons sat with Grimes in his
office on Christmas Eve, talking to Olson, who was hooked up by
speakerphone: Miles would give it one more try and enroll in the
minisession. "Miles lives on the edge," Olson says. "And if you
live on the edge long enough, you're going to fall off."
Or as Walt says, "Miles is the kind of kid, you can love him too
much. You ask him, 'Everything O.K.?' and he'll look you in the
eye and say, 'Yeah, it's O.K.' But he's lying. With Miles,
everything is always O.K., Lute learned. If Miles says he's
going to class, better check, because he's probably not."
Miles made his A, in a course called Family Studies, but his
travails weren't over. He regained his eligibility on Jan. 11,
but three games into his comeback he found himself running a
103[degree] fever. The diagnosis: pneumonia. From several days
in the hospital, supine and hooked up to an IV, he developed
back spasms that further complicated his recovery. Then in early
February, after he had finally worked his way back into shape,
Simon was making a left turn in his Honda when another motorist
smashed into its side. The force of the impact flung Simon into
the shotgun seat. He doesn't recommend going without a seat
belt, but from the way the collision flattened the driver-side
door, he believes that the left side of his body would have been
shattered had he been strapped in.
Wondering what else could go wrong, Simon called home. "Dad," he
said, "get me out of here."
Academic slacker, frequently sick or injured, captain only in
the Joseph Hazelwood sense--these weren't descriptions that
Simon had envisioned for himself when he graduated from Mater
Dei High in Santa Ana and headed to Arizona in 1994. Though
Simon had moved into the starting lineup after the car accident,
the Tucson papers and talk shows were airing plenty of sentiment
that the Wildcats didn't really need him. Olson knew better--"If
we were going to do something in the tournament," he says,
"Miles was going to have to be the engine."
"That was the old Miles," says San Antonio Spurs guard Reggie
Geary, who played with Simon at Arizona and Mater Dei. "One
thing on top of the other, letting things get compounded instead
of getting on top of them." But again, Walt Simon was not one to
let his son take the easy way out, and Miles gave up any ideas
of quitting. And by March, Walt says, "it was as if all of a
sudden God said, 'I've tested you. And you've passed the test.'"
How the old Miles developed his affinity for life on the edge is
a puzzle, for he hardly grew up as a pampered athlete. At 14 he
stood 5'5" and weighed 130 pounds. He was a Nintendo-playing,
SportsCenter-watching, baseball-card-collecting adolescent,
virtually indistinguishable from others of the species Getalifus
pubertis--a scrawny follower of the world of sports who offered
no hint that he would ever become a player in it. Walt would
take him to seven Final Fours, and at his first, in Seattle in
1984, Miles got close enough to take a photo of Georgetown's
Patrick Ewing, one of nearly 20 Final Four MVPs whose names he
can recite in chronological order. His heroes also included New
York Mets outfielder Darryl Strawberry, whose number 18 Miles
wore in Little League and whose likeness festooned the walls of
his room. His sister, Charisse, remembers Miles pulling for
Strawberry in the '86 World Series and thinking to herself, What
a weird last name.
When Charisse actually met Strawberry, at a birthday party for
Cincinnati Reds outfielder Eric Davis in May 1990, Miles was at
St. Juliana's in Fullerton, repeating eighth grade. Over that
year he gained six inches and 30 pounds. Still, Walt says, "I
didn't see him as a basketball player. I saw him as a baseball
or tennis player." Even after Miles attracted some attention
while playing with a traveling youth team and with Mater Dei's
nationally ranked program, Walt protested to one college coach
who came calling, Notre Dame's John MacLeod, that Miles simply
wasn't that good.
But MacLeod and other coaches liked Simon's on-court carriage
and recognized in him a strain of something that Walt was just
beginning to see. "A guy like Miles, he talks," Olson says. "But
more than that, there's his body language. Guys on his team can
see how confident he is, and it makes them relax."
By the time Miles enrolled at Arizona in August 1994, Charisse
had that weird last name. At Davis's birthday party one of her
friends had slipped Strawberry her phone number. Strawberry, who
has come back from his own adversity, with bouts of domestic and
substance abuse, would help buck up his brother-in-law,
especially last December when things looked darkest. In a phone
call Strawberry helped convince Miles of what Olson already
knew: that Arizona absolutely needed Miles to go before they'd
By March the wide-eyed young fan in Simon existed alongside a
flinty-eyed young man. The fan, who reminded his teammates on
the eve of the championship game that they had a chance not
merely to win Arizona's first national championship but also to
complete a sweep of college basketball's three winningest
programs (Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky), could recite the
scripts from those late-night cable specials on old Final Fours;
the man provided highlights for the one that would be made in
1997. Going "up and under, every time" is how he recalls the
title game against Kentucky, in which he scored 30 points. "I
don't remember a team biting any easier for a pump fake all year."
Suddenly he was in a downtown Indianapolis Steak 'n' Shake at
four o'clock in the morning, with everyone in the place
serenading him with the chant of "M-V-P! M-V-P!" "Basically,"
says Simon, "I went from the bottom to the top"--from down
around those Nikes to up near those Oakleys--"in a five-month
If so much can come together so quickly, however, it can unravel
just as fast. Simon has already endured a rough first semester
this year. In a six-part investigation of the NCAA, The Kansas
City Star reported that Arizona made a series of exceptions to
its academic guidelines to keep Simon eligible and that Simon
has been on academic probation for virtually his entire college
career. A university spokesman nonetheless says the matter was
thoroughly investigated, and the school found that Simon had not
received any preferential treatment.
And even as the Wildcats have their top eight players returning
this season, most soothsayers are predicting that they won't
repeat as champions. It has become almost axiomatic in college
hoops that defending champs wind up being beaten by the
psychological burden of repeating. "It's not just that
everyone's gunning for you," says former UCLA guard Cameron
Dollar, who piloted the Bruins to a title in 1995 only to be
shown the tournament door in the first round the next season.
"It's that you get so caught up in where you've been. You've got
to understand, the only way you can stay on top is to forget
you've ever been there."
Dollar seems to be articulating the opposite of philosopher
George Santayana's maxim that those who cannot remember the past
are condemned to repeat it: Defending champs who do remember the
past are condemned not to repeat it.
Simon won't have any problem forgetting most of last season. The
question is whether he will remember the perils of life on the
edge--whether he has learned that a lightning March march, like
holing a 40-foot chip from the rough, isn't something you can
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH ONE OF THE THINGS OLSON ADMIRES IN SIMON IS HIS BODY LANGUAGE--AN ATTITUDE THAT EXUDES CONFIDENCE ON AND OFF THE COURT [Miles Simon]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH A LATE BLOOMER, SIMON CAME OF AGE LAST SEASON WITH A SLASHING STYLE THAT LEFT HIS OPPONENTS CONFUSED AND FLAT-FOOTED [Miles Simon in game]
COLOR PHOTO: E.B. GRAPHICS THE EXPERTS EXPECT ARIZONA TO TAKE A FALL, BUT SIMON SAYS THE WILDCATS' GOALS INCLUDE ANOTHER NATIONAL TITLE [Miles Simon with basketball on outdoor court]