Flashback: Making a Splash

In the pre-season, Simien believed he had more fire than anyone in the country. Five months and thirty games later, he described himself as the hungriest. One thing seems evident. After sitting out last year, Wayne Simien is ready to play in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

***Orginally published in October, 2003***

Wayne Simien didn't need a doctor to tell him his surgically repaired shoulder was healed. A simple fishing accident took care of that for him.

Simien, an avid angler who began fishing as a hobby with his father, was in hot pursuit of some bass while fishing on a local pond with a buddy in early June. He anticipated doing his casting from the shore, so it took some coaxing to get the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Simien to climb into the pint-sized boat and venture to the center of the six-foot deep pond.

Simien felt a tug at the end of his line, and as he shifted his body in the boat to reel in his prized fish the unthinkable happened.

"I hooked one pretty good," Simien said with a confident nod. "I couldn't lift it over the edge just with the rod, so I kind of had to lean over. I forgot my friend was working the trolling motor on that side. We were both on the same side of the boat. It was all she wrote.

"The boat tipped over," he continued with a laugh. "All the water rushed in. Luckily, it wasn't deep."

And luckily, for Simien and Kansas fans, the junior power forward didn't re-tear the ligaments in his shoulder - or injure anything else for that matter. In fact, he held the boat up while his friend - a 5-foot-3 KU bus driver - remained safely and soggily inside.

Simien tracked down the pair's tackle boxes, chips and coolers that had floated across the once-tranquil waters before locating his rod and finishing the job he had started.

The hefty bass was still on the hook.

"After all that, we definitely kept him," Simien said, while still shaking his head.

Although he enjoys feasting on bass away from the basketball court, the Leavenworth native has plans to feast on bigger fish when basketball season begins. That is all he's wanted to do since arriving at Kansas in August 2001, but injuries have continually sidelined him. Now he is healthy again, and he plans to stay that way.

So enough with the questions about the shoulder. He is finished thinking about it, and he wants everyone else to let it go as well. His thoughts are reserved for sailing smoothly into a new season with a new coach.

Wayne's pain

Few can forget Wayne Simien's first game in Allen Fieldhouse. It did not count in the official stats and wasn't included in the squad's overall record, but the exhibition game against the EA Sports All-Stars in early November 2001 gave Kansas fans reason to believe Simien was something special.

The mammoth-sized freshman outshined Drew Gooden and Nick Collison when he came off the bench and scored 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting and sank all nine of his free throws.

Then there was his rebounding. He didn't just grab the ball. He engulfed it, swallowed it and spit it back out. His powerful legs propelled him high into the air. He ripped the ball from the air and thrashed his elbows through defenders for space. Twice he erupted back into the air, reached over multiple defenders and hammered the ball through the hoop.

All that damage in just 19 minutes.

Former coach Roy Williams was quick to caution fans not to get too carried away with their expectations because of Simien's jaw-dropping debut. Then, almost as if Williams had jinxed him with his warning, Simien was forced to miss the first five games of the regular season after having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.

It was the first of two major injuries to sideline Simien during his first two years in Lawrence, the second injury being the torn ligaments in his shoulder that knocked 22 games off of his sophomore season. The knee injury was frustrating because it delayed the start of his college career by two weeks, but the second was clearly the most painful for the lifelong Jayhawk fan. That is because it forced him to miss playing in the team's second straight Final Four.

"He kept himself together real well," said junior guard Michael Lee, "but I could tell emotionally he was just as hurt as if he'd played every minute of that game.

"I think Wayne handled it pretty well. He told me one time he got kind of excited when I banged my chest at Arizona (during KU's 78-75 win in the West Regional Final). He said he felt like he was right on the court with us."

But he wasn't.

Instead of using his chiseled frame to disrupt Carmelo Anthony's cuts to the basket during Syracuse's 81-78 victory over Kansas in the championship game of the NCAA Tournament, Simien's body was glued to a seat at the end of the KU bench. He did not even get to dress like he fit in with the team, ditching his No. 23 jersey for a dapper suit and a shoulder sling. He could offer words of encouragement, but nothing more.

No rebounds. No points. No blocks. Nothing. On basketball's grandest stage, Simien was helpless. "I can't really explain it," he says, grimacing at the memory. "Obviously everyone knows it's tough, but it's something you've been dreaming about and working for since you pick up a basketball (for the first time), and then to miss it because of something like that – it's just tough."

Both of Simien's college seasons have concluded with Final Four appearances, but he doesn't like to think about it. The memories are too painful. Being a spectator for the 2003 finals and scoring just four points in 14 minutes during the 2002 semifinal loss to Maryland hurt too much.

Sure, he shared the same Final Four dream as other college basketball players, but this is not quite how he envisioned it. He never imagined losing in the Final Four, let alone twice.

Two Final Fours and no championship to show for it? Simien scowls at the thought of being satisfied.

"Luckily I have two more years (with) good guys and good teammates," he says. "I'm definitely confident we can get back again."

"The Man" grows up

Wayne Simien wasn't the first player to leave the Kansas basketball locker room following Roy Williams' announcement that he was leaving to coach the North Carolina Tar Heels, but Simien's eventual exit was the most explosive of all the Jayhawks.

He flung open the locker room door with his healthy left arm and led the junior class' march to a waiting SUV. Among the angry utterances, Simien's words were the most compelling. His face that day sported a glare that is usually reserved for opposing power forwards. And when he ripped off his shoulder sling, it became clear that an angry and hurt young man was growing up.

Williams' departure hurt. He and his teammates had to rally the incoming recruits to stick with the program.

There was turmoil in Jayhawkland. It wasn't all fun and games anymore, but that is life in the grown up world that Simien is entering.

Following shoulder surgery on March 29, Simien spent his summer preparing for that adult world. After living with classmate Keith Langford for their first two years of college, Simien got an apartment of his own. His only roommates are a Beta fish named Petey and a cluster of tropical fish he calls "La Familia." The fish are soothing, he says, and the quiet apartment gives him time to think and put the turmoil of last year behind him.

"I had a lot of good people around me that cared about me that definitely helped me get through," Simien said, "but spending a lot of time by myself this summer growing spiritually and stuff like that, it's definitely made me a stronger person and put a lot of things into perspective as far as being around here and basketball and life in general."

The solitude was good for Simien. He rehabilitated his shoulder mostly on his own with a strength coach because his teammates were out of town for the summer at the Nike camp and Michael Jordan's camp - places where Simien would have been if not for the injury.

Instead, while teammates were out getting noticed by NBA scouts, Simien stayed home running, lifting, stretching, icing and fishing.

"It was a long summer," he said. "I did my job this summer while I was alone."

The return of Big Dub

With the long summer behind him, Simien was cleared to play full-contact pick-up games shortly after school started. Since then, his teammates have found out first-hand that his shoulder is healed. It is so healthy, in fact, he said he doesn't even worry about reinjuring it. He holds nothing back in pick-up games just to prove it.

"He's dunked on almost everybody on the team," Langford said. "He's still got the same nice touch with the jump shot. He's rebounding the ball well. But who is really in there that's going to push Wayne off the block? Moulaye (Niang) is not gonna stop Wayne."

How about the 6-foot-9, 255-pound Jeff Graves? He hasn't slowed Simien down either. He just keeps pushing people around like he did before his injury.

"Wayne is a man-child," said Michael Lee, speaking of Simien's play in pre-season pick-up games. "He's strong, he's physical, he's mobile, he's smart, he's powerful. Then at the same time he can finesse you around the basket. I can't say enough good things about Wayne.

"Wayne's a monster, man! Big Dub."

Simien has been diving for loose balls, dunking with the surgically-repaired shoulder, banging against the biggest bodies he can find to test his strength and refining the touch on his jump shot. His skills are coming back quickly and he's counting the days until the first game of the season when he can step back on the court, in front of a home crowd and finally feel at peace again.

It's been way too long since he's worn his traditional No. 23 jersey, trotted onto James Naismith Court and heard the crowd cheering for him. Not since Feb. 26, just one minute after entering the game against Texas A&M. One lousy minute from a 40-point victory turned Simien's life upside down. That one minute changed everything.

Now he is healthy again, life is calm and it is just a matter of days until he gets to show the country that he can still make a splash on the national scene.

"I might have the most fire of anybody (in the country) right now," Simien said, his voice echoing with conviction. "I missed 22 games (last year), and I had to sit out and watch the national-championship game from the sideline. I just have so much fire built up in me right now. I'm ready to go."

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