LAWRENCE — Thousands of college basketball players will be honored this week at Senior Night ceremonies across the country. They'll pose for photos with proud parents, they'll bask in the fast-fading ovations of fans, and some will be given the opportunity to make a speech.
Many of them will see the future more clearly than ever and believe they know exactly where they're headed, but they should listen to this story before becoming too assured in their direction, because a lot can happen in five years.
Wayne Simien had been looking forward to his Senior Night at Kansas since he was a boy sitting high up near the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse. He wanted the adulation that came with helping to hang new banners there, and he had worked his whole life to have 16,300 people care enough about him to stick around for an hour after his last college home game to hear him speak.
Still, he never thought he would have so much to say. Of course, there were hundreds of people to thank and memories to relive. But Simien had undergone a personal transformation at KU that needed to be explained. He talked to his pastor, John McDermott, about what to say. How do you make something that happened to you feel real for others? McDermott told Simien to ask the Lord for help.
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When Simien took the microphone that night, he held an entire state captive.
"There was some fear involved," Simien says now, "because I knew not everyone had the same feelings or beliefs that I did."
More than 20 minutes had lapsed when Simien finally segued into the real reason he was out there pacing across the court. He had one last thank you to give.
"My king, my heavenly father, and that's Jesus Christ," Simien said, "the person who sustains me every day.... He's changing me from the inside out, giving me a purpose and a sense of destiny ..."
Radios crackled across Simien's native Kansas, and maybe some turned their dials then. But others kept listening as Simien quoted from the Book of Jeremiah, chapter nine, verses 23 and 24:
"Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches," Simien said, "but let he who glories glory in this: that he knows and understands me, that I am the Lord..."
Simien reflected on the scripture.
"Sum up all the victories here on this court, the championship banners, the one we hung tonight, the accolades," Simien said, "the one thing I will glory in day in and day out is my relationship with the living God.
"My dream now as a Christian, as a man of God, is to see each and every one of you — all 16,000, everyone listening on the radio, everyone who may see this on TV — experience and have the same love and relationship with Jesus Christ that I do. I love you all."
And, with that, Simien's speech was over. All he had to do was live up to it.
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Wayne Simien's first team meeting with the Miami Heat gave him a pretty good indication of what life would be like in the NBA.
"I remember walking in," Simien says. "They were like 'This dude's a Christian. Give him two weeks until he's on South Beach in a strip club with me, give him such and such amount of time until he meets Suzie in LA. and does yada yada yada.' They were taking bets on me, basically, cash-money bets right in front of me as far as how long it would take for me to have a hiccup or whatever."
Simien was undaunted by the skepticism of veterans like Shaq, Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton. He did not have the voice he had at Kansas, so he would have to earn their respect through his actions.
Back in Lawrence, he had his doubters, too. After he had become a Christian on July 12, 2003, entering his junior year, there were plenty of folks who wanted the old Wayne back. They called him "Big Dub," and he was once the life of the party.
"As soon as I stopped doing drugs, stopped drinking, stopped treating women badly, stopped playing selfishly on the court, that's when people were like, 'Hey Wayne, what's wrong with you? What's going on? I'm worried about you,' " Simien says. "Now you're worried about me? After I stopped doing all these things?"
Yes, people looked at him differently after he became a Christian, but he didn't care. He wasn't living for them anymore.
"I was living a life of fear and insecurity," says Simien, a Leavenworth native. "I was insecure about how I performed on the court, I was insecure about what people would say about me, what they'd write about me."
Before long, Simien would join fellow Christian students and minister in the middle of campus at Wescoe Beach. Then, he leaned on a strong support group — made up of people like McDermott, the pastor at Morning Star Church, and former KU football player Dan Coke — and he would have no choice but to lean even harder on the people he trusted during his time with the Heat.
On road trips, to keep himself from going out on the town with his teammates, Simien would make sure he had good influences. When he was on the West Coast, former Lakers forward A.C. Green, known for being a devout Christian who practiced celibacy, would meet up with Simien. There were many others like Green that Simien sought out.
Simien once flew McDermott and his three little boys to meet him for back-to-back games in Chicago and Milwaukee.
"Not to demean them, but his teammates had other things going on," McDermott says. "Here he was hanging out with me and three boys."
During that first year in Miami, Simien would meet his wife, Katie, through some mutual friends who shared their beliefs. Wayne and Katie met in August 2005, began dating on New Year's Eve, became engaged in February and were married in July. In another statement about the way he was choosing to live, Wayne did not kiss Katie until their wedding day.
"I wasn't a virgin when I got married," Simien says, "so it was just another way of wanting to honor my wife, wanting to share that with not only her but also everybody that was at our wedding ceremony."
Some of his Heat teammates, who along with Simien had just won the 2006 NBA championship, attended the wedding and were blown away that he hadn't kissed Katie. It was just another reason to believe that Simien was walking the walk.
"They were asking me why I would do that," Simien says. "Really being able to speak to those guys, to be able to touch an area in their lives that they really hadn't considered before, I think there was a lot of respect gained from that."
Certainly, no players had been able to collect on their bets.
After his rookie year, Simien's NBA career began to fizzle. He missed his second year fighting Salmonella and also suffered a knee injury. He was traded to the Timberwolves but never found any traction in Minnesota.
For a few years, he had felt that basketball was becoming second to his faith, but he would make one more go at it playing in Spain. Simien averaged 18 points and eight rebounds during the 2008-09 season and could have signed for more money. It was clear he had at least four to five good years left in him, and there was a chance he could play his way back to the NBA. But that wasn't his dream anymore.
Simien, surprising even his friends who knew he wanted to be a minister more than a player, decided it was time to retire.
"When you get more excited about helping people, serving others, reading your Bible and preaching than you do dunking on somebody," Simien says, "it's probably time to go towards what you're passionate about."
* * *
In the weeks after Simien's Senior Night speech, copies were made and sent out to religious organizations all over the state and the country. An All-American's choice to speak about God resonated with believers and nonbelievers.
"He was just being honest about what he believed," McDermott says. "That's what was so powerful about it."
These days, the speech means even more to those who see Simien every day, practicing what he preached. Last spring, Simien moved from Spain to Lawrence with his young family, which now includes daughters Selah, Rael and newborn son Simon.
Simien is now working full time with his nonprofit organization, Called To Greatness, which holds basketball camps and sports leagues for children and teaches the games from a Biblical perspective. Simien says that last year 614 people participated in CTG events, 211 through scholarships. The goal is to make sure every kid who wants to play sports, regardless of talent, gets the chance.
"He's coaching three fifth-grade basketball teams," McDermott says, "and without Wayne taking it upon himself, those 22 kids probably wouldn't have played basketball this year."
Simien also takes the time to speak to the current KU team once a week about faith and meets individually with players Tyrel Reed and Jordan Juenemann. On Wednesday night, when Sherron Collins delivers his Senior Night speech, Simien will be in the designated team chaplain's seat behind the KU bench. He is there for anybody who wants to explore his or her spirituality.
Simien hasn't cashed a check for himself since leaving Spain. He often points out the irony that he "decided to shut it down in the middle of a recession." But Simien says he doesn't need the money right now. He is the same guy he was when he left Lawrence five years ago, the guy he professed to be on Senior Night.
"I'm a Kansan," Simien says. "I've got a Ford pickup truck, not a Mercedes. I've got a basic house. You don't see any diamonds or tattoos or any elaborate clothing. That's just a part of it. Faith and trust in God. If there's something you're really passionate about, you can do it for free. That's what I've been doing, and hopefully we'll be able to do that for a long time."