WATERBURY — Ken Smith, the longtime coach at Windsor High School, remembers reading a book called “Raw Recruits” by Alexander Wolff and Armen Keteyian. Good grief, it was almost 25 years ago.
The book centered on the contentious, sometimes cruel and underhanded world of college basketball recruiting. One chapter, stemming from a tournament in Las Vegas, was about this young guy from Connecticut.
“I had to find out who the guy was,” Smith told the packed crowd Wednesday night at halftime of the Greater Hartford Pro-Am Topflight High School B-Ball Showcase at Crosby High. “That guy was Wayne Simone. We've been friends for … a little while at least.”
Smith and Simone have competed against each other through the years. And if anyone is familiar with the AAU world, they'd know it is scant exaggeration to call it tribal warfare. There is turf to protect. There are players to battle over. There are games and sponsorships to be won and lost.
“There's so much drama, if you will, in the AAU arena, with players, with teams,” said Pete Higgins, the GHPA founder and its driving force. “Wayne goes to other teams and says you may not like me, but I know a coach who wants your guy and I can help him out. He doesn't get caught up in all of it. He has broken down a lot of barriers with AAU.
“We're honoring him, one, because he deserves it. And, two, we're going to show the community that we love what Wayne has done. You guys, coming up, you've got to get on the same page. Not just your team, or your connection to Nike or Adidas. It's all about the state, all our kids. Wayne did it like that and if we can do that we're on to some huge things.”
So the GHPA decided to play the high school showcase, featuring most of the top players in the state, in honor of Simone, coach and founder of the Connecticut Select program. A tennis player in his youth and at Villanova, Simone would become the most influential AAU basketball coach in state history.
Ryan Gomes, who later played in Game 1 of the best-of-three GHPA finals, played for Simone. So did Travis Best. So did Derek Kellogg. So did Roosevelt Lee. So did Will Solomon and Edmund Saunders. So did Andre Drummond briefly. So many terrific players did.
Gomes, who has gone on to forge an NBA career after playing at Providence, loves Simone. Smith has been a rival, hasn't always loved him. The two share a common thread. They insist that the real story is beyond all the big names.
“Wayne has done a lot of great things for a lot of kids,” Smith said. “My son has played for Wayne. AAU is better because of Wayne Simone. To be honest, he's one of the best competitors I've ever competed against. I really want to win this game today.”
Smith would, his North team beating Simone's short-handed South team, 116-105. Simone was without four players, including Steve Enoch, being heavily recruited by UConn.
“Wayne cares for all kids,” Smith said. “He has helped a lot of kids people wouldn't have helped, had given up. When they asked me to be here to help present this award to Wayne, I couldn't pass it for the world. He's truly an icon, legend. He's a great man.”
Smith and Gomes presented Simone with a plaque.
“It's not like he's only looking for highly touted All-American players,” Gomes said. “He gives a chance to kids with heart and determination who want to be better and get them in Division I, II, III, junior college and prep school. He's focused on all areas, not just on top-notch kids, and I think that's why a lot of people, parents, older people, respect what he has done in the community.”
Gomes counted 16 years since he first crossed paths with Simone, who grew up in Southington and now lives in Waterbury.
“Wayne gave me a great opportunity after my sophomore year at high school [Wilby-Waterbury],” Gomes said. “Traveling the country, playing against some of the top-notch players of the time, Amar'e Stoudemire, Lenny Cook, Carmelo Anthony, Eddie Griffin. I got an opportunity to play against those guys in front of coaches. It gave me an opportunity to make them say, hey, this kid can play a little bit. It opened doors.
“Growing up and becoming a man, he always has been in my corner. To this day, we talk frequently. He helps me with decisions I need to make. I needed an agent. He helped me. He has done a lot of wonderful things for me and I'm grateful he's part of my life. At the beginning we were friends. And now we're family. I know his parents, his family. He knows mine.”
Simone's parents, Richard and Irene, were at the game, sitting in comfortable chairs at midcourt. Richard was the one who talked about Wayne's tennis. In late 1986 after his Villanova graduation, Wayne started a college basketball magazine called “Off The Glass.” He was 22. Basketball was in his blood.
“We're very proud of what he has done,” Richard Simone said. “We just had a natural inclination to help kids who couldn't afford to get into college.”
Some of Simone's players competed in the high school game. Some competed in the GHPA finals later Wednesday night. They're everywhere.
“I've been doing this too long,” Simone said, laughing. “I'm honored by this, but I'm not the type who likes the limelight.”
Look, the AAU world isn't always pretty. After Simone said Jamal Faulkner was improperly recruited by Pitt coaches in 1990, you'll find a nasty interchange in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In “Raw Recruits,” Simone said Sam Albano, an owner of several bakeries in Queens, helped his close friend and Pitt assistant John Sarandrea sign Faulkner because Malik Sealy signed the previous year with St. John's. Albano said Simone was upset that Faulkner ignored his advice to sign with Texas, did everything he could to kill Pitt and was so obsessed with Faulkner that he was the college basketball version of “Fatal Attraction.”
Sometimes you get this picture of AAU operators as really slick. Simone is a jeans guy. Put on the sneakers. Get it on. He's not Pat Riley. And this will probably tell you something about Wayne Simone. Asked what his greatest accomplishment was as an AAU coach, he answered this way:
“People get confused sometimes. They think it's about helping the best kids. Sometimes it's about helping the kid that might not be going to school, who might be choosing the right path or the wrong path. I've got my most satisfaction from kids who need the most help.
“We're not all pit bulls. We're in it for different reasons. Because of the money, sometimes it has turned into who's taking the biggest bribe and who's making the biggest bribe, but in general most AAU guys are trying to help kids. Sometimes we have a father coaching his son's team because he heard it's a cesspool. There are all different reasons why people get involved.”
Gomes has another reason to be so close to Simone. He started the Hoops For Heart Health Foundation nearly a decade ago to get defibrillators in their gyms and arenas. Simone helps Gomes run the foundation. In 2008, one of those defibrillators saved the life of collapsed Utah State basketball player Danny Berger.
“We're trying to get eight defibrillators in Southington this year,” Gomes said. “Wayne's from Southington. We've donated in every city I've played in the NBA, about 100 already around the country. Yeah, Southington would be perfect.”Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun