3…Jason Terry sprints up the court…2, the three-pointer goes up!…1, off the rim! Wade grabs the rebound! Throws the ball up in the air! The Miami Heat win, 95-92, in Dallas to crown themselves as NBA champions for the first time in franchise history! And there he was, Wayne Simien, the rookie sprinting towards the joyous scrum of hugs and elation in a tan suit to celebrate with Shaquille O’Neal and Gary Payton, the same superstars he idolized and watched on TV barely a year earlier.
To check out the first chapter of the “Forgotten Heat” saga, click here.
This was supposed to be just the beginning for Simien. A high school and college All-American, he has the distinction of being one of the only two players drafted by the Heat out of the University of Kansas.
You thought the other one was Mario Chalmers, didn’t you? Well, you would be wrong. Chalmers was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves and then traded to the Heat back in 2008. The other one was Darnell Jackson with the 52nd pick in 2007.
Anyway, I digress. Simien arrived in Miami as a highly touted college player that had played in two consecutive Final Fours as a freshman and sophomore before being named an All-American as a junior and senior. He was touched by life’s magic wand, or so he thought.
Nobody could have imagined that the power forward with the potential to be the next Tim Duncan would become a draft bust and exchange the glory and fortune of the NBA for a church and the humble life of a pastor. This is the story of Wayne Simien, one of the “Forgotten Heat.”
JAYHAWK IN FLIGHT
Simien grew up 20 minutes away from Allen Fieldhouse in Leavenworth, Kansas, so he obviously always dreamed of playing for Oklahoma. Just kidding, he accrued every possible honor winning a state championship as a junior and being named a McDonald’s All-American and Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior. He also pursued his other competitive passion and won fishing tournaments with his dad, Wayne Sr., as a kid.
However, he was pretty underrated nationally despite of that. Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry were the belles of the ball and ESPN.com had him in 67th place back then in the Class of 2001 rankings. Not that it mattered much anyway…it was love at first sight and Kansas Jayhawks head coach Roy Williams wanted him on his roster as much as Simien wanted to make his childhood dream come true.
The 6’9’’, 255-pound forward joined a roster that had future NBA players such as Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison and Drew Gooden. In fact, Roy Williams’ intention was for Simien to be Gooden’s successor as the next big threat in the paint for his team.
That desire would come true. Simien finished his college career 12th in all-time scoring (currently 16th) surpassing Gooden’s 1,526 points with his own 1,593.
Everything seemed to be golden in his charmed life. But then storm clouds appeared in his horizon for the first time.
Back in 2003, Kansas lost in the national championship game against Carmelo Anthony’s Syracuse squad. Maybe they would have won if Simien hadn’t been ruled out for the season after re-injuring his right shoulder during the regular season.
He had already had surgery on it in high school, then injured it multiple times in college jamming it on the rim, making contact with opposing players…it was a mess, so surgery was required once again. Simien would go on to average 19 points and 33 minutes the following two years at Kansas. But his injury history spooked teams picking in the lottery during the 2006 NBA Draft.
Then again, maybe that wasn´t all that made them hesitate. Simien had a bit of Carmelo Anthony-itis in him as well.
‘If the team lost and I played well, I would feel good about it. But if the team won and I played bad, I would be in a bad mood,” Simien told the Christian Broadcasting Network back in 2014. That was when a campus pastor approached him at Kansas and motivated him to dive deeper into religious study, changing his mindset forever. He joined a church group and made religion his guiding light.
TRYING TO AVOID SIN IN SOUTH BEACH
So imagine you live your whole life in humble Kansas. You devote yourself to religion. All of a sudden you’re thrust into the party capital of the world as a 22-year-old with revelers such as Shaquille O´Neal, Jason Williams and Antoine Walker as teammates.
“I remember walking in,” Simien told The Wichita Eagle in 2010. “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.”
To Simien´s credit, the siren call of groupies and the NBA lifestyle didn´t deter him.
Pat Riley had drafted Simien with the 29th pick of the 2005 NBA Draft. To be fair to Riley, Simien seemed like a steal. He could be groomed as a big man under the tutelage of Shaq and Udonis Haslem. Most importantly, he was another big body at Riley´s disposal to fend off the big, bad Detroit Pistons. More specifically Rasheed and Ben Wallace.
The rookie moved to Miami with his girlfriend, Katie, who he’d begun dating six months earlier on New Year´s Eve. He asked her to marry him just two months later.
On November 2, 2005, Wayne Simien played the last 1:37 minutes of a 97-78 blowout win over the Grizzlies in Memphis. He had made his dream come true making his professional debut. The Heat were 1-0 to start their championship pursuit, and Simien was officially part of “15 Strong.”
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Simien would see action in 43 regular season games, starting two of them. He averaging 3.4 points and 2.0 rebounds in 9.6 minutes per contest. His postseason action consisted of three minutes against the Chicago Bulls in Game 3 of the first round. He played five minutes against the New Jersey Nets in the 111-89 blowout victory during Game 2 of that Eastern Conference semifinal matchup.
Simien went 0-for-3 from the field and didn’t score any points in either game, but he did grab a rebound against the Nets.
He didn’t play at all in the East Finals against the Pistons or NBA Finals vs. the Mavericks, but it didn’t matter. He was an NBA champion and would go on to marry Katie two weeks later on July 8, 2006.
Simien had never even kissed Katie for seven months before his wedding day “as a way to honor her”. They would go on to have five kids.
The 2006-07 season saw him be relegated after he missed the entire Summer League having contracted salmonella. Riley clearly didn’t trust him, and the “Disease of More” corrupted the team. Simien would barely score a total of 23 points in eight games. He didn’t play at all in the playoffs as the Heat got unceremoniously swept by the Bulls in the first round.
Simien would be a part of the Antoine Walker and Michael Doleac trade to Minnesota for Ricky Davis and Mark Blount prior to the 2007-08 season. The Timberwolves waived him shortly thereafter.
A NEW CHAPTER IN HIS LIFE
Simien would never play another minute in the NBA. He went on to join Spanish team Cáceres in 2008 after another American player had been kicked off the team for an incident with the police. Katie used to live in Spain, so they moved there with their by then two children.
However, that overseas adventure didn’t fulfill him. He officially retired as a basketball player in his prime as a 26-year-old in 2009. Simien went back home to Kansas. He spent the next decade being the campus pastor and helping youth sports though his “Called to Greatness” initiative.
His number 23 was retired at Kansas in January 2011. It’s up in the rafters next to Kirk Hinrich’s number 10 and legendary announcer’s Max Fankelstein’s number 60. Everything had come full circle. He was at peace when he spoke to a sold-out crowd at Allen Field House during his jersey retirement ceremony.
“I really hope that my legacy will be more than just about a guy who scored a bunch of points and grabbed a bunch of rebounds, but rather about someone whose life was miraculously transformed by Jesus Christ during my time here (in Kansas).”
He found a purpose beyond basketball, and with that he found true happiness.
Oh, by the way, not a single Heat player ever collected a dollar from the Simien bets.