Noah Fleischman, Sports Editor
Hours before tipoff on March 3 leading up to his final home game, Mike’l Simms walked onto the Siegel Center floor before anyone else. It was just him and the empty arena.
Simms, who was the first player on the floor every night, worked hard after high school to make his way back to his hometown of Richmond and achieve his childhood dream of playing for the Rams.
The forward’s work ethic also helped him reach his ultimate goal of becoming the first in his family to graduate from college. Simms said he set the bar for his brothers to graduate from college, and he challenges them to exceed him.
“I’m just trying to set the standard as far as a college graduate,” Simms said. “I want to make sure everybody is better than me — my kids, my brothers pursue to be better than me.”
Coach Mike Rhoades said Simms became the “flagship” for his family by showing that it’s possible to graduate from college.
“That’s an example he set for his family and his future family,” Rhoades said. “Because if he did it, why can’t the next person do it?”
The long way back home
Simms wasn’t recruited at the Division I level out of Highland Springs High School. He spent a year at prep school, then enrolled at Cowley College, a community college in Arkansas City, Kansas, in 2016. Simms said playing at the junior college level allowed him to learn the game as he played.
In one game at Cowley during his lone season there, Simms poured in 45 points, only making three 3-pointers in the process. His game improved, and VCU came calling with a scholarship before the 2017 season.
“It was just like ‘this is really happening,’” Simms said. “I had no choice but to take the offer and scholarship because it was a dream come true.”
That 45-point game served as a motivator for Simms once he returned to Richmond. Before every game, he watched highlights from his all-time career-high night.
Up and down season
Simms’ senior season was a roller coaster of emotions for the Richmond native and the rest of the team. They were voted preseason No. 1 in the Atlantic 10 and earned an early season ranked win over No. 23 LSU. Then, the Rams lost five in a row down the stretch.
“I don’t want to say it was a disappointing season, but it was a big eye opener for a lot of people,” Simms said. “Everybody thought we was going to be No. 1 in conference and all that. I guess people put a lot of pressure on us.”
The Rams entered the A-10 tournament in Brooklyn in early March with one goal: prove the doubters wrong. Their redemption tour was cut short before it even started as the tournament was canceled two minutes before tipoff due to COVID-19.
“Everybody was ready to prove everybody wrong and try to make a run and boom, it was a sad way to go out,” Simms said. “We couldn’t defend ourselves.”
This season, Simms started 25 games for the black and gold, averaging 6 points and 5.4 rebounds at the four.
On Thursday, Simms walked on an empty basketball court for the final time, only this time to take graduation photos on the practice facility floor.
Rhoades said that with Simms setting the example of graduating from college, he’s changing the rest of the family’s future.
“I always say, to redirect somebody’s future, a family’s future, people’s future, it takes one person to redirect theirs,” Rhoades said. “He did that.”
Even though the ceremony was canceled, Simms earned his degree in sociology, something that can’t be taken away from him, Rhoades said.
“Just never quit on yourself,” Simms said. “Times can get real hard and you start realizing who’s with you and who’s not, just put your head down and grind. That’s all I’ve ever really relied on.”