When Xavier Simpson walked into T-Bird Basketball Camp as a third grader 12 years ago, I was reluctant to allow him to play. He was a year younger and a head shorter than anyone else in the camp.
But his older brother, Isaiah, insisted that he could hold his own and Xavier more than proved that point in camp that week. He was terrific.
X is the nickname I have called him since that day and I will continue to use it despite the recent decision by the Big Ten declaring that the names on all team rosters have to be legal. On his birth certificate, Simpson’s first name was spelled with a Z. Hence, the spelling change to Zavier Simpson. But for the purpose of this column, and forever after, he is X to me.
From the very beginning, Simpson’s basketball story has been one of building confidence in the face of challenges. His first obstacle was his height. X was almost always the smallest player on the floor but his father, Quincy Simpson, insisted it didn’t matter.
“My dad always told me it was heart over height,” says X. He added, “I had no control over it, so I just decided to use it to my advantage.” If you want an illustration of that attitude, watch a University of Michigan basketball game when Simpson is forced, on a pick, to switch players and defend an opposing team’s post player. Despite an enormous height and weight disadvantage, X battles tooth and nail for position and invariably frustrates his taller opponent.
He just never backs down.
Simpson arrived at the University of Michigan following a legendary high school career in Lima, but everyone who walks into the Wolverine locker room carry’s an impressive resume of basketball achievements with them. Like most recruits at major universities, Simpson was forced to bide his time as a freshman while learning the ropes of competing at the highest level of Division I basketball. He played sparingly, about 10 minutes a game.
“It was almost like taking a year off to learn the game all over again,” said X. “It was very hard at first,” remembers Simpson. “We had class until 2:30 and then basketball till 8:00. Everything was just turned up a notch,” he added.
He credits Derrick Walton, Michigan’s four-year starting point guard and captain, for making the transition easier.
“Derrick took me under his wing,” said X. “I thought I was pretty fundamentally sound when I got here, but he showed me the details of the fundamentals.”
Simpson used passing as an example.
“Walton showed me how to spin the pass into a shooters hands to make it easier for him to find the seams,” he says. It was not the only lesson that Walton imparted to Simpson. “He was such a great leader, recalls X, he had everyone’s respect.”
Following Walton’s example, Simpson’s personal goals for this season are all team oriented. “I want to be able to put our weapons in the right place and then get them the ball,” he says. “But most importantly, I want to be a leader on this team,” he added.
Simpson talked about the role confidence plays in every area of competition. “So much of competition is in the mind,” states X.
He used shooting to make his point. Michigan’s head coach, John Beilein, one of the most respected offensive gurus in the game of basketball, has been trying to make some slight adjustments in Simpson’s shooting motion.
“Coach Beilein wanted me to move my hands up on my shot so I could see the basket and the ball wasn’t blocking my vision,” he says. After hours of watching tapes of his shot Simpson realized something very important. “I was going in and out of shooting slumps last season and spent hours studying tapes of my shot when I realized my shooting form was the same whether I made or missed the shot. I realized how much of it was just mental. It was about confidence and being strong enough to break any negative thoughts I had.”
This year Simpson faces a new challenge. He is competing with two other players for playing time at the point guard position. After starting the first four games of the season, X was replaced by a freshman, Eli Brooks, as coach Beilein searched for more offensive production from the point guard position.
But the challenge is bringing the best out of Simpson. In the last four games (Ohio State, UCLA, Texas, Detroit) X is averaging double figures in scoring, leading the team in steals, assists and dominating the minutes at the point guard position. And more importantly, Simpson was on the floor and leading his team in the critical closing minutes of tight games, a decision that shows his head coach, John Beilein, has growing confidence in Simpson’s value to the team.
“The ball is beginning to roll downhill for me,” says X. As his confidence continues to grow, look for Simpson to play an increasingly vital role in Michigan’s success this season.
Bob Seggerson is a retired boys basketball coach and guidance counselor at Lima Central Catholic. Reach him at email@example.com