He considered transferring to Utah, where his father had been a star back in the late '60s, or abandoning college to play in Europe or the CBA. There was one other option. He could take a three-week minisession over the break, and if he got an A, it would nudge his GPA above the eligibility line.
The matter was resolved as the Simons sat with Grimes in his office on Christmas Eve, talking to Olson, who was hooked up by speakerphone: Miles would give it one more try and enroll in the minisession. "Miles lives on the edge," Olson says. "And if you live on the edge long enough, you're going to fall off."
Or as Walt says, "Miles is the kind of kid, you can love him too much. You ask him, 'Everything O.K.?' and he'll look you in the eye and say, 'Yeah, it's O.K.' But he's lying. With Miles, everything is always O.K., Lute learned. If Miles says he's going to class, better check, because he's probably not."
Miles made his A, in a course called Family Studies, but his travails weren't over. He regained his eligibility on Jan. 11, but three games into his comeback he found himself running a 103° fever. The diagnosis: pneumonia. From several days in the hospital, supine and hooked up to an IV, he developed back spasms that further complicated his recovery. Then in early February, after he had finally worked his way back into shape, Simon was making a left turn in his Honda when another motorist smashed into its side. The force of the impact flung Simon into the shotgun seat. He doesn't recommend going without a seat belt, but from the way the collision flattened the driver-side door, he believes that the left side of his body would have been shattered had he been strapped in.
Wondering what else could go wrong, Simon called home. "Dad," he said, "get me out of here."
Academic slacker, frequently sick or injured, captain only in the Joseph Hazelwood sense—these weren't descriptions that Simon had envisioned for himself when he graduated from Mater Dei High in Santa Ana and headed to Arizona in 1994. Though Simon had moved into the starting lineup after the car accident, the Tucson papers and talk shows were airing plenty-of sentiment that the Wildcats didn't really need him. Olson knew better—"If we were going to do something in the tournament," he says, "Miles was going to have to be the engine."
"That was the old Miles," says San Antonio Spurs guard Reggie Geary, who played with Simon at Arizona and Mater Dei. "One thing on top of the other, letting things get compounded instead of getting on top of them." But again, Walt Simon was not one to let his son take the easy way out, and Miles gave up any ideas of quitting. And by March, Walt says, "it was as if all of a sudden God said, 'I've tested you. And you've passed the test.' "
How the old Miles developed his affinity for life on the edge is a puzzle, for he hardly grew up as a pampered athlete. At 14 he stood 5' 5" and weighed 130 pounds. He was a Nintendo-playing, SportsCenter-watching, baseball-card-collecting adolescent, virtually indistinguishable from others of the species Getalifus pubertis—a scrawny follower of the world of sports who offered no hint that he would ever become a player in it. Walt would take him to seven Final Fours, and at his first, in Seattle in 1984, Miles got close enough to take a photo of Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, one of nearly 20 Final Four M VPs whose names he can recite in chronological order. His heroes also included New York Mets outfielder Darryl Strawberry, whose number 18 Miles wore in Little League and whose likeness festooned the walls of his room. His sister, Charisse, remembers Miles pulling for Strawberry in the '86 World Series and thinking to herself, What a weird last name.
When Charisse actually met Strawberry, at a birthday party for Cincinnati Reds outfielder Eric Davis in May 1990, Miles was at St. Juliana's in Fullerton, repeating eighth grade. Over that year he gained six inches and 30 pounds. Still, Walt says, "I didn't see him as a basketball player. I saw him as a baseball or tennis player." Even after Miles attracted some attention while playing with a traveling youth team and with Mater Dei's nationally ranked program, Walt protested to one college coach who came calling, Notre Dame's John MacLeod, that Miles simply wasn't that good.
But MacLeod and other coaches liked Simon's on-court carriage and recognized in him a strain of something that Walt was just beginning to see. "A guy like Miles, he talks," Olson says. "But more than that, there's his body language. Guys on his team can see how confident he is, and it makes them relax."