Yet there was more to Simien's unhappiness. As with most elite players, his status afforded him the run of the campus, from girls to free meals to VIP rooms in Lawrence nightspots on Saturday nights. "I had all that, but deep inside I wasn't really happy," he says. "One day someone asked me what I was truly living for, and it struck a chord in my heart and my mind. I was like, Wow, outside of basketball and personal gain, my life is really insignificant. I wanted to live for something bigger than myself."
In July 2003 Simien was baptized at a conference for Christian athletes in Texas, and soon he was giving impromptu campus sermons and attending Lawrence's Morning Star Church. He took out his earring and started wearing a suit and tie regularly. He replaced the BIG DUB #23 decal on his black GMC pickup with one that reads TRUCKIN' FOR JESUS. He even traded in his hip-hop CDs for gospel music. "Mom," he said over the phone one night, "I'm happy to tell you I threw away all that 'rap crap' you always talked about."
Big Dub's upbeat attitude kept him from despairing when he missed four games after having midseason ligament surgery on his left thumb. "He's been able to spin every negative that's been thrown at him into a positive," says Kansas coach Bill Self. "He was convinced: My legs will be stronger. I'll have more energy for the stretch run." Simien was right: He entered March in top form, setting career highs with 32 points on Feb. 27 in a thrilling win over Oklahoma State and 20 rebounds in the Jayhawks' 72-65 Senior Night triumph over K-State.
Yet when the final horn sounded, his evening was only beginning. Simien announced last year that he was postponing potential NBA riches and returning for one final season, and his explanation was simple: "I want to give a Senior Day speech." Now, as the last of the four seniors to speak, he was going to get his money's worth. "The last few days I've been dreading this because I just don't want it to be over," he said after taking the microphone. "You fans have a special place in my heart. Because before I was down here, I was up there. I started out being a fan. One of the very first games I came to, I was sitting up there by the Pizza Hut sign behind the band."
Dub was rolling now, just like the full-time minister he hopes to become someday. Displaying a natural rhythm and rhetorical ease, he thanked, among others, his fellow seniors ("When people think of one of us, they'll think of all of us"), his father ("a pillar, a tower"), his mother ("I hope one day I find a wife with as much strength and encouragement as you"), Self ("You have to play with the hand you're dealt, and I can't think of a better hand") and finally the Lord ("The work he's done with my heart and my body, it's a miracle").
The day before, Simien had said he wanted to avoid sparking a revival, but the red-state audience was feeling him, demanding a stirring finale. "No matter how many victories I've had on this court--all the championship banners, all the accolades past, present and future--the one thing I'll glory in is my relationship with the living God," he said, his voice met with a chorus of applause. "When I was 11 years old, I dreamed about playing on this court. Well, my dream now is to see each and every one of you, all 16,000, everyone listening on the radio and seeing this on TV, to have the same love and relationship with Jesus Christ as I do. I love all of you!"
By the time he was done, the fieldhouse clock read 11:14. He had spoken for 28 minutes. Almost nobody had left.
The Grieving Son
All game long, as her beloved son's Buckeyes were achieving the unthinkable, Mom's spirit surged in their hearts. Before a car accident took her life in November, Chris Fuss-Cheatham had dreamed of walking arm-in-arm with her son, Brandon, and husband, Jeff, on Ohio State's Senior Day. Brandon's last home game loomed as a crowning moment for the Team Mom, a woman who made egg sandwiches for players at football tailgates, who drove three hours from suburban Pittsburgh to do her son's laundry, who joined her two guys on hoops odysseys around the country from the time Brandon was five. "My mom," he says, "was everything to us."
No one could deny that Chris's memory was alive when the Buckeyes met unbeaten Illinois, the nation's top-ranked team, in Columbus on Sunday. It was alive when her sister, Patti Savage, held Brandon's hand in a heartbreaking pregame ceremony. It was alive when Brandon glanced over at section 124 in crunch time and saw his dad raising a custom-made medallion, Mom's picture engraved on the shiny metal. And it was alive when the unranked Buckeyes toppled the mighty Illini, sending Brandon and his teammates into a rapturous midcourt dog pile, their CFC memorial patches heaving above their pounding, pride-filled hearts.