Bobby Simmons keeps his word, gets his degree

Former DePaul star and NBA player finishes school for his mom, his son — and himself

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

8:53 PM CDT, July 3, 2014


On Father's Day last month, Bobby Simmons fulfilled a promise made long ago to his mother that left him feeling like a better dad.

In front of 25 loved ones interspersed in the Allstate Arena crowd, Simmons officially became a graduate of DePaul University, where he starred in basketball before departing after his junior season in 2001. The audience included Charlene Simmons, Bobby's mom, to whom he vowed he would finish school, and 14-year-old Bakari Simmons, his son, who floored his father by announcing: "Dad, I'm so proud of you.''

Simmons had celebrated many occasions inside those same walls wearing a Blue Demons uniform, but nothing matched the satisfaction of marching in a royal blue cap and gown to mark a victory bigger than any on the court.

"It felt awesome,'' said Simmons, who earned his degree in communications. "I told my family I would finish before I was 35. I just turned 34 June 2, so the time was now. There were no excuses. It was time to get it done.''

Over an 11-year NBA career with five teams, Simmons made $50.3 million, according to basketball-reference.com. The father of two manages his own real estate company and two retail stores in the South Loop: Succezz sneaker boutique and Full Spectrum Printing. He completed 19 classes over the last two years anyway. Making money didn't drive Simmons back to class as much as practicing values.

"My friends' reaction was, 'Why are you going to school? You don't need to,' '' Simmons said. "I explained there's life after the game and if we continue to live until we're 100 years old, once basketball is done, what are you going to do?''

Now Simmons can pose questions to youths at Chicago-area basketball clinics about the importance of education without sounding like a hypocrite. Now he can speak from personal experience about the sacrifices necessary to make academics mean as much as athletics.

"That was No. 1 because I mentor a lot of kids on a daily basis and when I speak to them I always say, 'There's more than basketball and school matters so much I'm in the process of finishing my degree at DePaul right now,' '' Simmons said. "Even if you don't make it to the NBA, I can tell them you still can be successful in the business world if you're willing to work hard enough.''

Accounting and advanced science courses challenged Simmons the student to work the hardest. Katie O'Brien, DePaul's director of athletic academic advising, credited Simmons for using tutors like other student-athletes and motivating younger classmates simply by his presence.

"Some of them would ask me, 'Did you see his car? His watch? His clothes?' And I'd say, yes, I did, but the cool part is Bobby was here anyway,'' O'Brien said. "He thanked us for our help, but we are thankful to him for all the teachable moments he gave us.''

Gradually, Simmons even enjoyed the learning process, especially having two instructors who were students back when he, Quentin Richardson of Young and Lance Williams of Julian briefly revived DePaul basketball in their hometown.

"Finishing those 19 classes while running a business had to be one of the hardest tasks I've had,'' Simmons said. "But now that I did, I'm trying to convince guys like (former DePaul players) Imari Sawyer, Andre Brown and Paul McPherson to go back and finish. Instead of leaving it out there, unfinished, just close that chapter in your life.''

Any book on Simmons would be a page-turner.

He survived growing up poor in Altgeld Gardens on the South Side and knows firsthand how dangerous the city can be; two brothers died because of gun violence. He persevered through Simeon Career Academy and DePaul, using basketball as a vehicle and his inner drive as the impetus to move forward.

On the night Simmons was selected in the second round of the 2001 NBA draft, hero Michael Jordan — then a Wizards executive — called to inform him he was headed to Washington in a trade. After that disappointing stint landed Simmons in the D-League, boxer Roy Jones Jr. was his point guard with the Mobile Revelers. By the 2004-05 season, Simmons rediscovered his game with the Clippers and won the league's most improved player award. Still in shape, Simmons believes he could make an NBA comeback now that he's done studying, if given the chance.

"I've never been a quitter or given up,'' said Simmons, who averaged nine points in 466 NBA games. "I'm proud I had coaches in my life that taught me structure and basketball fundamentals and what to expect and always be a gentleman who shows respect. I had to work for everything I got.''

A college diploma Simmons wanted more than he needed provided the latest proof.


Twitter @DavidHaugh