“One of the guys at the dinner looked up at him and said, ‘Dude, this is junior college. You’re not in the Big Ten anymore,’” former John A. Logan assistant and current Missouri State assistant Kyle Smithpeters recalled to TigerAuthority.com.
So the 6-foot-11 big man, who transferred to John A. Logan after playing sparingly at Illinois for two seasons, got Twin Cities socks instead. But it was those seemingly trivial lessons —going from “steak dinners to Subway,” Simpson said — that made his one year stop at the junior college “the best decision of his life.”
“I wanted to prove that I was good enough to play,” says Simpson, who signed with the University of Memphis in April. “Everybody knew I was good, but the people close to me didn’t understand why I wasn’t playing at Illinois. All these schools came at me (at John A. Logan), and I just knew I was back to myself.”
But getting to that point required what could best be described as a dramatic tailspin.
His first season at Illinois, Simpson, a two-time state champion at Simeon High School (Chicago, Ill.) with former Tiger Derrick Rose, was forced to take a redshirt year because of low high school grades.
Simpson was self-admittedly unequipped to go without competitive basketball, even just for a year. He stopped going to class and started partying heavily, irresponsible habits that eventually seeped into his sophomore year.
“I didn’t make the right decisions of knowing how to handle the pressures of school basketball and being on my own,” Simpson says. “At that time, I don’t think I was very mature with some of the decisions I made.”
Simpson had played a total of eight games in an Illinois uniform when he decided to transfer to John A. Logan. By that time, Simpson said he and Fighting Illini coach Bruce Weber had stopped communicating entirely.
In a statement released by the school in April 2010, Weber said that Simpson “faced a number of challenges during his time here.”
At John A. Logan in the sleepy town of Carbondale, Ill., however, Simpson didn’t wrestle with the vices of a college town. He was able to focus, he said, because there was nothing else to do except go to class and play basketball.
“I changed my ways at John A. Logan,” says Simpson, who averaged 14 points and 8.5 rebounds for the Volunteers. “I’m kind of used to that (schedule) now. When I get on the bigger stage, at Memphis, I know it’s more business. I’m more of a businessman than a party dude now. All I care is about the season and making it to the next level.”
Smithpeters said Simpson’s year at the junior college transformed him mostly because it helped him realize the significance of academia.
“That was the biggest thing,” Smithpeters said. “There’s a right way and a wrong way to look at things. It’s good for the kids that come in here with that mindset and it carries over to the next level.”
The next level for Simpson being Memphis, the redshirt junior joins a myriad of budding sophomores and will be by pure definition an upperclassman next season for U of M coach Josh Pastner.
Last season, Pastner suspended then-junior Wesley Witherspoon for two games due to a lack of maturity, but the third-year coach won’t have time to baby-sit Simpson if his immaturity issues resurface. The Tigers are widely expected to field a preseason Top 10 team with virtually no attrition and the addition of incoming stud freshman Adonis Thomas.
“Stan will be expected to be mature and he’ll be held accountable,” Pastner said. “That’s something I expect from him. He’s gone through the transition. He’s gonna learn and grow, and he’ll know he has to be mature.”
While the rest of Simpson’s future teammates arrived on campus last month for summer school, Simpson was required to take four summer classes at Triton College in Chicago due to failed freshman-level classes at Illinois.
Pastner said he fully expects Simpson to join the team in the first week of August upon completion of his remaining coursework.
“I don’t see any issues. I’m very confident he’ll be here,” Pastner said. “He’s just gotta take care of business, which I expect him to take care of. I have full confidence in him.”
Perhaps most importantly, Simpson has regained full confidence in himself. After losing his focus at Illinois, Simpson says John A. Logan allowed him to reevaluate his priorities, which are clearer to him now more than ever.
“It was a life-changer,” Simpson says. “It showed me how you can go from being up high to down low. It helped me cherish the moment of when you’re (at the top). Being back to the big stage — it won’t be new to me, it’s just been so long. I’m ready.”