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Gorman: Simons is a story we should celebrate

| Sunday, March 5, 2017, 9:57 p.m.
Troy Simons. Polk State v. Daytona State. Winter Haven, Fla. Dec. 1, 2016. Photo by Tom Hagerty.
Tom Hagerty | Polk State College
Troy Simons, a University Prep product, plays for Polk (Fla.) Junior College against Indian River on Nov. 17, 2016.

Troy Simons grew up on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District, within walking distance of Pitt.

When Pitt assistant coach Jeremy Ballard called Simons on Thursday night, he wasn't just offering a basketball scholarship but a chance to play in the neighborhood.

The Hill produced a pair of Pitt greats in Sam Clancy and DeJuan Blair, and Simons is hoping to be the next to shine in the blue and gold.

“It feels like a storybook right now, with a happy ending,” Simons said Sunday of committing to Pitt. “But we've still got more to go.”

Simons' story sounds like pure fiction. He bounced through four high schools in five years, playing only one season of varsity basketball before graduating from University Prep in 2015.

Thanks to the help of a trio of Western Pennsylvania natives, Simons didn't slip through the cracks. That's what makes Simons a story Pittsburghers shouldn't just appreciate but celebrate.

Through their SCORE development program, Rico Abbondanza and Dante Calabria combined to give Simons a second chance.

Simons was going to play a post-graduate year for Calabria, the former Blackhawk and North Carolina star, at Montverde prep before Calabria decided to leave.

They found a taker in Polk State coach Matt Furjanic, a Rankin native and former coach at Robert Morris and Pitt-Greensburg.

Two years later, Simons led the NJCAA in scoring at 26.3 points a game at the Winter Haven, Fla., school.

“The story is unbelievable,” Furjanic said. “They did a great job of helping him. I'm not going to lie to you: Troy was a challenge, having never been coached and learning how to play in a system and making sure he goes to all of his classes.

“I'm not saying he was rebellious the first year, but he wasn't ever coached. He was stubborn. He didn't understand this was how the offense needed to be run. He was used to pickup games. It took time for Troy to buy in, but the second part of his sophomore year he's been phenomenal.”

When Simons struggled, Furjanic called on Abbondanza, a former Seton-La Salle and Lock Haven star who took Simons under his wing as a Pittsburgh Public Schools physical education teacher at UPrep.

“To see where it's at now, this was what was supposed to happen for kids like Troy,” Abbondanza said. “This is the end result. He was the one who believed in it, kept pushing and stayed in shape. What happened was the Pittsburgh people helped connect the dots.

“It's really a neat story, something Pittsburghers can do for each other. It really is picture-perfect, if you ask me, not so much because it's the hometown school but all the support and love he's going to get from the community will help him reach his goals.”

If it takes a village to raise a child, Simons could be in good hands. Furjanic envisions Pitt doing the same for Simons with Sam Clancy and Kirk Bruce, a pair of City League greats and former Pitt stars who work in the university's athletic administration.

What they don't do, the Hill will. If Simons needs tough love, he'll get it from those in the neighborhood. The Hill also will embrace Simons like it did Blair, the All-American forward who spoke with Simons during an unofficial visit at the Virginia game Jan. 4.

“It's an amazing feeling because I grew up watching DeJuan Blair. We're from the same neighborhood. I even played with him a couple times in pickup basketball, worked out with him at Ammons Rec Center, which is right down the street from my house,” said Simons, who played for Blair's brother, Greg, in the AR3 summer league.

“It means the world because when I was a little boy, football was No. 1 and basketball was No. 2. I'd say if I did play basketball, Pitt would be my No. 1 option so I could play in front of my family and friends. If I start slacking, I've got people behind me who will tell me to get back on my A-game.”

Here's the best part: Simons isn't just a good story, he's a rising star. The 6-foot-1, 193-pound shooting guard has a 40-inch vertical, a natural scoring touch and a mean competitive streak.

Simons is a former Division I football prospect — he had an offer from Temple in high school — who had the inner drive to transform himself into a high-major basketball recruit.

Next, Simons wants to help Pitt return to national prominence, to winning seasons in the ACC and trips to the NCAA Tournament.

“I believe I'll be able to come in right away and make a big impact on the team,” said Simons, who averaged 5.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists and shot 46 percent from the field and 40.9 percent on 3s. “Any way they need me. I can do it by scoring, with defense or rebounding.”

First, Simons has to hold up his end of the bargain. He has to complete this semester and finish two more classes by the end of the summer to become eligible.

“I've still got work to do. I've got to get through school right now,” Simons said. “Once I get to Pitt and step on campus, I'll probably be like, ‘Pinch me. Is this real?' ”

That's when a long journey turns into a short walk through the Hill. It's storybook, with a happy ending, one we all should celebrate.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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