LIONEL SIMMONS played basketball with a dignified passion. His game was low on style, high on substance. He was so consistently great over 131 games at La Salle that, unless you looked closely, you could have missed that his greatness was his consistency.
The first time I saw the L-Train in person was Feb. 10, 1987 at Hayman Hall, his freshman season. He had 31 against Holy Cross. La Salle won 96-60.
It was a pattern that repeated so often that his career ended with 100 wins and 3,217 points. His last college point was scored on March 17, 1990. When this March rolls around, it will be 27 years since that moment. The 3,217, third all-time then, is still third. And scoring was just one aspect of a throwback game that would have made James Naismith proud.
For his consistent excellence and his rare mastery of every aspect of basketball, Simmons will be recognized Friday night in Kansas City when he is inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
The count kept changing, but Simmons was planning to host a dinner for 24 Thursday night in the town that houses the College Basketball Experience where the Hall of Fame is located, right next to the Sprint Center. The induction is scheduled in an historic Kansas City theater.
"This is the top for me,'' Simmons said.
Two college moments stand out, he said, a 101-100 win over Florida State at the Palestra on ESPN Feb. 23, 1989 and a 121-116 loss to Loyola Marymount on Jan. 6, 1990 at the Civic Center.
The Train had 36 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 blocks against Florida State, 34 points and 19 rebounds against Loyola. It was just like that, game after game, season after season.
Simmons scored nine points at Fairfield on Jan, 8, 1987. He scored in double figures in his final 115 games, an NCAA record for consecutive double-figure scoring games then and now.
The final numbers were astounding at the time, even more so today when truly great seniors who become NBA lottery picks like Simmons are essentially nonexistent.
He finished with those 3,217 points, 1,429 rebounds, 355 assists, 248 blocks and 239 steals. The blocks are No. 1 at La Salle, the rebounds and steals No. 2. The assists are No. 15, the 14 in front all guards, L-Train the classic small forward with every skill.
I have never seen a better passing forward in college basketball. If you were open, you got the ball. If he was open and he got the ball, he scored.
"He was a 50-percent shooter for four years so if he missed one shot, you knew he was going to make the next one," said Speedy Morris who got the La Salle coaching job just months before Simmons enrolled in 1986. "He's the best player I've ever coached, not even close. He was such a team player, never took a bad shot."
The Hall of Fame, said Morris, the coach at St. Joseph's Prep since his La Salle tenure ended, is fitting "for one of the best to ever play the game."
Simmons never missed a game and started them all. He averaged 20.3 points as a freshman, 23.3 as a sophomore, 28.4 as a junior and 26.5 was a senior when his team went 30-2.
Balloons floated down from the Civic Center rafters when his free throw became point No. 3,000 on Feb. 22, 1990 against Manhattan. His No. 22 was retired five nights later in his final home game against Army.
"He was the consummate professional even as a collegiate athlete,'' said Keith Morris, a sophomore teammate that special season, the owner of Morris Capital Management in Conshohocken now. "He treated every teammate with respect whether you were on the floor for major minutes or not. As smooth as he is today, he was just as smooth back then, under the radar, but you knew you could count on him every single night.
"And that's why many of us are still good friends today . . . He'd probably be mad for me telling you, but he does so many things for the poor people and the people in the neighborhood that nobody knows about. He doesn't want TV cameras there, he doesn't want reporters there. He's just a good, good human being that all of his teammates are proud to call him a friend and proud that this moment is finally happening for him. It's long overdue.''
Recruiting rules were different back when Simmons was at Southern High so then-La Salle assistants Joe Mihalich and Fran Dunphy practically lived in Southern's gym or wherever the Rams were playing.
"Me and Dunph didn't see every game, but we saw almost every game,'' remembered Mihalich, now the Hofstra coach. "Call him all the time. Nobody knew he'd be as good as he was. He just kept getting better and better.''
So good for so long that the numbers became overwhelming.
"He wasn't like a highlight tape,'' Mihalich said. "He had the uncanny way of if he had to jump a little higher, he did. If he had to be a little faster, he was.''
If he had to be a little better than the other guy, he was. That was the very essence of the L-Train.
Simmons has a place in Center City and another in South Beach as he has settled into a comfortable post-NBA life, retired almost two decades now. He was well-paid as a professional and as smart with his money as he was on the court and has always been in life.
Lionel Simmons just turned 48 on Monday. That really does not seem possible. Nor does everything he did on the court. But it all happened. I was fortunate to see most of it courtside. I close my eyes now and I can still see it - the anticipation, the understanding, the concentration, the joy, the consistent brilliance of the game beautifully played.