What began in a boy’s imagination playing in a gravel driveway beneath an 8 1/2-foot makeshift basketball hoop in mid-Michigan somehow led Todd Simon to this:
A life coaching elite high school basketball talent from all over the country at a private school in the desert.
If you don’t know of Simon, maybe you’ve heard of his basketball program — Findlay College Prep in Henderson, Nev.
Or some of his program’s recent NBA first-round picks — Tristan Thompson, Avery Bradley or Cory Joseph — or other alumni, such as University of Illinois senior D.J. Richardson.
Or perhaps you’ll know of Simon soon, if Findlay Prep’s Gavin Schilling — Michigan State’s top remaining recruiting target for the 2013 class — commits to the Spartans.
Simon, who grew up in the tiny farming community of Fowler northwest of Lansing, is at the center of this basketball-driven accredited preparatory high school, the head coach of a student body that consists entirely of Division I basketball prospects. The rest of the Henderson International School is pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
If Simon, 32, sounds like a country boy gone rogue, his story is that of a hoops romantic. He grew up fantasizing about life as a basketball coach and studying coaching concepts — and later married a girl from Pewamo who first drew his attention with her jump shot.
“If she wasn’t able to make a jumper, we probably wouldn’t have gone on that first date,” Simon said. “I probably never told her that.”
The results of his first season as head coach reflect a life of preparation.
Findlay Prep finished the season Wednesday night a perfect 34-0, playing a national schedule against other private academies.
“I knew when I was 6, 7 years old that this is what I wanted to do,” Simon said.
Fowler to Nevada
His trek from Fowler to Findlay Prep wasn’t direct or what he originally had in mind.
Simon graduated from Fowler in 1999 and then attended Central Michigan University. After graduating he headed for the West Coast, hoping to parlay a connection with the Los Angeles Dodgers into a career as a Major League Baseball general manager — the next Theo Epstein, he thought.
“The Dodgers were sold that summer (in 2003). All my connections were gone,” Simon said.
“I spent the time going gym to gym watching (basketball) practices.”
Eventually, coach Paul Westphal at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., offered Simon a gig as a volunteer assistant.
That led, less than a year later, to a paid graduate assistantship with first-year UNLV coach Lon Kruger. Simon spent two seasons there.
“It was really like getting a doctorate in basketball, because Lon Kruger just came from the NBA,” Simon said.
Despite a promotion to video coordinator, Simon saw a better route to the basketball life he wanted through an upstart project nearby — Findlay Prep, funded (players’ tuition included) by the Findlay Education Foundation. Its founder, Cliff Findlay, is a former UNLV player and wealthy auto dealer.
So, in 2006, Simon followed another UNLV aide 20 miles outside of Las Vegas to be an assistant for this new high school basketball team.
In its infancy, Findlay Prep was mostly made up of players from overseas, cobbled together through connections a month before classes began.
But it quickly became a place for highly rated prospects from everywhere — those seeking a fresh start, discipline, more exposure or better college development.
In September, Findlay Prep head coach Michael Peck left for a coaching job in the NBA Development League, giving Simon his chance to run the program.
“I don’t think there’s any coach at any level, whether it’s pro, college or high school, that has a higher level of commitment than Todd Simon,” said Findlay Prep volunteer assistant and former NBA forward Jerome Williams, who was lured into helping out three years ago, with his two young children attending Henderson International School.
“Of his 24-hour day, I’d pretty much say Todd spends 18 of those hours doing something basketball related.”
Support from home
It was actually more like 24 hours a day for the first four years in Henderson. And much of it fell on Simon’s wife, too.
Part of his job as an assistant was to live in a five-bedroom house with the program’s players.
“We got married and then we had 10 kids,” said Kati Simon, formerly Kati Klein, who teaches high school English at a public school in the area. “I was the house mom. The boys would come home, I’d help them with their homework. Cook dinner for all them. Each room had chores.
“It was interesting, a unique experience. And a lot of food. … But if I could do that over again, I absolutely would.”
Kati is taking care of younger children these days. She and Todd have two boys, Rece, 2, and 2-month-old Raylan.
Simon has shared his own roots with his eclectic band of athletes, twice bringing Findlay Prep to play at Fowler High School, though not against Fowler.
“When we played in Fowler, we had some of the boys over to my folks’ house,” Kati said. “And they’re 6-(foot)-10, 6-11, 7-foot. They didn’t have winter gear. So my dad’s 5-8. They had my dad’s winter jackets on, our hats, our gloves, our scarves and there were outside riding our (snowmobiles). They had an absolute blast.”
Added Simon: “Talk about your 7-foot kid from the Congo in a deer-hunting outfit. It was great, just as a cultural experience.”
Simon said he’s working on bringing the team back to Fowler next season, hoping to play a game in Lansing, too.
“I tell people, if you could paint as close to a perfect place to grow up and be from, that’s it,” Simon said of Fowler.
Big dreams in the desert
Simon sees Findlay Prep as a perfect fit, a program that gives him the chance to mold and coach young people.
“We have to sit down with kids who are top 100 (prospects) in the country, top 50 kids in the country and say, ‘Hey, you’re (only) going to play seven minutes, you’re going to get two shots and the schoolwork is going to be very difficult,” Simon said.
“You have to go to school every day. You can’t be late for anything. You’re not going to be at home. You’re not going to have your mom there. There’s nobody that can talk to us and try to get you an edge on something. Do you want this?’
“That’s kind of what we tell kids. I think a lot of it now is our track record. That’s kind of our process of weeding out the ones who don’t fit what we are.”
Simon’s goals for Findlay Prep are large — 5 percent of the NBA he hopes will someday be alums of this desert school.
“If we can have 20 guys, six, seven, eight years from now, that all came out of here,” Simon said. “People will start to take notice, ‘Hey wait a minute, they’re doing something there that’s developing players and kids. How can this be translated?’
“Maybe that’d be our small way of changing the game a little bit.”