1960’s Tucson High basketball star

Was ‘Hoegie’ the city’s best? Decades later, legend lives on

2013-12-28T00:00:00Z 2013-12-28T15:52:10Z Was ‘Hoegie’ the city’s best? Decades later, legend lives onBy Michael Luke Special to The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

PASADENA, Calif. — It’s a sporadically overcast midsummer afternoon in Southern California, and the man who may have been the best high school basketball player in Tucson history is relaxing in his quaint, second-floor apartment. He leans back in a recliner, sandwiched between a coffee table covered with notebooks of past press clippings and an end table loaded with basketball trophies, recounting past hoops triumphs.

Wallace “Hoegie” Simmons suddenly stops, rubs his chin and lowers his eyes.

“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in life, but basketball has been the one constant and I take pride in knowing I left a major basketball imprint wherever I lived,” he said.

His pride isn’t misplaced. Spearheading arguably the most talented and balanced high school basketball squad in Tucson history, Simmons averaged 20 points a game as a senior at Tucson High and was at his best on the grandest of local stages, scoring 24 points in the 1969 big school state title game.

Yet it wasn’t the number of points Simmons scored in his career, but how he lit up the scoreboard that fans reverentially recount to this day.

Simmons grew up in the humid fields of Monroe, La.

Born in 1951, he was put to work at an early age. Toiling long hours each summer picking cotton helped Hoegie develop a sculpted physique by his early teens.

Simmons’ strength, combined with a massive wingspan, blazing quickness and an outlandish leaping ability allowed him to become one of the more talented basketball players in his racially divided city.

Simmons never had a chance to play there. Simmons’ family moved to Tucson before he started high school; an aunt lived here. The move was a culture shock for an adolescent who had never seen a Mexican American or Native American, but the more laid-back Southwestern environment also allowed him more social leeway.

“If you got into trouble or didn’t do your homework in Louisiana, the coaches would just beat you,” Hoegie said. “In Tucson there was none of that. I could do what I wanted.”

This free rein allowed for Hoegie to spend countless hours honing his basketball skills, but also led to grade and legal problems.

At the time, Tucson High, with a particularly strong freshman team led by crafty marksman Delano Price, possessed one of the better basketball programs in the city. It had all the pieces to achieve greatness, except an athletic playmaker.

That game-changing player resided at Pueblo High. But at the time he was more well-known for the funny nickname he received from a varsity player who called him “Hoegie” after the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Hokey Wolf.

It wasn’t Hoegie’s nickname that caught Price’s attention.

“I had never seen an athlete like this fast, little freshman with a 6-5 wingspan and an awkward behind-his-head release point shot that I couldn’t and didn’t want to defend.” Price said with a chuckle. “So we got him to use a relative’s address so he could play with us as a Tucson Badger as a sophomore.”

But the effort was almost derailed before it could get on track. Simmons neglected his grades and was ruled academically ineligible for the start of his junior season.

Once eligible, he went on to average 18 points a game, but Tucson never really meshed and bowed out to Rincon in the city playoffs.

That loss stung, and the four juniors vowed the following season would be different. But to make that happen, Hoegie would have to fuel the team’s success.

Hoegie did not disappoint. Weaving through defenses at a dizzying rate, he helped Tucson win its first 11 games, including a victory over two-time defending state champion Phoenix Union.

But it was in the Badgers’ rematch game against Rincon where Hoegie etched his name into Tucson hoop lore.

During the mid-to-late 1960s, Rincon, led by a stifling 1-3-1 full court press, was arguably the best program in the state. Rincon had dominated Tucson during the past few years and after winning the first matchup of the season, the 1968-69 campaign wasn’t shaping up any differently.

The impact of the rematch was not lost on the basketball public.

Tucson’s confined, muggy gym could be an uncomfortable place to watch a game, but the conditions that year didn’t matter, as an early arriving crowd filled the venue with a rare energy that fueled Hoegie’s competitive spirit.

“He told us before the game that nobody could stay with him and that he’ll break the press himself and to just be ready to shoot,” Price said. “He then blew by their defense each time and either scored or set us up with easy shots. We won easily.”

The balance of power had shifted. Tucson won out, including another effortless victory over Rincon that propelled the 20-1 Badgers into the state semifinals. With Hoegie leading the charge, Tucson marched through Phoenix Union, then upset Tempe High to win the 1969 big school state title.

After graduating, Hoegie was initially unsure of his next move. Disregarded by major schools due to height and grade concerns, he considered looking for a job, but eventually joined the Glendale Community College basketball team.

He averaged more than 25 points per game and honed a variety of offensive moves for the fledgling GCC program. One move was particularly effective. Hunched while semi-palming the ball left to right, he’d feint to the hoop, shifting the defender’s balance enough to provide the half-step Hoegie needed to attack the basket or rise up for an open jump shot.

His skills earned him a number of accolades and the attention of then-University of Arizona basketball coach Fred Snowden. It initially appeared Hoegie would play his junior season for the Wildcats, but a lack of transfer credits scuttled those plans.

At Snowden’s prodding, Hoegie met with Texas A&I coach Donald McDonald, who offered him a spot on his 1972-73 basketball team.

McDonald immediately recognized that Hoegie could alter the program’s fortunes.

“He told me I could get a good shot off against anyone and that I should go out each game and attack.” Hoegie said.

This strategy led to high-scoring games and produced the only winning seasons in McDonald’s tenure.

But the story was Hoegie Simmons. In an era without the three-point shot, he regularly went off for 30-plus point games while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field. As word spread of his exploits, A&I games became top priority for basketball fans and regional newspapers.

His senior season was more prolific. Although A&I posted an identical 14-13 record, Hoegie averaged 29.3 points per game. He scored 51 points against Howard Payne University and 52 at the expense of East Texas State. He received a flurry of All-America honors along with a write-up in Sports Illustrated.

The former Badger was one of the magazine’s “Faces in the Crowd” in its March 11, 1974, edition.

But he didn’t get a sniff from the pros.

To the NBA mindset of the 1970s, it didn’t matter that he could score 30 a game at a small school in Texas. It mattered that he was 5-7.

Hoegie sat through the 1974 NBA and ABA drafts without hearing his name called, and while he claims the local pro teams offered a tryout, he declined, viewing the offer as an insult.

He eventually departed to Tucson to work on his game and plot his next move.

Bear Down Gym was the base of the Tucson basketball scene from the 1960s through the mid-1980s, a place where professionals, collegians and current and former high school stars competed in high-stakes recreational games.

Hoegie’s electric one-on-one skills were perfect for the setting.

Many of his exploits were recounted at Al’s Barbershop. The longtime preferred barber for the UA basketball team and a fixture in the Tucson basketball scene since he began cutting hair in the mid-1960s, Al Longmire has long had his finger on the pulse of Tucson-area basketball gossip.

“It was incredible how good he was, and people at the time knew what a rare player he was,” Longmire said. “After a lot of those games, people would come to the shop and tell anyone who would listen about a new move or dunk Hoegie pulled off.”

But while Hoegie was royalty between the lines, his lifestyle away from basketball eventually caught up with him. He was jailed on an armed robbery charge in 1975, and he would have multiple run-ins with the law over the years.

Incarceration dashed any distant dreams he might have had of playing professionally, but it was no impediment to the expansion of Hoegie’s legend. His dreams of playing in front of packed arenas dashed, Hoegie proceeded to captivate a literally captive audience.

“Some tall guys with basketball credibility in prison knew about me and wanted to play one-on-one,” Hoegie said. “People would watch to see what would happen, and I beat down every guy I played.”

After his release, he returned to Tucson and jumped back into the recreational basketball scene.

His legend endures for those lucky enough to have seen him play.

“It was always going be hard for him to get a fair chance, but I’ve never seen a player in Tucson with Hoegie Simmons’ ability or will to win,” said former classmate and long-time Palo Verde coach David Gin.

“He was a once-in-a-lifetime-type player on the best team I ever saw.”

Michael Luke is a Tucson-based freelancer. Contact him at mluke@email.arizona.edu.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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