BIRMINGHAM — Murdock Simmons was blessed as a young hoops dreamer. His brother, 9 years older, sparred with him on the regular, teaching and toughening him for basketball warriorhood to come.
They had a front yard, a ball and each other. Just one thing about the ball.
“We literally played with a flat basketball,” said J.B. Snodgress.
Funny how the smallest of challenges can grow a whatever-it-takes mindset, and Simmons has been that whatever-his-team needs guy throughout his high school career.
From water boy, to role player around a trio of Division I prospects, to first option when Alabama signee Diante Wood missed time with an ankle injury, to now, Simmons has helped any way he could to keep air in a program on the cusp of its fourth consecutive state title.
The Cardinals (22-10) play Georgiana (30-3) in today’s 5:45 p.m. Class 1A boys’ final in Birmingham’s Legacy Arena. As it will be with Wood, the game will mark the last in high school for Simmons, Quin Riggins, Victor Wilson, Joshua Brown and Stephen Stansil.
Add their names to a list including D.J. Heath, Kevion Nolan, Dakota Myers and Quen Williams, and one accounts for most of the production in a program that rose from cute-but-trying to unbeatable in 1A for four years. The Cardinals hope to finish off their fifth straight Final Four trip with their fourth straight title, which would tie Francis Marion’s state record for all classifications and break a 1A record.
Big brother takes note.
“Him and Quin Riggins, they played together from 8-under all the way up to now,” said Snodgress, taking a breath between shouts of encouragement to Simmons during Sacred Heart’s semifinal rout of Cornerstone. “They won state, their last year playing 8-under, and he said that was the best feeling he ever had, and he wanted to outdo me in high school.
“I won a ring for Anniston High School in ’09. He’s on three, going for four.”
Simmons has been there for all of them. As a sophomore in 2016, he made a key steal on the back of the press in Sacred Heart’s 75-67 semifinal victory over Keith. His three steals included a key pass pickoff on the back of the press, coming in a 64-64 game with 2:46 to play.
For the rest of that state tournament and last year’s run to a title, Simmons played his role as a rebounder-defender while Wood, Heath and Nolan soared to headliner status.
Two years later, with Heath and Nolan off playing college ball, Simmons put up 14 points and nine rebounds against Cornerstone, all while playing on two bad ankles that have caused him discomfort since the Calhoun County tournament in January.
He’s come a long way from sitting out as what Sacred Heart coach Ralpheal Graves called a “redshirt” during the Cardinals’ 2015 Final Four appearance. He sat out that year after transferring from Anniston Middle School, practicing with the team but serving in a support role on game nights.
“You’ve got to understand how hard that is to sit out a year, because you want to be in our program,” Graves said. “Sit out a whole year to be the water boy and the manager, and I’m bossing you around all day, and he done that.”
Once eligible to play, Simmons became what Graves calls “a glue guy” among “ball-dominant” players.
With Heath and Nolan gone, Simmons had to become more ball-dominant this year. He played a lead role when Wood missed the first seven games of the season, and he’s averaging 14.7 points and 7.0 rebounds headed into Thursday’s state final.
Then again, in a program where the mantra has been “we all we have, we all we need,” Simmons came well-prepared to be whatever his team needed. Learning with a flat basketball, one learns to deal.
“I had to pick it up and shoot it,” Simmons said. “I couldn’t dribble.”
Simmons and Snodgress played one-on-one games. With an easier-to-palm flat ball, they tried to dunk on each other.
“We had no air pump,” Snodgress said. “Once it goes flat, we didn’t have no quarter or nothing to get no air pumped.
“We had to use what we had, having a flat basketball, and I broke the backboard off the goal to make him think that there was no backboard. In the game, if he doesn’t see a backboard, he knows he can still shoot the ball.”
Sparring with Sacred Heart talent has helped Simmons to grow, and the Cardinals face top talent with a brutal schedule. He plays with well-inflated basketballs and backboard-included goals these days, as well.
He still rebounds and defends but also breaks out to the 3-point line to shoot. He makes plays on the break.
Simmons becomes whatever Sacred Heart needs, even comic relief.
“We love Murdock,” Graves said. “Him and Khalil are probably our two most silliest ones on the team.”
For one more game at Sacred Heart, Simmons will have everything he needs to be whatever the Cardinals need. That includes a vocal big brother courtside.
“He’s really, like, the reason why I play basketball,” Simmons said. “He always, like, tells me what to do, or whatever. He always talks during the games, and I listen to him.
“It’s kind of crazy. We didn’t have much, and now I’m going for my fourth ring.”