‘We have so much to teach them’
Timothy Simmons remembers the first time he committed a foul in basketball for cursing during a game.
“I was playing in a tournament organized by a pastor and he did not tolerate that language,” says Simmons.
Today, as the coach of the Salvation Army Saints of Schenectady basketball team, Simmons carries the lesson learned from committing that foul. He encourages his players to fill their minds and mouths with righteous words of positivity.
“When you show players righteousness in a game, they respect the game, they respect their opponents, and the game becomes a ministry. Those players have been called according to His purpose,” says Simmons.
A Harlem childhood
Years before Simmons held his first basketball practice at the Salvation Army’s Schenectady, N.Y., Corps, he was a kid from East Harlem, going to weekend music performances at the Apollo Theater and rooting for New York sports teams.
“It was a great time to grow up. There was community interaction in the city that I didn’t see in many other places,” says Simmons. His face lights up as he talks about the encounters he had as a child with celebrities. For example, the great Earl “The Pearl” Monroe of the New York Knicks spoke at his school. Actor Tony Randall, before playing Felix Unger on TV’s “The Odd Couple,” was Simmon’s beloved 2nd grade substitute teacher.
“I was sad when he suddenly stopped coming to class. Later, we all learned that Mr. Randall had gone to Hollywood.”
When Simmons, an accomplished cello player as a child, was given an assignment to write a musical composition about his favorite team, he chose the New York Mets.
“The first time I performed it, [Mets players] Tom Seaver, Cleon Jones, and Tommie Agee were all sitting in the audience!” says Simmons with delight.
Harlem also had its dangers. People who suffered from drug or gambling addictions, or who were profiting from these illegal endeavors, found themselves regularly thrown in jail, or worse. “When I came home and saw a city block closed off, I always knew something bad had happened,” says Simmons. Luckily, Simmons says, he had loving parents who warned him to stay away from such activities. Benjamin Simmons Jr., instilled a deep sense of respect for others in his six children.
“I was the kid who was always getting cut from the teams I tried out for,” recalls Simmons. “But I still loved the game of basketball. Playing in local games and church tournaments was what led me to Christ.”
When his pastor/coach George Stevens suggested that he consider coaching, Simmons went to games at Madison Square Garden to study the coaches. He paid more attention to them than he did the players.
In 1984, Simmons traveled with Stevens to host community basketball tournaments in Flint, Michigan. Leaders of these tournaments would incorporate ministry into every game. They reminded Simmons of the tournaments he had participated in as a youth.
“We made sure that each player heard the word of God before stepping foot on the court,” says Simmons. “Kids who love sports ministry become adults who love sports ministry.”
Thus began a network of basketball coaches and players from churches, high schools, and even colleges. Kids from those ministry basketball programs who Simmons and his associates led and mentored went on to play for schools such as Syracuse University, Duke University, and the University of Maryland. Some students like Draymond Green of Michigan, who had been part of the Flint tournaments, went on to play in the NBA.
“When one of us got a chance to coach for the Manhattan Christian Academy, we thought, ‘Now we’re big time!’ But we made it a point to keep up the Saturday programs for the kids,” says Simmons.
The Saints of Schenectady
Unfortunately, even as the network of coaches thrived, Simmons faced challenges in his life. After being divorced twice, he found himself living in rescue missions in upstate New York. It was there he began attending The Salvation Army. He had fond memories of the Army from childhood. “The pastor from my church would always take us to other churches to hear sermons at different fellowships. That was the first time I visited a corps in downtown Manhattan,” says Simmons.
At a men’s fellowship in White Plains, N.Y., Simmons found himself next to Clarence Gaines Jr., son of college basketball coach Clarence Gaines Sr., and players from the New York Giants. One of the players preached a sermon on the lost axe head from the Book of 2 Kings 6:1–7. In the story, a group of men lose an axe head in a river as they prepare to build a house. A miracle moves the tool back to them.
When Simmons returned to Schenectady, he sat down with Major Mike Himes. It was the first time they had truly spoken to one another. Himes mentioned that a group of Army kids wanted to learn basketball.
The following week, Coach Simmons held his first basketball practice at The Salvation Army with the “Original 5” players: Anton, Kenny, Peter, Matt, and Alexis. “Every Wednesday for 45 minutes, we went over the basics,” said Simmons.
As the number of kids who wanted to learn basketball and practice grew, the need for talented coaches also grew. Simmons reached out to his network. “Come to our church,” Simmons would say. “We’re doing big things with these talented kids.”
They also promoted the Salvation Army’s Saints of Schenectady on Facebook. Paula Alexander, Simmons’ fiancee, live-streamed the games, and set up tournaments with local Christian groups through social media. “We developed a system of players and coaches who were as interested in building up ministry as they were in building up talent,” says Simmons.
Recently, the Saints received an invitation to play at Harlem’s famous Rucker Park, where basketball legends such as Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar participated in tournaments. “Talk about God bringing me full circle,” says Simmons proudly. “I’ll be taking my team to where I grew up.”
Simmons believes that sharing time is good for one’s soul, but the effects on other people is even more powerful.
“We can pray for each of these kids, but who’s going to guide them down the road of success, if someone doesn’t share their time with them? Many of these kids come from single parent households. They don’t have what I was blessed to have. But what we do have are good people who are happy to give their time to mentor and open the door for them.
“This is a sport that everyone can grow from,” says Simmons. “And when we incorporate ministry into it, players learn the true meaning of Philippians 4:13, ‘I can do ALL things through Christ who strengthens me.’”
Coach Simmons acknowledges that some players may lose interest in basketball as they grow older or, like himself, will miss an opportunity to make the team in high school or in college.
“But that’s okay,” he says. “We still have so much more than basketball to teach them!”
by Hugo Bravo
Along with those mentioned in the article, Coach Timothy Simmons would like to thank:
Coach John Staley, Jr.
Major Mike & Cathy Himes (Corps Officers, The Salvation Army of Schenectady, NY)
The Salvation Army Saints of Schenectady Captain/player Troy Dickerson (#11)
Lt. Michael Harrington (The Salvation Army of Utica, NY)
Pastor Kenneth R. Bell
Current/Past Youth Basketball Staff:
Coach Dustin Fitch
Coach Vincent Jones & family
Coach Jemel Lucas
Coach Nicole Martin
Mike & Cheryl Smithson
Tasha Harris (Syracuse University Women’s Basketball)
Deborah “DO” Stevens (Cornell University Women’s Basketball)