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They Were Miles Apart

After Being Shunned by North Carolina, Simon Gets Shot at Beating Tar Heels

March 26, 1997|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIME STAFF WRITER

In his mind, he was going to Carolina.

Miles Simon clung to James Taylor's refrain as he decorated his Fullerton bedroom/shrine with Tar Heel artifacts and Dean Smith likenesses.

It is difficult to explain how this North Carolina infatuation penetrated Orange County.

Simon's father, Walt, says it all began with a 10-year-old boy and his library card.

"When I really knew he was into it was when he said, 'Dad, I read this book on Dean Smith, and he smokes seven packs of cigarettes a day,' " Walt said. "He just went crazy over North Carolina."

Simon enrolled at Santa Ana Mater Dei with the sole purpose of attending Chapel.

Chapel Hill.

"I envisioned going to North Carolina," Simon said last weekend. "It was always my dream school. I just loved Carolina blue. Perkins. Jordan. Worthy. That's who I wanted to play for."

Simon did his part, bringing basketball attention to himself in Gary McNight's prep powerhouse program.

Simon awaited word from Dean Smith until, one day, he got his "Dear Miles" letter.

"They stopped recruiting me," Simon explained. "Coach Smith expressed in a letter that they were solid at the two guard and didn't want to over-recruit."

North Carolina had Donald Williams, coming off the 1993 national title team, and Dante Calabria.

"I still have the letter on my bulletin board," Simon said. "I wasn't crushed. Just sometimes that happens. I have no regrets whatsoever coming here."

"Here," was Arizona, the university at which Simon the junior has managed to sidestep "North Carolina, the Opponent," until Saturday, when the teams meet at the Final Four in Indianapolis.

Maybe it was meant to work out this way, with everything on the line.

Arizona actually opened the season against North Carolina in the Tip-Off Classic, but Simon had been declared academically ineligible and sat out his team's first 11 games.

In street clothes, Simon watched Arizona's early season upset of North Carolina, in which freshman guard Mike Bibby scored 22 points in his Wildcat debut.

After Simon signed with Arizona, he pulled the Dean Smith letter from his bulletin board in Fullerton and tacked it up in his Tucson dorm room. He also removed all other items of idolatry related to North Carolina.

It wasn't bitterness.

"He says the next-best thing to going to North Carolina is playing against them," Walt said.

Walt says Miles had planned to fold the Smith letter and wear it in his sock during the first North Carolina game.

But he never got the chance.

Simon's season seemed cursed.

"His whole year has been disjointed for us," Coach Lute Olson said.

Simon was expected to be the Wildcats' unquestioned leader, the only returning starter from last year's team. The previous season had been difficult, a sophomore Simon awash in a sea of four seniors. There was tension at times, even though Simon averaged 13.2 points and made a miraculous, three-quarter-court buzzer-beater to defeat Cincinnati.

"It was up-and-down times," Simon said.

Olson remembers Simon "had to be careful not to step on anyone's toes."

This year's senior-less Wildcats were yearning to be led.

Simon was anointed shepherd.

But then came his academic snafu.

It is not a subject Simon embraces.

"I was very disappointed," he said of grade troubles. "It's a long story. I don't want to get into that."

Walt says the problem was related to an algebra class Miles tried to drop last year. Walt says his son was told he could withdraw from the class and receive an "Incomplete" with the signature of his teacher and a supervisor.

Walt says Miles did not find out until later that the procedure also required the signature of the dean, and we're not talking Smith.

Simon's incomplete turned into an "F," and the full-court press against the player's eligibility began.

Simon was so distraught he nearly transferred.

"I think he was close, and I think the move would have been to Utah," said Walt, who had played his college ball there.

After conferring with his father and a lawyer, Simon decided he wanted to remain in Tucson.

This required a "B" grade on a between-sessions class called Family Studies 401.

Simon hardly slept the night before his final exam in early January. After he took the test, it was graded in front of him by the professor.

Simon received an "A" and scored 18 points in his Jan. 11 debut against Arizona State.

After Simon was declared out, he said Olson pulled him aside and said, "This team needs you much more now than if you were playing."

Arizona opened 9-2 without Simon, the losses coming at New Mexico and Michigan, in overtime. Some suggested Simon's return would only disrupt chemistry.

"That was making all the papers, going into the Pac-10," Simon said. "People were saying that Miles should be sitting. But my teammates said, 'Miles, we need you more than ever.' "

Soon, however, Simon contracted pneumonia.

Then, after Arizona's Feb. 5 game against Arizona State, he was involved in a car accident.

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