When there is a gifted child in the family—a harpsichord prodigy or a preteen nuclear physicist—the parents have the tricky task of helping him to develop his talents fully while taking care that the other kids in the house don't feel like orphans. That is what it is like to have Ralph Simpson on the basketball team at Michigan State.
Simpson is a 19-year-old sophomore from Detroit who has played in 11 varsity games, has led the team in scoring in every one and already has earned more rave reviews than a Neil Simon play.
The team itself is just plain family. Michigan State has no height and, save for Simpson, its talent is average. Even with Simpson, its record is 5-6. Simpson is only 6'4½", yet he is the best re-bounder (he had 20 against Bradley) and jumps center at the start of each half. In the latest NCAA statistics he was eighth in the nation in scoring (30.6 a game). It is all rookie Head Coach Gus Ganakas, who took over after John Benington's fatal heart attack last fall, can do to make the others feel loved.
Simpson is a rare experience for the Spartans. They have had 44 football All-Americas but only three in basketball. Whenever Football Coach Duffy Daugherty passes Simpson on campus, he says, "Spring practice starts April 16th. I need a wide receiver."
January 19, 1970
It is unlikely that Daugherty will steal him away, because Ganakas and his assistants have had almost a death grip on Simpson the past three years. One or the other of them saw every game he played as a high school senior, and they acted as bodyguards when he went to Pittsburgh for the big Dapper Dan High School All-Star Game. The recruiting effort was worth it, because Simpson is something special when he has a basketball in his hands or when he is near one and wants to get it. He has always been that way.
"I remember when Ralph was 13," says his father, Ralph Sr., who played a lot of basketball himself. "I got home one day, and he said, 'Come on out, I've got something to show you.' He had started dunking the ball." Today the gifted child can palm two basketballs and dunk them both in one leap.
Ralph Jr. wanted to play at Detroit's Pershing High under Will Robinson but was able to only after his father had bought a house in the Pershing district. "That took some scuffling with the FHA," says Ralph Sr., "because my credit wasn't good enough, but some people supported me, and they finally decided I was a good risk."
In Simpson's junior year the Pershing Doughboys won the state championship, with Simpson scoring 43 points in the final game against Flint Central. Most of the time that season, though, he fed passes to a big transplanted Mississippian named Spencer Haywood. The Doughboys were loaded.
The next season, without Haywood, Pershing had a 15-2 record, and Simpson averaged 32 points a game, played one-on-one with Dave Bing of the Detroit Pistons at Bing's summer camp and declined an invitation to become the only high school boy trying out for the Olympic team. He was a much better student than Haywood, and colleges all over the country were after him. He says he chose Michigan State because he had been a Spartan fan since childhood and liked John Benington.
Simpson's showcase at State is dusty old Jenison Field House, a big barn with a pre-World War II portable floor that is so thin it cannot be sanded anymore. An $11 million Events Building is planned, but Simpson probably will have graduated to the pros by the time it is ready.
Jenison was jammed to capacity last Saturday night when Michigan State returned home after eight straight road games to meet Northwestern, an equally mediocre team. On the road, Simpson had scored 42 against Western Michigan, 40 against Oregon and 34 against Indiana, and the students were anxious to see him try to beat the Jenison scoring mark: 48.
He is almost sure to get the record before this season is over, but Northwestern was not to be the victim. The Spartans started beautifully, blew a fat 20-point lead and battled back to win 98-93 and improve their Big Ten record to 2-0. For Simpson, it was a so-so game—30 points and 16 rebounds—as he hurried some of his shots and took some others from the balcony. It was obvious that when he becomes more patient and his teammates learn to use him more effectively he will scatter his name all over the MSU record book.
"One of these days," said Ganakas, shaking his head, "he's going to shoot one before he comes over the half-court line. But he puts those babies in sometimes."
Simpson cannot get enough of basketball. To improve from his mere 30-point average, he spends much of his spare time in MSU's intramural gym playing against whoever happens along, or corresponding with ex-Coach Joe Lapchick, one of the original Celtics. On a questionnaire he filled out for the school's sports publicity office, in the space for church affiliation, he wrote, "Basketball." He probably meant "Baptist," but then maybe not.