USC’s Kristen Simon breaks through for a break out

Kristen Simon muscles up for the basket. Photo by John McGillen.
Kristen Simon muscles up for the basket. Photo by John McGillen.

After Southern California’s first game in November, coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke was asked by a reporter if any of her players was poised to have a break out season. She pointed to junior forward Kristen Simon, who had put up 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the win, on her right and said, “this one.”

Cooper-Dyke was right.

Simon has gone from reliable role player to on-court and statistical team leader, averaging 15.5 and 10.2 rebounds per game, with seven double-doubles so far this year. She was named Pac 12 player of the week and one of the NCAA’s “starting five” players in early December after some stellar performances. She is a dominating presence in the paint, and plays more minutes than any other Trojan.

Perhaps even more significantly, Simon has added extra dimensions to her play. Cooper-Dyke is impressed.

“Kristen has really expanded her game. She is more consistent underneath the basket, she’s in great condition, and her post moves are so much more effective this year,” Cooper-Dyke said. “Now she has a nice elbow jumper…and she can knock down a three-point shot. Her face up game is getting better and her back to the basket game has become more consistent.”

But though she makes it look easy, Simon’s emergence has been very hard-won. It was born last summer out of diligent work and a changed outlook after years of personal struggles and challenges. In overcoming adversity, Simon has rediscovered her love for both basketball, and for life itself.

Kristen Simon encourages teammates from the sidelines. Photo by John McGillen.
Kristen Simon encourages teammates from the sidelines. Photo by John McGillen.

Simon was born in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, but her family briefly lived in an area of the city called “the Jungle,” where gangs are prevalent. When she was five years old, she knew the drill.

“We learned to drop to the floor when we heard shots,” Simon said of herself and her two brothers and one sister.

The family moved back to Gardena, which was much safer. But times were still tight and the six-member family shared a two-bedroom apartment. Simon picked up a basketball for the first time in fourth grade after watching her older siblings play, as well as studying Lakers star Kobe Bryant on television. She began playing in her church’s recreational league, and soon joined the club basketball circuit. Her first team was the Monterey Park Heat.

One day, Simon realized that her growing passion for the game could lead somewhere.

“We had a tournament in Santa Barbara, and it clicked that I could be good at this,” she said. “It was like a light bulb went on.”

Simon kept playing – and turning heads. By the time she joined the prestigious Cal Sparks club ball team, she was one of the best players in the area.

But as her on-court success grew, so did an off-court problem. Simon said it began in seventh grade.

“I don’t know what triggered it, but my moods were abnormal,” she said. “It felt like a weight in my chest; something in my body wasn’t right. I did a lot of sleeping – all day, all night.”

Her older sister Stacey said Simon became withdrawn, which was unusual in their close-knit family.

“We got to a point where we never talked, and we had been together all the time,” Stacey  said. “She would go away from the family and stay in her room a lot, would sleep a lot. I couldn’t find anything to make her happy.”

Courtney Jaco was Simon’s teammate on the Sparks, and is her teammate at USC. Jaco said she noticed a change come over her friend early on.

“Kris had always been cheery and goofy, but all of a sudden she wasn’t like that anymore,” Jaco said. “Her passion for basketball in high school was good, but in the summer she was down, and didn’t seem like she was into it.”

Stacey Simon noticed the same demeanor in her sister.

“When she was struggling, she’d say she wanted to quit, and that was heartbreaking for me to hear her say because I know how much she loves the game,” Stacey said. “But she would never quit – she just kept on.”

Simon, Jaco and Jordin Canada, who plays for UCLA, all went to the Windward School in West Los Angeles. In Simon and Canada’s freshman year, while Jaco was a sophomore, the team won a state title and helped turn the school into a national high school basketball power. College coaches began appearing at every game.

Outside basketball, Simon sank lower. She felt flat, sluggish, hopeless.

“It felt like I was drowning, and everyone was watching me,” she said. “But I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone about it, and I didn’t know how to express those feelings and tell people what was going on in my head and heart.”

She began acting out, cutting classes in tenth grade. Windward coach Vanessa Nygaard kicked her out of practices for lack of effort in eleventh grade, videotaped her as evidence and benched her at times. But the academic, athletic and staff support at school, and the backing from her family kept Simon on track.

The week she was to sign her National Letter of Intent in her senior year, however, things came to a head. For one, there had been a lot of pressure in selecting a college, as she was the 47th-ranked prospect in the country.

“I’ve never made such a hard decision in my life,” Simon said.

Then there was the tension between attending an expensive private school on scholarship and living in another area.

“It was two different worlds,” Simon said. “I had to take a bus to get to school and find money for lunch. At one point after a job lay off, we were evicted from our apartment.”

Overshadowing everything was the darkness that seemed to envelope Simon more every day, which she didn’t know how to deal with, or how to express to others.

Kristen Simon and Jordin Canada signed their National Letters of Intent to USC and UCLA on Nov. 13, 2013. Photo courtesy of Windward School Communications.
Kristen Simon and Jordin Canada signed their National Letters of Intent to USC and UCLA on Nov. 13, 2013. Photo courtesy of Windward School Communications.

Two days after signing her Letter of Intent, Simon had what she called “a mental breakdown” at school.

“I started screaming at the top of my lungs, and finally went mute,” she said.

Simon was taken to the mental health center at UCLA, where she spent a week and a half. Medical evaluations finally produced a diagnosis: clinical depression. For Simon, finally being able to put a name to her issue was a relief.

“The diagnosis gave me peace; I realized I wasn’t crazy,” she said. “I had really been struggling, and feeling suicidal.”

She was prescribed therapy and medication to treat the illness, for which she was profoundly grateful.

“It was about Kris Simon as a person, and not just a basketball player,” she said. “There’s a lot of emphasis on the physical part of being an athlete, and no one thinks about the mental part.”

Simon’s battle brought her family closer together.

“We bonded together as a family to help her get better,” Stacey said.

Simon also had Canada’s unconditional support.

“I was worried about her – she’s like family to me – I consider her my sister,” Canada said. “So I was worried, but I knew she was in great hands, and when she was getting treatment I knew she was getting taken care of. And I had to rest in that. I did check up on her a couple times to make sure she was OK, but I knew she was fine. I tried not to worry too much about her.”

“I was always there for Kristen, no matter what. We never had a dip in our relationship. We’ve always been great friends, we’ve been really close. I just knew I could be there for her whenever she needed me, and I didn’t pressure her or anything – if she wanted to come to me, she could.”

Stacey said Simon’s journey back was one step at a time.

“It was a slow process – it wasn’t overnight,” Stacey said. “As she started coming together you could see things change in her mentality.”

Eventually, Simon’s humorous side began to re-emerge.

“Kristen is the funniest person I have ever met, literally. She just knows how to make you laugh no matter what,” Canada said. “You can be so mad, the maddest person in the world, and she knows how to make you laugh. She gives great advice, knows how to cheer you up – she’s just that person. That’s what I love about her.”

Kristen Simon and No. 10 Courtney Jaco celebrate a Trojan win. Photo by Rachel Bennett.
Kristen Simon and No. 10 Courtney Jaco celebrate a Trojan win. Photo by Rachel Bennett.

As Simon’s recovery progressed, another complication popped up at the end of her senior season: she had sustained a labral tear in her shoulder, which would require surgery. USC paid for the operation, but the healing process kept her out of the weight room and off the court with her teammates all summer. When the season opened, she was behind even more so than is common with freshman.

“In high school you get so used to overpowering and scoring when you want to, and then you get to college and everybody’s good,” Simon said. “I got thrown into the fire when we began play; I had only begun playing with contact the week before our first game.”

Jaco said her friend’s adjustment struggles were similar to those she had experienced at Windward, and she continually expressed support to her. But then team issues arose: five players had left the program by New Year’s Day, leaving an active roster of 10. Without the personnel, the Trojans sustained many double-digit drubbings.

“Sometimes, afterwards, Kris and I would just sit in the back of the bus and cry,” Jaco said.

The following season USC had almost an entirely different roster, but it was still only 11 members strong. Then midway through the year, two starters were academically disqualified from playing, which meant Simon was logging 40 minutes per game most nights. She became fatigued.

“My love for basketball was at an all-time low for a bit, and it showed in my game,” she said.

But watching teammate Temi Fagbenle finish out the season became Simon’s inspiration. Fagbenle, a 2012 Olympian from Great Britain, played for the Trojans with her final year of college eligibility. She led the team in points, rebounds, and with a lot of maturity. Simon appreciated the example.

“Watching her be who she was helped me so much, as a leader and as a post,” Simon said. “She influenced me to get my mental attitude right and go from there. I knew the physical was there: it was working on the mental. I see the freshman and realize it can really change the way you score. I’ve got in better shape, but the biggest change was getting smarter and learning the game better.”

Simon said the lessons she has learned are numerous, and this year she is trying to pass down the knowledge to the newcomers on the team.

“I’ve learned to be more patient in basketball, and in life,” Simon said. “I don’t have to score right away. I have other things to offer than putting the ball in the basket.”

“I try to help my teammates. If I’m put in a role where I have to lead people, I become better. I play harder, because I know people are looking to me and watching what I’m doing. Last year I didn’t embrace that, and (assistant Beth Burns) coach B got on me about that. In the summer it was frustrating because I had to do fundamentals, but I realized it was helping me to help somebody else. I had upperclassmen help me when I first got here, and it affected me so much, so I’d like to help them as much as they helped me.”

Last summer Simon also worked out twice a day to get in better condition. Cooper-Dyke said she would get to the gym every day and Simon was already there, sweating through a workout.

“The thing about Kristen is she wants to get better every year,” Cooper-Dyke said. “The other part of the effect Kristen gives us is that she’s matured a lot over the last couple years, and this year you can see her trying to lead and talk to some of the younger players, constantly trying to keep them motivated, keeping them encouraged and giving therm direction. She has really helped coach from sidelines, making sure people are in the places they’re supposed to be in.”

“It’s a reflection of her commitment this year, which has been phenomenal.”

Nygaard said Simon is a post player with the intelligence of a point guard.

“I’m not surprised in the least that Kristen is having such a good season,” Nygaard said. “I’m just surprised she didn’t do it sooner.”

Cal Sparks director and coach Elbert Kinnebrew similarly takes Simon’s progress in stride.

“Kris was always physically stronger than anyone else; I’ve never seen her match up with anyone stronger than her, at any level,” he said. “What she had to learn how to do is to turn that physical power into basketball power, which is different.”

“She’s done a good job, she works hard, and she believes in SC. She felt like the team was really going to be good, and she felt good about her squad. She bought in 100 percent. Now she has the maturity. I’m not surprised at all she’s having such a great season.”

Simon’s family shows up at each game en masse to support her. Stacey said they are proud of her.

“Everybody’s always excited,” Stacey said. “To see her confidence, and to see that every year she gets mentally stronger. We knew Kristen could do more than she had in previous years.”

Kristen Simon endures defensive pressure from Colorado's Haley Smith. Photo by Hali Helfgott.
Kristen Simon endures defensive pressure from Colorado’s Haley Smith. Photo by Hali Helfgott.

As anyone with clinical depression can attest, the fight for balance continues long after the healing begins. Such is the case for Simon.

While she continues treatment, she also self-monitors to keep herself from sliding backwards.

“Playing basketball is one of the major things that helps me, and if I can listen to music while playing, I really get in the zone,” Simon said.

“When I get to those times where I’m falling into a hole of being by myself, I go hang around people and feed off their energy. If I don’t make that effort to be around people, I fall back.”

Besides fitness, Simon also worked on her spirituality last summer, which helped her let go of any lingering resentments, as well as embrace gratitude.

“I improved my relationship with God,” Simon said. “As children we were raised in the church, so I got back to that.”

“It’s a matter of me knowing and loving myself for who I am. I don’t get to have another life. I believe I’m a strong person and can get through anything that is thrown my way. I went through all this stuff, but there were so many people behind the scenes making sure I got back up, no matter how many times I fell.”

Kinnebrew respects Simon’s resilience.

“Kristen is a survivor who’s gone through tough times and keeps fighting,” he said. “She’s one of those kids who deals with adversity well.”

Nygaard noted Simon’s strength and growth.

“Kris has overcome a tremendous amount in her life,” Nygaard said. “She  is a warrior for going through that struggle. Kristen has grown a lot. I haven’t seen anyone mature so much.”

This season, with Simon’s stepped-up play and some exciting newcomers, the 10-3 Trojans are on the verge of a breakthrough of their own. They head north this weekend to play No. 11 Washington and Washington State.

Simon, a psychology major, aims to play professional basketball after her college career is over. After that, she dreams of opening a sports training facility that develops athletes both physically and mentally.

“My life story is about the people around me who have helped me so much, and I’d like to give some help to others,” she said.

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