Verbal commitments happen on a daily basis. Some tend to be more exiting to others. The narrative is usually the same: the athlete is pursued by a number of schools, he visits a few of them and ultimately chooses one. It’s a story line that sports fans are accustomed to hearing. The same can’t be said for the story of Polk State guard Troy Simons. It’s a story about a young man that was overlooked out of high school. It’s the story about a mentor that saw something special in the young man and never stopped believing in his talent and potential. It’s a story about a young man that left Pittsburgh but somehow found Pittsburgh connections throughout his journey. It’s a story about a player coming home.
Simons, a 6-foot-1 inch guard averaging 26.3 points per game at Polk State in Winter Haven, FL, verbally committed to Pitt last week. The man at the beginning of his journey was former Seton-La Salle and Lock Haven star Enrico ‘Rico’ Abbondanza. Abbondanza, a physical education teacher at University Prep in Pittsburgh, has been a mentor and consummate positive influence in Simon’s life. To gain perspective on Simons and the journey that brought his talents back to Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Sports Now recently spoke with Abbondanza.
“It’s something. I think that somebody is trying, the higher power is kind of putting this all together where (Troy) ends up coming back home and having an opportunity to more or less show what he wasn’t able to show everybody what he could do,” said Abbondanza. “There’s a really neat harmony to that. Troy essentially was at a school that I worked in Hill District University Prep. I’m a Pittsburgh Public School teacher, I have a huge basketball background and I was always passionate about helping kids because I think I had some shortcomings in basketball. I didn’t put enough time into my game. I should have put more TLC into my shooting and things. There’s some things that I shorted myself on. I graduated at the age of 17 so there’s some regrets that I have about how my playing career turned out.”
Shawn Hitchcock once said, “A mentor empowers a person to see a possible future, and believe it can be obtained.” Abbondanza tapped into his frustration and used it as fuel to help a number of his students to reach their full potential. Simons may be his best example.
“It’s fun for me to help those that could be in a similar situation of failure. Not failure per say, but not maximizing your true potential. When I started working in the Hill District, just over the years in general, I’ve seen a lot of talent that isn’t cultivated within the city of Pittsburgh, but more importantly in the Hill District it seems to have this phenomenal continuity of extreme talent in every sport,” he said.
“If you focus on basketball, this goes back to the old Fifth Avenue days, the stories I’d hear from my uncle about the Fifth Avenue teams. I played up on the hill when I was young and played AAU with (former Penn State star) LaVar Arrington. There’s just an unbelievable, pool of talent that seems to feed off of each others’ successes. It becomes one of those things, what you see is what you can believe in. For some of the guys that pave the road more or less for the younger generation, if you see what it looks like, you can believe in it happening. You can keep on comparing yourself to that until you get there.”
Abbondanza believes that players can achieve success, in any geographic area, if they replicate the efforts of players that have succeeded prior to them. Players that achieve the pinnacle of success, set the bar even higher for generations to come. He stated, “When the future goes by 10 years, and these people did everything they did, you see there’s a pattern of success. People are learning from each other. They are mimicking this true talent from each other, and setting the bar where it is. You can’t really become that great until you see what that greatness is. You can compare Scottie Pippen to Jordan all day long but Scottie Pippen learned from Michael Jordan.”
Abbondanza brought up a name very familiar to Pitt fans to best exemplify his point: former Panther DeJuan Blair. Blair, a Hill District native, excelled at Pitt and had a solid NBA career. He is the personification of the phrase, “Hometown Hero”. Blair set the bar for Simons and future generations of players. “I think there’s a lot of good karma here. Troy, being close to his community, will make him do everything he can do to be successful. This will create excitement locally and Troy will be able to recirculate that bond back to the aspiring young athletes in the Hill District,” he said.
“Troy has had that exposure by being a Hill District native. That’s the easiest way I can summarize why he is where he’s at today,” he said. “My obsession with learning and understanding this pattern of success, I believe that when I got the job at University Prep in the Hill District, it was the first year that they had the school consolidated. It would’ve been since Schenley High School closed, this was going to be the new Hill District High School but it was six through 12. Troy would’ve been in grade school when I first met him.”
“He was in a group of three very talented kids, one of them being Delvon Randall who’s now a safety at Temple. The other kid’s name is Eddie Horton. Troy, Eddie and Delvon would’ve been the next special group of kids coming out of the Hill District like DeJuan Blair, D.J. Kennedy, and DeAndre Kane. Because the three kids played together for so long and one or two of them were very talented, they always raised each other’s bar of success and they pushed themselves and became that exact collaboration as kids.”
The continuity of success between Simons, Randall and Horton was ultimately disrupted. Abbondanza stated that athletes, based on their sport, were sent to play at different school and facilities. The rapport develop by many of the players was fractured. “After Troy’s ninth grade year, he left because a lot of talented kids were leaving because they didn’t like how the schools were splitting up and going to participate at different schools,” he said. “They were starting to go out to these different schools like Penn Hills and Gateway. When those three kids split up, they kind of went off on their own. Because Troy was talented, I think a lot of people would try to challenge his transfer and you’d have to go to court, and finances would have to come to play if they had an attorney to justify that you should be eligible and all those things. That’s basically what happened.”
Simons attended four high schools – Brashear, University Prep, Imani Christian, Renaissance Christian Academy and back to University Prep – in five years. When he returned to his final destination, University Prep, Abbondanza attempted to restore Simons’ eligibility. The process, unfortunately, was exceptionally lengthy. Simons was unable to play basketball his final season. The next step in the journey seemed obvious but difficult: Simons had to attend a prep school or junior college to extend his basketball career.
Abbondanza decided to reach out to former Pittsburgh native and University of North Carolina star Dante Calabria. Calabria, at the time, was an assistant coach at Montverde Academy located in Montverde, FL. He reached out to Calabria with a simple message. “I called Dante and said I got this kid in Pittsburgh and I really want you to look at him because I really think something’s there. It’s worth taking a look,” he said. Abbondanza wasn’t asking for a scholarship, he was seeking direction. He wanted to obtain a potential list of prep school coaches to reach out to. Calabria decided to he wanted a closer look at Simons and he flew to Florida for a four-day workout. It didn’t take long for Simons to impress. “Dante was impressed after the first day of workouts. He told me ‘Troy’s a really nice kid. I love him. He’s severely talented and I think he can play here. He offered him a full scholarship to Montverde Academy,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t know that Montverde was an elite prep school for basketball. As soon as the news go out that’s where Troy was going, it raised his stock.”
Simons was ready to begin his career at Montverde Academy, the school that will be sending 2017 guard Marcus Carr and center Peace Ilgomah to Pitt next season, when he received some bad news. “The summer comes and Dante gets offered a coaching job in Italy, a really good opportunity to be a head coach on a pro team,” he said. “Dante calls me and says, “I got bad news man.” He goes, “I don’t know if it’s going to work out with Troy.” “I’m the one recruiting him in and typically I don’t feel comfortable leaving him here unless I’m here.”
Calabria then turned to another Pittsburgh connection, Polk State head coach Matt Furjanic, a Rankin native and former coach at Robert Morris, Marist, and Pitt-Greensburg. Furjanic initially had trepidations about taking Simons due to lack reviewable game tape. Abbondanza jumped into action. “I was going to his summer league game and I told Coach Furjanic I would film it with a hand camera. It was really poor quality,” he said. “You could see Troy running around, I don’t even know if you could make him out on the video I had. I didn’t even have the video tape that transferred the mini tapes. I sent the whole camera down to Coach Furjanic so he could watch it.”
Coach Furjanic once told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I really didn’t know much about Troy. I saw four videos of him dunking. That was it. I needed more. God bless Rico, he goes and films him. Rico was determined to get him into college; he was on a mission.”
The film and the endorsement from Calabria was enough for Furjanic to give Simons as opportunity at Polk State.
Abbondanza, Calabria and Furganic weren’t the only Pittsburgh connections associated with this story. There was one more. “The neatest part about the story, that’s where (former Pitt basketball great) Darelle Porter’s son ended up attending Polk State for his junior college experience. Troy and Darrelle Porter’s son are very close, another kid from the Hill District,” said Abbondanza.
“That was such a very important piece of all this. Troy never played organized basketball during his high school years. I really do believe that he followed in DJ’s lead of going to school, staying in class, going to practice. I’m sure that they had their ups and downs with, “I don’t want to go to practice today.” One or the other one of them would be like, “Oh, we’ve got to do this.” I think the neatest part about the whole story is he ended up finding a place where he had Pittsburgh comfort right around him.”
At Polk, Simons averaged 26.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists per game and shot 46 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from the 3-point line.
Abbondanza was asked to elaborate on Simon’s on court strengths. He stated, “Troy’s a very pure shooter. It’s something that I think he does naturally, he just has a very good touch on the ball. The neat thing about it, he can shoot a beautiful set shot or a very high jump shot. He can do both exceptionally well. The other thing is his legs, and his feet, and his first step, his athleticism allows for him to get by people pretty easily.”
“He can jump, he’s a really good leaper. He can go up there and finish on 6-foot-7 inch, 6-foot-9 inch guys. It’s going to create a lot of excitement because, no offense to Pitt, but the team that’s been left here for Coach Stallings has been the very similar body type. It doesn’t matter how talented each one of Pitt’s players are. Every one of their body types is similar so there’s very similar speeds amongst the group of Pitt guys that plays. Here’s the neat thing, they play a lot of teams that are also very similar in body type. It’s big, strong, some guys are quicker than others but it’s not a huge difference in speed.”
“Troy’s going to either have guys come out to play him and he’ll have an advantage speed wise, he’ll get inside and finish, or kick off the other guy’s to finish, or they’re going to have play off of him because of his first step and he’s going to have the ability to shoot a jump shot. He can shoot it well beyond the NBA range on his jump shot. Most guys don’t have that kind of flexibility to do all three types and he does have the ability to do that.”
Abbondanza believes that Simon’s game will flourish once he enters Pitt’s strength and conditioning program ran by Coach Garry Christopher. “If he gets in the weight room and does all the things that I know they do, not just Pitt at any major basketball program, I think he’s going to really be exciting to watch, kind of like a Julius Page,” he said. “I’m not saying he jumps as high as Julius, I’m just saying he’s exciting like Julius was. I think it’s just really good karma for Troy because I think him being close to his community, all that energy is going to make him do all the things he needs to do to be successful mentally.”
Pitt, despite having four seniors on their roster this season, had little to no leadership. The Panthers will rely up on new leaders next season, in particular Cameron Johnson, Ryan Luther and Jared Wilson-Frame. Simons, entering the program as a junior, will be asked to step up as well. Abbondanza was asked if Simons would assert himself as a leader next season and he stated, “Troy’s not somebody who’s going to beat his chest and get in someone’s face. He’s going to lead by example, by being confident on the court. Guys can gain confidence by knowing that he’s ready to get the ball and do something with it.”
“In competitive situation, that’s how Troy’s going to be a leader. They’ll see his confidence in his play and the fact that he’s been playing for two years versus coming in cold. I know its junior college versus ACC basketball however, you have to understand Troy’s been the leading scorer for almost two years so he’s been triple-teamed, double-teamed for almost every one of his games and he still put up really big numbers.”
“I don’t care what level you play at, when you’re planning to play guys with double teams and shading, and all that kind of stuff, to still push that kind of result Troy produced is amazing. He scored over eleven hundred points in two years and he led the nation in two point scoring.”
Simons began his playing career at Polk State a virtually unknown commodity. As his on the court performance improved exponentially, interest from mid to upper major program began to rise. Abbondanza spoke with a wide array of coaches from around the nation on Simons behalf. He was quick to point out that the coaching staff at Pitt stood out amongst the pack.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of different coaches and I will tell you this, Pitt been most amazing through this whole entire process. I dealt mostly with (Pitt assistant coach) Jeremy Ballard. The level of consideration and the approach that they have makes you feel like they have a sincere, genuine consideration for who they’re dealing with,” he said. “They really get to the bottom of all components when they’re dealing with a player. I was just totally impressed.”
“I do believe (Pitt) is going to be a perfect home for him within a home. They’re first class from head to toe in my opinion and I’ve dealt with a lot in the last several months. Especially since he became the top scorer in the nation, you started getting phone calls from many other schools. They let you know where they stood and they let you know their interest. Coach Ballard had been tracking Troy previously at other universities. When he had the opportunity to be back at Pittsburgh, he knew it was a good opportunity for Pitt because everybody probably wants to play in front of that school if they grew up watching.”
Abbondanza was quick to praise Coach Ballard, but he was equally impressed with head coach Kevin Stallings throughout the process. He added, “Coach Stallings knows what he’s doing and he puts good people around him. The guy is a very bright man, his son plays for the Pirates, he loves Pittsburgh, and he’s a sports guy. He reminds me of a Pittsburgh person, someone who grew up here. I think if they give him a chance, you’re going to see outstanding things from this coach.”
Simons has few additional classes to complete prior to becoming eligible but he appears to be firmly on track to graduating. His road to Pitt may have been exceptionally circuitous, but he eventually made his way home. Simons’ next step will be competing in the ACC conference and returning the Panthers to national prominence. One has to assume that the man that helped him get there, Rico Abbondanza, will be in the front row of the Peterson Events Center watching.
Harry G. Psaros can be found on twitter at @PittGuru