At first blush, it’s impossible to see the pressure which eats at Jonathan Sims.
Conversation with him flows smoothly. He’s loquacious, gregarious and naturally inquisitive.
Inside him, though, is the worry of a bright future gone dark.
In the summer of 2011, Sims, a 6-foot-8 jumping jack of a power forward, was on his way to a full-ride basketball scholarship.
Two years later, after an ill-fated cross-country trek to further his hoops dreams, Sims is back, with nothing to show for it and time running out.
And if basketball doesn’t get him to college, nothing will.
“These earrings might look big, but they’re fake, you know what I’m saying?” Sims said. “I can look like money, but I don’t have no money. At least I don’t have college money. I have some (spending cash), but not enough where I can just pull it out so I can go to college. My sister’s two years younger, and then she’ll think she can go to college, too. It don’t work like that where I come from. You’ve got to be good at something.”
• • •
Jonathan Sims is good at basketball.
He showed that potential upon arriving in Arizona.
Sims moved from Baltimore to Mesa in 2009 and enrolled at Fremont Middle School. He helped the team to a city championship and later played six games with Skyline varsity as a freshman.
He became one of the Coyotes’ best players as a sophomore when he averaged 9.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals per contest. He drew interest from Division I colleges such as mid-major power Saint Mary’s.
“You’re talking about a 6-foot-7, 6-8 kid who could jump, handle the ball, shoot the ball from 10-to-12 feet,” said Mesquite coach Dustin Cooper, then an assistant with the Coyotes. “If he just would have stuck with the same program for four years and not gotten the allure of prep school, man, it would be really scary. He would have broken every record Skyline had.”
After that sophomore season, Sims and his father, Robert, dreamed bigger.
Jonathan reclassified from 2013 to 2014, and the pair moved to Richmond, Va. Sims trained for a calendar year before enrolling at Benedictine College Preparatory, a private Catholic military high school with a powerhouse basketball program.
The logistics were tricky. Sims woke up at 5 a.m. and rode two different buses to make it to school on time. Practice didn’t end until 7 p.m., and then he returned home to do schoolwork until midnight.
Still, the beginning was enjoyable. The school’s coach, Robert Churchwell III, was a disciplinarian, the type of personality Sims prefers from a mentor.
“I remember the first tryout we didn’t even pick up a basketball,” Sims said. “Jump ropes we picked up. We were running, sprinting. He was like, ‘Go ahead and quit. Make it easy on me.’ And sure enough people quit, too. I loved it.”
The good times in Richmond didn’t last.
On a team full of stars, playing time was limited. Sims was often rooted to the bench, and while the team went undefeated when he was there, he wasn’t contributing.
The relationship with his father also deteriorated.
“I’m starting to get older, and me and my dad were having conflict,” Sims said. “It was like, ‘Man, I’m trying to please you. My grades are good. What else do you want me to do?’ My room was always clean, and if he asked me to clean, I didn’t have a problem with it. It seemed like everything I did wasn’t (good enough).
“Towards the end of that — for two months — I was on my own. Like, finding-the-next-meal type stuff. My uncle tried to help me, but he could only help so much because he has family too. So I was like, ‘Can you give me money to catch the bus or to eat? Then I’ll be good. I don’t need anything else.’ I wore a uniform (to school) so I didn’t need any clothes or anything. That was the toughest time of my life.”
By the end of the first semester, Sims decided he was done at Benedictine. He transferred back to Skyline in January and moved in with his best friend, Michael Sheridan, and Sheridan’s parents, Valerie and Michael, Sr., while his dad stayed in Richmond.
Sims thought he’d be able to play immediately for Skyline upon the transfer, but couldn’t get his official transcripts from Benedictine released. The team finished 7-17 last season as he watched from the sidelines.
By then, he was a ghost on the recruiting scene. Since he didn’t play much in Richmond, Sims didn’t pick up any new college interest. And since he was 2,000 miles away, the West Coast schools had a tough time tracking his progress and their intrigue waned.
After one year reclassifying and another on the bench, Sims is back to square one.
“I was getting letters out the wazoo (as a sophomore),” he said. “I don’t get none of that anymore. Now I get, ‘Would you like to vote? There’s a senator election coming up.’”
• • •
After his failed two-year odyssey, Sims is finally back on the court.
He played with Skyline during the high school summer ball period in June, and joined the Arizona Stars for the important “live evaluation” club period throughout July, where college coaches pack gyms to watch prospective recruits.
When he returned to Arizona, Sims said he received interest from NAIA schools Arizona Christian and Concordia University at Austin, but it was tough to get overly excited.
“I was giddy about it, but at the same time, when I was sophomore, I had way higher interest than that,” he said. “It could help if I just contact them myself, but it’s kind of like a pride thing. (More high-profile schools) will see me eventually at one of these tournaments. (One of their targets) will play against me and I’ll eat him up, that type of thing. Hopefully it will work out that way.”
The Coyotes have a new coach this season in Matt Johnson.
In Sims, he sees a player who has the ability to play the next level. Maybe more importantly, Johnson isn’t concerned with Sims’ past.
“I give everybody a fresh start,” Johnson said. “The past doesn’t really matter. It’s what you’re doing right now. He still is really raw, and I think colleges are going to see he’s got room to develop because he’s had so much time off. But I think everyone sees his potential and the benefit he is to this program. This is a good place for him.”
This process humbled Sims. He’s not the mega-prospect everyone is fighting over. He’s not much of a prospect at all.
But at least his expectations are now more in line with reality, and, despite all the ups and downs, a free education and the opportunity to play college basketball is still within reach.
“The kid can play,” Cooper said. “Is he going to be able to go to Saint Mary’s now? I don’t know. But there are all kinds of D-2 schools and lower-level D-I schools. He’s probably not going to get a major D-I offer any more, but if he wants to play, he’ll play.”