The tallest man in the room is serving a higher power.
On a blue-skied, chilly December morning, Wayne Simien stands at the door of the Morning Star Church in Lawrence, Kan., greeting each group of worshipers with a smile, a handshake and a program. "I'm Wayne," he says, in case they've been comatose the past four years. "Nice to meet you."
When the music starts, Simien makes his way to the front row of the spacious church. He raises his hands to the ceiling, his 6'9", 255-pound frame dwarfing the men and women around him. He closes his eyes. A funky bass line and drum beat fill the air. In the pews, everyone stomps their feet and claps their hands, heating up the room.
Pastor John McDermott steps to the podium. Simien removes a pen and a spiral-bound pad from beneath his seat. Pastor John asks everyone to turn to Galatians 4:3. Today's lesson is about freedom. With the Lord, he wants them to know, you can be whatever you desire. Then he tells his parishioners to grow up. Simien writes down, "Grow up" in a neat script.
"Turn to your neighbor and say, Grow up,' " Pastor John says again, now building up steam.
"Man," says Simien, his voice rising, "we've got to grow up!"
He's smiling. And as Pastor John lays down his message for the next hour, Simien never stops beaming--he is completely enraptured. How could he not be? For so many years, his brilliant hoops talent and big-man-on-campus persona masked his unhappiness. But after being baptized 19 months ago, he's turned his whole life around. Now, as the senior leader of the venerable Jayhawks, he's uplifting his teammates with both his relentless low-post play and his always-upbeat demeanor. More important, he's teaching them all the power of believing--in each other, in the coach they once derided, in their championship dreams. Their faith is absolute.
TWO YEARS ago, as an emerging sophomore forward for the Jayhawks, Simien seemed not to have a worry in the world. He'd pull up to campus in his '92 GMC pickup, stereo banging, a sticker on the back glass letting everyone know he'd arrived. "Big Dub #23," it read. The nickname had less to do with the size of his body than the size of his aura. He got more phone numbers a night than rebounds. Women cold-called his hotel room on road trips. "He was a pimp, dude," says KU student Mitch Langley, a musician at Morning Star.
He should have been happy. This was the life he had always wanted since he was a 6-year-old growing up in Leavenworth, just down the road from the KU campus. Simien remembers lying on the living room floor with his dad, Wayne Sr., watching the Jayhawks during coach Roy Williams' rookie season in 1989. During timeouts, he'd run down to the basement and dunk on a Nerf goal, imagining he was one of them.
By the time Simien was dunking for real in eighth grade, word of his precocious talent had already reached Lawrence. Williams went to nearly every one of his high school games that he could, smiling as other coaches futilely tried to woo the kid. In the end, it was merely a formality: Simien signed with Kansas the fall of his junior season in 2000. Roy and Dub were a perfect match, they all said. Everything seemed perfect.
It wasn't. Back when he was first learning to dribble as a child, his dad and his mom, Margaret, would beg him to smile out on the court, but he rarely did. As he grew older, they learned not to talk to him when he was down--and he was down a lot. The slightest misstep--a blown layup, a missed free throw, a closer-than-expected W--sent Wayne into a funk. "He would have a lot of mood swings," his mom says. "He would be around us, but there would be a distance."
Simien found instant success as a freshman at KU, averaging just over eight points a game coming off the bench. But the pressure and criticism that came with playing for the hometown school emptied him. After the Jayhawks lost in the Final Four that season, he dejectedly hugged Drew Gooden in the locker room, feeling like a failure.
Simien says the clubbing, the ladies, the boozing were all covers, a facade that he knew he couldn't keep up forever. Two months into his breakout sophomore season, Simien dislocated his shoulder. After sitting out 11 games, he tried to come back in February but bagged it after four games. A few weeks later, Simien and his family flew to New York for surgery just as his team was flying to California for the Sweet 16.
Laid up in his hospital bed the day after his operation, he watched KU beat Arizona for another trip to the Final Four. Simien's teammates later called from the locker room. Their ebullience crushed him; all he could think was, I wish I was there. The next week in New Orleans, the Jayhawks narrowly lost to Syracuse in the title game. Sitting on the team bench, his shoulder in a sling, he felt useless. "He was depressed," Langley says. "He started asking, `What is my purpose?' "
Simien had always been religious, but in a perfunctory way-he'd go to church with his parents because that was what you did, he says. But after bottoming out, he reached out to a KU football player named Dan Coke, who worked with a campus ministry. For almost a year, Coke had been trying to get Simien to come to his Bible study group, but Simien only saw him as a buzz-kill. Now he saw him as someone who could help.
Coke took him to Morning Star, where Pastor John's message immediately appealed to Simien. He wasn't Big Dub inside the church, John told him, and hoops wasn't important here. "I knew that's what he needed," Pastor John says. "A place where he could come and not be treated special."
Simien bought fully into the Christian life. He was baptized that July, at a conference for Christian athletes in Texas. He moved out of the place he shared with best friend and teammate, Keith Langford, and in with Coke. He even threw out his cell phone full of choice coed numbers.
His teammates were at first hurt when he started weaning them from his social plans. But it wasn't long before they would come to deeply appreciate the changes in him. In April 2003, Williams announced he was taking the head job at North Carolina--a blow that made the Jayhawks' title loss feel like a pinprick. And without a balanced, headstrong Simien to guide them through the resulting storm, they might very well have lost their way.
AFTER WILLIAMS said goodbye to the team in the locker room of Allen Fieldhouse, Simien, in the embryonic stages of his conversion, stormed out, sniping at the media, "I gave my right arm for that man." Then he and his classmates got into Langford's Explorer and drove around town, avoiding reporters and their uncertain future.
Six days later, the school announced it was hiring Bill Self, whose reputation as a steely perfectionist at Illinois preceded him. Simien wasn't intimidated. During the first get-to-knowyou, on Easter Sunday, Wayne raised his hand and said, "What exactly did you tell the players at Illinois when you left?" The coach calmly explained: he wasn't picking players over players; it was about what he felt was best for his family.
"Wayne is a very deep thinker," Self says. "And he seeks things not on the surface. I felt going in that he would be one of the hardest sells."
From the first practice, Self's system of tough defense and half-court sets turned off the Jayhawks, who had thrived in Williams' fun-ball offense. The grumblings grew as the team struggled in December, losing to Stanford by six and then to Nevada by 14. After an awful road swing in February, in which the Jayhawks were blown out by Oklahoma State and Nebraska, Self took his team to see the movie Miracle. His point wasn't subtle. They had to come together, they had to believe.
The players weren't buying it. Self didn't know it at the time, but Simien and a few others were still talking to their old coach. Williams left each Jayhawk a voice mail before their first exhibition, apologizing and wishing them luck. As the team struggled more and more, some of them found comfort in their casual conversations with Williams. (The coach says he never talked to them about hoops; he simply offered warm words.)
Simien felt torn. His anger toward Williams faded with each of their chats, yet he was still wavering about the new system. "The way we had done things here had been so efficient," he says, "that we didn't think any other way could work."
But he also knew he should have faith, that being down wasn't in congress with his new walk. And so he turned to Pastor John for guidance. In their many meetings, a theme emerged: he had to be there for his teammates. Simien took to heart one of his favorite verses, James 1:2-4. "Consider it all joy, when you encounter trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance."
With the season winding down and the Jayhawks still struggling to turn things around, Simien decided to speak up in a team meeting and right their course. Self is our coach, he said. He's going to be our coach. Deal with it. No excuses. Just in case anyone wasn't buying his conversion, Simien made sure to walk the walk the rest of the season, showing up to practice every day with a smile and an anything-Coach-says attitude.
"If Wayne isn't sold," says guard Stephen Vinson, "then nobody is sold." But once the Jayhawks saw that Simien had bought in, everyone else did. Down the stretch, the Jayhawks started to click, wiping out Oklahoma, then beating Missouri on the road in the regular-season finale. "All of a sudden," Self says, "they thought they were world-beaters again."
The Jayhawks almost made it to their third straight Final Four in March, losing in overtime to Georgia Tech in the St. Louis Regional final. It was another heartbreaking Tourney defeat. But Simien wasn't inconsolable this time. Instead, as he boarded the team bus for the ride home, he was all good vibes. Not only had they endured their trial of a season, they had emerged a better team in the end.
AFTER PASTOR John wraps up his sermon on freedom, Simien helps stack a room full of chairs, then heads out to his pickup, the same one whose speakers once announced his arrival. There's a new sticker on the back now: "Truckin' for Jesus." Over the summer, his ride was stolen but quickly recovered. When he got it back, he decided not to replace the missing 20-inch rims. He also ditched the "Big Dub #23" decal. With it went the last vestiges of his old life. "No, man, I don't need those things," he says now, turning the ignition. "I had gotten those … before."
Now it's … after. His constant smile has carried over to this season, and so has his killer play: he leads the team with 17.7 ppg and 10.6 rpg. Meanwhile, his calm has insulated the Jayhawks from adversity. When Simien was sidelined with a thumb injury for four games in January, his teammates picked up the slack in clash-of-the-titans victories over Georgia Tech and Kentucky. After his return, the Jayhawks got blown out in their first loss of the season, at Villanova on Jan. 22. No worries. Three days later, the team took it out on Baylor behind their senior big man's 18 points and seven boards. Consider it all joy, when you encounter trials.
Of course, so much remains in front of them. But Simien says he's confident he knows the waymuch like the long, gravel road spread out before him now, on this Sunday afternoon. He's taking the back way to campus, past the trees and streams. He likes it out here, where few others go. The truck cuts through the arbor shadows. Gospel music fills the cab. The tires spin on the loose rock, leaving behind a wake of dust.
"Come on," says Simien, lightly gripping the wheel, a beatific smile covering his face. "It's a great day to be alive."