NOTE: This is a chapter from “100 Things Arizona Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die,” a 2014 book co-written by AllSportsTucson’s Steve Rivera and Anthony Gimino.
They are perhaps the most famous three words in Arizona basketball history: “Simon says, championship.”
It’s a forever snapshot: Miles Simon kneeling on the court inside the RCA Dome, cradling the basketball as the final seconds tick off the clock in UA’s 84-79 overtime victory against Kentucky to win the 1997 NCAA title.
After CBS announcer Jim Nantz delivered the suspiciously scripted cornball line, “A milestone victory for Arizona,” playing off Simon’s first name, analyst Billy Packer did it better, following simply with “Simon says, championship.”
The 1997 championship was a superb team accomplishment — mature-beyond-his-years freshman point guard Mike Bibby, leading scorer Michael Dickerson, defensive ace Bennett Davison, underrated center A.J. Bramlett and super sixth man Jason Terry — but the season ended the way it did because Miles Simon was unstoppable when it mattered the most.
“A lot of people felt he was really cocky and all that,” said coach Lute Olson. “But he just had a lot of confidence, and that was important to us that we had somebody like that.”
Dickerson and Bibby were quiet stars, so everybody looked to Simon, a 6-foot-3 guard whose mantra during the tournament was, “We’re not scared.” And then he went out and played like he was ready to beat everybody.
He scored at least 20 points in four NCAA tournament games, and he had 17 in the Sweet 16 victory over top-seeded Kansas. Simon had 30 points, six rebounds and four assists in the win over Providence to get to the Final Four. He had 24 points, five rebounds and five assists vs. No. 1 seed North Carolina.
He finished with 30 points, including making 14 of 17 free throws, in the championship game. Simon was selected the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.
Steve Rivera on 1997 reunion: ‘A bond we will always have’
“I tell you, once he hit that tournament, there was just nobody better,” said assistant coach Jim Rosborough, who worked with the perimeter players.
“He was focused. He was on a mission. Maybe even he would say that was when he kind of came out of his shell and grew up. He stepped up. There’s no question at all.”
Given the stakes, his effort against Kentucky stands as the greatest individual performance in Arizona basketball history. And don’t forget Simon’s defensive contributions. He was the primary defender on Ron Mercer, who averaged 18.1 points and 15 shots per game that season. Simon helped hold Mercer to 13 points on just nine shots.
Kentucky, meanwhile, was intent on not getting beat from the perimeter, which is how Arizona had dispatched the Tar Heels two days earlier, hitting 11 of 29 3-pointers. UK’s plan worked … in part.
UA attempted only 13 shots from behind the arc (making six), but Simon took advantage of the in-your-face defensive pressure, using a quick first step to drive into the lane, where he contorted to put up an array of floaters … or else he got fouled and made Kentucky pay from the line.
It was a storybook ending to a season that began with Simon on an 11-game academic suspension.
“He was just on a roll and doing some stuff that we hadn’t even worked on in practice — all those up-and-under moves,” Rosborough said. “It was just something that was in him. Miles was as good as anybody I’ve seen in that three-week time period (of the NCAA Tournament). He wasn’t that good all year, but he meant everything to us.”
Simon landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption “Cool Cat,” and his stock was never hotter. But he decided to bypass the NBA Draft and come back for his senior season, often saying he was enchanted with the thought of winning back-to-back titles. The 1997-98 season ended in disappointment, though, as Utah upset the Wildcats in the West Region final.
Simon, who is 12th on the UA’s career scoring list (1,644 points) and 10th in assists (455), was the 42nd overall pick to Orlando in 1998. He played in only five games after that season’s lockout, which cut short the practice time he needed to develop. Simon, who fell into the “tweener” category at the guard positions, played overseas for a few years and in the CBA before knee injuries ended his competitive playing days.
The former star at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif. — he was the first player to be the CIF Player of the Year twice — joined the Arizona coaching staff in 2005. His tenure ended in 2008, after which he became an AAU coach and launched a promising career as a TV analyst.
While all Arizona fans have the memory of “Simon says, championship,” he has a more-tangible reminder (other than the ring). In the spring of 2014, he gave the website nicekicks.com a tour of his sneaker collection in his garage at his Southern California home.
At the end of the video, he goes into the house and pulls down a shoe box from a closet shelf. On the lid are the words, “Final Four.” Opening the box reveals a net from the 1997 regional final. Underneath that is the pair of black Nike Air Max Up-Tempos he wore in the national championship game.
“One of the best basketball shoes that I’ve ever worn,” Simon said.
“I’m still saving them. Don’t know if I will ever get rid of them or they just might decompose by themselves. But pretty sweet. And shoes that really mean a lot to me.”
Pretty sweet, indeed.