Jon Eyster doesn’t know if his favorite memory of DaJon Simpson is real.
The memory is of a District 3 playoff game in 2017 at Hershey's Giant Center. The Northeastern boys’ basketball team was winning by a lot, and Simpson, a sophomore, came off the bench and hit a 3-pointer.
The crowd went wild.
“That was one of my favorite memories,” Eyster said. “For him to get a chance to experience that was pretty cool.”
Eyster believes the memory is true, but he admits he could have wished it into perceived existence.
“I’m pretty sure that happened,” Eyster said. “But maybe it’s something I just wanted to have happened.”
“I just worked harder”
DaJon Simpson, who is now an 18-year-old senior, started playing basketball when he was 5 or 6 years old.
He played in recreation leagues and pick-up games on the blacktops. He watched games on television. He idolized Allen Iverson.
“I’ve always been around basketball,” he said.
The difference between Simpson and the other kids, growing up and now, is his height. Like Iverson, Simpson is short. Unlike the 5-foot, 11-inch Iverson, who is thought of as short because he plays a sport dominated by tall men, Simpson is actually short, standing at 4 feet 11 inches tall.
“(Iverson) was the smallest player on the court all the time,” Simpson said. “I just watched how he played. He always played harder than everyone. He had a bigger heart than everyone. He was nonstop. I decided that’s how I want to play.”
Like most people, Simpson assumed the height of his parents. His dad is 5-1, and his mom is 5-3.
Instead of deciding not to play basketball, Simpson chose to practice and develop the skills that didn’t require height.
“Ball handling, defense, speed, quickness,” Simpson said, listing what he worked on growing up.
In eighth grade, Simpson was cut from a basketball team, and he believes the sole reason was his height.
“It bothered me,” Simpson said. “I just worked harder. I woke up early mornings before school and worked out. The next year, I was more prepared, and I made it.”
“DaJon was all about the team”
As a freshman, Simpson, who was listed at 4-5, made the junior varsity team at Northeastern.
“It was instant,” said Eyster about the decision to keep Simpson. “He knows how to play, he has skills and he plays hard. What more do you want? You can’t ask for anything more than that. It was a no-brainer.”
As a sophomore and junior, Simpson was on both the JV and varsity squads. Simpson saw limited varsity action in both seasons, coming off the bench when the super-successful Northeastern teams had big leads.
“Our community fell head over heels for DaJon two years ago when he was a sophomore,” Eyster said. “It’s hard not to root for DaJon. It really is. He’s had to deal with a lot in many ways, and the obvious thing is he’s not the tallest player on the court. People want to root for that guy, and our community did. If we got a big lead, I always knew who they wanted to see on the floor.”
The Bobcats enjoyed playoff success in both seasons, including a 28-4 campaign last year and lengthy runs in the district and state playoffs.
“It was very fun,” Simpson said. “We had a great bond there. It was something most people don’t get to experience.”
While Simpson wasn’t a starter for the Bobcats, Eyster said Simpson’s team-first mentality wasn’t a façade. It was genuine.
“To be a successful team, there are a lot of intangibles. People who are in the stands have no idea what goes on at practice and in the locker room,” Eyster said. “DaJon was an integral part of a successful group of kids here. It’s about the team, and DaJon was all about the team.”
“He’s a natural leader”
Simpson and his mom moved into the Dallastown school district last August. He tried out for the Wildcats in November, and similar to Eyster, head coach Mike Grassel thought about the positives of what Simpson could bring to the team, rather than harp on his height.
“He has a high basketball IQ, he’s a great young man and he’s a good basketball player,” Grassel said. “Whenever I say those things about a guy, I want him on my team. I don’t care about what he looks like.”
Simpson comes off the bench for the Wildcats, mostly playing when Dallastown’s starters get in foul trouble or the team is winning by a lot in the second half. He’s played in 12 games this season and is averaging five minutes a game.
“Some guys don’t understand their role,” Grassel said. “He does, and that’s a very mature thing for a high school player.”
The Wildcats are a young squad this season, and Simpson said he’s enjoyed being one of the leaders on the team.
“I’m one of the oldest on the team, so I see the game a little bit differently than everyone else,” Simpson said.
“He’s good with his teammates. That to me means more than basketball,” Grassel said. “He’s a natural leader. He’s like a coach on the bench and on the court during practice. His size, yeah, it is what it is. But everything else, all the other qualities, I’d love for my son to grow up to be a young man like DaJon.”
Simpson said he expects to coach in his future, and he believes his experiences as a short player will help him as a coach.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something,” said Simpson, explaining what he’ll tell his future players. “You’ve got to show and prove people wrong.”
Grassel said being a short player has forced Simpson to understand the game better than most high school players.
“I’ve told him this year if he wants to he’ll be a heck of a coach,” Grassel said. “I’d take him back on my staff eventually if he ever wanted to coach.”
The qualities that Grassel said Simpson has brought to the Wildcats are the same ones Eyster said his team this season is lacking. The Bobcats graduated four starters from last year’s squad and will miss out on the York-Adams League playoffs this season after a fifth-place finish in Division I.
“He was as real as it gets,” Eyster said. “He’s not afraid to tell it like it is, where it’s not always on the coach to call guys out or demand effort. That’s something we’re missing this year. DaJon was part of the glue of our program for those two years.”
"Something you can't teach"
At Dallastown’s practice last week, the group Simpson was in won the drill Grassel set up, meaning they didn’t have to run sprints.
The junior varsity players came down from the opposite side of the court, and every player, except for Simpson’s group, ran the length of the court, down and back, twice.
“Last guy to finish has to run another one,” yelled Grassel.
The last player was Roman Owens, who was dejected with the final 94 feet to go, knowing he was going to finish last.
Simpson, who was on the far side of the court, weaved his way through a crowd of finished sprinters, to meet up with Owens underneath the basket and ran the final sprint with him.
The simple act, Grassel said, epitomized what Simpson brings to the team.
“He’s done that at every practice we’ve done sprints like that,” Grassel said. “That’s something you can’t teach. He wants what’s best for the team. He’s going to be there right by your side. He will always run an extra one to show his teammate that he’s there for him and that he has his back.”
Eyster said the anecdote of Simpson running the sprint with Owens reminded him of the player he used to coach.
“That sounds like something DaJon would do. There’s no doubt about it,” Eyster said. “I certainly wish him the best. Someone like DaJon, you want to see things work out for a guy like that.”
Reach Jacob Calvin Meyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.