2011 MSU Athletics Hall of Fame Class: Kisha (Kelley) Simpson
Sept. 20, 2011
Michigan State will induct five new members into its Athletics Hall of Fame on Thursday, Sept. 22. In the second of a five-part series this week on msuspartans.com, online columnist Steve Grinczel profiles former women's basketball player Kisha (Kelley) Simpson.
The role of a pioneer is arduous and unglamorous. In time, however, when the effort and impact are fully understood and appreciated, the reward can be great.
Kisha (Kelley) Simpson never led the Michigan State women's basketball team to a championship, a feat that often magnifies an individual's contribution. The Spartans achieved only one winning record during Simpson's career.
There are no pieces of net in her scrapbook.
What Simpson did is lead a program, which had spent years trying to find its way, to the doorstep of success it has enjoyed since her departure. Two years after Simpson graduated in 1995, the Spartans won their first Big Ten Championship. There have been two more since - including in 2010-11 - and 10 NCAA Tournament appearances highlighted by the run to the Final Four and the national title game in 2005.
Average attendance for women's basketball at the Breslin Center was just under 1,700 during the Simpson Era, peaking at 2,052 during her final season. The Spartans' popularity continued to grow after her departure and average attendance has never been lower than 6,000 over the past seven seasons "of excellence." Five-digit crowds have become an annual occurrence since 2004-05.
No one played a bigger part in the transition MSU made while becoming a big-time women's basketball program than the unassuming Simpson. Despite enjoying only modest success on the court from a team standpoint, Simpson was the first of six Spartans to earn All-America status and was the program's first recipient of first-team All-Big Ten accolades.
She may be the only one surprised by her induction into the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame.
"When people found out about this they'd ask me, `Well what did you do Kisha, what records did you set?' And I'd say, `I don't know,' because I didn't really remember," Simpson said. "I just played and never really thought about it.
"So I had to go back and look at one of the books with all the stats in it that one of the coaches sent to me a couple of years ago, and I was like, `Oh wow, I guess I did make a difference. I did accomplish quite a lot during my time there.'
"It never really registered to me until now. I'm not even sure I believe it yet."
Simpson's 15.2 points per game from the forward position remains tied for first on Michigan State's all-time scoring-average list. Her 1,668 points were the most ever by a Spartan when she left and are now third. She broke the single-season scoring mark as a junior with 513 points and again as senior with 529, which currently ranks sixth. Only one other MSU player has scored 500 points in two separate seasons.
Simpson's name remains on Michigan State's career top-10 lists for free throws (second with 360), steals (sixth, 201) and rebounds (eighth, 701). The 15 field goals she made en route to a career-high 31 points against Northwestern as a junior remains a school record.
More than numbers, however, Simpson hopes she'll be remembered for the example she set.
"I think maybe `the all' that I gave whenever I played is what stands out the most for me," she said. "I know my coaches know that I didn't really play a lot of basketball outside of the season, but during the season I always gave 110 percent. I think that effort and dedication during the season is what helped me accomplish what I did.
"When I did play, I was very disciplined and dedicated to helping my team do well. That's something I learned from my coaches and playing sports in general - if you're a part of something then you have to be a part of it completely, and that's how I was.
"Getting up in the morning for practice, the two-a-days...whatever we had to do, is what had to be done. There was no quitting."
That task is being carried out in the program by current players and coaches, and those who will follow. However, Simpson's glass plaque hanging in the Smith Student-Athlete Academic Center should serve as a reminder of those who built the foundation along with Simpson, according to associate athletic director Karen Langeland, who coached the women's basketball team from 1976-2000.
"I think respecting the past is important for the athletes of today," Langeland said. "Especially in women's athletics, there are people who paved the way for them. Sometimes, I think they assume that things have always been the way they are now in terms of equipment, and apparel and playing in Breslin.
"There wasn't a Nike contract and we weren't chartering (airplanes) at that time. We were busing primarily. Compared to the distant past, the crowds were pretty good, probably two-to-three thousand, but certainly nothing like they are right now."
While Simpson made her mark on the program without fanfare, she blazed new trails as the face of MSU women's basketball.
"But my guess is she just didn't even think of herself that way," Langeland said. "She was just there to play basketball. She was such an outstanding athlete and her versatility is what was so valuable to us. She had great quickness and probably the biggest thing was how well she worked with our point guard at that time, Chris Powers.
"She was a funny kid because she wanted to leave after her first semester freshman year. She was really close to her family and was homesick. My assistant coach at the time, Sue Guevara, talked her into staying just one more semester, and she agreed. We knew the potential she had and that she would really be able to help our program and probably grow and mature as a person, which is exactly what happened."
Simpson finished out her career as a co-captain and three-time Most Valuable Player.
"She just did things so innocently," Langeland said. "She always played within herself and contributed as much as she could. She didn't really think about how important she was.
"She was probably one of the first athletes we got from the Detroit area who was that successful. She had a pretty good following from Detroit, and that really helped us in terms of building the program, along with the education and publicity she was getting at that time for others to see."
Simpson persevered through one .500 and two losing seasons before the Spartans turned the corner her senior year with a 16-12 record and career-best 8-8 Big Ten mark, which was good for fifth place.
The honors that followed, and her Hall-of-Fame induction are "a tribute to her ability and what she did for our program at that time," Langeland said. "Even though we didn't win championships, she certainly led us in that direction."
Although Simpson is foggy on details from her playing days, one performance somewhat stands out, "except I'm torn between whether I was in Minnesota or Wisconsin," she said. "I was maybe 10-for-11 from and it was almost a perfect game for me."
For the record, Simpson tied what was then a single-game school record for shooting percentage against the Badgers. Her 30 field-goal attempts against Toledo in '94 also stood as an MSU standard until Syreeta Bromfield launched 33 against Wisconsin in '02.
"For the most part, it never seemed easy to me," Simpson said. "I felt like I was really working every time I got whatever I got."
Simpson continues to put the discipline, dedication and effort she developed as a Spartan to good use in her hectic everyday life with husband, Matthew, while raising 16-year-old stepson, Matthew II, and sons Aaron (10), John (4) and daughter Harlem (2).
"We're a pretty competitive family and we play basketball out in the yard," Simpson said. "I just tell the kids I let their father win so he'll feel good."
By day, she's a social worker with a Master's degree. At night, she's pursuing a second Bachelor's degree, in nursing, at Wayne State University.
"What Michigan State did with basketball, and athletics as a whole, is teach me that if you start something, you finish it," Simpson said. "I think that's helped me in life in general because now I'm back in school again wanting to better myself.
"What do you do to better yourself? You go back to school and you dedicate yourself to that until you finish it. That's what I remember the most and the reason I think I'm a part of the Hall of Fame. In that sense I guess I would like to think of myself as a pioneer. They've made a lot of progress since I left."