Monday, March 10, 2014
RUMFORD - In the hour before tip-off, Bill Simpson's stress level dropped. A familiar face walked through the doors to the basketball gym at Mountain Valley High in Rumford. A second face appeared. A third.
Bill Simpson takes to the road for basketball. That’s the way it is and the way it’s been since 1976, when he organized the team that’s on the verge of 2,000 victories.
Photos by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer
It takes a commitment to play for Bill Simpson and his Class Acts basketball team, but the rewards are great, both in playing time on the court throughout the year and in the lifelong friendships forged away from the game.
Simpson reached for his scorebook. It was time to write in the names of the men who would pull on the uniform of Class Acts, a men's basketball team. He had six players, enough to make a substitution during the game and give someone a breather.
Enough to win its first game of the three-day Mountain Valley Rec Basketball Tournament, 100-60 on Friday night. Enough to creep closer to a proud milestone. The victory over a team from Bath calling itself Ship City was No. 1,997 in the history of this so-called franchise.
Class Acts won two more games Saturday. "Hopefully we can reach 2,000 on Sunday," said Simpson. "The rest of my team should be here by then."
He looked at the handful of men around him, each representing a piece of Maine basketball history. For 37 years, Simpson has persuaded dozens of men to put their lives on hold for a tournament weekend, or for a full season of playing basketball with him and more recently, for him.
It started in 1976 in Augusta. Simpson was 18, a Cony High graduate, basketball junkie and already a businessman. He operated Ding-A-Ling Things, which provided services such as basic home security. For a fee, Simpson would watch your house and patrol your neighborhood, reporting suspicious activity to the police.
He asked friends from Cony and nearby Gardiner High to join a basketball team that played in a men's league. The name of his business would be on their shirts. In September 1979 he heard someone say during a lunchtime game at the local YMCA that Kevin Nelson, the University of Maine's star big man, had taken a government job in Augusta.
Simpson immediately raised his hand and called out: Sub! Went downstairs to the locker room and showered. He headed to his office and called every government department or agency in Augusta. You have someone named Kevin Nelson working there?
"He did," said Nelson, whose Foxcroft Academy team played Medomak Valley for the Class B state title in 1975. "He called me out of the blue and took me out to lunch. I had just moved to Augusta."
With Nelson, Ding-A-Ling Things joined the very competitive J.C. Best League in Portland. Twice a week most of the team would crowd into Simpson's 1967 Chevy Belaire and speed down Interstate 95, many times arriving just before tip-off.
Nelson, now living in Portland, only played from 1979-84, but he helped give Simpson and his teammates more credibility. The many players who followed became ambassadors, too. They perpetuated the notion that this team won by sharing the ball and enjoying each other's company off the court.
The team name changed from Ding-A-Ling Things to Tangerine Limo to Class Acts as Simpson grew his business, now a property management company in Portland. The team's personality has stayed the same.
Derek Lovely saw that personality when he played at the University of Southern Maine about 10 years ago. "They scrimmaged us and they played so well together and they had so much fun. I wanted to play for them."
Lovely, who has gained more notoriety as Maine's most eligible bachelor, thanks to Cosmopolitan magazine and reality TV, has played for Simpson the past few seasons. He was in Rumford this weekend. Why? "I love basketball. I love playing with these guys."
Matt Clement, the current version of Kevin Nelson, was in Rumford, leaving his bride of some six months at home. But then, Regina Clement is the sister of Brian Wohl, a Class Acts teammate. She understands. "She'll be here Saturday, don't worry," said Clement, who was invited to the Maine Red Claws' inaugural preseason camp four years ago.
Not so understanding were John Fitts' two former wives. He joined the team in 1981, just out of Cony High. He played off and on for decades, or until two hip replacements curtailed that part of his life. He sat in the bleachers Friday night. "Bill called and asked me to come. He's my friend.
"My wives said I loved basketball more than them."
Fitts didn't deny it.
Doug Roberts, star of the great Rumford teams from the mid-1970s, played for Simpson. So did Rumford's Andy Bedard some 20 years later. Bart Donovan, a Bangor High star and now the father of teenagers attending Deering High, still plays. So does Andrew Duncanson of Portland, who flew to Detroit this weekend for a tryout with a Pro Basketball League team. The list goes on and on.
Players from away, including Jay Brewer, an all-conference selection at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., played for Class Acts. Later he got married in Ireland, where he now lives, and Class Acts was represented at his wedding. Simpson is the godfather of Brewer's daughter. Several Class Acts players were at the christening.
Texts from Simpson on everything from victories to the births of sons and daughters go out to a core group of 55 in the Class Acts family. Simpson, in fact, is 55. Injuries to both legs ended his playing career. He has no idea when or if he'll give up this part of his life.
"I'll probably manage this team from my grave. I'll set up a trust so the kids of everyone who played can play." I repeated that comment Friday night in the Mountain Valley bleachers.
Fitts didn't think his friend was kidding.
"You've got to understand Bill. He'd do that."
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: