March 24, 2013

Steve Solloway: Going through hoops to play a little ball

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.

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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

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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