Former Roswell Daily Record Sports Editor Harry Readel played on a catchphrase from the California Angels in the Nov. 30, 1979, sports page of “Yes, I Can” which was the Angels’ slogan as they played for the American League Western Division title. In his first year on the job, coach Leon Sims had to get the community and basketball team to embrace what he was selling. Prior to Sims taking over the basketball team, the Rockets were 4-18 the year before.
“Once you believe you can do it,” Sims said, “then the rest is easy.”
Sims is from Eunice, New Mexico, and originally attended Sal Ross State University, which is in Alpine, Texas, on a basketball scholarship. Sims played three years for the Lobos because at the time, eligibility requirements meant they were not allowed to play in their freshman year.
After a successful academic career as a student, he received his first teaching job at Gallup. Sims’ first coaching job was in Jal where he was an assistant coach. After two years, he became the head coach and took his team to state. His team didn’t win; they were beaten out by Albuquerque Academy. Sims spent eight years at Jal before moving to California.
In California, he was a junior varsity coach in football and basketball. Sims’ son, Kirk, who was 2 years old at the time developed asthma and his doctor told him to move his family somewhere where it was moist all the time. He found a job in Alaska and stayed there for a year.
Upon returning to Riverside, California, he became the head football coach, and he led them to state both years.
After being in California, he decided to move his family to Kirtland, New Mexico. The year before Sims took over at Kirtland, they had won a state title in basketball. Sims also led Kirtland to the state before losing to Bernalillo.
While coaching at Kirtland, an old college teammate reached out to him. Duane Evans, then-athletic director for Roswell Independent School District, found out he was coaching at Kirtland and asked Sims to fly down and interview for the job. Evans offered Sims the job, but he originally turned him down.
“I thought heck,” Sims said. “I just moved, and we have some players coming back next year; we are going to be good. I told him, I believe I had better stay here. I had quite a few coaches tell me not to come here (Roswell) because you can’t win there or stay there.”
Evans called the next day and Sims accepted. His first two years as a coach at Goddard, they only won 10 games. It was during the third year they won 20 games and stayed there.
What helped Sims turn the Goddard program around is that he grew up in Eunice, New Mexico, and spent his summers playing basketball in Hobbs for the legendary basketball coach Ralph Tasker. Sims also played with former NBA pro, Bill Bridges of the New York Knicks. Sims saw how Tasker set up his program that reached the elementary schools all the way to the high schools during summer, and how Tasker had a feeder system going.
“When I came here,” Sims said, “I went to each elementary school, fourth-grade on up to my varsity at Goddard High School. I talked to each player interested in playing basketball and taught them my way. I would start at 9 a.m. and stay until 9 p.m. every day in the summertime except Saturdays and Sundays. I would bring the elementary kids in the morning and the middle school in the afternoon and the high school kids at night.”
One of Sims’ secrets to being successful was he had good assistant coaches. Sims felt one of the most important coaches he could hire was the ninth-grade coach. Because the ninth-grade year is a transformative year in which the ninth-grade coach is teaching your philosophy and helping the players develop. Goddard’s current assistant girls’ basketball coach Hayden Hill worked on Sims’ staff as a ninth-grade coach, before moving up to become Sims’ junior varsity coach.
“One of the things I remember about coach Sims,” then-assistant Hayden Hill said. “He gave everybody confidence. At one of his first meetings, he said, ‘We are going to build this and win a state championship.’ What I liked about him was he brought new ideas. We were running things no one else was running at the time. He was never afraid to adjust during the game or try something new or take someone out if they weren’t playing well, no matter who it was.”
At the time, Sims had a varsity team, a junior varsity team, a sophomore team and a freshman team. He had so many players come out for the teams that he had to cut players. Sims remembers having 50 kids come out for ninth-grade basketball, and he’d make cuts until he kept the 15 best players. However, for the sophomore, junior varsity and varsity teams, he kept 12 players.
Sims took Goddard to the state tournament seven times, and was in the championship game once, the year they won it in 1988. On his championship team, Sims remembers that he had a 6-foot-7 sophomore Thomas McKnight, who went on to play at UTEP.
“I remember him (McKnight) being 6-foot-7,” Sims said. “He weighed 245 pounds. He could stand flatfooted and dunk it under the basket. He was that good. I had another kid about 6-foot-4, named Tim Fitzpatrick, and he was picked Co-Player of State that year. Our team had very good guards that year.”
During the championship game against Socorro, Sim’s guard Wade Scott twisted his ankle right before half. At halftime, Wade told the doctors to tape his ankle because he was going back out to play.
“I had 12 kids,” Sims said. “The way I played if you were on the team you were going to play. We ran and pressed, so when our players got tired, we replaced them with another player. The whole time I coached, I played 12 kids.”
Sims is credited with the 1-1-3 defense, out of that defense he could play man-to-man out of it, or trap and deny the ball. One of his innovations on offense, which he used to win state was a 2-2-1. He would set two guards out front, two post players at the elbows, and one player down low opposite of the ball. Sims feels like these two sets helped his team win games. Sims learned this offense from another coach. With so much height on the team, Sims felt it would help as he would interchange his athletes in and out. Chad Tipton was a key player on the championship team.
On the championship team that started was guard Wade Scott, Kelly McDonald, inside was Tim Fitzpatrick, Chad Tipton and Thomas McKnight.
“With the team I had,” Sims said. ‘We could run with the big guys I had. I would set the big guy on the player taking the ball out of bounds and have him go trap the person with the ball and jump the passing lanes.”
On their road to the championship game, they had to play a play-in game against Aztec. In a game they should have won easily, it turned into a tough game that Goddard won on a last-second shot off a rebound from a missed Wade shot.
“That first game,” Sims said, “at that time, we had to play in order to get into the state tournament. That first game against Aztec was a rough one for us. The next game against Academy wasn’t close. It wasn’t a blowout, but they didn’t give us any trouble. Socorro was picked to win the tournament, and we beat them by six or eight points.”
During the championship year, they lost six games, but the turning point in the season was Goddard had been beating other teams easy but was beaten by Alamogordo at Ground Zero badly.
“That loss woke us up,” Sims said. “We had been just taking it to people and they (Alamogordo) took it to us and we didn’t respond very well. Then we woke up. We were fortunate against Aztec to be in the right place at the right time.”
One of Sims’ strengths was that he wasn’t afraid to play all of his kids, which helped keep up morale. He accomplished this in practice by playing different combinations. Another factor in the Rockets’ championship season was his team knew their roles so well, and they didn’t try to do things they weren’t supposed to.
“One of the things I remember most,” Sims said, “after I finished instructions before the team broke the huddle to go out for the fourth quarter. Fitzpatrick, one of Sims players, would say to the team: ‘Alright guys, this is the fourth quarter. Nobody beats us in the fourth quarter.’”
Sims considered Fitzpatrick one of the leaders of the team and wasn’t afraid to scrap with anyone.
“I told my players I wanted them to be students in the classroom,” Sims said. “I wanted them to represent themselves, their school and their parents well and be citizens when they got out of high school.”
Sims retired from coaching in ‘92, his love for the area and people have kept him here with his wife, Karen. He has three sons and a daughter: Kirk, Ty, Holly Cain, and Ricky Goree.