BILLINGS — Leadership took on a new meaning for Ryan Simpson during his senior basketball season at Bozeman High.
Sidelined with a broken wrist, Simpson no longer could impact the game on the court. He had to rely on other means.
Perhaps it was for the best.
“I just knew that I had to contribute in a different way and make sure everyone was locked in,” Simpson said this week during preparations for the annual Midland Roundtable Montana-Wyoming All-Star Basketball Series. “I think that really benefited us in the end, having everybody else step up.”
Simpson returned for the start of the divisional tournament and Bozeman promptly reeled off six consecutive postseason wins, including an overtime thriller over Missoula Hellgate to win the Class AA state championship.
Simpson’s statistical contributions — he averaged 12.3 points and 7.1 rebounds for the Hawks — led to his selection for the 44th annual boys all-star series, which tips Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Alterowitz Gymnasium in Billings.
Simpson’s other attributes, like versatility and a team-first attitude, afforded him an opportunity he called “a huge honor.”
Saturday’s all-star game will be played in Sheridan, Wyoming, also at 7:30. The boys games serve as the second half of a doubleheader with the girls contests. The boys lead the all-time series with Wyoming by a 59-27 tally.
Montana All-Star coach Steve Keller, who is 14-0 in the series since taking over the team in 2012, loves Simpson’s makeup.
“Ryan is one of those guys that can just about play anywhere on the floor,” said Keller, who serves as the head men’s coach at Providence in Great Falls. “Athletic, shoots it, long, rebounds, defends … he’s kind of got the total package.”
Simpson, at 6-foot-6, is one of five players on the Montana team that stands 6-4 or taller. The others are 6-7 Sam Gray of Billings Central, 6-6 Caleb Bellach of Manhattan Christian, 6-5 Jaden Graham of Lewistown and 6-4 Michael Haverfield of Dillon.
Keller also likes the look of the team’s quickness in the backcourt.
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“The biggest thing is getting them to defend a little bit, which nobody likes to do in an all-star game,” Keller said. “And playing together. It’s just sharing the basketball and making the extra pass, and then we like to run the dribble-drive so we can get to the free throw line.”
Basketball was Simpson’s first love — until he began to realize his potential as a football player. Simpson had offers to play hoops in college, including the chance to play for coach Mick Durham at Division II Montana State Billings.
But he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play wide receiver for coach Bobby Hauck and the Montana Grizzlies, which he’ll do beginning this fall.
“It was a really hard decision. I’ve always loved basketball,” said Simpson, who will also play in the East-West Shrine Game in July. “But in high school I really fell in love with football. It wasn’t really about what game I loved more, it came down to life after college. I thought my best potential would be going to the University of Montana.”
Simpson said he’s been spending time this spring in the weight room and throwing footballs with Kris Brown — his quarterback at Bozeman who will also play at UM — to best prepare himself for his arrival in Missoula and the rigors of fall camp.
So this weekend will serve as his last hurrah on the hardwood.
Simpson’s final high school game produced a moment that was nothing short of miraculous: His inbound pass with four seconds left in the State AA title game deflected at mid-court to teammate Carter Ash, who found Brett Clark for a layup as the buzzer sounded to lift the Hawks to a 55-53 OT win and end a streak of three-straight championship-game losses for Bozeman.
“I thought Carter was going to shoot it and then I saw Brett underneath,” Simpson recounted with a smile. “Just in the nick of time he got it to Brett. I was speechless after that. It was the best moment ever.”
This weekend probably won’t match that thrill, but Simpson is happy to be a part it.
“We definitely want to win both” games, he said. “Coach Keller’s been undefeated ever since he started coaching these, so we don’t want to let him down.
“I think we already have a really good bond coming into this because we’ve all been around each other. I love being around these guys. It’s a really good time.”