Christian Simpson was the shotmaker in one of the most exciting highlight moments in Saints basketball history. In the 1989 St. Stephen’s Basketball Tournament, the Saints, who would finish the season ranked No. 8 in the Washington Post rankings that year, faced a strong Gonzaga team. Christian recalls, “We had practiced the play for the first time before the tournament. Coach (Win) Palmer had said, ‘We need to have a play in case we have this situation in a game.’ I am freed up, get the ball on a straight run. There is a top-of-the-key screen on the other end of the court—I am dribbling right and came left. A pump fake got the first guy off me.”
Then, The Shot. It looks slightly off balance, with a man in his face, from just above the top of the key, and it hits the rim, bounces straight up, and goes in. It tied the score 54-54, and the stands emptied onto the floor. A shot so unbelievable, it was as if the game had already been won. But there was more. In overtime, Christian scored the first seven points. “We were going to win that game,” he says. “Whatever it took. I kept thinking, We can’t let them get too far up.” Then the assist to Anikar Chhabra ‘90 under the basket with moments left sealed the game and the tournament victory.
Of course Christian’s drive for success was much bigger than any one highlight-reel moment. “One of the things that stuck with me from that time was, you really have to have a plan, you have to prepare, and you have to put in your mind an expectation that you are going to be successful,” he says. “The difference between being successful and not reaching your goals is slim. At that time, I had goals to play basketball. It wasn’t until my years at St. Stephen’s School that I understood the blueprint for success. That blueprint worked for me in basketball and later in life … I was smart and competitive. When my competitive nature took over in the classroom, like it did on the court, I realized it could be used anywhere. When I graduated from SSS, I was fundamentally sound as a person—I’ve made mistakes since, of course, but I got the fundamentals about how to be a successful person from St. Stephen’s School.”
Christian honed his skills on the football and track teams (long jump and high jump) before devoting himself solely to basketball his senior year. He was an all- conference safety and also played tight end. “I credit football with making me tough,” he says. “You have to get ready to hit or be hit. After a while I took that to heart, and it improved my mental toughness in basketball.” The Win Palmer teams of the late 1980s were full of players who made up for a lack of physical presence with a surplus of grit. Christian remembers, “We would come off the bus, and opposing players would say … ‘Who are these choirboy-looking guys?’ My teammate Troudy (Vaughan ’89) was then going to pick a guy up full court and get lower to the ground and harass him for the next 32 minutes. People had no idea they were about to run into that kind of buzzsaw.”
During these incredible years for the Saints basketball program, USA Today voted the Saints the third best team in Virginia, behind Flint Hill and South Lakes, where future pro Grant Hill was playing. Christian developed a special relationship with Coach Palmer. “With him the big thing is that he was such a great teacher of young men … Whether you are an athlete or just trying to be a good citizen,” he says. “He set a tone and a standard of excellence that everyone was expected to live up to. Everyone wants to be good; not everyone is prepared to be good. For me, I had a lot of natural ability, but I did not understand all the things it would take to be good at that point in my life. Coach P. was really competitive, but it was always about the process; he never talked about winning per se, but he said, ‘If you do the right things, you will be successful.’ Sometimes even if you do the right things at the right time, you will be successful but not necessarily win. It really was all about the team… We got the best results because he pushed us to be together and play for each other and have a high level of trust with our teammates—even when we weren’t the most talented team on the floor.”
One example of Coach Palmer’s understanding as a coach is recalled fondly by Christian: “At the SSS Tournament in 1990, I played the first two games, and we won them, but I felt so much pressure to live up to the previous year that I played like a robot; I wasn’t myself. Before the third game, Coach Palmer came up to me in the layup line. He must have known something about me was off and must have wondered, This is not the kid I have been coaching for three years. He said to me, ‘I don’t care whether we win or we lose, I just want you to have fun. Just play. Just play, and everything will be fine.’ It took a tremendous amount of pressure off me. I treated it like a summer pickup game, and I had a great time. I’ll never forget how he set me right.”
These were indeed some special years for the basketball team and for Christian. “We had a tremendous amount of pride,” he says. “I always thought of my mission as twofold: I am going to play basketball and be as great as I can at that and do my level best to get a great education. When you play a sport and the school is behind it, it is a big deal, and you walk a little taller, and your chest juts out a little more. It was a very special time to walk out on the floor, and we thought each game we are really doing something awesome.”
Christian went on to play basketball at Bucknell University, where he earned First Team All-Patriot League honors in consecutive years and led the men's basketball team in scoring in both 1992-93 and 1993-94. His 20.5 points-per-game average as a senior in 1993-94 is the third-highest single-season mark in program history, and he is one of only seven Bison players ever to score more than 20 points per game over a full season. These marks earned him a place in the Bucknell Athletics Hall of Fame. He played a year professionally in Holland after college.
Today Christian uses some of the same lessons learned on the court in his role as a leadership coach for executives in the government. He speaks of a true mix of the blueprint for success and individual drive to perform: “There is this moment in Pat Riley’s book ‘The Winner Within.’ He had a play that he wanted to run, but he and Magic Johnson were so in tune with one another that Riley never had to call the play. Magic knew exactly what he would have called in that situation. The same thing happened in that Gonzaga game when I passed it to Anikar for the game winner. I knew, we got this. That backscreen play was exactly like that for Coach Palmer and me. I knew exactly how the play was going to happen and what the result would be. The 5 Play. Everything about that game and that moment kind of fit for me. I already got it. ”