Graduating senior and star basketball player Diamon Simpson.Basketball player Diamon Simpson will receive his B.A. in communication at Saint Mary's 146th undergraduate commencement on Saturday, capping his four-year academic and athletic career with a senior year that included records on the court and a leadership role in working with youth, especially in his hometown of Hayward.

Simpson, 21, leaves the College to pursue a professional basketball career with a number of accolades, including being named the West Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year for the second year in a row and being selected for the National Association of Basketball Coaches' Senior All-Star Game in Detroit.

Although most people may recognize Simpson for his basketball accomplishments, the Hayward High graduate also reached out this year to youths in Hayward, where he visited two elementary schools to encourage students to prepare themselves to go to college, reminding them to "work hard in the classroom to have a successful future."

He also met with nearly 1,000 schoolchildren over three Diamon Simpson nights at home basketball games, staying afterward to greet the kids and sign autographs for about 90 minutes.

"Overall, it helped me become a better person," Simpson said this week after finishing his senior thesis and finals. "I never realized how many people knew about Saint Mary's and me. It meant a lot to me and my mom."

Alumnus Chris Major '83, who heads the Hayward Youth Academy, came up with the idea for the Diamon Simpson nights after he attended a 2008 game with Catholic Youth Organization students, who were captivated by the student section making a diamond sign with their fingertips when Simpson shot free throws.

"In the second half, I looked up at the 150 kids we brought from the CYO, and they were doing the same thing the college kids were doing," Major recalled. "I said wow. The youths who were there that day with no background of Saint Mary's or Diamon Simpson had synergized what the college kids were doing. I thought (Simpson) had something special."

Major raised money from the community to buy for 300 tickets for kids at each of the three Simpson nights. The schoolchildren met college representatives and toured the campus before the games.

Simpson visited Bowman and Markham elementary schools in Hayward before the game nights. While the students were excited to meet a role model, Simpson said he also got a lot out of the experience.

"At first I was kind of nervous," he said with a smile. "But my communication skills have gotten stronger. My presentations in class got a lot better."

Major said he watched the 6-foot-8 forward connect immediately with the young students. "He's tall, he's big, he's got a nice smile. He was dunking on the playground. He's a hard-working kid and he talked about his background. The kids followed him around like he was a prophet. They were tugging on his pants, on his shirt."

Among the letters students wrote to Simpson was one who said, "I admire you a lot because I heard that like me, you didn't come from a wealthy family. You give me hope that it doesn't matter how rich and wealthy you are, you can always try to go to college."

Simpson will leave Saint Mary's not just with a diploma, but also with a number of basketball records. He is the College's all-time leader in rebounds (1,130), blocked shots (239), steals (174), free throws made (470), and free throws attempted (777). He played a school record 128 career games, and helped lead Saint Mary's to an 87-41 (.679) during his four years.

Those 87 wins rank as the most wins in school history for a Saint Mary's player; Simpson and fellow graduating basketball player Ian O'Leary now share the record for most wins by a player in school history. Three other basketball players are graduating on Saturday: Carlin Hughes, Lucas Walker and Yusef Smith.

After the baskteball season ended, Simpson played in the Portsmouth Invitation Tournament in April, which provides college seniors with the opportunity to be evaluated by the NBA. Approximately 200 NBA scouts were in attendance.

Simpson has also been working out with some NBA teams and hopes to make it to the pro ranks, saying "I think I'll be good."

Read stories of two other graduating seniors, Whitney Medved and Skylar Covich.

-- Erin Hallissy

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