LSU’s sixth man not forgotten

Published 6:00 pm Wednesday, March 27, 2019

No matter how many wins LSU racks up in this NCAA Tournament, it’s obvious something is missing.

Just look at the bench, especially during the timeouts.

Like, maybe they’re over there dialing up a last-second play to beat Maryland at the buzzer.

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You see interim head coach Tony Benford diagramming the play and something doesn’t look right.

Something’s missing. Somebody’s missing.

And LSU misses him.

In a perfect tournament, yes, suspended head coach Will Wade would be there, too.

But those pesky federal wiretaps, you know, and then Wade didn’t want to discuss any of it with his bosses and the NCAA, so they really had no choice but to suspend him.

No doubt the Tigers would prefer that he be there on the bench. It’s his offense, his team, the team he built (by however means) and brought to the brink of the SEC regular-season championship before involuntarily stepping aside.

But it was kind of his choice.

The real void on this team is another matter.

What the Tigers really miss, what they’re playing this tournament for, what keeps them driving and jump-shooting through all the off-court distractions and tight finishes is the memory of their slain teammate.

This whole tournament is for Wayde Sims, the son of former Tiger and DeRidder native Wayne Sims, who was senselessly shot and killed just before the Tigers were due to start preseason practice in September.

When your best friend isn’t ever, ever coming back, losing a head coach for however long an indefinite suspension is loosely defined seems like a trivial matter.

That’s the way Skylar Mays sees it.

“We could go back to Baton Rouge today and go meet up with coach (Wade),” Mays said after Saturday’s 69-67 nail-biter against Maryland. “But Wayde, we can never physically see him again.”

Wayde, along with teammates Javonte Smart and Emmitt Williams, had gone to a concert at crosstown Southern University, afterwards stopping at a fraternity party just off that campus.

Wayde stayed behind with a friend after Smart and Williams left, and what happened next is still murky.

Apparently a fight broke out. Wayde tried to intervene for a friend and shots were fired.

Just like that a 20-year-old life was snuffed out. An arrest was made the next day and police say suspect Dyteon Simpson has confessed.

But Wayde wasn’t coming back.

Mays was Wayde’s longtime best friend — years before they were teammates at University High in Baton Rouge and at LSU. On the toe of his sneakers — the ones he was wearing when he hit the clutch 3-pointer that set the wheels in motion for the buzzer heroics that beat Maryland — he has scribbled in ink: “9/29/18” and “44.” It’s the date of Wayde’s untimely death and his jersey number.

“We were kind of like yin and yang,” said Mays, the Tigers’ pre-med major and SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year. “I’m more of a calm, even-keeled guy and he was so animated, kept everybody laughing. Jut a genuine person everybody gravitated to.”

Wayde might have had a wisecrack or two when they were drawing up that winning play Saturday in Jacksonville.

And when, lacking that, other players told some nervous coaches, “Hey, we got this,” maybe they knew something.

“Wayde’s with us,” Mays said without getting maudlin about it. “I feel like he helped Tremont (Waters) make that shot ­— even though he usually makes them anyway, I think Wayde had something to do with that.”

He’s certainly not forgotten.

Mays also has a wristband with “Forever 44” on it, although one of those silly NCAA rules precludes him from wearing it in games.

But the Tigers wear his number “44” stitched on their jerseys. In the center of the official team picture, Wayde’s jersey is draped over an empty chair. His locker in the Tigers’ dressing room hasn’t been touched since the last time Wayde used it.

When the Tigers cut down the nets in the Maravich Assembly Center after clinching the SEC regular-season title, parents Wayne and Fay were invited down to climb the ladder and snip off a strand for themselves.

Friday night in Washington, D.C., where LSU plays in the Sweet 16 against Michigan State, whenever the Tigers hit or pass 44 points, they will acknowledge it to each other, however subtly, as they have all season.

“I think about him every day,” Mays said. “His spirit, just the person he was, that’s what made him so special. Forget the basketball side of things, he made everybody feel like they were special.”

And maybe these Tigers are special with what they’re doing.

Mays said he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the Tigers have played an inordinate numbers of close games — and are 13-5 in those decided by six or fewer points.

Something strange was going on when LSU rallied from 14 points down with 2:10 to play to beat Missouri.

But Mays is also a realist.

“These other teams don’t care what’s going on with us,” he said. “They just want to beat us.”

Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at shobbs@americanpress.comLSU’s Skylar Mays pays tribute to his former teammate. Wayde Sims was killed in September before the basketball season started