Leroy Sims

Year of Graduation: 
1997

"I knew I had been given a gift, and I had to take advantage of that gift."

The 2020 NBA season ended with a predictable outcome but in circumstances impossible to imagine on the day it began. LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers won the championship, as many anticipated. That it happened in an empty arena in the shadow of Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom was the surreal part.

Even more unlikely? A man who never scored a point was the MVP.

Not for his game — Dr. Leroy Sims ’97 hasn’t played organized basketball since his days as a Big Red power forward. But his contribution to saving the NBA’s season as the league’s medical director was unquestionably outstanding.

From June to October, Sims and his team constructed a quarantine “bubble” at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex outside Orlando, Florida, that allowed 22 teams to resume play. As the coronavirus raged across the country, Sims and the NBA pulled off a minor miracle: Not a single player, coach or staff member tested positive for COVID-19 after completing quarantine and entering the bubble.
“I am really, really proud of the work we did,” Sims says. “People got tired, but … we stuck to our guns, we were strict. We made the rules, and we didn’t make any exceptions.”

The rules — spelled out in an exhaustive, 113-page document of health and safety protocols — covered every aspect of life in the bubble, from screening (more than 150,000 tests were conducted in all) to on-court behavior (high-fives, fist bumps and hugs were strongly discouraged) to the players’ downtime (no doubles teams in ping-pong; no headsets in the video-game room). The most important rule: No one could enter the bubble without completing a quarantine period. One player who accidently breached the perimeter to pick up a food delivery curbside was forced to quarantine for 10 days.

“There were times when Dr. Sims had to be the bad guy,” Sims says.

It may be one of the few times the affable Sims has played the heavy in a life that began on Chicago’s West Side and took a transformational turn at age 15 when he spent five weeks attending Exeter Summer. That summer was an eye-opening experience for Sims, rich with discoveries of people and cultures beyond those he experienced in Chicago. “I roomed with a [student] from Taiwan, and he was waking up at 2, 3 in the morning,” Sims explains.  His roommate went on to say that he had jet lag, to which Sims responded, “‘What is jet lag, and how do you get rid of it?!’ That was my world view at the time. I’d never even flown on a plane [before flying to Boston for Exeter’s summer program].”

Sims says his discoveries that summer — an instructor introduced him to jazz pioneer John Coltrane and changed his consumption of music thereon — left him feeling vulnerable about all that he didn’t know: “I felt like I wanted something bigger. I wanted something more.”

Up for anything

A year later, he was a first-year upper living in Ewald. Sims inhaled Exeter. “I threw myself in,” he says. Sports, clubs, drama — there was little he wouldn’t try. Aside from being a member of what is now known as the Afro-Latinx Exonian Society, “I was on the Discipline Committee. I was a student listener. I was a proctor. I went to various non-Christian meetings. I was a DJ for WPEA. [At one point] I was the secretary of the Sub-Continent Society” because he had befriended students of Indian and Pakistani descent in Ewald who said, “‘Hey, come out [to one of our meetings].’  And I did.”

“I was so raw with where I was, I was just an open book to new experiences,” he recalls.

He also rose to the challenges the Academy presented. A notion of using spring track as a means to stay in shape for basketball was rewarded with a humbling 400-meter tryout lap that ended with a gassed Sims lying supine at the finish line. Sims says Big Red track and field coach Hillary Coder Hall dared him to measure up to his potential.

“She said, ‘You’re fast, and if you decide to take this sport seriously, you can do very well. But you have to decide if this is something you want to take seriously,’” says Sims, who calls the conversation one of the defining moments of his two years at Exeter. “She was basically telling me, ‘You can’t just do this on talent. There’s a lot of talent around here. You need to show up, be disciplined, and you need to be ready.’ And I took that to heart.”

The faculty recognized Sims’ commitment to his Exeter experience on graduation day, giving him the Warren Burke Shepard ’84 Award, which rewards a student who “tries hardest to realize the Exeter opportunity.”

“I knew I had been given a gift, and I had to take advantage of that gift,” he says.

Stanford, period

As open as Sims was to possibilities at Exeter, his college choice was less negotiable. He had fixated on Stanford University since boyhood when a 1988 issue of U.S. News & World Report ranked the Bay Area institution the best college in America. Photos of Stanford’s campus beguiled a 9-year-old Sims. The California Avenue stop on Chicago’s Green Line “L” near his home and reruns of the Los Angeles-based paramedic drama “Emergency!” were the limits of his Golden State knowledge, but he never wavered from his goal to attend Stanford. He still recalls fishing the acceptance letter out of his student P.O. box in the Academy Center. “By the end of that day, pretty much everyone on campus knew I had gotten into Stanford,” he says with a laugh.

Sims poured himself into Stanford as he had Exeter. He walked on to the Cardinal’s national championship track team (he will forever own the school’s 55-meter dash record, an event no longer contested) and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology. A sour experience with a doctor treating a stress fracture in his foot during his senior track season planted a seed in Sims’ mind that there must be a better way to perform sports medicine, but he was focused on one goal: to become a brain surgeon. He studied neurosurgery at Stanford School of Medicine, received a fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to conduct research in neurosurgery, and was tracking toward his goal when he began a neurosurgery sub-internship back at Stanford.  

“My first day, I got there at 8 a.m. [on Monday] and stayed in the hospital until about 8 p.m. on Tuesday,” he says. “My first week, I [worked] 106 hours in six days.”

In addition to meeting his wife, Dr. Melissa Enriquez Sims, in medical school, Sims also was introduced to a mentor whose simple advice was to make a spreadsheet mapping his professional goals against his personal goals. “Neurosurgery hit all my professional goals and very few of my personal ones,” Sims says. “I need to work toward a more balanced life.”

New direction

The decision pained him — “I had told everyone in my life I was going to be a brain surgeon,” he says — but the seeds that took root years before while he was rehabilitating his foot injury steered him into sports medicine. He did a three-year emergency medicine residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, California, and returned to the Bay Area for a fellowship in primary care sports medicine at Stanford just as Stanford contracted to be the medical provider for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.

That opened new doors for Sims. In addition to eventually becoming the team doctor for the Warriors, he served as a team physician for USA Track & Field and was one of the two team physicians for USA Track & Field during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympic Games. In May 2018, he was hired as a vice president and medical director of events for the NBA. He was promoted to senior vice president of medical affairs in December on the heels of his “bubble” triumph over the virus.

His current challenge may be even more complicated: overseeing health protocols for the new NBA season just underway — this time in 28 cities across the country as the virus spikes.

Sims calls his feeling of accomplishment “multifactorial.” He is proud of the public-health impact his work has made on virus testing, particularly the data produced from asymptomatic populations tested daily, which didn’t exist in the medical literature. And he is personally gratified for how his high-profile role helped him bring attention to a disproportional lack of people of color in the medical field. “We need more Black doctors. We need more brown doctors,” he says. “The bubble gave me the visibility to push that message.”

“Doing something that has an impact on sport, for the greater society and for the community, that’s how I look back on it,” Sims says. “There’s a lot of good that has been done. Completely exhausting, but so worth it.”  

— Patrick Garrity

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.