Simpson’s only brush with ‘The Great One’

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by Ashley Dalsing, Special to The Simpsonian

Born in Ontario and nephew to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, hockey was in Dillon’s Gretzky’s DNA.

With the family name in hockey, many believed Gretzky would make a future career of it.

“When I was really young, I was always intrigued by the sport of hockey just because of my family and the success they had with the sport,” Gretzky said. “I knew when I was younger that was exactly what I wanted to do, but that eventually changed.”

When Gretzky was young, his parents split, and his mom eventually remarried, which relocated him and his sister to Grinnell.

Even though he was no longer living in Canada, hockey was still an option.

“There was no pressure with the Gretzky name or to play hockey for that matter. My parents were always supportive of whatever sport I chose to play and didn’t control what sports they wanted me to participate in,” Gretzky said.

With the family moved to Grinnell, Gretzky was involved in just about every sport, including football, basketball, golf, baseball, soccer and roller hockey.

He took the road less traveled by the Gretzky side and fell in love with basketball.

His love of the game stemmed from idolizing a fellow Canadian and former NBA player, Steve Nash. Gretzky was intrigued by how Nash made the game look so easy and how successful he was for being 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighing under 180 pounds, similar to his stature.

From there, Gretzky’s basketball career took off.

He became a standout player for Grinnell High School and the well-known travel AAU team, All Iowa Attack.

“I first saw Dillon play his junior year in Ankeny at an AAU tournament,” assistant men’s basketball coach Brandon Stromer said. “Dillon caught my eye because he was a versatile guard. He was a top recruit, and I believed he could help us early in his career.”

Gretzky chose Simpson because he wanted to continue playing basketball and enjoyed the players on the team and the campus.

Hoping to pursue a double major in management and marketing with a concentration in finance and insurance and a minor in economics, Simpson was everything he was looking for.

“I know that academically, Simpson was a great choice for my college degree,” Gretzky said. “Coach Brandon Stromer also recruited me while I was in high school, and he did a great job of showing me all of the great aspects of Simpson as a student-athlete.”

Despite the team’s performance year to year, Gretzky always put on a show for the crowd and made sure to leave all of his effort on the floor.

“Dillon has been a phenomenal leader for us during his career here at Simpson College,” Stromer said. “Having to endure tough times his first few years, he kept his toughness and helped us turn around the program this year.”

His first year he earned a starting spot later in the season, which helped spark a standout sophomore season, having played record-high minutes in the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and double-figure point production.

His junior and senior seasons were two of his best. He perfected his game to a point where he was unstoppable. Nobody could guard his speed, as well as his stellar inside-out game.

Gretzky’s senior year, he averaged 30 minutes per game and the second-highest point production per game on the team with 14 and 5 rebounds per game.

Gretzky didn’t just become this player overnight. It took a lot of time, effort and dedication.

This past summer, Gretzky held an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. internship in Bismarck, North Dakota, working with a broker-dealer, which helped handle client finances.

Even with his internship and being away from home, Gretzky purchased a membership at the Indianola YMCA so he could start basketball workouts.

After finishing a long workday, he would spend an additional three to five hours perfecting his game by taking himself through drills and by joining in on pickup games.

When Gretzky’s senior year started, he would stay after preseason workouts at 6 a.m. and shoot for an hour before his classes began.

“Dillon is one of the first ones in the gym each day, and he leads by example,” Stromer said. “He also worked his tail off during his summer financial internships while still finding time to work out and improve his game. That work ethic will take him places in life. I have no doubt.”

Even throughout his senior season, Gretzky would be in the gym before or after games doing whatever it took to be the best player he could be.

“Before every game I would try and get a few shots up during the day just so I have the comfortable feeling that I want with my shooting,” Gretzky said. “Before home games, I will make 15 free throws in a row so I can get a good rhythm going into the game.”

This past season, Gretzky was going into his final year with a coaching change. The fresh tactics of head coach Brad Bjorkgren, who led the men’s team to 15-11 in his first year, proved the men’s basketball team was capable of having a winning record.

“I loved all the new coaches, and I am glad that Coach Stromer was able to stay on as our assistant coach as well,” Gretzky said. “It was a great year and basketball was fun again, just like when I was a kid. I am very thankful to have ended my career at Simpson on a high note.”

The opening round for the men’s basketball IIAC tournament began Feb. 23. Playing Buena Vista first round, the home court advantage didn’t hold strong enough. The Storm fell to the Beavers 87-58 after previously beating them Feb. 17 at home 74-57.

“It was hard losing our last game the way we did because all I could think about was that we didn’t get it done for Dillon,” teammate Austin Turner said. “I almost lost it coming in the locker room after the game because you wanted to do whatever you could to win for Dillon, and that goes for every game I’ve played with him.”

Although Gretzky never made a name for himself in hockey, he left a legacy in the eyes of his coaching staff, friends and teammates as well as fellow students at Simpson as a student-athlete.