Remembering Bobby Phills

Published: January 12, 2009

Bobby PhillsThree banners hang side-by-side from the rafters in New Orleans Arena. The left-most banner features the number 7, retired in honor of “Pistol” Pete Maravich back in 2002 when the Hornets played their first game in New Orleans. The middle banner, unveiled almost eight months ago before Game 1 against the Mavericks, commemorates the Hornets winning the Southwest Division last season.

The third and right-most banner is the oldest. It was raised to the rafters of the Charlotte Coliseum on February 9, 2000, and the Hornets packed it up and brought it with them to the Crescent City two years later. It features the number 13, retired in honor of the late Bobby Phills.

Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Phills would star as a ballplayer at Southern University, but was only a second-round draft pick in 1991 and got cut without ever playing a game for the Bucks. The 6-5 two-guard then went the CBA route and did well enough to earn interest from the Cavaliers. He steadily worked his way into the rotation in Cleveland, and by the 1993-94 season he was a regular starter. Two years later he was well-known as a defensive stopper — Micheal Jordan once listed Phills as one of the five best defensive players he ever faced — while averaging 14.6ppg and shooting 44.1% from deep.

The Hornets came knocking in the ’97 offseason and showed their faith in the free agent Phills by signing him to a seven-year, $33 million deal. He became a fixture starting alongside David Wesley in the Charlotte backcourt. His peak in teal came in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, when he averaged 14.3 points, 4 boards and 3.5 assists. Early the following season, Phills approached Hornets head coach Paul Silas and suggested that he shift to a reserve role, a move which would allow both Anthony Mason and Derrick Coleman to start. Silas initially declined the offer, then reconsidered when the Hornets began the season 5-4. Phills would thrive as a sixth man, anchoring the second unit and helping develop young players such as the rookie Baron Davis.

Bobby Phills' retired jerseyAnd then, on January 12th, 2000, Bobby Phills left the Hornets’ morning shootaround with David Wesley, both players driving Porsches. A few miles down the road, Phills lost control of his vehicle and crossed into oncoming traffic. The result was a three-car collision, and Phills was pronounced dead at the scene. I thought about this, that if there was an accident we must contact an accident lawyer.  A police report said that Phills and Wesley were driving “erratic, reckless, careless, in a neglii thought about thisgent or aggressive manner,” and they were “involved in a speed competition.” Wesley later was convicted of reckless driving after being cleared of a racing charge. Phills left behind his brother, parents, wife and two young kids.

The death of Bobby Phills affected me greatly. Back in 2000 I was 17 years old, living in Ireland and obsessing about the Hornets on this new thing called the internet. I could never watch the team play, but I used to pore over every box score, read every news report, watch and rewatch every grainy video clip. Phills was one of my favorite players. I remember him hitting game-winning jumpers for the Hornets, locking down opposing superstars on D and never offering a hint of ego.

I found out about his death online the morning of the 13th, and I went to school numb that day. I was so down you would have thought I’d just lost a grandparent or a close friend. I didn’t quite realize how emotionally invested I was in the team and the players until one of them was taken away. I would spend the next few weeks reading up on the aftermath, learning about the family and friends left behind, not being all that concerned with wins and losses anymore. Bobby Phills is helped up by David WesleyThough Phills was a real solid NBA player, it was obvious from my reading that the guy would be remembered most not as a baller, but as one of those genuinely good people in the world; someone who went out of his way to give back to the community and help the less fortunate.

This past weekend I was able to track down and speak with a good friend and former teammate of Phills’ named Jeff Brown. They met on a recruiting trip to Southern in 1987 and ended up rooming together for two years. Though Brown’s playing days ended after college, he remained a close friend to Bobby, even serving as best man at his wedding. Jeff was able to confirm all the heroic stories I’d heard about Phills by recounting a few of his own. He spoke of a 20-something-year-old regular joe in Cleveland who suffered serious chemical burns in a work accident. Bobby heard about the man’s misfortune through a friend and made contact with him, offering friendship and support through the ordeal. As Jeff tells it, “Bobby took him under his wing, really mentored the guy and showed a lot of compassion to help him get through a very tough time.”

“Bobby was a person that always wanted to give back,” continued Jeff. “That was a strong part of his character. He had so much love for his neighbor and mankind, and always tried to give back to a community that had given so much to him. He believed very strongly in academics and athletics.”

The Bobby Phills Educational Awareness Foundation

Which brings me to the Foundation Phills set up in 1996. The goal was (and still is) to help children and young adults by promoting education and developing social skills through athletics. To find out more about it all, I contacted Bobby’s father, Bobby R. Phills, who has been running the Foundation for the past nine years in remembrance of his son. I was saddened to hear from Mr. Phills that raising funds for the Foundation has become increasingly difficult, to the point where they actually spent more money than they took in last year, and were considering the cancellation of their annual golf and youth bowling tournaments held in Baton Rouge each July. It seems the trouble is getting sponsors to fund the cost of these events, especially with the economy what it is today. (Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Hornets have never been a sponsor of the Foundation’s events, despite repeated requests from Mr. Phills.)

Thankfully, Mr. Phills has resolved to proceed with the golfing and bowling activities this year, and I’m hoping we here at Hornets247 can help drum up support. To that end, you’ll find links to the registration forms for each event at the bottom of this post, as well as a sponsor/donor form for the golf tournament. If you’re a fan of Bobby Phills, the Hornets, Louisiana, or good causes, hopefully you can contribute in some way.

Some quotes about Bobby, most from around the time of his death:

Joe Tait, Cleveland Cavaliers broadcaster
“If one asks me to describe the NBA player who epitomizes all that you wished what NBA players would be, it’s Bobby Phills. I don’t know one negative thing about him. He was the consummate straight arrow. Every NBA player should be like Bobby Phills.”

Mark Bartelstein, Phills’ agent
Bobby Phills vs. Michael Jordan“He was just an articulate man who understood how fortunate he was to have professional basketball as his vocation. He never, never took that for granted… To me, (his death is) just devastating. I’m just devastated. The guy was not just my client, he was my friend. We spoke just last night, which makes this an even harder day. To think these two kids will grow up without a father is what I keep thinking about. That’s the really terrible, awful thing about this. The world lost a great father and person today. It’s a just a tremendous loss. A tremendous loss.”

Chuck Wiley, former Carolina Panther
“Everybody knew who Bobby Phills was. [Wiley attended the same small high school (Southern Lab) as Phills in Baton Rouge, La., and grew up idolizing him.] I was in seventh grade when Bobby was a senior. I used to go watch him play … I mean, the guy was my hero. He’s really the type of guy that you want to pattern your life around. He did a lot of charity work, he was a great student and he never got a big head. He would always treat people with respect.”

Wayne Embry, former Cleveland Cavaliers president
“Bobby Phills was all that you would want in a human being… He had extreme high character. A family man. I can’t tell you what he meant to the Cavs. If there’s a person you would want to your children to be, a role model, it’s Bobby Phills. This is a sad day.”

The father and son of Bobby Phills at his jersey retirement ceremonyBen Jobe, former head coach at Southern University
“He was such a special person, I worked hard to try to steer him away from the NBA. Having coached there, I felt he didn’t belong there. … He could have been one of the foremost black leaders in the country. He had the brain power [Phills graduated from both high school and college with above a 3.0 GPA], he had the great family background. He had everything. For years, I tried to get him to go on to med school like he talked about when he was a kid.”

Joe Menzer, Winston-Salem Journal
“You can be in this business a long, long time and not meet someone as classy as that guy.”

Paul Silas, former Hornets head coach, after Phills returned from an injury in 1999
“Bobby has been unbelievable. We didn’t know how much we missed him. He’s the heart and soul of the team right now. Whatever we need — a big rebound, a big score — he’s getting it done for us.”

Silas in December 1999
George Shinn congratulates Bobby Phills on winning the NBA's Central Division Sportsmanship Award in 1998“I can’t say enough about Bobby. Him sitting on the bench and accepting it as he did showed me he’s everything you want in a player. He’s been the best leader you could ever want for a young group like we’ve got.”

Frank Garcia, former Carolina Panther
“I didn’t know Bobby as well as I should. But the time I did know him, he showed he had the biggest heart in the world. I just keep remembering back to that one day and recall the total concern he had for a total stranger. [In April ’99, Phills helped save a motorcyclist from his blazing vehicle following an accident.] That tells you what kind of person he was.”

Flip Saunders, then the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves
“It’s really a tragedy, and from the team’s standpoint, there’s two people in Sidney (Lowe) and Terrell (Brandon) that were extremely close to him. He’s a self-made guy. And as a father, he’s someone you’d want your kids to be like — very responsible, unbelievably hard working. He cares about people.”

Chris Childs, former New York Knick
“It’s just a sad day, sad to see (that happen to) someone who gave so much to the game and also was just a respectable person, a family person. He just had a little girl. I met his wife, his children. It’s tough.”

Phills was always active in the communityRandy Wittman, former head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers
“Forget about Bobby the basketball player. Think about Bobby and the person he was. I think everybody ever associated with him considered him a friend. He would have done anything for you. Those are the things he should be remembered for. Say a prayer for his wife and two small children and hope the healing process takes place. It’s a very difficult situation when a young man like that’s life is taken away so short.”

Clay Moser, former assistant coach of the CBA’s Sioux Falls Skyforce
“I feel like I’ve lost a friend and I feel like the world has lost a great human being because he was much more than a basketball player. He was a very in-depth person and just a treasure to be around.”

Forms for the Foundation events:

Many thanks to everyone who helped me put this post together, especially Bobby R. Phills, Jeff Brown, Dariusz Ejkiewicz and Victoria (sorry, but I never caught your last name).

UPDATE (4/16/2009): A Phills tribute video on YouTube:

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