The boy needed a nudge from his mother. “Tell everybody where Daddy is,” Kendall Phills instructed her 3-year-old son.
“Daddy is in heaven with the angels,” Bobby Phills III told several hundred mourners at Charlotte’s Central Church of God before returning to the crowd and embracing his year-old sister, Kerstie.
There were few dry eyes in the church. Soon, David Jovanovic, the Charlotte Hornets’ equipment manager, placed Bobby Phills’s jersey in the bronze casket. “He was going to play ball again,” Jovanovic said recently. “It wasn’t going to be here. I wanted him to be there representing us. He was our guy, and he was going to a better place.”
On that day more than 15 years ago, the NBA grieved over the death of Bobby Phills, who began his career on a 10-day contract and rose so high that Michael Jordan once named him among the best defenders he’d ever faced. Those close to Phills never seem to run out of stories about his selflessness. There was the time he jumped out of his car at an intersection to help a motorcyclist who was engulfed in flames after crashing into a nearby truck. Phills would sign autographs until his hand hurt. He ran basketball clinics and contributed to Charlotte-area charities. If you had five minutes to spare for Phills, he had 10 minutes for you.
“Bobby Phills was everybody’s son,” Ben Jobe, Phills’s coach at Southern University and A&M College, said recently. “He was everybody’s brother. He was every girl’s husband, every child’s father. He had it all.” The Phills who remains in the memories of his friends and family can sometimes sound more like a myth than a man. “It always seems like something happens to those types of guys,” said Chucky Brown, who had played with Phills on the Hornets. “Sometimes people don’t believe that type of person exists. ‘Oh, he was such an angel, blah, blah, blah.’ It’s hard to believe. But the dude did the right things.”
On the morning of January 12, 2000, the Hornets had just finished a morning shootaround. Phills spoke with his coach, Paul Silas, before sliding behind the wheel of his 1997 Porsche 993 Cabriolet. The black car carried a vanity plate that read “SLAM’N.” “That was his dream car,” recalled Phills’s younger brother Dwayne. “That was the one car he had always wanted.” Phills encountered teammate David Wesley, also driving a Porsche, less than a mile from the Charlotte Coliseum. The two hit speeds that authorities later estimated topped 100 mph, traveling east on West Tyvola Road. Phills lost control of his car on a hilly bend. The vehicle skidded several hundred feet and into oncoming traffic, where it collided head-on with another car. Phills died instantly.
“I often talk about how smart Bobby was,” said his father, Bobby Phills Sr. “He was gifted academically and athletically. But with all the things he had going for him, he made one stupid mistake and it cost him his life.”
That moment — that mistake — ended Phills’s life at 30 years old. It also altered the lives of many others still affected by the tragedy years later.
Chuck Burton/AP Photo
Ben Jobe remembered Bobby Phills as everything the coach had once hoped to be, but when Phills first joined the men’s varsity at Southern, Jobe accepted him only after losing out on one of Phills’s high school teammates. Jobe viewed Phills as a bench player, someone with high grades who could raise the team’s collective grade point average. “I would give scholarships to kids sometimes and I knew they weren’t going to play,” Jobe, now 82, explained. “But I needed them because of their academic abilities, so when the dean asks about the academic average of the team, I’m going to be way up there.” Phills surprised Jobe by approaching the coach after his freshman season in 1987-88 and declaring that he wanted to earn a spot in the rotation. Jobe reminded Phills that Phills had said he wanted to be a doctor, not a basketball player. “Any kid that tells me he wants to be a doctor now, I’ll give him a scholarship and just let him practice,” Jobe said. “He don’t have to play.”
But Phills insisted. The pair rebuilt Phills’s shot, with Jobe urging Phills to keep the elbow of his shooting hand under the ball. “Now go shoot a thousand shots a day,” Jobe said. “Develop a romance with the ball. Shooting is the easiest of the skills. I know people don’t think it, but it’s easy because it’s just you and the basket.” Jobe sat Phills down. Before sending Phills to the gym, he had one more lesson for his player. He reached for a towel and used it to blindfold Phills. “Now take your shoes and socks off,” Jobe said, “[and then] put them back on just the way you took them off.” Phills did just that. “Do you know why you were able to do that without even seeing your feet and shoes?” Jobe asked. “Because you’ve been putting on your socks and shoes since you were 6 or 7 years old. That’s what shooting is all about.”
Jobe told Phills he wouldn’t check to make sure Phills took his daily shots, but the coach would be able to tell if Phills put in the work by the time practice resumed in the fall. Before long, Jobe noticed slips of paper arriving under his office door — Phills had begun charting his daily makes and misses. Once, Jobe walked into the gym to find Phills’s younger brother rebounding for him. Jobe told Phills to shoot alone. Phills agreed, and a couple weeks later, he approached the coach.
“I know why you wanted me to do this by myself and you didn’t want anyone throwing the ball back to me,” Phills said.
“You figured it out?” Jobe asked.
“Yeah, I concentrate better,” Phills said, “because I don’t want to chase a rebound up in the bleachers.”
Phills became a rotation player, and as a senior he led the country with an average of 4.4 made 3-pointers per game. That season, he scored 52 points against Alcorn State, hitting 10 3s in a game attended by several NBA scouts.
“Now here comes the agents, and they were pushing him and pushing him,” Jobe recalled. “I’m trying to keep the flesh lovers away from him. ‘Don’t bother this boy. He’s got a life plan. Leave him alone.’” Phills graduated with a 3.2 GPA and a degree in animal science. “He had already been admitted to the veterinarian school, but someone convinced him he could make money [in basketball],” Jobe said. “It was capitalism that hooked him. I wanted him to be as idealistic as I thought I was.”
Jobe had little doubt that once Phills earned an opportunity in the NBA, he would thrive. The Milwaukee Bucks drafted Phills in the second round of the 1991 draft, but they cut him before the season. Phills played in the Continental Basketball Association before joining the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1992.
When Phills built a reputation as one of the league’s best defenders, Jobe was surprised. At Southern, the coach had prioritized scoring above all else. “We believed in offense first, defense second,” he said. “Or keep them on the same level.” In 1995, Phills called Jobe after matching up with Michael Jordan, excited that he was able to hold the NBA’s greatest scorer below his average. In one game, Phills hounded Jordan into 9-for-27 shooting. Two days later, Jordan went 9-for-26 against Phills. Jobe asked how many points Phills had scored. Phills said he had about six. “That didn’t impress me at all,” Jobe recalled. “Heck, I got angry. I said, ‘Bobby, I don’t understand this.’ But he was proud.”
Jobe lost his love for coaching after Phills died. “Things changed,” Jobe said. “Young people changed. Kids started acting different.” He is a longtime friend of Indiana Pacers consultant and former New York Knicks general manager Donnie Walsh. When the Knicks hired Walsh in 2008, Jobe came aboard as a scout, and he remains part of the Knicks organization. “If it hadn’t been for Donnie, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now,” Jobe said. “It helped to relieve my depression. That thing with Bobby Phills, I’m telling you, it almost made me lose my faith. He’s the last person something like that should happen to. That boy he was speeding with, I don’t know what I would have done if I would have seen him. I don’t even know his name. I don’t know his face. I don’t know anything about him. I blamed him. When something like that happens, you blame everybody. I blamed his parents. I blamed the Charlotte Hornets. I blamed everybody. It got so bad, I blamed God. It just don’t make no sense.
“My god, he had the whole package,” Jobe said of Phills. “Athleticism. Intelligence. What else do you need? He had everything. Anyone would want a kid like that on their team. He was perfect. I used to feel so bad about [Phills’s death], I used to wonder why couldn’t it have been some of the other guys I had. I had some real jocks — they weren’t interested in anything but playing ball. In many cases, that’s all they had the intellect to do. Yeah, Bobby was perfect. He had all the things that you want in a human being. He had it all.”
Steve Schaefer/AFP/Getty Images
Paul Silas had nearly given up the dream of securing another NBA head coaching gig. More than 15 years had passed since his last go-round as head coach, with the dysfunctional San Diego Clippers in 1983. Silas joined Charlotte in 1997 as an assistant under Dave Cowens. When a salary dispute led to Cowens’s sudden resignation in 1999, Silas inherited the top job. The Hornets were 15 games into the lockout-shortened 1999 season, with a 4-11 record, when Silas took over. The new coach was close with Phills, whom Charlotte had signed to a seven-year, $33 million contract in 1997. As an assistant, Silas had often run Phills through drills during training sessions. The two lived close to one another, and after games, Phills’s wife, Kendall, often drove Silas’s wife, Carolyn, home from the Charlotte Coliseum.
After Silas was named interim coach, Phills asked him, “Coach, you want to keep this job?” Silas answered yes, and Phills told him, “OK, you’re going to have it.” Phills encouraged his teammates to dig in and finish the 50-game season strong, and Charlotte went 22-13 under Silas that year, good enough for the Hornets to name him the full-time head coach.
The following season, on the morning of Phills’s death, Silas fumed at his team. The Milwaukee Bucks had pummeled Charlotte by 50 points two days earlier. That night, Charlotte was scheduled to host the Chicago Bulls. Silas spent the morning shootaround showing his team film of the Bucks blowout. Phills approached him after the session. “Coach, we just can’t deal with that,” he said. Obsessing over everything that went wrong against Milwaukee wasn’t good for the team’s psyche. “You can’t let us look at the tape for that long,” Phills said. “It’s not good.” Silas thought it over: “You know what, Bobby? You’re right. It will not happen again.”
Phills left Silas’s office. A few minutes later, according to Silas, the coach received a call from David Wesley. “Coach,” Wesley said. “Bobby Phills — we got in an accident.” Silas wasn’t alarmed at first. He got into a car with the Hornets coaching staff and made the short drive to Tyvola. Silas looked at the wreck and into Phills’s car. It didn’t look like Phills was alive. Silas, known as one of the greatest enforcers and all-around tough guys in NBA history, broke down in tears. Someone reminded him they still weren’t certain that Phills hadn’t survived; he could just be unconscious. This gave Silas some hope, and he approached the car. He saw Phills’s mouth hanging open, and eyes closed. Eventually, a police officer covered Phills’s face.
“I knew that he had passed away,” Silas said. “It was one of the worst things that I had ever been through in my life.” Shortly after the accident, the Hornets met at the facility. “I just remember guys crying,” said Stephen Silas, who worked as a scout on his father’s staff. “Anthony Mason was just like, ‘Man, why’d it have to be him?’”
“Bobby, he was a fast driver,” Paul Silas recalled. “One time after a game, we were driving home. I had gone out before him, and he was passing me, and he was going close to 100 miles an hour.” Silas approached Phills at practice the next day. “Bobby, you can’t do that,” he told him. “You’ve got two beautiful kids. You’ve got a great wife. You can’t drive that fast.” Phills, Silas said, told him it was not a big deal.
“But him and David Wesley, they were driving at each other, just zooming,” Silas said. “And that’s what happened. It just wasn’t right … Even [now], when I drive down the way that Bobby passed away, it just stays with me. It was so terrible, and it’s something I’ll never, ever forget.”
T he day is going pretty decently, Robert Woolard Jr. thought. Woolard, an insurance adjuster and appraiser and native North Carolinian, had just finished inspecting one vehicle and was headed uptown to check out another. He had only recently purchased the Oldsmobile Cutlass he was driving when he turned onto Tyvola. After learning that his wife was pregnant, he’d bought the new car in preparation for the arrival of their child.
Woolard loved cars — all types — and he noticed a black Porsche on Tyvola. It took a split second for him to realize that its tires were squealing and smoking as it spun out of control and headed toward him. There was no time to react before his Cutlass and the Porsche collided. A taxi minivan then rear-ended Woolard’s Oldsmobile. “There was nothing I could do to even try to get out of the way,” Woolard recalled. “It was real quick.”
Everything hurt. Dazed, Woolard gazed into the Porsche. The other driver was slumped, unmoving, blood trickling from his nose. Woolard was in too much pain to move. A minute passed. Then a few more. Woolard laid his head down before hearing a voice.
“Yes,” Woolard answered.
“OK, you’re alive. Are you hurt? Has the other guy moved?”
“No,” Woolard said. “From what I can see, he hasn’t moved or done anything.”
At one point, Woolard looked out his window and noticed only long legs. These must be some tall guys, he thought. He heard the name “Phills.” A jolt of recognition hit Woolard: Oh my gosh. He’s a Hornets player. Medical personnel removed Woolard from the car and sent him to Presbyterian Hospital. He nearly died from a flattened aorta suffered during the crash, and endured other injuries like a broken hand, a torn knee ligament, and numerous cuts and bruises. He was lucky to have survived.
“Of course, when I found out who it was, I started doubting myself,” Woolard said. “What did I do wrong? And I didn’t [do anything wrong]. It was a chaotic few weeks. A lot of reporters. Some were nice and tactful. Some were pushy, and I didn’t talk with them. But you just deal with it and you move on. I can’t reverse it, and I hate that he lost his life like that.”
Chuck Burton/AP Photo
The day of the accident, George Shinn, then the owner of the Hornets, was preparing to leave a meeting when he received a phone call from Paul Silas. “Bobby is gone,” Silas said. Maybe he didn’t say that, Shinn thought, trying to rationalize what he’d heard. Even as he made the short trek to the scene, Shinn kept thinking, Maybe I heard him wrong.
Shinn found his worst fears confirmed. When the Hornets returned to playing, Shinn visited the locker room before a game shortly after the accident. There was none of the normal jabbering among players. Just silence. “Like a funeral,” Shinn said. He recalled only two players who had never turned down requests to appear at charitable events. “Those guys were Bobby Phills and Muggsy Bogues,” he said. “I was always told: Don’t fall in love with the horses — talking about the players. But those were two guys I fell in love with.”
Hugh Wallace considered Phills’s competitiveness one of the player’s greatest strengths. Phills had arrived at Southern’s laboratory high school after his father became dean of the university’s school of agriculture and consumer sciences. Wallace taught and coached basketball at the high school, and Kendall had also been one of his students. “She had this fantastic crush on Bobby,” Wallace recalled.
Wallace mandated that all of his players learn to play in the post. Phills spent the bulk of his high school career in the paint, where he was often outsized but seldom outmuscled.
He averaged 26 points and 13 rebounds his senior year and helped the team to a state championship. Wallace believed Phills had the talent to play in the NBA, but only if his career broke the right way. He advised Phills to pursue professional basketball for a couple of years, and if it didn’t work out, to return to school.
When Wallace learned of Phills’s death, he thought back on their good times together. Like when Phills and his high school teammates had lifted and moved Wallace’s car after a game — Wallace suspected a rival team had stolen the vehicle, before realizing his players had pranked him. Or the times Phills had called him — a high school coach — for advice on how to guard Michael Jordan. “If you had a son,” Wallace said, “you would want him to grow up to be like Bobby Phills.”
Wallace decided to stop coaching not long after Phills’s death. “I went through the motions for the next couple years, but eventually, I got out,” he said. “I was devastated.”
No matter who you were on the team or within the organization, Bobby Phills looked out for you. When he died, Brad Miller and Baron Davis were both beginning their NBA careers, but in opposite ways. Miller went undrafted out of Purdue and played briefly in Italy before latching on with Charlotte. The Hornets selected Davis with the third pick in the 1999 draft. He was the franchise’s future — a brash, bowling-ball point guard who expected immediate NBA stardom. “Basically, as soon as I got [to summer league], [Phills] threw me his practice stuff,” Davis recalled. “He was like, ‘All right, start carrying. Start working.’” Phills made the rookies pay their dues, but along with tough love he dispersed nuggets of wisdom that would help them blossom into NBA starters. The advice meant a lot to Miller, who looked up to Phills and Wesley, players who hadn’t been first-round darlings but who had managed to thrive in the league. “[They discussed a] lot of little things that when you’re a youngster coming into the league, you don’t think about,” Miller said. Miller, who often joined Phills and Wesley for pregame pancake meals, maintained the flapjack routine throughout the rest of his 14-year career.
Davis also incorporated lessons from Phills over his 13 seasons in the NBA. “He was a loving father and husband,” Davis said of Phills. “He meant a lot to the community. For a rookie like myself, he was the veteran guy that you patterned yourself after. The older you get, the more you appreciate people like him. I do — for having met someone like him so early in my career.”
The day of the accident, Miller had returned to the Hornets practice facility after shootaround to lift weights. He heard the news about 10 minutes into his workout. Miller was unsure what to do. He had never experienced the death of someone close to him, someone who was young and vibrant and seemed destined for a long, happy life. “You hope no one would ever have to feel that,” Miller said. Davis was in his own car when the crash occurred. He trailed Phills and Wesley on Tyvola by less than a minute. He had stopped at a red light, turned left, and then approached the scene. He surveyed the wreckage, concluced that Phills had not survived, and walked over to Wesley, who was standing, speechless, with his hands on his head.
“That memory always is there with me,” Davis said.
Kendall Phills went running with a friend the morning Bobby died. After the dawn jog, she came home and took their son to school, where she remained for an hour or so, chatting with other parents. By the time she returned home, Bobby had left for shootaround. She called him a short time later, wondering if she should make pancakes at home or if she should meet him out. Bobby did not answer, which was strange for him. Then David Wesley’s fiancée, Shannon, called. There had been an accident. Kendall needed to get to Tyvola.
She got in her car. From nowhere, a voice popped into her head: Bobby is dead. She talked back to the voice. “No, that can’t be true.” She called Wesley. He answered, crying. She drove closer and saw the police and emergency personnel. She pulled in behind George Shinn’s car. The owner is out here, she said to herself. This must be bad. She exited her car to see Bobby’s teammates Elden Campbell and Anthony Mason, both in tears. She saw paramedics on the scene and feared the worst as she turned to look at her husband’s Porsche. A body covered by a white sheet rested inside. Some of the coaches tried to restrain her. She broke free. “Took the sheet off his body,” Kendall said. “He was in his car, lifeless.” She prayed for him, told him that she loved him, and promised to take care of their children.
Kendall called Dwayne Phills, who was with his mother, Mary, in Baton Rouge. The family referred to Bobby Phills as Rob. “Rob was in an accident,” she said. “I’m on my way there now, and it’s really bad.” Dwayne decided not to say anything to his mother until he knew more. The finality of it didn’t cross his mind until Kendall called again and he heard the words, “He’s dead.”
“That moment just sat in my mind,” Dwayne said. “Honestly, I don’t know what happened after that. That’s all I can remember: ‘He’s dead.’ That’s about it.”
Bobby Phills Sr. recalled receiving a call from Dwayne. “What you doing?” Dwayne asked. “You sitting down?” Phills Sr. knew something had to be wrong. “I’ve got some bad news,” Dwayne told his father. “Bobby was in an accident, and he didn’t make it.” Phills Sr. doesn’t remember yelling, but people later said they’d heard him scream from his office.
Phills Sr. had visited Bobby in Charlotte that Christmas, just a couple of weeks before the accident. While there, Phills Sr. had slipped off a deck and fallen into a lake near Bobby’s home. Phills Sr. believes he could have easily hit his head on the deck. “I often ask myself,” Phills Sr. said, “or ask God: Why did he spare me and three weeks later take my son’s life?”
“I probably cried every day for the next two years,” Dwayne Phills said. “I’d be driving down the road and just shed a tear, just having memories. … You even have thoughts — here he was with a family and everything. He’s doing positive things in the community, for the league, [for his] family, everything. You say, ‘Why wasn’t it me instead of him?’ One mistake, one accident. Who knows what happened? I don’t know who was at fault. That’s Rob, David, and God as far as the exact events that happened.”
Chuck Burton/AP Photo
“Every morning, we went to breakfast,” David Wesley said. “Every game day, whether on the road or at home — at home, it’s always Original Pancake House. We come out of the building and that’s where we were going.”
That’s the routine they were following the morning of the accident. “He’s in his Porsche, I’m in my Porsche,” Wesley said. “We come down to the front of the arena, out to the light, and I’m calling my wife to meet at the Pancake House. He’s calling his wife to meet us. I go through the light. I think it changes as I’m coming up to it. He was far enough back to where I wasn’t even sure he was going to make the light, but he made the light.” Wesley said they both accelerated: “It couldn’t have been a mile, and that was kind of it. We never talked about it. We never got beside each other and was like, ‘OK, vroom, vroom.’ It was just a road that was fairly straight, and you wouldn’t go through that whole street at that speed, but you might kind of gun it, see what it’s like.”
Wesley maneuvered around a bend in the road and looked in his rearview mirror. “I had no idea what happened, but as I looked in my rearview, his car was spinning, went into the oncoming traffic, hit a car,” he said. “I stopped in the middle of the street. I was on the phone with my wife at the time, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, Bobby just got in an accident.’ I turned around. I was up the street a good ways, and [when I got back] he was no longer with us.”
Phills and Wesley had both signed lengthy contracts with the Hornets in the summer of 1997. Both had played in the CBA before earning NBA roster spots, and each carried a chip on his shoulder for being overlooked. “You always thought you had something to prove,” said Wesley, who made his career as a strong, table-setting point guard. The two formed a fast friendship. “He had a way of making you feel like you were one of his best friends, when maybe you were just a friend,” Wesley said. “I think that’s why we always got along so well.”
The day of the accident, the NBA postponed the Hornets’ game against Chicago. Two days later, members of the Hornets and Knicks attended Phills’s memorial service. (Charlotte’s game against the Knicks that night was also postponed.) Soon after Phills’s son addressed the mourners, Wesley stepped to the podium. “He was my partner in crime,” he said. “There was nothing he didn’t think he could do. He always had to win. And whenever he didn’t win he talked enough trash to make you think he won. We had some great talks and some great times. That’s the Bobby I know.”
The Hornets returned to the court January 15, three days after Phills’s death, with a loss to the Knicks in New York. “Look, I understand the way things are with you guys,” Silas told his shellshocked team. “But Bobby Phills would want us to play hard, and he would want us to win.” Wesley started against the Knicks that night and missed nine of 11 shots. Afterward, the team chartered to Charlotte before flying to Baton Rouge for Phills’s funeral.
The next month, Wesley was charged with two misdemeanors: speed competition and reckless driving. The Charlotte Observer reported that both Phills and Wesley had previous speed violations. Wesley had twice been charged with speeding in Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte. At the time of Phills’s accident, Wesley was driving on a suspended license, after he had failed to comply with the terms of a citation he had received several months earlier in Alabama.
A few days after being charged, Wesley made his first public statement about the incident. He said Phills’s death would haunt him for the rest of his life. “Every day, every night,” he told reporters. “From people that I’ve talked to, they say it doesn’t go away. The pain lessens, but there probably won’t be a day that I won’t think about it.” Wesley had always used basketball as therapy; when something bothered him, he could retreat to the game. “I knew if I could just get on the court after it happened, that it would give me a moment’s peace, even if it was only five minutes,” Wesley said. But once Wesley had spoken about the crash, reporters kept asking him to relive the worst morning of his life. Every city the Hornets played in meant Wesley would be asked to recount the tragedy for another local newspaper’s story about how Wesley and the team were coping with Phills’s death. “Once I opened that floodgate,” Wesley said, “I had to say it to that person and to the next person and the next person.”
Wesley’s performance suffered. “David just didn’t want to play,” Silas recalled. “He thought it was his fault that it happened.” Silas told Wesley that the team couldn’t function if Wesley didn’t play his best, and eventually the player’s game returned to form. Charlotte finished the season with a 49-33 record, but lost to Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs. In that series, Silas sensed that his players had nothing left to give. The Hornets had come together and shown admirable resilience after Phills’s death, but by the time the postseason arrived, they were ready to fold. “We just couldn’t play hard anymore,” Silas said. “I didn’t say anything to those guys about ‘We’ve got to play harder.’ I knew that they had played as hard as they possibly could [just] so we could make the playoffs.”
That July, Wesley testified in the non-jury trial to decide the criminal charges against him. “Were you racing Bobby Phills that day?” his attorney asked. “Absolutely not,” Wesley responded.
He was convicted of reckless driving and sentenced to community service, but a judge decided that enough reasonable doubt existed to acquit him of the racing charge. On the first anniversary of the accident, Wesley buried a deep 3-pointer with 3.5 seconds remaining to lift Charlotte to an 86-85 win over the Bulls.
Wesley remained with the franchise when the Hornets moved from Charlotte to New Orleans in 2002. He spent the final years of his career with the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers before retiring in 2007, and he now works as a color analyst for the Pelicans.
“For a long time, I couldn’t think of a time when I wasn’t thinking about him,” Wesley said. “As time passes, it doesn’t stay every day, but it does stay frequently, and there are always good memories.”
Chuck Burton/AP Photo
Kendall decided to remain in Charlotte after Phills’s death. She never really considered returning to Louisiana. She stayed involved in community events and established a scholarship fund in her husband’s name. When Minnesota’s Malik Sealy died in a car accident the same year as Phills, she offered Sealy’s widow, Lisa, both financial and emotional support. “You stepped into my life on May 20, 2000, like an angel,” Lisa Sealy wrote in a note for an event marking the first anniversary of Bobby Phills’s death. “Perhaps Malik sent you to me because he knew you would be my rock in his absence.”
All the activity gave Kendall a sense of purpose and helped her survive the emotional toll of losing her husband, but there were moments when the sadness overwhelmed her. “I have to pick my time when I can mourn,” she told ESPN as the first anniversary of the accident approached. “I’ll watch some videotape of Bobby. I’ll go through the photo albums. When I’m by myself, that’s when I cry. Because I have to be strong for my children. … The other day, I was filling out this application. And there was a box there where I had to check if I was a Miss, a Mrs., or a Ms. And I thought to myself, I’m not a Mrs. anymore. It’s things like that.”
She never blamed Wesley. “So many people pointed the finger at David, but Bobby made the choice to drive at a high rate of speed,” Kendall said. “I know that everybody has a day when God’s going to call them home, and January 12, 2000, was the day God chose for Bobby. So it didn’t matter if he was racing down the street, if he was walking down the street — that was his time. I don’t think you can get out of that date that your maker has ordained for you.”
Rick Havner/AP Photo
Derrick Brewer could see that the 11-year-old was not ready to star on his AAU team. After the game, Brewer approached the boy’s mother, Kendall Phills. “You need to let me coach him,” Brewer said. “We just lost and he’s ready to go to swimming. He’s happy. He should be upset right now. The other kids are crying. Trey’s not ready yet.” Kendall did decide to let Brewer coach Bobby Phills III, known as Trey to his teammates. Trey loved the game, but his mother could see him struggling with his confidence. “Nobody was there to validate him,” Kendall said. “It’s one thing for me to tell him, ‘Oh, Trey, you’re good.’ But to hear you have a father that was an NBA player … some of [Bobby’s former teammates] were still in the NBA, and although they’d check on my family, no one had the time to pour into my son.”
It was no surprise that both Trey and his sister, Kerstie, gravitated to basketball. But in Trey’s case, it seemed as if he were trying to follow a shadow, like he was finding his way in the dark without his father there to light the path. “It’s one of those things where you feel like everybody’s telling you, ‘Oh, your father was this so you automatically have to be this good,’” Trey, now 18, said. “And there was a point where, no, I wasn’t that good on the court.”
Stephen Silas ended up being the one to help Trey develop his confidence and his game. Silas had been friendly with Phills before his death, and he became a member of Phills’s family when he married Kendall’s sister, Keryl, in 2002. Trey and Silas put in hard hours working to improve Trey’s shot. He had to tighten his elbow, the same way his father had learned to shoot under Ben Jobe at Southern decades earlier. “We spent some long, long days, and I got some dirty looks [from Trey] sometimes, but we got it fixed,” Silas said. “It’s kind of like me and my dad — we spent a bunch of time on the court. The basketball was our way of connecting, and that’s how Trey and I have been.”
A few other factors played into Trey’s budding confidence. With a July birthday, Trey had always been among the youngest in his class, so Kendall decided to have him complete the eighth grade twice. She noticed his demeanor on the court pick up shortly thereafter. Brewer noticed, too: “He had the skills because he worked on it, so when he became older, now he’s not that skinny little boy anymore. Guys can’t push him around on the court. He won’t let them.”
Trey, a 6-foot-1 guard, recently finished his high school career at Charlotte Christian, the same school that produced Steph and Seth Curry. “Trey’s a stat stuffer,” said coach Shonn Brown. “He gets rebounds. He gets deflections. He gets steals. He has assists.” This season, as a senior, Trey led Charlotte Christian to a 20-9 record, the highlight of which was a breathtaking game winner Trey scored against Charlotte Country Day.
Trey doesn’t remember speaking at his father’s memorial, but it comforts him to watch the video of it. He still has foggy memories of his father tossing him in the air. “He seemed like a great person on and off the court,” Trey said. “He just gave his best in everything, whether that’s being a good husband, a good father — just always laid-back, with a smile on his face, joking around. And his determination — he had a passion for what he did, and he said he wanted to be a veterinarian if basketball did not work out. So I feel like even he knew that there was more to life than just the sport. At the same time, he took the most of his opportunities, and it really pushed him.”
Trey has pushed himself in similarly broad pursuits. While taking Advanced Placement classes at Charlotte Christian, his grade point average hovered near 5.0. Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, and other elite colleges recruited him. He chose Yale, where he will begin his freshman year in the fall. “He’s got a great sense of the game, understanding his athleticism as well, and his poise on the floor,” said Yale coach James Jones. “[Those] were a couple of things that sparked our attention.” Meanwhile, younger sister Kerstie is on the same track. She just completed her junior season and is being pursued by several top colleges. “To be honest,” Trey said, “she might be tougher than me on the court.”
As promising as the Phills children’s basketball careers have been, Bobby Phills’s college coach Jobe hopes to see them honor their father’s legacy off the court. “I don’t care if he never makes a basket,” Jobe said of Trey. “The important thing is for him to go there and graduate and do the things that his daddy did not do.”
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The Hornets brought the franchise’s history with the team to Phills’s native Louisiana, where he never played professionally. The Charlotte Hornets had retired Phills’s jersey shortly after his death. In New Orleans, the organization raised his no. 13 in its practice facility, but not in the Smoothie King Center.
Kendall hoped to see her husband’s legacy return to an NBA arena when New Orleans changed its name to the Pelicans last season. Shortly after that, Charlotte Bobcats majority owner Michael Jordan announced that the franchise had applied to restore the Hornets name in Charlotte. The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved the request, giving the new Hornets an occasion to once again honor Phills by hanging his jersey in Charlotte, which they did during halftime of a game last November. “He meant a lot to this city,” Jordan said at a press conference before the ceremony. “Obviously, I played against him. He came into his own when he got here to Charlotte. … He really grew on the fans here. They actually grew up with him, and they understood what he brought to this city. And to bring that back and let them enjoy that moment, what those memories about Bobby Phills represented to them, means a lot to the organization.”
Phills’s former teammates Todd Fuller, Chucky Brown, and David Wesley attended the ceremony. Wesley looked at Trey that night and almost seemed surprised that he had to look up to meet his friend’s son’s gaze. Kendall walked onto the court, accompanied by Trey, Kerstie, and Brittany Dixon (Bobby’s daughter from a different relationship). Bobby Phills Sr., Mary Phills, and Dwayne Phills also attended. The fans offered the family an extended ovation. The emotion hung in Kendall Phills’s voice as she addressed the crowd. She thanked the fans for the phone calls and well-wishes. She was grateful for the Hornets organization’s support. Bobby Phills had always wanted to be an All-Star, she said. To Kendall, the legacy he left behind in Charlotte was a higher achievement, one that represented Bobby’s contributions to the community as well as on the court. From the darkened arena, one active Hornets player had returned early from halftime to watch the ceremony. Gerald Henderson was drafted by Charlotte in 2009, and over his five NBA seasons, he’d grown close to the Phills family. Trey looked up to Henderson; he says he has observed aspects of the swingman’s game that remind him of his father’s. He watched Kendall experience such pride and sorrow at center court, and when she’d finished speaking, Henderson walked out to Kendall and embraced her.
Kendall finished her speech. She walked off the court with a piece of herself still forever gone, but knowing that her husband had not been forgotten. No. 13 was where it belonged.