LOS ANGELES, Calif – 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.
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.”
“For a long time, I couldn’t think of a time when I wasn’t thinking about him,” Former NBA player David Wesley said. “As time passes, it doesn’t stay every day, but it does stay frequently, and there are always good memories.”