“What you are as a person is far more important that what you are as a basketball player.” – John Wooden
There are many things in a child’s life that help to determine the path that he or she will follow. A series of events, achievements, successes, and failures all help to mold that particular child into the person whom he or she will one day become. Most importantly, though, it’s the people in a child’s life who ultimately have the greatest impact. Parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, friends, they all play an integral role in a child’s development. As time goes on, you begin to think back on your childhood and about all of those people who were a part of your life at one point or another. You think about all of the advice and morals they’ve instilled in you and how you’ve taken it all and benefitted from it. Some people stand out more than others, but for all of us, there are always those one or two people you can point to and say, “That was the person.” For me, one of those people came in the form of a basketball coach.
In the competitive sense of the word, a coach is defined as one who instructs or trains players, specifically in the fundamentals of a competitive sport and directs team strategy. My coach, James Phillips, certainly embodied this definition, but what separated him from the rest of the other coaches was something much deeper. Yes, he cared about winning and a lot of winning he did. What he cared about most, though, was that we were learning from his coaching and that we were growing not only as a team, but as players and as people as well. Of course, spending hours upon hours in the gym, we were going to grow athletically and physically, but that wasn’t enough – he wanted to make sure we were growing mentally, intellectually and emotionally. That was the difference.
Now don’t get me wrong, my parents, grandparents, brothers, and other people were all responsible in helping me to become the man I am today. They have influenced me in more ways than I can even begin to explain. But what makes me a competitive, determined and hardworking individual was something that was born and cultivated on the basketball court and at the hands of a legend.
Coach Phillips, as we all knew him, was born Nov. 19, 1942 in Bronx, N.Y. I have to believe that for doctors and nurses in a delivery room, that eventually childbirth becomes repetitious, but I always wondered if they ever get that “this is a special person” feeling. You know, the feeling you get when you meet someone for the first time and you say to yourself, “I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about that person.” They’re the same people who when they enter a room, in an almost eerie fashion, draw everyone to stop in unison and look their way. Well, one of those people was Coach Phillips and if they do get that feeling, I promise you that they got it that day.
It’s just one of the things I will never forget about that man. Every time he walked into the gym, and even in his later years as he hobbled into the gym with cane in hand, he commanded the attention of everyone present. Coach was one of those people who was always bigger than whatever room he was in and his presence was always felt. It always felt like there was a split second of silence when he walked through the door, as if almost ceremoniously, the basketballs all stopped bouncing at once, and everyone in the gym would turn to give a quick “Hey Coach,” wave or head nod. It was a sign of respect, and a respect that he so rightfully earned. Simply put, he was that dude.
At some point during Jim Phillips’ life, he decided that he was going to become a basketball coach; He was going to take everything that he was taught that allowed him to play both baseball and basketball at the collegiate level, and pass it along to the next generation. I can’t imagine at the time that even he knew the type of legacy he would eventually come to create or the amount of lives he would ultimately touch.
The journey began immediately after graduation from Millersville State (Millersville, Pa.) when he moved west to Reno, Nev., and took his first coaching position. After just one year, he would move back East and accept a high school coaching position at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, N.J. The same St. Cecilia where fittingly one of the greatest coaches to ever live, Vince Lombardi, also began his coaching career. Coach Phillips spent just a few years at St. Cecilia, but his next move was the one for which he will always be remembered.