In Memoriam: How “The Legend” Put It All On The Line

“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.

For 25 years, Coach Phillips roamed the sidelines of the St. Catherine’s CYO basketball program in Ringwood, N.J., and for 25 years he never got paid a dime to do it. Although an official count was never kept, it is estimated that he won somewhere between 500-600 games and 15 league titles as the head coach of the program. He coached thousands of kids in his life, and it didn’t matter how many years it had been since you last saw him, he always remembered everyone’s name and talked to you as if you had just seen him yesterday. He’d start right up with busting your chops about the turnover you had against St. Joe’s, or the terrible shot you put up against Queen of Peace, but he’d always bring the conversation back to, “How’s your mom and dad? Tell them I said hello.” It’s a testament to the man he was and a perfect example of how the game of basketball that we all love, while it helped to create this bond, was always less important than many things in life.

I’m sure throughout the years that he was coaching St Catherine’s he was offered plenty of paid coaching opportunities, but never once did he accept any of them. Coach decided instead to selflessly give his time and energy to others simply because he loved the game so much, and never once did he seek recognition for what he was doing. It was much more important to him that he become a positive influence on seventh and eighth graders who were readying themselves for one of the biggest steps of their lives, than it was to make a few bucks. After all, the impact that a person like Coach Phillips can have on a community like Ringwood’s is much more valuable than any amount of money. Which reminds me, he was also the driving force behind the creation of the youth recreation basketball league in our town. No big deal.

As a coach, many people saw him as being really tough, and I’m sure there were some parents who probably thought that his coaching style was a bit over the top. He was a grown man yelling at middle schoolers and putting the fear of God in them simply by looking at them with that stern face that I will never forget. Yeah, I was terrified of the man at times. There were times I thought he was making us run 15 suicides just because the coach of our school team only made us run 10. He was a no-BS man, so naturally he was a no-BS coach. At the time, I didn’t really fully understand why he was working us so hard, but as I look back on it now, it all makes perfect sense to me. He was readying us for the real world. Teaching us to be smart, to be strong, to be focused, to work hard, and to never give up. He was preparing us for adversity and showing us how to conquer it. But most importantly, he was teaching us how to be men.

Many of his former players would go on to have successful high school careers, and some would go on to play ball at the collegiate level. Not a single professional basketball player ever came out of the St. Catherine’s CYO program, but none of that matters – what Coach created was bigger than the game of basketball. He created young men who would eventually go on to impact the world and others in the same way he once impacted them. Some of his players went on to become doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, military men, corporate executives, and of course, coaches. His life lessons through the game of basketball are a big reason that each of us have been able to reach – or push toward – our own goals in life, and for that I will always be grateful.

This past Wednesday, May 11 at roughly 7:30 p.m., Coach Phillips passed away due to complications arising from his battle with diabetes and consequentially a weakened heart. For me, the easiest way to make sense of this is not that his heart became so weak from the diabetes, but rather from all the years of caring and love that he gave to his program and to his players. There’s only so much heart one man can give, and at some point that heart must grow weak. It just makes more sense to me that way.

This morning, the world will give one last “Bye Coach,” wave or head nod to a man whom will forever be remembered as his obituary so appropriately reads, Jim “The Legend” Phillips. He will be laid to rest not in a suit and tie, but rather in his patented St. Catherine’s CYO Basketball t-shirt and sweatsuit. It’s the exact way I’m sure he would have wanted it. His legacy will live on as long as the game of basketball is played inside the gym at St. Catherine’s, and I’m sure that someday I’ll be telling my kids the stories about Coach Phillips and teaching them some of the things that he once taught me. But most importantly, like one of my friends so perfectly said the other night, “I can only hope that my kids have a Coach Phillips someday too.”

The story you just read is not just a story of a man or of a coach, but a story of what a man is capable of if he is determined and passionate about something he believes in. It’s the story of how giving yourself so unselfishly to others can lead to a life of happiness and contentment, and should be an inspiration to all. But in the end, it’s the story of how a simple game like the game of basketball can be used to create something much bigger in life, something that can be universally admired.

It’s amazing how we all look at things in their simplest form and fail to see the bigger picture. The game of basketball, for example, in its simplest form is dribble, pass and shoot. While many people look at the game as just that, others look at it as being slightly more complex – it’s only the true basketball player who sees the game as a lesson in life. Every shot you take, every pass you make, every breath you take, every bead of sweat running down your forehead, every bit of emotion that pours from your body during a game or practice, it all has a deeper meaning, and I am thankful that I had someone to teach me that when I was younger.

Trust me, I’m far from perfect. I have done many things in my life that I have at one point or another regretted, but it’s my ability to learn from my mistakes that makes me stronger. It’s my will to win in any situation that defines me. Go ahead and knock me down, I promise you that I’ll get back up. Tell me I can’t, and I will. All of these things are what makes me who I am today. These are the core values that were instilled in me almost 20 years ago by a man whom I was fortunate enough to call Coach, and they will forever be engrained in my being. The game of basketball was his platform for making the world a better place, and I intend to do the same.

Thanks, Coach.