CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If there had been a game Friday night, the Charlotte Hornets would have run through brick walls, leaped tall buildings, done anything it took to win for Bobby Phills, their fallen captain. The memorial service Friday at Central Church of God could have been an orgy of grief over the loss of a player who was the anti-Charles Barkley, a role model in every sense. Instead, it turned into a combination revival and pep rally that left everyone in the crowd standing and applauding in celebration of the full life Phills lived in 30 short years.
Pastor Kenneth Paramore didn't travel all the way from Akron, Ohio, to deliver a traditional eulogy, citing Phills' good works. ''See, Bobby liked good preaching,'' Paramore told the congregation. ''He would want me to preach right now. So, I'm going to do some good ol' country preaching.''
And preach he did, but not until Regina Battle made the room tremble with the power of the spiritual she sang. It was Battle and her husband John, a member of the Cavaliers when Phills played for them in Cleveland, who introduced Phills and his wife, Kendall, to Paramore. On the Sundays when he was home, Bobby and Kendall would make the hour drive to United Baptist Church in Akron to hear Paramore preach. When he joined the Hornets, Phills asked Paramore to send him a year's worth of his taped sermons.
The one he delivered Friday was called ''Help for a Helpless Time.'' Paramore said it was good for Phills' family and friends to cry and feel the pain, but he warned, ''You've got to be careful. Satan will use depression to destroy you. You won't feel like playing no more. You won't feel like taking care of the kids no more.''
Paramore wasn't about to let that happen. His voice filling every square inch of the sprawling church, Paramore said of Phills, 'He won. It may look like he lost, but he won,' because of the strength of his religious faith.
Anyone who listened to the testimonials that preceded Paramore's ringing sermon certainly would have to agree that a player who went undrafted out of Southern University, where he graduated with honors and his degree in animal science, and fought his way out of the CBA to the NBA to sign a seven-year contract worth $33 million with the Hornets was a winner. But more than that, Phills was a giver, both in terms of his financial contributions to charitable causes and the effort he put into all his relationships.
Kendall Phills began the memorial service by carrying 3-year-old Bobby Ray III to the microphone on the stage overlooking the casket and asked him to tell everyone where his daddy was. ''Daddy is in heaven,'' the boy said. With a little prompting from his mother, he added, ''With the angels.''
Phills' widow went on to share her thoughts about the man she knew from age 14. Her voice brimming with pride, she described his first kiss, her admiration for his intellect, his overriding competitive spirit, his penchant for giving expensive gifts, such as the boat they had planned to sail to Key West this summer, and his passion for exotic cars. She even mentioned how much Phills loved the turbocharged Porsche with the ''SLAMN'' license plate that he was driving when he lost control Wednesday morning while racing teammate David Wesley after practice.
Wesley had been in seclusion since the accident, but he followed Kendall Phills to the microphone and talked fondly of the fun he and Phills had together and how hard they competed against each other in golf and everything else. ''He always had to win,'' Wesley said, ''and whatever he didn't do well, he would talk enough trash to make you think he won.''
Phills was in just his third season with the Hornets, but he had a profound effect on the organization. General Manager Bob Bass was beside himself with grief, breaking down as he said, ''The bad thing I feel is that I never told Bobby I loved him. God, it's tough to lose a guy like that.'' Coach Paul Silas recounted how Phills agreed to give up his starting forward position for the good of the team and come off the bench, which is why Silas named his sixth man captain of the team.
''He was special,'' Silas said. ''He was the consummate team man. He didn't think of anything but winning.''
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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