At home in The D, Rashad Phillips spends the night before the NBA draft in a room without windows. The tiny alcove, more an attic than a bedroom, is where Shad, his brother Jerrel and cousin Red used to play football, sprinkling baby powder across the rug to mark the goal line. The walls are black, strewn with cobwebs, bubblegum cards and basketball posters. The TV sits tucked in a corner, beneath a water-damaged image of Michael Jordan.
In a little less than 24 hours, Rashad will find himself here, secluded in his room, a cell phone, two-way pager and lucky blue blanket his only companions. He will scrawl notes about the guards taken in the first round on VCR tape labels and stick them to the wall, while his mom, Rose, watches downstairs, revising her mock draft. In between picks, she'll open the door to her son's room. "Who do you think is going No.13?" she'll yell upstairs before returning to her bedroom for the next pick. It's what they've done on draft day for the past six years.
And they'll do it again, save for one difference. This time, Phillips, the University of Detroit-Mercy's all-time leading scorer, hopes to hear David Stern call his name. In a draft stocked with unproven high school phenoms, Phillips is the college senior praying his four years were enough. He's spent the past three months criss-crossing the country to compete in all three predraft camps, and worked out for the Warriors, Magic and Knicks. He's chosen an agent and bought a luxury car. He's met AI and MJ, and he's said goodbye to his best friend, shot to death while Shad was away working. Working for this day.
So here he is on draft-day eve, at home in Detroit, waging battle with his cousin in a game of NBA Live 2001, stopping several times to answer his cell and check a two-way page from his agent: "Golden State not talking. Orders from the GM. Stay relaxed." At 11 p.m., he switches on the tube to watch a segment about him on a local sports station. As he sits through a commercial and waits for his image to pop up on the screen, Phillips exhales slowly. "I hope someone calls my name tomorrow," he says.
A blur of braids and baggy shorts, with a No.3 arm band and RP finger sleeve, the 5'10", 170-pound Phillips has fashioned himself as the poor man's Iverson. The Detroit native even shares AI's love for rapping; he's Jipsy Jinx to Iverson's Jewelz. And while Phillips does not possess the wingspan or vertical of The Answer, he's extremely quick and a deadly long-range shooter.
When you enter high school as a 5'2" point guard, it helps to come with a jumper. Phillips honed his J shooting from a blue line well beyond the college arc in St. Rita's Convent gym, near 7 Mile Road in Detroit. The gym is part of "The House," the REACH community center that Phillips' father, Virgil, has run since 1978, the year Shad was born. Virgil's been there for him at every step, AAU ball, high school and college, encouraging him, pushing him, sharing the same dream.
On the floor, Rashad has constantly faced down the haters. As a 5'8" high school senior, Phillips went from alternate to co-MVP of the Magic Johnson Roundball Classic (his co was some Philly kid named Tim Thomas). At Detroit, he broke Spencer Haywood's scoring record and was named Midwestern Collegiate Player of the Year twice, finishing his senior year sixth in the nation in scoring (22.4 points a game) and tops in three-pointers made (136).
Still, he's the little man from the little conference. "Being a little guy," says Phillips, "you always have to prove, prove, prove." Which is why, on April 4, he's one of 64 college seniors listening to former pro Tim McCormick at the Portsmouth (Va.) Holiday Inn. Phillips is here to compete in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, the first of the three predraft camps.
The PIT is held in the Churchland High School gym, and teams are headed by area coaches and sponsored by local businesses like Freedom Chevrolet and Norfolk Naval Yard. John Stockton, Tim Hardaway and Scottie Pippen all made names for themselves here, but they're the exceptions. McCormick is here to reinforce that message. If you're dreaming about checking Kobe and T-Mac next year, forget it, he tells them. Hell, most of you won't even be invited to Phoenix, the next predraft stop. Phillips scans the faces in the room. "If only one or two of us are going to be drafted in the first round," he thinks, "then I got to be the last one standing. I have to get MVP."
The Churchland gym is stocked with NBA personnel and rows and rows of orange plastic seats. Phillips hopes the scouts notice his quickness, his vision, his ability to get a shot off almost anywhere. And the little things, the way he turns a corner on the pick-and-roll and heads to the hole, the way he changes the flow of a game as soon as he takes the floor. It's all on display in a semifinal game, when Phillips' Beach Barton Ford team trails by double digits before he leads them back with a flurry of threes and drive-and-kick assists.
In the tournament final, he goes head-to-head with 25-year-old Division III star Horace Jenkins, a former postal worker. With a 40-inch vertical and mean crossover, the 6'2" Jenkins represents Phillips' biggest comp of the week. Both play well, and at the half, the postal worker's team leads by 15. But the second half belongs to Shad, who pumps in three treys on his way to 23 points and seven assists, leading his team to the title.
Afterward, RP stands in the middle of the floor, signing autographs for kids, some as big as he is. That night he'll weep as he falls asleep, clutching the MVP trophy. "Out of the 64 guys there," he says later, "the littlest one got it."
It's May 3, a month after Portsmouth, and Phillips is in Arizona State's Wells Fargo Arena with a new set of college seniors, playing in the Nike Desert Classic. Outside, the mercury hangs around the century mark, while inside the raging air conditioning chills spectators and burns the players' lungs. The presence of almost every NBA team's GM takes the pressure up a notch. Michael Jordan holds court, eclipsing all peripheral action.
In two days Phillips will turn 23, and he's feeling drained. There's talk that Shad might be this year's Speedy Claxton, the diminutive Hofstra point guard taken at No.20 last year by Philly. But the anxiety of the camp tour has reduced his sleep to four or five hours a night. And there's been little time to rest the assorted injuries (right index finger, right elbow, groin pull, an ankle in need of a scope) carried over from his senior season.
Rashad does not start in the first game, and by the time he checks in with 1:56 left in the first quarter, his white-jerseyed Central team is losing, 20-12. He goes to work immediately, hitting a jumper, then a three, followed by an assist. By the quarter's end, Central leads 22-20. Just as in Portsmouth -- just as it's been everywhere Shad's played -- Virgil is the loudest man in the gym. "Light the Lamp," he yells to Cal's Sean Lampley. "Will it in, Hill," he tells Eastern Illinois' Kyle Hill. When Rashad leads the white team's comeback, Virgil shouts at Jordan, "You see this, Michael? All white is all right."
But all is not right. After driving to the hole in the third quarter, RP turns his right ankle. As he continues to play, Shad's injury pumps up Virgil a few hundred decibels. After USC's Jeff Trepagnier fouls Rashad on a three-point attempt, Virgil screams, "You can't block every shot." When Trepagnier returns Virgil's fire, Rashad is distracted. In the middle of camp, his father is arguing with another player. A 92% foul shooter this season, Phillips misses all three shots.
The postgame mood is somber. Phillips finishes with decent numbers -- 13 points, eight assists -- but the ankle is done. Sitting on a cement wall waiting for a ride back to the hotel, he holds his head in his hands, sensing what tomorrow's MRI will reveal-bruised tendons. But he may have shown enough. Rockets scout Brent Johnson stops by, telling him, "If it's hurt, don't play on it. You have nothing to prove. Even a blind man can see that."
When the camp ends May 5, a scouting service guy tells Shad he has solidified his spot at the top of the second round. Phillips thanks the man, but he wants more -- the first round. "You show me 28 guys better than me," he says. "I was on my way to MVP. I just want to hear David Stern say my name. Even if he never says it again. If he says it that one time, I'll be satisfied."
In Portsmouth, Virgil came prepared with business cards that advertised Rashad as "The Most Excitin Titan Ever." But they both agreed to hire Chicago-based agent Henry Thomas shortly before Phoenix, and things have changed. After Arizona, Thomas moves Shad to a luxury apartment in Chicago, site of the final predraft camp, sets him up with Tim Grover, MJ's personal trainer, and gets him a spot in MJ's comeback scrimmages at Hoops Gym. He also arranges for tickets to Game 6 of the Sixers-Bucks series in nearby Milwaukee, giving Shad a chance to meet his idol, Iverson.
"Hey, Allen," one fan yells as AI and RP shake hands on the Bradley Center floor. "That's Detroit's finest."
"I know who he is," says Iverson. "This here is my little brother."
Thomas, an ex-point guard at Bradley who also teaches at DePaul Law School, has a small group of clients that includes Tim Hardaway and Lindsey Hunter, two little-known guards who went high in the draft. He encourages the Iverson comparisons, and feels that Phillips' predraft performances have moved him into the first round. "There's been a minimum of four point guards taken in the first round the past five years," he says. "If that form holds true and he's ranked among the top four point guards, his name should be called."
Thomas' newest client still gets homesick easily, returning to The D on most weekends. On one late May visit, it's a subdued Virgil who picks Shad up from the airport. As the two drive through Detroit's Highland Park neighborhood, Rashad asks why they are taking the long way home.
"What does this neighborhood remind you of?" asks Virgil.
"What do you mean?" replies Rashad. "It reminds me of Lloyd," he says, referring to his best friend and rapping partner, Lloyd Lowe.
"Lloyd's gone," says Virgil.
"What do you mean, Lloyd's gone?" Rashad asks. "Did he take a trip or something?"
"No," says Virgil. "Lloyd's gone. We buried him last week."
To protect their son, training for his life's dream in Chicago, Virgil and Rose decided not to tell him Lloyd was dead -- shot four times in the back and gone before anyone could find out why -- until after the funeral. A week earlier Shad was talking to Lloyd on the phone; now he calls his friend's cell just to hear his voice. "Sometimes," he says, "I hear voices. I can hear Lloyd laughing." That weekend, Rashad visits the cemetery a half-mile from his house. Looking down at the freshly dug earth, he places a picture of himself graveside. "Just to keep it together," he says. "Because I never got to say goodbye."
In Portsmouth, players wear unis with the names of local businesses. In Phoenix, they bear the names of the league's four divisions. But at the predraft camp in Chicago, where underclassmen battle seniors, the blue-and-white togs spell one thing: NBA. For Phillips, Chicago is simple. As a point guard, he's grouped with St. John's Omar Cook and Cincinnati's Kenny Satterfield. If he can hold his own, he thinks, he could sneak into the first round.
But as Phillips takes the court against Cook, one scout rips into him. "I like him less and less each time," says the scout. "He tries to do too much, he can't finish in traffic, and he pounds the ball. His team should have a 14-second clock because he dribbles for 10. Come on, make the simple play."
Players get only five minutes of run at a time in this camp, and Cook plays well, dishing six assists while committing just a single turnover. But then, Cook has a much better team around him than Shad does. It's something Isiah Thomas picks up on when he sees Phillips in the gym's lobby. "Come here," says Thomas, who tells Shad he's the baddest kid in camp. If his teammates can't step up and finish, says Isiah, stop sharing and take over. "Okay?" says Thomas. Phillips shakes his head in agreement and walks away, beaming. "That's it," he says. "Tomorrow night, I'm putting up 25."
Phillips performs well in the camp's final two days, but he's beginning to think moving into the first round may be out of reach. Over the next two weeks, he'll have solid workouts for the Magic, Knicks and Golden State. He leaves the Bay Area thinking he's impressed the Warriors by outplaying Jamaal Tinsley, the draft's top-rated point guard. The Spurs and Grizzlies call to say they're interested, leaving Shad convinced he'll be one of the 57 chosen in the two-round draft. "They don't measure your heart in this draft," Shad says. "If they did, I think I would go No.1."
It's draft day, and less than a mile from the Phillips house, some 75 friends, family members and neighborhood kids gather to watch the draft on a big screen at The House. With his son at home, Virgil keeps himself busy, checking the food, refilling drinks, making introductions. When the Warriors take Michigan State's Jason Richardson at No.5, there's talk about Detroit's finest joining Saginaw's Finest on the Left Coast. Warriors coach Dave Cowens says he'll try Larry Hughes at the point, and the crowd here talks about Shad fitting perfectly beside Hughes in one of those big guard/little guard backcourts that are becoming popular in the league.
But early on, there are signs that this might not be Rashad's night. Only one of the first 22 picks is under 6'6". Utah surprises, taking point guard Raul Lopez from Real Madrid. The Grizzlies and Spurs have the final two picks of the first round. Both need point guards, and both have shown interest. Both fill their need, the Grizz with Tinsley, the Spurs with Frenchman Tony Parker.
The second round sours early when the Warriors take guard Gilbert Arenas at 31. And when the Grizzlies nab Clemson's Will Solomon, Rashad descends the stairs and lies disconsolately on his mom's bedroom floor. The Knicks, Spurs and Isiah's Pacers still have picks, but Phillips senses his draft is over. He's right. His name is not called.
Back at The House, Virgil bows his head in disbelief when the final pick is made. Within five minutes, his son is standing outside, exchanging hugs and handshakes with his many friends. Suddenly the glaring camera lights of several local TV crews illuminate the dark Detroit street as Virgil finds his son and the two embrace. Rashad is dying on the inside, but it doesn't show. "My whole career has been based on knocking down barriers and obstacles," he says. "This is nothing new." A reporter asks if he regrets not coming out a year earlier. "The book isn't done being written."
At 2 a.m., Shad and a few friends sit in the convent chapel, now a study hall. Shad says the night was especially hard on his mom. When he stopped by her bathroom door during the draft, he heard her inside, crying. "My daddy's probably shedding a few tears right now," he says. He's still stunned, but composed. He ticks off the names of players taken in the second round, guys he felt he outplayed time and again in the camps. He wanders back through his high school and college days as if he is replaying every night that leads to this one.
He talks briefly about the next step, catching on as a free agent with the Magic or Jordan's Wizards. But he knows making a roster will be harder now. Six hours later, Golden State will call to invite him to play in the L.A. Summer League and to training camp next September, an offer he'll accept. But now, the bewilderment and pain of a dream deferred replace talk of the future. Tonight, the league seems further away than ever, leaving the little man with nothing but big questions.
"What did I do?" he wonders aloud. "What did I do wrong?"
This article appears in the July 23 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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