by | Jan 20, 2000 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

NOW THAT Bobby Phills has been placed in the earth, and the dirt has been shoveled over his coffin, his teammates have wiped away their tears, the TV cameras have disappeared and the reporters from around the country have all gone home, it is time to say what might have been too hard to hear in the immediate aftermath of his burial.

He never should have died.

Bobby Phills was not gunned down. Bobby Phills did not fall defending his country. He was not killed by an untimely disease nor was he was the victim of a random act of horror, such as a flood, a hurricane or the collapse of a building.

Bobby Phills died because he was racing cars against a teammate. He was going 107 m.p.h. when he lost control of his black Porsche. That’s 107 m.p.h. — on a street where the speed limit was 45.

His teammate, David Wesley, was going 110 m.p.h.

Upon hearing the news, George Shinn, the Charlotte Hornets owner, said, “This is the ultimate tragedy.”

Not quite.

The ultimate tragedy is the death of an innocent party. And, while this might be hard to admit, Bobby Phills is not innocent in his own demise. Truth be told, this popular, 30-year-old basketball player, whose license plate read
“SLAMN,” not only put himself in danger, but endangered anyone else on the road.

Let’s not forget that Phills crashed into another car, which was then rear-ended by a minivan. The fact that the other two drivers, although hospitalized, are expected to live, is the only thing keeping Bobby Phills from being remembered as a killer.

A killer.

That’s a far cry from a hero.

Media fails to notice Phills’ faults

Yet was there any mention of this in the days following his death? All you saw were headlines and sound bites of sadness and loss. The NBA fraternity circled its wagons, players from other teams spoke glowingly of Phills, many attended his funeral, two Hornets games were postponed, and the debate, when there was any, centered not over Phills’ driving but whether the league should postpone even more games to let players deal with their heavy hearts.

Now I’m not trying to be insensitive here. I know Phills’ reputation as a nice guy, a father, a husband, popular with his teammates, active with charities.

But I object — and so should you — to the way the NBA and the sports media turned this death into a sort of Shakespearean tragedy, a young man taken in his prime — while failing to point out that what he did was irresponsible and should never be imitated, especially by the young, teenage drivers who look up to sports stars.

This was a death that, sorry to say, was every bit as foolish as two men playing Russian roulette with handguns, or trying to see who could swallow the most alcohol.

“Bobby Phills represented the very best of the NBA,” commissioner David Stern said. “He was a caring member of the community.”

Sorry, Dave. But you can’t say that wholeheartedly. When it came to the community’s safety, the community’s roadways and the community’s law, he did not appear to be caring at all.

And neither, by the way, did David Wesley. Phills and Wesley had been charged with speeding before. Phills was ticketed last year for going 60 in a 35-m.p.h. zone. Wesley has an even worse driving record. He was twice charged with speeding, and at the time of this fatal drag race, he was driving with a suspended license.

That’s not only dumb, it’s illegal.

Beware the packaging of tragedy

Now, again, this is not to diminish the loss of a human being. Phills is not the first good person to leave us through a regrettable act. And no matter what the cause of his death, we should never lose sympathy for the days he will never have here on Earth, for his wife, for the two young children who will never know their father.

But with death becoming such a public spectacle in our society — cameras at funerals, interviews with the bereaved — we should be cautious of how tragedy is packaged. How often, for example, during the coverage of his death and funeral, did you hear any mention of the two victims whom Phills put in the hospital?

You have to wonder, if one of those people had been the drag racer, and had crashed into Phills’ car, and had put Phills in the hospital, perhaps ending his basketball career, how would the fires of public sentiment be stoked? In sympathy toward the dead drivers? Or in anger at their irresponsibility for ruining a sports star’s career?

Well, here’s some news for the news media. Every life counts the same. Bobby Phills’ was worth no more or less than the next person behind the wheel. And if a “regular guy” would have been vilified for drag racing at more than 100 m.p.h. on a public road in the middle of the day, then so should a sports star. Doesn’t matter how nice a man he was.

“Bobby was a role model,” Shinn said. “He was someone that you’d want your children to be like.”

Not when it came to driving. And to leave that out, no matter how much it hurts, is to fail to tell the whole story of Bobby Phills.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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