Then, when things were looking just too good, somebody tried to kill Dez. She and some friends were leaving a sweet sixteen party in the Bronx when someone pulled a gun on them, took their money, started to leave and then wheeled around and fired. Everybody started running, including Dez, but she realized she couldn't, because of the bullet in her right thigh. Nobody called the cops because, in this neighborhood, that only means more trouble for everybody. So Dez's friends put her on the D train, bleeding, for a 13-stop ride to the hospital. "I wasn't sure I'd die," she says, "but I was sure I'd never use the leg again." The doctor in the emergency room decided the best way to treat the leg was to leave the bullet where it was.
Dez recovered. With a firm hand from Miller, she graduated from Martin Luther King Jr. High, where she played on the basketball team. A year later she found a spot on the team at Nassau Community College, in Garden City, N.Y. She played for one season, which she absolutely...hated. "Man, playground ball was tougher," she says, disgusted. She was ready for a change when another coach, Phil Stern, found her.
He took her to Oakdale, N.Y., and Dowling College, the main building of which used to be a Vanderbilt mansion. You should have seen Dez's face on that first visit, lighting up at the ornate ballroom with the Steinway grand, the swank salon with the 12-foot chandeliers and the luxurious study.
In Dez's (and Stern's) first year at Dowling, she took what had been a 6-20 team and led it to a 16-12 record and the school's first postseason bid. She went for 35 one night, against C.W. Post. She led the league in scoring and brought to the game a will that Division II Long Island women's basketball just hadn't seen.
Dez nearly flunked out her first semester, but this year, as a junior, she crashed the books as hard as the glass, pulling a B average and scoring 16.4 points per game. Though the team didn't qualify for postseason play, Phillips was named to the first team of the New York Collegiate Athletic Conference.
For Dez, the ending isn't all roses yet. Last Christmas morning, gunfire erupted in front of Miller's house, playing Wreck the Halls. Grown-ups and kids in Miller's house were flat on their stomachs around the Christmas tree, and little Jon said, "Mama, let's open our presents right now before we die."
But things keep getting better. Somebody spotted Michael and Jon and decided they were too cute not to show the world, and now they're modeling at $125 an hour. Dez's mom knows that her daughter has stayed away from gangs and gone to college. "She said she was proud of me," says Dez, recalling the last conversation she had with her mother. "Stuff you're supposed to say, I guess." Dez has not seen her mom in several years and has no idea how to reach her. Still has the photo, though.
"My dream is to have my whole family together someday for Christmas," says Dez. "My own family, Randolf [who has stayed with his original foster family], my mother if she wants to be there, and Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Miller's kids, all of them, all of us together, just eating all kinds of food and talking, like in that movie Soul Food, and hugging and being together."
"We can do that," Mrs. Miller says. "Around here, we make things happen."
"Every day I thank God for Mrs. Miller," says Dez with a smile you really need to see.