Darren Phillip doesn't like the word angry. Saying that he's angry, Phillip asserts, implies that the NCAA got the best of him, that he lost. Phillip, Fairfield's 6'7" senior forward, hates to lose. That's why he leads the nation in rebounding with 14.0 per game. "Darren keeps chugging, keeps pounding for every rebound," says Stags coach Tim O'Toole. "He never stops."
He stopped once, actually, and didn't much care for the experience. Four years ago, after Phillip accepted a basketball scholarship to Fairfield, the NCAA ruled that a math class he had taken at Brooklyn's South Shore High wasn't part of the core curriculum required for athletic eligibility. This was nitpicky stuff. The course was, according to South Shore, worth the half credit Phillip needed to become eligible. The NCAA said it was worth only a third of a credit.
Phillip was incensed. After all, he had graduated with a B- average. His parents didn't have the money for the tuition at Fairfield, so his mother, Marguerite, an underwriter technician at an insurance company, cashed out her 401(k) plan to obtain the $10,000 Darren needed to enroll for his first semester of college. Meanwhile, the Phillips found a lawyer and sued the folks at the NCAA. "It was obvious what they were doing," says Darren. "Here was a powerless inner-city kid whom they could make an example of."
Not so fast. Although Phillip ended up missing 14 games his freshman year, the court decided in his behalf, saying that the NCAA had "stepped out of bounds" in declaring him ineligible. Fairfield was ordered to restore Phillip's scholarship, and less than two months later he was a member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's all-tournament team and part of the 16th-seeded Stags who led North Carolina for much of a first-round NCAA tournament game before losing, 82-74.
Not content to accept a court injunction to let Phillip play, the NCAA appealed the case. Eventually a settlement was reached whereby Phillip sat out the first six games of his sophomore year but his mother was reimbursed for his freshman year's tuition. "What bothers me the most is the 20 games I lost," says Phillip. "That's almost a full season. The Carolina game is the highlight of my career. No one thought we had a chance. But it doesn't take away what was done to me."
So Phillip has fought back in his own way. He's on schedule to graduate with a degree in communications (with a minor in political science). He's Fairfield's leading scorer, with 16.0 points per game, and has made himself into one of the college game's most furious rebounders, a Rodman-like technician who, while collecting 25 boards against Marist and 20 each against St. Peter's, Canisius and Iona, hasn't feasted on softies alone. Phillip had 10 rebounds against Kansas, 12 against UCLA and 16 against Connecticut. This from a player who was lightly recruited and who, says Stags forward-center Sunday Eniojukan, "is just an average athlete with an unmatchable work ethic."
O'Toole thinks that work ethic might land Phillip an NBA job. Before the season Phillip wrote down a list of pros who rely more on their drive than on their talent. He jotted down the names of the Spurs' Malik Rose, the Nets' Jamie Feick and the Knicks' Kurt Thomas. Only after completing the list did Phillip notice something the players all had in common. They were all undersized, hard-nosed rebounders. They were all like Darren Phillip.