After his son Rashad was born in 1978, Virgil Phillips would look out the windows of his house in Detroit's rough North Central section and see people he knew wasting their lives, hanging out on the street and selling drugs. He made a vow that he would do something to prevent his son and other youngsters from falling victim to that fate. When Rashad was just a year old, Virgil, a laid-off auto worker, used part of his severance pay to found REACH (an acronym for religion, education, athletics, character and hope), a youth sports program based in the gym of St. Rita's church. Over the years REACH has kept hundreds of North Central kids out of trouble, and many of Detroit's best basketball players, including Steve Smith, Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, have honed their skills at St. Rita's. Now Rashad, a senior at the University of Detroit, can be added to the list.
Through Sunday the 5'10" Phillips, a lightning-quick guard with a killer crossover dribble, was the fourth-leading scorer in the nation, averaging 23.9 points a game. He was also a big reason that the 13-6 Titans, who knocked off St. John's and UCLA, respectively, in the 1998 and '99 NCAA tournaments, were leading the Midwestern Collegiate Conference and poised to continue their giant slaying.
Before every Detroit home game Rashad looks into the crowd to find some current members of REACH. They're easy to spot in their red T-shirts, with Rashad's name, his number 3 and the phrase THE MOST EXCITIN' TITAN EVER printed on the back. "They're all going crazy, and it gets me all hyped up," says Rashad. "My dad is always the loudest one." Virgil takes 50 or so kids to Detroit's home games, and he sometimes rewards those who keep their grades up by piling them into the church van and taking them to a road game.
"I thank God every day for giving me a father who did the things he did for me," says Rashad. "I've seen a lot of people fall victim to the streets, but that was never an option for me. I always had a gym to go to. What my father has done has saved so many lives."
Though Phillips averaged 25.2 points as a senior at Ferndale High, many colleges shied away from him because he didn't qualify academically and, at 5'7" and 130 pounds, looked too slight for the rigors of big-time basketball. But Titans coach Perry Watson, who coached for 13 years at Detroit's Southwestern High and was instrumental in recruiting the Fab Five for Michigan, saw him hold his own against Rose at St. Rita's and thought Phillips could be a player.
Phillips proved him right. After sitting out his freshman year, he averaged 10.0 points as a sophomore and 15.7 last year. "Rashad's game can't be measured in numbers," says Watson. "He doesn't need a lot of shots to score and, more important, he elevates everyone else's game."
Phillips refuses even to consider the notion that he might be too small to play in the NBA. "All that means is that I can't be mediocre," says Phillips, who's on pace to graduate with a degree in communications in May. "There are a lot of small guys in the NBA, and the leading scorer [Allen Iverson] is 5'11". It's all about heart. I've always had big dreams, and now that I'm close, I refuse to sell myself short."