CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Nearly 15 years have passed since Bobby Phills’ death in a tragic car crash in January 2000.
In that time, the Charlotte Hornets, the team for whom the former Southern and Southern Lab star shooting guard was then playing, moved to New Orleans. Charlotte got a new franchise named the Bobcats, and that team got a new downtown arena.
Charlotte wanted the name of its original franchise back, and the New Orleans Hornets were happy to oblige, changing their name to the Pelicans two years ago when Saints owner Tom Benson bought the club directly from the NBA.
But the name wasn’t the only part of its history that the rebranded Hornets wanted to restore.
The Charlotte franchise reacquired the team records and statistics compiled before the club moved to New Orleans in 2002. But in another deeply emotional tie with its past, the club decided to return Phills’ retired No. 13 jersey to the rafters.
“During the process of bringing the Hornets name back to Charlotte, one of the most important elements to us was to once again honor the retired jersey of Bobby Phills,” said Fred Whitfield, the Hornets president and chief operating officer, in a statement. “It is our responsibility to appropriately recognize the legacy of a man who impacted so many people with his contributions both on and off the basketball court.”
In a ceremony at halftime Saturday night, during the Hornets’ home game with the Memphis Grizzlies, Phills will be remembered once again in his adopted hometown.
He may have never played in the Hornets’ current home of Time Warner Cable Arena, but he will never be forgotten there. His widow, Kendall; his son, Trey; and daughters Kerstie (just 1-year old at the time of Phills’ death) and Brittany were among those family members expected to be at the ceremony.
“It would mean the world to me to have that number 13 hanging in the rafters,” Kendall Phills said earlier this year to a Charlotte TV station. She started a foundation in Bobby’s name that includes a “Safe Driving Campaign” as part of its work.
“I can’t imagine how it would make them feel to look up (and see it),” she said. “He’s already like our guardian angel.”
Phills died Jan. 12, 2000, at age 30, less than a mile from the Hornets’ old home court at Charlotte Coliseum. Phills was driving at a high rate of speed in a car right behind then-teammate and current Pelicans broadcaster David Wesley when he crashed.
The senseless nature of Phills’ death didn’t diminish the outpouring of affection for him. Days later, in a memorial service at Southern’s F.G. Clark Activity Center, where he starred for Ben Jobe’s high-scoring Jaguars from 1987-91, teammates from all three of the NBA teams Phills was associated with — the Milwaukee Bucks team that drafted him, the Cleveland Cavaliers team he played for his first six seasons and the Hornets — were in attendance.
“We never fought,” Wesley said at the time. “The only bad (memory) was of the accident. He was like a brother to me, and I will miss him.”
Though Phills only played three seasons in Charlotte, the city embraced him. Both affable and possessing strong leadership qualities, Phills was easy to like, and longtime Charlotte residents will tell you his death left its mark on a basketball-mad town that has never faded away.
To date, Phills’ number is the only one Charlotte has retired.
In some ways, it’s still the only one that matters.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.