|Thursday, January 11
Updated: January 12, 10:55 AM ET
One year later, Kendall Phills remembers
By Peter May
Special to ESPN.com
Kids and helium balloons tend to be a short-lived mix. One loose grip leads to one lost balloon and, usually, one unhappy child.
It wasn't too long ago that Elden Campbell of the Charlotte Hornets held a birthday party for his son, Jayle. Among the guests was Bobby Ray Phills III, better known as Trey, the 4-year-old son of the late Hornets' swingman. As soon as Trey got his gift balloon, he let it go. As it drifted slowly skyward, Trey's mother, Kendall, ran over, expecting to have to console a son in tears. Instead, she saw a smile.
"It's for Daddy," Trey Phills told his mother.
"I knew then," Kendall Phills said, "that Trey finally understands his father's death."
It's been a year since Bobby Phills was killed in a car accident following a Hornets shootaround at the Charlotte Coliseum. The team has gone on and leads the Central Division. David Wesley, who was racing with Phills at the time of the accident, has moved forward as well and is enjoying his most productive season in Charlotte.
So, too, has Kendall Phills moved on. She had married her college sweetheart, bore him two children, then buried him at the age of 30. She was widowed at 28. But soon after her husband's death, she established a foundation in his name. That has helped occupy her time and thoughts while she tries to cope with the daunting task of being a suddenly single mother with two children, one of whom will have no recollection of her father.
She finds strength from her faith and from her willingness to relive the most painful moment of her life. This has been a busy week for Kendall Phills. With the anniversary of her husband's death approaching, she knew and understood that that terrible day and its aftermath would have to be revisited. The foundation, which raises college scholarship money and channels donations to area charities, has been a mental life-saver. But as much as she might like it to be, it's not a 24/7 enterprise.
Every now and then, she finds herself alone. Trey and Kerstie, 2, are in bed. The house overlooking the seventh hole at Ballantyne Country Club is hers alone. This is when she finds the time to reflect and grieve.
"I have to pick my time when I can mourn," she says. "I'll watch some videotape of Bobby. I'll go through the photo albums. When I'm by myself, that's when I cry. Because, I have to be strong for my children."
She went on: "The other day, I was filling out this application. And there was a box there where I had to check if I was a Miss, a Mrs., or a Ms. And I thought to myself, I'm not a Mrs. anymore. It's things like that."
She has embraced her husband's life through the foundation and through other, less visible means. The license plate on her car, for instance, is 'MISSN 13.' Bobby Phills wore No. 13 for the Hornets. The house remains as it was before the horrible moments of Jan. 12, 2000. Her husband's clothes and personal items are still there. She's even used his toothbrush.
She knows Kerstie won't remember her father. She feels Trey, however, will have some recollection. But she recalled one conversation with her son recently which left her uplifted and empowered.
"He asked me what I missed the most about not having Daddy around. I told him that it would be that he didn't have a daddy anymore," she said. "Well, he looked at me and said, 'I've got you. That's OK.' And I realized that I shouldn't be having this pity party for myself anymore. I think he's going to be all right."
In addition to her children, she finds strength in her faith. She organized a memorial service for her husband at a Charlotte church, bringing in a minister from Los Angeles, the mayor of Charlotte, and NFL defensive lineman Reggie White. Proceeds from a college basketball tournament in Charlotte over the weekend were to be given to the Bobby Phills Scholarship Foundation.
She finds strength from the foundation, carrying on what she believed mattered most to her husband. "Handing out scholarships would be fitting to his memory," she said. "It helped me that I could jump into something right away, that I didn't have time to break down. It has really helped the healing process to be able to continue the work that Bobby started and doing the things that he'd be doing if he were still alive."
And she also finds strength in her willingness to relive the most agonizing moment of her life. She retraces the shattering day with measured calm and preciseness that, a year later, seem remarkable given the circumstances. It started with a phone call from Wesley's fiancee.
"She was hysterical. She told me to come over to her house, quickly," she said. "But she wouldn't tell me why. She then called me five minutes later and said, 'why aren't you here?'"
It was then that Kendall Phills was told that there had been a car accident on Tyvola Road, the winding thoroughfare next to the Charlotte Coliseum. It was a bad car accident. Her husband was involved. She hurried to the accident scene and it was if everyone and everything around her went into a sudden, deep-freeze. Players were there, but they were crying. No one was talking.
"No one would give me eye contact," she said. "No one would say a thing. I was saying, 'where's Bobby? Where's Bobby?' Then, I turned around and I saw it."
What she saw was her husband's black Porsche, badly damaged, with a sheet over it and a body inside it.
"I saw his arm dangling out of the car, lifeless," she said. "I said to myself, 'oh my God.' Then some assistant coaches tried to hold me back, but there was no strength in the world that could hold me back.
"I pulled the sheet off and he looked peaceful, as if he were asleep. There was a small cut on his nose, but that was it. Everything bad had been internal."
She prayed with him and said her last words. She stayed by her dead husband for five minutes, telling him she'd take care of the kids and not to worry. She told him that she knew he died a happy man, that everything was going to be fine.
"And then I got up," she said, "and said to myself, 'OK, I guess this is the end of a beautiful love story."
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.