Commentary

Saunders: Phil Henderson’s quiet, but powerful, legacy

bsaunders@newsobserver.comFebruary 20, 2013 

A 1988 photo shows Duke's Phil Henderson being defended by NC State's Chris Corchiani.

1988 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

“Come on, fat boy. That treadmill isn’t doing you any good.”

Under some circumstances, those would’ve been fightin’ words. In this instance, though, they were followed by a friendly invitation to come outside and run around the track for a real workout.

Other than “hey” and “What’s up?”, those were the first words Phil Henderson ever spoke to me at the old Lakewood YMCA in Durham. He was working there, and I suspect he simply got tired of seeing me working out every day with no change in my shape.

Henderson, a former Duke University basketball star, died Sunday in the Philippines, where he was running the Filipino Basketball Academy. He was 44.

News of Henderson’s death was overshadowed by the sports world’s unrestrained celebration recently of Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday anniversary, an event that was treated on sports channels and sports pages as though it were the birth of a deity.

For us mortals, turning 50 isn’t a big deal. Except when you don’t reach it.

The sports network ESPN seemingly ran an entire week of specials on “MJ at 50.” Whether such an excessive celebration was warranted depends solely on which shade of blue you favor. Regardless of the blue you bleed, though, Henderson’s death — and life — should not be allowed to pass unremarked upon.

We can assume ESPN acknowledged Phil’s death, although I never saw any mention of it.

Attention must be paid

Naw, Henderson never hit the NCAA-championship winning jumper for Duke, nor did he go on to win six NBA championships and redefine the commercial marketing of athletes.

Still, some attention must be paid to such a fine athlete and person dying young.

Warren Davis, the athletic director at Rocky Mount Preparatory School, said he last talked to his friend Henderson around the Christmas holidays, while Phil was in the Philippines.

Davis said Robert Brickey, another former Duke player, put him in touch with Henderson.

“We talked on a three-way and reminisced about old times. He was in good spirits,” Davis said.

Jennifer Nelson, a spokeswoman for the Y, said Phil was its community outreach director and was instrumental in forming the Midnight Basketball League. Staff members who worked with him, she said, remember him as “a great collaborator who continually looked for ways to reach people in the community who needed the Y and its resources.”

‘Reach out and touch’

Davis said he first met Henderson in 1993, when Davis was running the Y’s afterschool program. “One of my fondest memories was when he was in the gym and just talking to the young kids,” he said. “He would sit there with them and they’d look up at him and say, ‘Wow. This isn’t a Michael Jordan figure in front of us. This is a person I can reach out and touch, someone that we see on a consistent basis here at the Y ... who’s been to the mountaintop of college basketball a couple of times with Coach K.’”

I was as awed by Henderson as those kids were, but not because of his basketball prowess. Most impressive to me was the fact that he never gave off the air of having been a big-time jock, nor was he — as I assumed, no, hoped, all Duke basketball players were — a jerk. I’ve met several since then and have found out that not all of them are — once they leave the court.

Indeed, the one time he should’ve been a jerk and punched out some chump, he wasn’t. After a pickup game at the Y one day, a local hotshot high school hoopster was talking smack, taunting Phil for being — a few years removed from college glory — back in Durham instead of on some NBA roster. Henderson never showed anger, never — as I would have — crammed the loudmouthed punk into a trash can.

I saw that kid a couple of years ago, all grown up, several years past his high school glory: he was driving a Pepsi Cola truck and looked in need of a treadmill or track. I smiled.

Davis, recalling his final conversation with Henderson, said, “The saddest thing to me is that sometimes you don’t get to tell somebody ‘Bye.’ ... You’re halfway across the world and you’re hearing my voice on the phone, and we’re just laughing and talking. The next thing you know I’m getting a telephone call that says ‘Coach Davis. You remember Phil Henderson? He’s gone.’

“You miss the chance to thank him for the small things like taking the time to say ‘Hey’ to the young kids, not the big things he did on the court.”

It may be too late, Phil, but, bye. And thanks.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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