In the Big Apple, Phillips gets another, big bite – 8/3/00

In the hour after Tari Phillips was informed the Portland Fire had traded her to the New York Liberty, she wasn’t pondering her future. Instead, she could only think about not being wanted. About not belonging. “Once again,” she thought, “I’m going to get passed along.”

It was a rough hour.

But then the phone calls started coming. Liberty Vice President and General Manager Carol Blazejowski. Coach Richie Adubato. Their message to Phillips was loud and clear: “We want you. We want you to come play for us.”

Her response was immediate and from the gut.

“What am I doing here (in Portland)? I’m not waiting another day. I’m not going to even wait until Tuesday. If you can find a plane out for me, I will pack my stuff up right now and I will meet you out in Houston.”

Phillips arrived in time to watch the Houston Comets defeat the Liberty on opening day of the 2000 WNBA season.

Two months later, it was the Comets’ turn to watch as Phillips posted 17 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and three steals to lead the Liberty to a win. Afterward, Houston Coach Van Chancellor called the trade that brought Phillips to New York one of the best in the history of the league.

He would get no argument from her coach, her teammates, her opponents, the coaches who voted her onto the East’s All-Star team, or the media who have clamored to get time with her.

And there certainly won’t be any argument from Liberty fans, who early in July despaired of ever seeing their team reach the .500 mark, much less the top of the Eastern Conference. They know who has helped turn around the Liberty’s season, and at a recent open practice they greeted the newest member of the Liberty with chants of “Tari! Tari! MVP! MVP!”

Out from the shadows

But this is not the story of an overnight sensation.

The 6-2 power forward has a proven professional resume. She has played international basketball. She was an ABL All-Star, even an ABL All-Star MVP. And when she was the Orlando Miracle’s first-round draft pick last year, she thought it would be a crowning moment in her career. Phillips grew up and went to school in Central Florida. She was returning to play before friends and family.

But describing her time with the Miracle, Phillips uses words such as “unappreciated” and “overlooked.” She spent most of her time on the bench, logging little more than 10 minutes a game and averaging only four points. The local fans chanting her name only made it harder to bear.

A woman of deep and quiet faith, Phillips remembers a day when her mother said to her, “You prayed to God to come back home and be to closer to your family. God’s given you that. And the other thing that you may want is to achieve and prosper and to grow in basketball. That very well may not happen here.”

Fortunately for the Liberty, it seems to be happening in New York. And fortunately for Phillips, coming to New York has meant working with coach Richie Adubato.

When one door closes, another opens

“I totally enjoy playing underneath him,” says Phillips. “He’s kind of taken me underneath his wing, and he just wants me to go out there and produce.”

From the moment Phillips joined the Liberty, Adubato has had nothing but praise for her. Scouting her in Italy during the off-season, he saw in her a player who could solidify the center position vacated by Kym Hampton.

“She’s an incredible player,” he said, “who’s been an unbelievable addition to this team. But the thing I found out about Tari is she’s a fierce competitor. She comes to play every night. And that fits in with the type of players we have right now, so that has helped us immensely.”

But he also recognized a player whose confidence needed rebuilding. And a player whose confidence could suffer further under the pressure of learning a new system, new players and a new role. The early part of the Liberty season was a pressure cooker and it wasn’t always pretty, but he has taken care to support and encourage Phillips.

She remembers Adubato reviewing the tape of a particularly poor game and thinking, ‘Please don’t rewind. Please don’t rewind. Please don’t rewind,’ all the time knowing that he would. But, she says, “he always finds out something good in all of that mess, all those mistakes. And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I never thought that. You know, Coach, yeah. Yeah! I see your point there!'” She laughs. “And it makes you feel good.”

“Richie does what it takes to get the best out of all his players,” says teammate Crystal Robinson, who also played with Phillips in the ABL. “He really is good with Tari. He accommodates her. And a lot of coaches are too stubborn for that. A lot of coaches’ egos are too big to just step down and understand the person. I think with Tari it’s a good fit because this is the first time I think that Tari has played for a coach that is like that.”

How good does Phillips feel? Check her numbers. This season she is playing more than 30 minutes a game, has 10 double-doubles, ranks 15th in the league in points per game, 11th in steals and fourth in rebounds.

Hanging tough together

The Liberty are built around the concept of heart and determination, and have been fueled by team chemistry. But chemistry is built over time, as players get to know one another on and off the court. They learn one another’s strengths and weaknesses.

Phillips remembers the June 30th game as a turning point for the team as a whole. The Liberty came back from an 18-point deficit in the last 13 minutes to defeat Indiana on Phillips’ last-second shot.

“That took a lot of looking into each other’s eyes and knowing, ‘Ok, yeah, you made that mistake. It’s okay,'” remembers Phillips. “A little pat there on your shoulder. A little, ‘Hey, I got your help on this one. Hey, if you push her this way, push her towards me, I’ll help you.’ That builds. That says, ‘Hey, you’re my sister. I’m going to help you when I can. We’re going to work together and do this.'”

“That’s important. You want to feel that. If you can feel that, then sometimes you can take risks. Going for a steal, knowing that you have a 90 percent chance, but that 10 percent I’m going to come and help you.”

A home away from home

Describing herself now that she’s with the Liberty, Phillips uses words like “comfortable” and “happy.” A big part of that comes from how quickly the Liberty fans have accepted her.

“To come out here and have people say, ‘You’re what this team needed.’ ‘We’re glad you’re here.’ ‘We’re so happy you’re here.’ ‘We’re glad that you’re part of the New York Liberty.’ And they say it to me a lot. Even those tough loses that we’ve had. It’s meant a lot. It’s like a family. Like a home away from home. I know that there’s a lot of people out there who’re supporting me, who want me to go out and do well.”

Phillips also calls herself determined. She believes the Liberty organization put its trust in her and she wants to honor that every time she goes out on the court. Coach Adubato has challenged her to be the best in the whole league at her position and to carry the team along with her. And if that garners her the Most Improved Player, Most Valuable Player, or a trip to the championship, she’s ready to accept it all. And accept it with a huge smile.

But thinking back to that dark time two months ago, Phillips knows she never could have anticipated all this success.

“Only God knew,” she says. “Knew my heartaches, my trials. He knew what I went through. When I got the call when I was in Portland and I knew I was going to be a part on the New York, I just kind of prayed. I said, ‘You know I’m moving once again, Lord.’ That’s all I said. ‘Wherever you have me go, I hope first of all that I’m in good health. That I have an open mind, I’m ready to receive whatever it is that they want me to do, and that I go out and do it well.’ That’s it. Point blank. That’s all I ever wanted to do.”

“And the rest . . .” She smiles. “That’s history that’s being played out right now.”

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