LIBERTY CENTER TARI PHILLIPS MAKING SWEET MUSIC IN BIG APPLE
By Rob Peterson
This is a story about someone you should get to know. Some already do. Her teammates realize her value. Her coach quickly found out about her versatility. Basketball experts recognize her talent. The hometown fans have rewarded her.
And opponents are slowly learning. They're always the last to figure it out: It's the quiet ones that will get you.
"She's my silent assassin," New York Liberty coach Richie Adubato said with a sly grin.
Voted as a starter in the 2001 WNBA All-Star Game, it's been difficult to keep quiet about New York Liberty center Tari Phillips lately. The WNBA's most improved player in 2000, Phillips has continued to make a name for herself in the league's biggest city this season.
"She is not a secret anymore," ESPN analyst and former Detroit Shock coach Nancy Lieberman said. "She's tough, quick and has an attitude of tremendous confidence. It goes along with the city she plays in."
The 6-1 Phillips is the Liberty's Swiss Army knife of a center. She can corkscrew opponents in the post with a myriad of moves. She can slice her way to the hoop from the wing. She can float a jumper over a frustrated foe. Or she can shake her defender -- usually 77 inches of stunned synapses -- with a lightning quick crossover.
On defense, she can pick opponents clean, as she did during the Liberty's 72-65 win over Indiana on July 9. Showing surprising quickness, Phillips stepped up on a pick-and-roll, made the steal and raced down the floor and scored an easy two. Her father, John, nicknamed her "Gazelle." Plays like this make it easy to see why.
Phillips' talents have blossomed in New York after one season in Orlando in 1999 and after being acquired and traded by the Portland Fire before the 2000 season.
"This year she's showing her versatility," Adubato said. "We play her at center against bigger players. She's quick enough that she can guard small forwards and step out on guards. She's taking a lot of pounding, but she's playing marvelously.
"She's turning out to be one of the best players in the WNBA."
The signs of progress have been there. After she scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds -- her third straight night scoring 20-plus points -- against the Fever on July 9, her name appeared in lights near Broadway. The Madison Square Garden message board on Seventh Ave. flashed her name:
Tari Phillips, 20 points, 14 rebounds
The day before, the WNBA announced that fans had selected her to start at center for the Eastern Conference in the 2001 WNBA All-Star Game in Orlando, her hometown.
"It's a great honor," Phillips said. "This is the second chance I've had to play in an All-Star game, but being selected to start in my hometown, I'm really looking forward to it.
"It moves me to think about it, playing in front of my family and the people who have supported me all along. It would be great for my mother to see me play. She's not doing too well, and I owe everything to my mom. Hopefully, she'd be able to make it to see me play."
Despite being described as "quiet" and "private" by teammates and coaches, Phillips didn't hesitate to talk about her mother, Doris, who has sarcoidosis, a disease that can attack any organ but most often the lungs, where small areas of inflamed cells can appear on parts of the lung. Doris Phillips may be moved to New York to get on a list for a lung transplant.
"She's my rock," Phillips said. "She's been strong and provided loving support to me throughout the years. She's dedicated her life to supporting her family. She's always supported the things that I have done and she has celebrated it with love and support."
Phillips needed that support three years ago when she spent a disappointing year with her hometown Orlando Miracle. She was a two-time All-Star in the American Basketball League, including MVP of the 1997 game. She joined the Miracle in 1999, and then … nothing. She averaged 4.1 points and 2.1 rebounds. Memories of that year have made her emergence in New York all the more sweet.
All-Star guard and teammate Teresa Weatherspoon agreed: "She could be the MVP."
That's a long way from the courts in Winter Park, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, where Phillips, the tallest of four sisters, began taking on the boys -- and winning.
"I became interested by watching on TV and saw the Olympics," Phillips said. "I would also spend time in summer programs playing basketball in Winter Park. I'd play against the guys. I'd line 'em up! Started playing them, one-on-one, play all day and beat them all and go through them again. By then end of the day I was so tired."
Now, she hones her skills in what is billed as "The World's Most Famous Arena."
"New York has the best fans and best fan support," Phillips said. "From the front office to the floor, it's a totally different feeling. I enjoy the city. It's just such a big city to be able to do what you want. Times Square, Central Park. You can definitely broaden your horizons here.
"But there's still a lot to do. It's about doing everything to its fullest, adding muscle and standing strong. It's about being smarter and well-rounded. We're women; we love what we're doing on the court and we thrive on the support we get off of it. And that's the reason we do what we do."
New York is also a place that appreciates multi-talented athletes. In addition to her on-court excellence, Phillips has a promising singing career.
She sang the national anthem in Madison Square Garden before a nationally televised audience. She dreams of the day when she and her sisters can record an a cappella gospel CD.
"I love to sing," Phillips said. "It makes me happy. It's an expression, an outlet. And to go out there and be willing to perform, as a woman, to go out there and to sing is very personal to me."
Phillips has found her comfort zone in both, whether it's setting a pick in the high post or singing with her sisters.
"We have a feel for each other, like we do on the court here," Phillips said. "It's a constant challenge to come out and make sweet harmony on the floor and in the studio.
"And that's what I want to do, make sweet harmony."