Toughness is part of Phillips' DNA

By Tom Rietmann

INDIANAPOLIS -- Until Erin Phillips was 13 years old, she played Aussie-rules football in her homeland of Australia. She competed on teams comprised mostly of boys. She learned to take a hit and dish out a few, too.

“The physical side of things was something that didn't really bother her,” said Greg Phillips, Erin's father, who knows a little about tough sports as a former Australian Rules Football star and now a coach.

The Indiana Fever is currently the beneficiary of Erin Phillips' aggressive, relentless style. Football or basketball, she knows no other way.

Phillips' performance, especially after she took over as Indiana's starting point guard following a season-ending injury to Briann January, helped the Fever to a 21-13 record and the top seed in the WNBA Eastern Conference playoffs. That was just the beginning.

A cool and composed Phillips hit the winning shot in Game 1 of the conference semifinals against New York. And her overall solid play in the semifinal series was a plus for a Fever team that advanced to take on Atlanta in the conference finals starting on Thursday.

However, basketball didn't always go so smoothly for Phillips. She didn't begin playing the game until her early teenage years, and then it was mostly during lunch hour at her South Australia school. As a natural athlete, she graduated quickly to club basketball, but there was still one problem.

“When I first transitioned from football to basketball, I fouled out of a lot of basketball games early,” Phillips said. “It was a huge adjustment just trying to channel that physicality and basically be less physical.”

But gradually, Phillips learned to tone down her approach. She ascended through the basketball ranks, and the Connecticut Sun liked her enough to draft her in the 2005 second round. She went on to play for Australia's silver medal-winning team in the 2008 Olympics and also represented her country last year in the FIBA World Championships.

This past February, she signed with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, where she was looking forward to playing with fellow Australians Lauren Jackson and Belinda Snell. But in April, the Fever acquired her as part of a three-team trade.

At first, Phillips wasn't sure what to expect in Indiana.

“But I was very positive,” she said. “I'm a big believer in everything happening for a reason. I'm just so thankful it worked out like it has. I'm by far in the best situation possible for me.

“As I said to Kelly (Krauskopf, the Fever's general manager), it's kind of funny how things work out. Maybe you have to go down one route to get to another.”

Phillips didn't play in the WNBA last year as she trained with the Australian team. Returning to the league has required extra work, which she puts in on a regular basis, often on the Fever's off days with Indiana assistant coach Stephanie White. Phillips was still adjusting to Indiana's offensive and defensive systems when January went down, so the learning pace had to quicken.

“I think (White) has been really good for both Erin and (backup point guard Shannon) Bobbitt,” Fever Coach Lin Dunn said. “Steph played the point in college and professionally. She has been a really good mentor for Erin.”

Dunn said she has been impressed most by Phillips' ability to “learn on the fly.”

“She is really a student of the game,” Dunn said. “She does a lot of work with the computer, and writing down the things she needs to do.

“We were really fortunate to get Erin,” the coach added. “We liked her age (26), her toughness, just everything she had. She's a warrior and a competitor. She can defend and score and has the ability to get to the rim. She's got a presence about her.”

Phillips averaged 8.6 points and 2.4 assists during the 2011 regular season. She missed the final two games, sitting out with an ankle injury, but returned to average 8.0 points, 3.3 assists, 2.3 steals and 3.0 rebounds in the three-game semifinal series against New York.

And there was the game-winning shot -- the first of her career -- with her parents watching at Conseco Fieldhouse just after they had made the 25-hour trip from Australia.

Greg and Julie Phillips plan to stay with their daughter through this weekend and attend the conference finals opener at The Fieldhouse and also travel to Atlanta for Sunday's game. For Greg, whose team lost close championship games each of the past two years in the Adelaide Plains Football League, seeing his daughter in pursuit of a WNBA championship will help soothe the pain.

“I guess it's a blessing,” Erin said. “He can come over here and kind of forget about it.”

“That's two years of misery,” Greg said about his team's close losses. “I'm just glad to be involved with Erin winning.”

In Australia, the tight-knit Phillips family -- including Erin's older sisters, Rachel and Amy -- seldom miss a Fever game, watching on the Internet. Being in Indianapolis to see her in person has been special for her parents.

“The people here are just fabulous,” Julie said. “They're really, really lovely. They just keep telling me how much they love Erin and they're happy she's here with the Fever.”