For years, Phil Gary has dreamed of playing Division I basketball. Now, thanks to fierce basketball skills, a new coach’s tough love and some handy family connections, that dream is coming true for the recent Malcolm X College graduate.
Gary, a 20-year-old point guard, has only been playing for the Malcolm X Hawks for the last year. But in that time, he’s been crucial to turning around the team, says coach Willie Scott.
“Phil has a lot to do with putting Malcolm X back on the map,” he says.
Prior to Gary's arrival, the Hawks frequently lost games by lopsided margins of 30, 40, even 50 points. This year, the team is much more competitive, Scott says, though it still won just one game.
Kimberly Hollingsworth, the dean of students and the athletic director at Malcolm X, called Gary’s leadership on the team “infectious.”
“Phil’s leadership was really critical in actually engaging our students and getting them excited about basketball again,” Hollingsworth says.
Before a recent practice session, Gary scarfed down a box of KFC kitchen, then bounded onto the court for a 5-on-5 scrimmage that had him staying outside of the three-point line and passing to other players just as often as he charged the net to take a shot.
“It used to be I could shoot, but he worked with me so much on my decision-making so I shoot less, and I feel like every shot I make is going on,” Gary says.
Since graduating from Malcolm X, Gary picked up a full-ride scholarship to Florida International University, a Division I team with the former Detroit Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas as its coach.
Thomas, Scott and Gary’s father Phil Gary, Sr., grew up together, Scott says, which helped give the younger Gary a foot in the door at FIU.
“I get the opportunity to play with a legend, so it was an easy pick,” Gary says.
Getting this far hasn’t always been easy, though.
Scott recruited Gary last year from Black Hawk College in Moline.
During practices, Scott says, Gary was only playing at 75 percent and refused to take his game up a notch. So he started kicking Gary out of practices until he put more effort into it.
“I was hoping that I wouldn’t push him so hard that he wouldn’t quit and not come back,” Scott says. “We were close. We were close a couple of times.”
Now as Gary prepares to head to Miami, he already has his sights on his next goals: taking FIU to the NCAA tournament next year and going pro after that.
“I want to be in the NBA,” Gary says. “That’s been my goal since I first touched a basketball.”
Though Gary won’t be playing for the Hawks this fall, Hollingsworth doesn’t think the team will suffer as a result.
“Clearly Phil’s skills is what led the team,” she says. “But this year everyone has grown and we’re going to have a much more well-rounded team.”
Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.