CHARLOTTE, N.C. Charlotte Hornets center Elden Campbell was a Los Angeles Lakers rookie when Magic Johnson made his stunning announcement that he was HIV positive in 1991, and little else that has happened pertaining to basketball since has affected him that much.
Until this Year From Hell he has gone through in the Queen City.
“When Magic made his announcement, I thought I had seen it all,” Campbell said. “It was unbelievable. I remember where I was and what I was doing. Then there was this.”
Campbell was referring to Jan. 12, the day he and many of his teammates rounded a sharp corner on Tyvola Road not even a mile away from the Charlotte Coliseum after a shootaround and encountered the wreckage of guard Bobby Phills’ Porsche 994 Cabriolet. Phills, one of the better-liked players in the league, was killed when his vehicle, going more than 100 mph, slammed into another car. Two others in the crash suffered only minor injuries.
“Most of us got there in time to see them pronounce Bobby dead,” Campbell said. “I saw the body. It’s something I’ll never forget. Never, ever.”
Phills’ death was the low point in a season that has challenged the Hornets with incredible off-court trials. That makes their appearance in the playoffs even more stunning.
An auto accident Oct. 27 put guard Eldridge Recasner in the hospital with a partially collapsed lung, a broken shoulder and other injuries. Forward Derrick Coleman, who was arrested for drunk driving, was acquitted. To this day, their relationship is icy at best.
Owner George Shinn wound up on Court TV accused of sexual assault during a sordid civil trial in December. Shinn claimed that all the acts were consensual, and a Columbia, S.C., jury acquitted him. According to his agent, former player Scott Burrell was traded because he and the owner shared the same love interest.
Recasner’s sister, Schwuan, was in a coma for several days after a Christmas Eve auto accident.
Forward Anthony Mason was arrested last month at a Harlem nightclub and charged with misdemeanor assault. He was late for a game in New Jersey the next day, and the Hornets lost.
The Hornets also suffered serious injuries to players like All-Star guard Eddie Jones and key reserve Brad Miller that kept the team from jelling and fulfilling the lofty expectations many had for them. None other than Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy had picked the Hornets, with their burly inside players and athletic guards, to win the Eastern Conference championship.
Obviously, it didn’t happen. But the Hornets somehow made the playoffs despite all their sorrows and are tied with Philadelphia 1-1 in their first-round series after Monday’s 108-98 victory at the Coliseum. Despite the Jerry Springer-like drama surrounding the Hornets, Charlotte won 14 of its last 16 games to overtake the 76ers for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
“If things had remained intact, I think we could have been able to fight for the conference championship,” coach Paul Silas said. “I really do. If things had remained the same, if Bobby hadn’t gone down, and E.J. [Jones] and Brad Miller hadn’t been hurt, I think we could have been in great shape to at least be in the running for the whole thing. But when all those things occurred, to be where we are now shows more character than I ever thought this team had.”
Without question, Phills’ death was the biggest hurdle. A family man and father of two young children, he was the embodiment of true grit. Drafted in the second round out of tiny Southern University (La.) in 1991, Phills bounced back and forth between the NBA and CBA and eventually was named to the NBA All-Defensive second team in 1996 with Cleveland.
The players and the coaching staff suffered privately and publicly over his death, but it hit guard David Wesley the hardest. That’s because Wesley, Phills’ best friend, was racing his teammate when the accident occurred. Wesley saw the horrific accident unfold in his rear view mirror. To this day he picks and chooses when to talk about the tragedy, which for him was accompanied by a reckless driving charge.
“I still can remember him lying there,” Wesley said. “I mean, he was there, but he was gone.”
Some might suggest that the Hornets’ problems were self-induced, the byproduct of a team and organization totally out of control. Coleman and Mason have had legal problems before, Wesley and Phills were breaking the law, and Shinn was, at the very least, acting boorishly.
“Some people have suggested that,” Silas said. “But when a person loses his life, those kind of things become secondary.”
Campbell said the team has dedicated the rest of the season to the memory of its captain but adds that the players don’t talk about it much. After games, win or lose, the Hornets gather in a circle at midcourt and quietly call out Phills’ name in prayer.
Otherwise, they just try to get the most out of themselves on the court. And playing basketball, something they have done all their lives, has become more than just a job.
It is a balm.
“This is probably the one thing that is helping us stay as normal as possible to get through it,” Campbell said. “I think it helps that it is something that we don’t talk about a whole lot. Everybody thinks of him.”
Campbell then looked at the empty locker stall next to his where his dead teammate used to dress.
“I have to catch myself sometimes,” he said. “This season is definitely for Bobby.”