Terrence Phillips becomes fan favorite for the present and the future

Tori Schafer: “Terrence posts all those things on social media not because he wants likes for it, but because he likes doing it and that’s his way to show appreciation for the other sports on campus that he cares about.”
Left: Missouri guard Terrence Phillips (1) makes a drive toward the basket and dishes the ball off to a teammate during the game against South Carolina Feb. 16, 2016, in Mizzou Arena. Middle: Missouri Tiger guard Terrence Phillips (1) goes up for a three-pointer during the Rally For Ryan game Feb. 13, 2016, against Tennessee. Right: Missouri Tiger guard Terrence Philips (1) goes up for a contended layup in the basketball game in Mizzou Arena on Feb. 3, 2016, against the Ole' Miss Rebels.

It’s an unconventional art form: See the ball, find the ball and jump a table to save the ball from landing out of bounds.

Those are the steps to the basketball masterpiece that Mizzou Twitter termed “table-jumping,” an art form Missouri men’s basketball’s point guard has mastered. It is the acrobatic nature of this play and the frequency of them that generated such a response from fans, but in full, it’s only a microcosm of the support that the 5-foot-11 freshman from Oak Hill Academy has garnered in this 2015-16 season.

Terrence Phillips has become one of the most popular athletes on campus not solely by making these game-changing plays and not just because he’s Mizzou’s starting point guard, but also by using the tools available to a student-athlete in the 21st century.

What tools? You know, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram — for some athletes, these platforms can lead to trouble. But for athletes like Phillips, they can build brands.

Phillips was born in California, grew up in Italy and played high school basketball in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. At Missouri, he has endured more than five times the losses he did in high school. He’s been thrown to the forefront in one of the toughest rebuilding projects in the country.

The dismissals of teammates, the transfers, the suspensions, the nine-game losing streak and the self-imposed NCAA violations have made it tough. It’s safe to say that in one year as a college athlete, Phillips has seen a lot.

Yet, he’s embraced it every step of the way — including the way he’ll approach next year.

“I think everything that we’ve been through will be big time for us next year, especially with me and (Kevin Puryear) starting,” Phillips said. “We know what it’s like to start and play in big games at places like Kentucky and Texas A&M, and hopefully the guys are going to work hard through the offseason so that we can have a better start next season.”

Terrence Phillips (right) poses for a picture with his mom Alice Knox (left) and his brother Brandon Jennings (right) of the Orlando Magic. COURTESY OF ALICE KNOX

The Road Traveled

Alice Knox returned from a week’s stay Orlando last Sunday — a week that granted her access to watch her 26-year-old son play in the NBA.

Brandon Jennings, point guard for the Orlando Magic, is Knox’s son and Phillips’ half-brother. This trip was different than past trips to games for Knox, who had become accustomed to having Phillips as a travel companion.

When Phillips was 12, Jennings accepted an offer to play for Lottomatica Virtus Roma, a professional team in Italy. So Phillips and Knox moved to Italy.

Jennings struggled with SAT scores and was going to have limited college choices coming out of Oak Hill Academy. That, combined with the limitations by the NBA rules prohibiting an athlete to go pro straight out of high school, forced Jennings to think of the alternative option to college, which ultimately led to their move.

Andre Hutson is a former Michigan State forward and teammate of Jennings’ in Rome. An eight-year veteran in Europe when Jennings first came over, Hutson decided to take the highly touted guard under his wing.

“When you’re an American first coming over, it’s hard to come to grips with different foods and different lifestyles in other countries,” Hutson said. “I took a role in trying to help them out, but Brandon always had a great support system from his mother and from Terrence. They were at all practices and made meals, and I remember seeing Terrence running around after practice and shooting shots. They just had a really good relationship.”

Hutson said this relationship was the key to dealing with the difficult transition. Although supremely talented, Jennings wasn’t earning the playing time he thought he deserved when he first arrived.

Jennings was signed to a lucrative Under Armour deal as a teenager and called “one of the top talents that I’ve ever seen” by Roma’s general manager, Dejan Bodiroga. He wasn’t supposed to struggle at first.

But he did. It was an adjustment.

“Brandon was only able to log five or 10 minutes per game, and it was tough for me because I knew how good he was and to see the disappointment after each game not playing,” Hutson said. “From Terrence’s standpoint, seeing that probably hurt him too.”

Jennings averaged only 6.3 points per game whereas in high school, he averaged more than 35. That lack of success did hurt Phillips, but it drove him. It drove Phillips to be like his brother, and although he excelled in football as a teenager, he followed in Jennings’ footsteps by playing basketball at Oak Hill.

Hutson was surprised when he heard that Phillips was Missouri’s point guard. For him, it was a sign of the times, but he said it made him proud.

“I vaguely remember Terrence going to some school and playing basketball, but Brandon used to joke with him like, ‘he ain’t doing nothing with those kids,’” Hutson said. “This is a total surprise. I actually want to tune in now, and I looked him up and was shocked he was a point guard somewhere.”

Missouri Tigers Russell Woods and Terrence Phillips go through their pregame routine during the announcement of the stating lineups for the whiteout game against Mississippi State University on Jan. 30 in Mizzou Arena.Photo by JORDAN KODNER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The Current Stop

Tori Schafer watches film after each home game with Terrence Phillips.

“He knows I’m basketball illiterate,” Schafer said.

Schafer is Phillips’ girlfriend. As of Wednesday, the sophomore is also the Missouri Students Association vice president-elect.

Schafer says coming to college, she refused to date an athlete due to the stigma that she now says is false, but that was before she met Phillips over the summer.

“We met when he was first moving into the program to start summer training,” Schafer said. “He was locked out of his room, and I helped him get in his room and the first thing I said to him (jokingly) was, ‘Wow, Mizzou basketball players really can’t do anything.’”

That led to Phillips finding her on Instagram, and then nagging her to meet him for ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery. Schafer ultimately succumbed.

“We went out and got Cold Stone and sat on the columns for three hours and just talked about life,” Schafer said. “He told me about how his brother played in the NBA, about his trip to Fiji, and I realized how well-rounded he was and that his only goals in life weren’t just basketball. That’s what started the friendship and the relationship and here we are now.”

In a sense, Schafer symbolizes the way Phillips has grown on the fanbase.

Is it his charisma? Is it his swagger?

Schafer mentions all of that, as well as instances like his contributions to her sorority.

“He’s very interested in things like Greek Life because that’s not something a lot of basketball players are involved in,” Schafer said. “When I had my sorority philanthropy dinner, he came and was supporting us and had posters out.”

The Missouri fans that make up his 5,000-plus Twitter following see that as well, and they can relate to his true love for Missouri sports.

Schafer attributes it to his genuine appreciation for Mizzou sports and the response that his support generates.

“He is a die-hard Tiger fan, and he posts all those things on social media not because he wants likes for it, but because he likes doing it and that’s his way to show appreciation for the other sports on campus that he cares about,” Schafer said.

It’s hard to imagine someone reacting to Mizzou’s 10–20 season better than Phillips, who stays upbeat and focused on a daily basis.

In all avenues, Phillips supports Schafer and wants to get involved. Their relationship is an avenue for him to take his mind off of the game. And watching film accomplishes the same for Schafer.

“I think for me personally it’s nice because I get a break from student government and politics and internship and basketball is a whole different world,” Schafer said. “At first, I knew Terrence was frustrated with the fact the media kept saying, ‘Mizzou is a young team, Mizzou is a young team,’ but then it finally hit him, like, ‘yes, we are a young team and yes, we are going to have these challenges.’

“There’s a lot of determined people at the arena and it’s cool to see them progress.”

Missouri guard Terrence Phillips (1) gives Rhyan Loos a fist bump after handing her a team-signed game ball following the win against Tennessee for the Rally for Rhyan game Feb. 13. Photo by JORDAN KODNER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The Road Ahead

Frank Martin doesn’t just hand out compliments. Ask anyone familiar with college basketball and they’ll tell you the South Carolina men’s basketball coach is about as fierce as they come.

In one of the highlights of Missouri’s season, the Tigers knocked off Martin’s Gamecocks. After the game, Martin spoke highly of Phillips.

“When you watch them, you can tell that young man is a competitor and he’s fun to watch," Martin said.

Martin wasn’t the first opposing coach to mention him.

After the opening game of the season, a win for Mizzou, Wofford coach Mike Young said of Phillips: "I really like that kid. I really like what he brings to the table."

Then, Chris Mack, the coach of No. 5 Xavier, said of Phillips after Mizzou’s early-season loss, "If Terrence Phillips shoots the ball the way he did the other night, it makes him even more dangerous."

Even Maryland-Eastern Shore coach Bobby Collins said, "Phillips hit some big shots for Mizzou, and he was on the end of every big run they had."

What evokes these comments? Well, for Martin, it was the effort — an undeniable aspect of Phillips’ game. That’s what drives the table-jumping. That’s what drives him to post pictures on Twitter of an empty gym late at night.

“When you watch them, you can tell that that young man is a competitor,” Martin said. “He’s going to be real good.”

Mizzou coach Kim Anderson has talked a lot about the freshman point guard over this season — mostly speaking with constructive criticism. Although he’s said “Phillips has gotten stronger,” and that “he is a clear leader for us” at times this year, there’s always been a “but.”

It’s this type of psyche that certain coaches use with players. Some to prove a point, some to contain their ego and some because they know the players’ contributions are critical to the team’s success.

Nobody can explain this specific relationship, but Phillips takes it in stride. With one game to play on Saturday night against Florida, the last for senior center Ryan Rosburg, what hangs in the balance for this program is a question mark.

Rosburg, having been through it all, thinks Phillips is a big piece in answering that conundrum.

“There’s a lot of guys that could potentially be leaders and it’s not necessarily going to be a passing of the baton,” Rosburg said in his last presser Thursday. “Terrence Phillips, though, is a phenomenal leader, and knowing that he’s going to be around for four years, he’s going to bring stability to the program. His attitude and his charisma and the way he approaches this team and the game is really going to help them.”

It’s more than Phillips’ play and leadership that makes him, well, him. Sure, the social media aspect contributes to it, and so does his family history, but his attitude and his caring for people like Rhyan Loos matters.

Rhyan Loos is the daughter of assistant coach Brad Loos. She was diagnosed with cancer in October and underwent successful cancerous tumor removal surgery Wednesday in New York.

Saturday, Feb. 13, was the highlight of Missouri’s season.

The school raised $50,000 that day, beat Tennessee in an afternoon game, and the game ball went to none other than little Rhyan. Want to know who gave it to her?

You guessed it: Terrence Phillips.

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