Her teammates would watch, from time to time, as Reynetta Phillips walked onto the campus of Savannah State University. Sometimes, the heat of the day was unbearable.
They had a lot of questions about the new addition to the women’s basketball team. Though she was a stranger to the people currently on the team, she was no stranger to the university, Coach Cedric Baker, or the Savannah State University women’s basketball program.
"It says a lot about Reynetta as a person to see her so hungry for another opportunity after what she's been through," Baker said.
Phillips was returning to the university and athletics after leaving for six years.
Her second attempt at college basketball came with more than the regular stresses of a student-athlete. This time, she came with a child.
Basketball Saved Her
The Marshall, Texas, native- standing 6 feet 8 inches tall- began playing basketball when she was 6 years old. She grew up playing multiple sports but realized her interest was in basketball.
“Basketball was something that I grew up around, and I just love it; I love the sport,” Phillips said. In addition to growing up around it and just loving the game, she believes that basketball not only changed her life; it saved it.
Children, teens, and young adults around the world can say sports gave them opportunities to be better- better people and better financially. Sports have also supplied them with better opportunities to receive an education.
Sports provide a way to keep children off of the streets, providing them with a sense of a safe haven.
The Frank Callen Boys & Girls Club in Savannah, Ga., does just that.
According to its website, the Frank Callen Boys & Girls Club promotes academic success, good character and citizenship, healthy lifestyles, better outcomes, and aims to have a positive impact on the children’s lives.
The club works to coordinate sports and recreational activities to develop fitness, illustrate positive use of leisure time, and provide skills for stress management and social skills.
Unit Director Karen Hamilton says she views the boys and girls club as being a positive alternative.
“At the boys and girls club we provide a positive, safe place for kids ages 5 to 18 to come have fun and learn leadership skills, enrichment skills, and good character skills,” she said. “It’s just a safe, positive place for kids to learn and grow.”
Larry Johnson, the Frank Callen Boys & Girls Club gym director and coach, says he feels as though his role in the children’s lives is an important one.
“My role here is…it’s more than being a coach. It’s more being a father figure to a lot of our young men and plus our young ladies too,” he said.
Johnson said he recognizes the importance and the benefits of recreation, and, specifically, the game of basketball to the children at the boys and girls club. Though sports and the game of basketball is important, their academics are just as important to him.
“It kind of keeps them in the gym, keeps them motivated,” he said. “It’s something that we use to also get them to do their school work. You have to do your school work in order to play, so grades have gone up. A lot of them have turned into great young men.”
Being a father figure to the young boys and girls of the boys and girls club is important to Johnson, and his impact on the children’s lives could be the reason why some choose to attend the boys and girls club or participate in the program’s basketball team.
Phillips lost her father when she was 17, and, while growing up in a single parent home with her mother, she was without a father figure.
College Cut Short
While a number of factors brought her to SSU, Phillips said the location and the members of the coaching staff made it feel right.
Like any other home, Phillips' college and women’s basketball career came with challenges.
Phillips learned that she was pregnant during the 2009-10 basketball season.
“I actually had my first pregnancy and I ended up losing my child. So, due to the conditions, that I was up under, I had to leave, but then Malarie came along about two months after that. I got pregnant again, and I thought it was just being blessed with the first baby that I didn’t originally get to have,” Phillips said.
There is no doubt in Phillips' mind that giving birth to her daughter Malarie was a blessing. Though it was a blessing, both pregnancies put a hold on her life and her career.
Phillips credits her years in sports as part of the reason she could handle being a single parent.
Being a parent is “very challenging and it takes a lot of dedication, which is why basketball has trained me to be a hard worker,” she said.
Phillips says that basketball also helped her get her life back to where it needed to be. “It teaches you how to grow and be responsible. It also teaches you how to get over things that are hard and your fears,” she said.
A lot of challenges came with having a child, but Phillips says basketball helped her face those challenges. “The thing that took me from the sport brought me back,” she said.
Before returning to college, Phillips moved around quite a bit. She lived in New York, Louisiana and Texas. While living in several bad neighborhoods, she worked as a dietary patient cook, living paycheck-to-paycheck.
She made a decision to move back to Savannah in July 2016 because of its location, the environment, and the energy she missed so much. However this move, much like the others, was not a smooth transition.
“I was in a bad area in Savannah, which was Yamacraw Village, which was very bad. I witnessed four killings in less than three months of me staying there,” she said.
As if being a parent was not enough of a challenge, Phillips did whatever she could to travel from her downtown Savannah apartment to practice, film sessions, meetings, and workouts for the team.
Assistant Coach Ronald Booker began to give Phillips rides every day.
It was clear that Phillips' living situation was different from the rest of the team.
Baker, Savannah State University’s women’s basketball head coach, made arrangements for Reynetta to move into on-campus housing.
“I decided to move on campus due to that fact of a very dangerous neighborhood is not a good place to raise your child, and it was very difficult to handle business outside of campus,” she said. Along with her decisions came great sacrifice.
According to an article published in the New York Times, neighborhood dynamics can have long-term effects on children. The article, which cited a study by Eric Chyn, said bad neighborhoods have a larger impact on low-income families with less motivated parents.
Phillips is not an unmotivated parent. She is constantly chasing for better- for herself and for her daughter.
Moving on campus gave Phillips a safer environment to live in and also eliminated the issues that she had with being able to get to campus for basketball, class, and on campus activities. Malarie, however, could not live in Bowen-Smith Hall with her mother. The young child lives with a relative in a safe environment. Phillips did not want to go into detail about her daughter’s living situation, but says that she visits Malarie almost every weekend.
“I was able to get another chance that most people actually don’t get,” she said.
Phillips is convinced that the game of basketball and the second opportunity to play the game saved her life without a doubt.
“It was no way that with my financial status that I was able to go to a Division 1 school, and be able to maintain tuition, and take care of a household. It was just physically impossible for me to do that,” she said.
Phillips is convinced that the game of basketball and the second opportunity to play the game saved her life without a doubt.
“I was able to get another chance that most people actually don’t get,” she said. “It was no way that with my financial status that I was able to go to a Division 1 school, and be able to maintain tuition, and take care of a household. It was just physically impossible for me to do that.”
Having a scholarship- whether it’s full-ride or partial- helps students more than some people realize.
According to a Pew Research Center study, the growing pile of student-loan debt has become a significant burden for millions of Americans, particularly young adults.
For Johnson High School’s girls basketball star Alexis Pierce, the opportunity to get a free education is one of the many reasons basketball means so much to her.
“Now I’m going to play basketball on a collegiate level for free, paying for my education so basketball has been really good to me,” she said.
The senior will start her collegiate career with a full scholarship at Jacksonville University in the summer.
The opportunity to get a college education, individual and team accolades and accomplishments, and the competitive edge of the game are all factors that play a big role in the importance of basketball for Pierce.
“About two years ago, my 9th grade summer going into my 10th grade year, I tore my ACL. It was really tough for me because I couldn’t play basketball for six months,” she said.
At an unexpected moment, for a while, Alexis thought her career had come to an end.
Through it all, she refused to stay in that negative space. Through hard work and intense rehabilitation, she did whatever she had to do to get back to the game she loved and cherished.
“That’s what really motivated me even more to play basketball because anything can happen; anything can be taken away from you in a blink of an eye,” Pierce said.
Velicia Bell, who played basketball for Carrollton High School located in Carrollton, Ga., from 2004 to 2008 had a similar injury experience. Bell had torn her ACL years before her last and final high school game in 2008.
This was also the state championship game. She tore her ACL again during the game and tried to play through it until she could not take another step.
Coaches, trainers, and team managers rushed to the court as she started to collapse and carried her off the court. The crowd and long-term fans of Bell stood in disbelief.
"Being told that I could never play basketball again in my life was something I never thought I'd hear," said Bell.
Every college offer and opportunity was null and void.
According to a study by the NCAA, while nearly 8 million students are currently participating in high school athletics in the United States, only 480,000 of them will compete at NCAA schools. Only a fraction of those college competitors make it to the professional level.
According to the NCAA, fewer than 1 percent of college athletes play professionally. Women have an even harder time getting to the professional level than men.
Graph comparing number of NCAA participants to number that are eligible to and actually go pro
There is life after sports.
For some, that life consists of those same people teaching what they have learned. For others that life consists of applying the things that sports taught them.
Coach Shon Thomaston, varsity girl’s basketball head coach at Carrollton High School, stands passionately behind the beneficial effects of sports.
Through his 23 years of coaching, Thomaston has witnessed many of the ways sports can impact one’s life.
“Sports is the greatest teacher of life lessons with its many ups and downs, highs and lows, peaks and valleys; I’ve witnessed sports bring communities together,” he said.
Among other things, Thomaston says that playing sports is one of the few times when all people- of any race- come together for a common goal.
There are a lot of things that play a role in his passion behind sports and coaching, but Thomaston has no doubt that the best part about being a coach is being able to witness the maturation process of his kids right before his eyes.
“I live to help mold every kid that I work with into a productive citizen and teach the discipline and work ethic that is necessary to survive in the workplace and world,” he said.
Thomaston said in his years of coaching, there have been a few players he’s had who were special.
Among them is Karisma Boykin.
Boykin played varsity basketball for Thomaston from 2005 to 2009. She ran track, as well.
Along with individual accomplishments, broken records, and legacies left behind, Boykin was a star player on the 2009 state championship team. It was the first- and still only- state championship for the Carrollton Lady Trojans.
Boykin now stands beside Thomaston as the assistant girl’s basketball coach. She is also the head coach for Carrollton Junior High School’s girl’s track and field team.
“If I did not have sports, I would not be the person I am today,” Boykin said. “Where I’m from, nothing goes on here and if you stay here you will be like the norm, and basketball was an escape for me,” she said.
Now known as “Coach Kaye,” Boykin aims to impact young athletes’ lives just as others impacted hers.
According to a 2016 Gallup study commissioned by the NCAA, former student-athletes are leading other college graduates in most of the elements the poll measured for well-being.
Former student-athletes are more likely to be employed, than non-student-athlete graduates. According to the study, 82 percent of former student-athletes were employed either full time or part time, compared with 78 percent of other graduates. Seventy-one percent of former student-athletes were employed full time.
There are some negative effects of playing sports in school.
Leonard Cochran, was an athlete in his time at Central High School also located in Carrollton, Ga.
Cochran, however, was not as focused as most student-athletes seem to be.
Leonard was a superstar in high school who had an opportunity to play at the college level but was not as successful with dealing with distractions.
Cochran went to college leaving his girlfriend and her daughter behind. On top of that, he says that his coach was difficult to deal with. “If we did not win, eating was up to us,” he said.
He went home whenever he had a chance, and he lost focus in the classroom.
Cochran flunked out during his first year of college.
After returning home to Carrollton things changed for Leonard, and things change quickly.
He started a family of his own, lived paycheck to paycheck, and began to struggle with gambling addictions.
“When I made the decision to live for Christ things started to change for me,” he said, “Not a moment sooner.”
Cochran became an elder, and, years later, became a pastor for A Place of Refuge in Newnan, Ga. Its vision is to make people productive in every area of their lives.
Though Cochran’s life consisted of a number of obstacles and dead ends, his son had his own struggles with a different approach.
Shermod Cochran, another former Carrollton High School basketball player, says the good outweighs the bad.
“It is very easy to get distracted as a student-athlete,” he said. “When you think about all the people and things that come at you because they think you’re a superstar or they think you’re this or you’re that it can be hard to stay focused.”
Shermod Cochran reminisced on his days as a student-athlete. “In that world on that court, it feels like everything is about you and when you get out into the real world you quickly realize life is not all about you,” he said.
Shermod Cochran uses this experience to help guide his students, as a high school history teacher, and his athletes, as a coach, to overcome obstacles in better ways than he did. “Teaching and coaching young men and women to become successful is one of my greatest pleasures,” he said.While being a coach at his alma mater speaks volumes about his character, he is in the music ministry and is a youth leader in his father’s church.
Never Looking Back
Last basketball season and years before are behind Reynetta Phillips.
As post-season workouts start for the women’s basketball program at Savannah State University, Phillips aims to work hard in order to fill big shoes as a post player next season.
With her height, her effort, her determination, and her many reasons to be motivated she looks to accomplish great things and assist the women’s basketball team in any way she can.
Thinking back on how her life was before her second chance leaves her with no doubt that she is blessed.
“I was on the borderline of living in poverty, and financially, I had just enough money to pay bills”, Phillips said.
Phillips says that there are times that she questions if basketball is something she can handle when considering the conditioning required and her lack of playing time last year. Whenever she is questioning herself and her abilities she says that she is reminded of her life before this opportunity and her focus quickly changes. She says that she is grateful for for the opportunity that has been given to her and plans to make the most out of it both on and off the court.
Phillips looks to be a better mother, a better student, and a better basketball player as she moves forward in life.
Leaving her past behind, she plans to get her degree in Sociology and pursue a career that will lead her to a better life and ensure that her daughter is well taken care of without going through the things she had to.
It is More Than Just a Game
Sports is a gateway to a multitude of opportunities, it opens doors and provides stability to individuals who decide to participate. Sport is a microcosm of society. Participating in a sport builds character, discipline and relationships that participants build upon long after they are done competing. Behind the big games, roaring crowds and championship smiles, lies a deeper meaning with the sports we hold so dear. It changes lives, mold lives, and saves lives.
While there are negative effects and outcomes, most feel as though the good outshines the bad. Coach Shon Thomaston believes that there is 2 percent of people that sports does not have a positive effect on and those are selfish people. He says that the 98 percent eventually force the 2 percent to become uncomfortable and quit.
“I’ve seen it be a safe haven for troubled youth and also be therapy for people going through struggle,” Thomaston said. “Take sports away and you will see society change for the worse.”