Phil Reed, the longtime coach of the Southold boys basketball program, was more than just a team leader, his former players said. He was a mentor, a father figure and a man who made every student athlete feel like an equal.
“He treated me like I was one of his best friends,” said Kenji Fujita, a 2014 graduate who played on the junior varsity and varsity teams with Reed. “He would always reach out to his players … He made us feel like we could go to him for anything.”
Former Southold athletes were shocked to hear the news about the passing of their former coach, who died Tuesday night, according to school officials. He was 59.
Reed was the varsity boys basketball coach and had served as junior varsity coach for seven prior seasons. Throughout that time, he took special care to encourage and include all his players.
Fujita said Reed would call to check up on him during his high school career. The coach would run ideas past him for their upcoming games, giving the high schooler a sense of responsibility that he never took for granted. Even after Fujita graduated, Reed would call him once a week at college to check in, he said.
This past winter break, Fujita came back to the school to attend a practice. Reed, he said, was coaching his team just like he always did.
“A lot of what he taught to everyone was how to be a better person,” Fujita said. “We set up plays to make sure everyone had a chance to touch the ball.”
Another 2014 graduate, Michael Ryan, said Reed made sure to give every player a chance to shine on the court and personally praised each player after their games.
“He was a wonderful person,” Ryan said. “One of the nicest guys out there. He was one of the best people to be around as a growing teenager.” The team, he said, learned to persevere through tough times thanks to Reed.
“He was a father to me,” added former Southold athlete Matt McCarthy. “He was a really, really great man.”
Will Fujita, Fujita’s older brother and a 2012 graduate, said the coach created a sense of accountability among the junior varsity players, something many of them hadn’t been tasked with before.
“These were guys at a transitional period in their lives,” Fujita said. “[Reed] knew how to cater to that … Being a man. That’s what he was about teaching.”
Fujita, who is now studying at Providence College, said he met with Reed this December and helped mentor Southold students at Reed’s request. Now a student teacher, Fujita said he works to bring Reed’s lessons about responsibility and respect to his classrooms.
“It’s hard sometimes. I don’t know how he did it for so long … but I’m trying to do that now,” Fujita said.
Another Southold graduate, Dave Kubiak, 2007, also played under Reed when he coached the junior varsity team.
“He helped me a lot more than he probably knew,” Kubiak said. “He was the only reason why I went and kept playing. He was real good with making everybody, no matter how you played, feel that you were getting better.”
Above all, Reed had a “huge heart,” he said.
“He was just warm,” Kubiak added. “The whole team loved him. He was always smiling, always joking. He was just a big teddy bear.”
Kubiak said he can clearly remember one experience when he was 15-year-old. He had just been discouraged from playing baseball and felt like giving up on the sport. Reed took him aside and spoke to Kubiak about life and his career.
“He really drilled it through my head that no one’s going to tell you what to do in life,” Kubiak said. “I was 15 years old and this guy’s talking to me like a man. I’ll never forget it.”
He didn’t. Kubiak pursued baseball and now plays in an independent league in Connecticut. He still hopes to break through into higher leagues, so he can carry on Reed’s legacy and help encourage others.
“That guy really … wanted people to be the best they could be,” he said, getting choked up. “That’s definitely going to be something I think about for a while.”
Photo Credit: Garret Meade