I’m really not good at goodbyes, but I’ll try my best.
The first time I saw Phil Reed — I don’t know how many years ago — he was a face in the background, a big, tough-looking football coach, one of several assistant coaches for the Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School football team, toiling on a hot late-summer day during a preseason practice. I didn’t know his name until much later, and it was even later after that when I first spoke to him at any considerable length beyond the exchange of pleasantries. Even then I didn’t really know Reed or appreciate what a special person he was. That came in time.
Phil Reed was a genuinely nice guy. A wonderful person, truly.
I found that out as I got to know him better during his past four seasons as the Southold High School boys basketball coach.
What I learned since his sad passing last week at the age of 59 was that I wasn’t the only one who recognized what a good man he was. As word of his death spread, tributes came flowing in. The outpouring of grief was remarkable. To say Reed was beloved is an understatement.
The man who had such a good heart also had a bad heart. Reed died while on his way home from a practice on Jan. 26. He was found on the Long Island Expressway.
Joe Read, the Miller Place girls basketball coach, said someone told him it was sad that Reed was alone during his final moments. Read countered: “He was never alone. He had so many friends.”
Reed’s death shook up the basketball community. His colleagues praised him, along with current and former players who returned to Long Island this past weekend to attend his wake.
The thing is, Reed was about more than Xs and Os. Much more.
“He was competitive, but actually the friendships meant more to him, the relationships, than really winning,” the Port Jefferson boys basketball coach, Keith Buehler, said. “That’s why everyone was heartbroken. The guy was a terrific human being.”
Reed surely loved coaching and sports, but he also loved people. One could tell. He was personable. One really couldn’t say a bad thing about him, and he didn’t have a bad word for other people, either.
Jeff Ellis, the former Southold coach who has stepped forward to serve as the team’s interim coach for the rest of the season, said Reed “could bring the good out of so many people.”
Skip Gehring, who serves as an assistant coach for Southold, called Reed “one of the most genuine, good-natured, honest people that I’ve come across.”
The special sauce Reed had was connecting with people, especially young people trying to find their way in the world. He had a gift for counseling them and imparting his wisdom.
“He’s one of the greatest people I ever met,” said one of his former Southold basketball players, Shayne Johnson. Johnson added, “Once something’s gone you realize how great it was and how great of a person he was.”
Reed was known for calling his players at home, asking them how they were doing, how their family was. He cared about them as people more than players.
Liam Walker, who graduated last year after becoming one of the best basketball players to come out of Southold, can testify to that. After Walker’s grandmother, who he had been close to, suffered a stroke, Reed continually asked about her.
Three days before Thanksgiving, Walker’s grandmother died on what Walker said “was easily the worst day of my life.”
Reed was one of the first people to arrive at the wake.
During the recent winter break, Walker and Reed talked over bagels one morning. They talked about basketball and how Walker’s family was holding up with the loss of his grandmother. Afterward, Reed drove Walker back to the high school, where they parted ways.
“Exiting the car I had one major regret,” Walker said. “I didn’t tell him I loved him. He knew I did, but I wish I could say it one last time. I did not plan on it being the last time I talked to Coach Reed.”
Reed liked to laugh, as does Read. Read coached the McGann-Mercy football team for a while, with Reed serving as the junior varsity coach. The two shared laughs. I remember the befuddled look on the face of one of the Southold/Greenport girls basketball players Read coached when he told her in a deadpan manner that he and Reed were brothers. (Read is white and Reed was black).
On another occasion, Read recalled a time when Reed, who was a counselor at Maryhaven Center of Hope in Riverhead, brought a young person to one of his football practices at McGann-Mercy. The young man watched the team practice for a while, then turned to Reed and said, “Coach, I don’t know, but I don’t think your team is that good.”
Kids say the darnedest things.
The Greenport boys basketball coach, Ev Corwin, admired Reed for the way he stayed grounded, regardless of the result of a game. “After a win or a loss, he was always the same,” Corwin said. “He was always gracious.”
One could tell his players loved him. Before leaving for home following games, they hugged him.
Reed touched a lot of lives. “I don’t think he realized the impact that he had,” said Read.
Those saddened by Reed’s loss can take solace in that he did what he loved to the end. Southold has struggled for much of this season, but the First Settlers won their last two games under Reed, including an upset of Bridgehampton.
“He had to have felt great about that,” Read said. “He had to.”
Photo Caption: Southold players and coaches bow their heads during a moment of silence before the First Settlers’ game at Port Jefferson Tuesday. (Credit: Garret Meade)
Bob Liepa is the sports editor of the Suffolk Times. He can be reached at [email protected].