2016 Sports Person of the Year: Phil Reed
A brown teddy bear that sits on Lorraine Reed’s bed is very much a part of her daily routine. Every night she talks to the bear and gives it a hug. The stuffed animal is important to her not so much for what it is as for who it reminds her of — her late husband, Phil Reed.
“That was my Phil, my big teddy bear,” she said as she showed off the bear in her East Islip home one cold December morning.
From a distance, Phil was an imposing figure, perhaps even an intimidating one to those who didn’t know him. But it wouldn’t take long after talking to him to realize that, in truth, he was a big softy with a kind heart that matched his beaming smile. This bear of a man was a teddy bear.
That heart and smile that could uplift spirits endeared him to Lorraine when they first met Sept. 18, 1981, at a nightclub in Ronkonkoma when he asked her for a dance.
What was her initial impression?
“He had a nice butt,” she said, laughing.
Of course, there was more.
“He was just the sweetest man from the moment I met him,” she said. “When I knew I was in love with him was when we went to see ‘E.T. [the Extra-Terrestrial’ movie] and you know the part when E.T. dies, or everybody thinks he dies? Phil was crying. Tears were running down his face. He was trying to turn his head and sniffling into his neck. So that was it for me. You know, I just said, ‘This is the one for me.’ ”
They got married on Aug. 30, 1986, and had a daughter, Jessica.
Lorraine knew going in that sports were part of the package. Phil played football and basketball for Islip High School, going on to become a football player for Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. His ambition to become a professional player didn’t materialize, but that didn’t prevent him from staying in sports. He worked as a referee and an umpire before transitioning into coaching. He had coached a number of sports — football, basketball, softball — at a variety of high schools — Bishop McGann-Mercy, Wyandanch, Hampton Bays and Southold — for over 30 years. Along the way, he made many friends, literally, hundreds of them.
It was ironic that the heart of a man with so much heart ultimately failed him.
Phil, who most recently coached the Southold boys basketball team, had been dealing with health issues. On the morning of Nov. 9, 2015, Phil told Lorraine he was having trouble breathing. He refused to go to the hospital, she said.
Lorraine said Phil eventually saw doctors and underwent a number of procedures. Against doctor’s orders, though, he kept coaching last winter. “He wasn’t supposed to do anything because his heart was very, very weak, they said,” said Lorraine.
It didn’t stop Phil. He kept coaching the First Settlers as they made a desperate push to qualify for the playoffs. It was during that stretch when Southold scored an upset victory over defending state champion Bridgehampton.
“We really outworked them and kind of ran them out of the gym that night,” the current Southold coach, Lucas Grigonis, recalled, “and after the game Phil spoke and said that was his best coaching win of his career.”
Phil might have been feeling on top of the world the following night, Jan. 26, 2016. Pete Meehan, the Hampton Bays boys basketball and baseball coach who was one of Phil’s closest friends for over 30 years, is believed to be the last person to talk to Phil. Meehan had called Phil while Phil was driving home from practice that night.
“He sounded as good as he always sounded,” Meehan said. “He was very positive.”
By the following morning, the stunning news came that Phil had died. Suffolk County police confirmed that they had responded to an emergency medical call on the Long Island Expressway in Medford. Phil had suffered a heart attack, said Lorraine. He was 59.
News of Phil’s death reverberated like shock waves.
Alex Sinclair, a former Southold basketball player, learned about it from a phone call from another ex-Southold player, Kenji Fujita. “It was heartbreaking,” Sinclair said. “I was at a loss for words.”
Former Southold basketball player Shayne Johnson was in a math class at Pace University when he received the news in the form of a text message. “It was tough to believe,” Johnson said. “I was just in denial.”
Within minutes, a bunch more texts followed. Johnson said, “I was just like, I got to leave class.”
Another ex-Southold basketball player, Matt McCarthy, was in his dorm room at SUNY/Albany when he woke up and found a deluge of text messages. “I’ve never had that many texts in my life,” he said. “It was a rough morning.”
Meanwhile, students, athletes, coaches and others at Southold High School were devastated.
Anthony Klavas, a senior on the basketball team, was home sick that day when he received a call telling him to come to school. “They said it was serious, so I come in and I see everyone crying,” he said. “It was terrible.”
The sound of silence stuck with Klavas. “The whole school was quiet,” he said. “That was the first time I’ve ever seen the school quiet. I could hear my thoughts when I was walking through the halls.”
The outpouring of grief and emotion was tremendous. Southold Superintendent David Gamberg described the difficult days that followed Phil’s death as “traumatic.”
Ashley Hilary, a pitcher for the Southold/Greenport softball team, had played for Phil when she was on the junior varsity team. She was moved to tears at the recollection of that day. There “was nothing worse that could have happened,” she said.
Grigonis said, “He had been dealing with a few health issues before that throughout the season, but no one was prepared for that type of shock.”