When former Duke basketball star Christian Laettner heard that his former teammate Phil Henderson died Sunday at the age of 44, he texted their teammate and Henderson’s classmate Robert Brickey, who, in four seasons with Henderson, went to three Final Fours.
“Life’s too short,” Brickey responded.
Despite life’s brevity, Henderson made the final year of it count in the Philippines, where he died at his home and was known as “Coach Phil.”
Henderson will go down in Duke lore as a 1,000-point scorer with a vertical leap Alonzo Mourning couldn’t even contain. But he found a new life passion with the Filipino Basketball Academy in Taguig that he and Bernard Barcenilla founded in June 2012.
“Everybody looked up to Coach Phil,” Barcenilla said. “Phil would do anything or train anybody…. It was about giving kids the opportunity to better their lives, using the game of basketball.”
When the news was announced on the Filipino Basketball Academy Facebook page Monday, an outpour of support came in for “Coach Phil,” who had begun working to establish the camp with Barcenilla in April 2012.
The pupils at the FBA range from five to 18-years-old, and there is no shortage of enthusiasm for the sport in the country. The Philippine Basketball Association is the second-oldest professional basketball league in the world, behind only the NBA.
Barcenilla, who was born in the Philippines but raised in the United States, saw Henderson bring his gift to a country that can’t get enough of the game.
“I’m almost willing to say that the love of basketball here in the Philippines might surpass the love for it in the [United] States,” Barcenilla said. “Phil Henderson’s vast knowledge, wealth of experience and passion are like no other. I never met a man who was so passionate and so focused on reaching the goals and really developing the game out here.”
The duo also founded on a non-profit venture, the “Nutri-C Hoops for Hope Clinic,” that worked with kids in Filipino barangays, inner-city neighborhoods that are often impoverished.
But Henderson was a teacher at Duke, too. When Laettner arrived in Durham as a freshman in in 1988, the Blue Devils were coming off the first of their three Final Four appearances with Henderson.
In Laettner’s sophomore season, when Duke reached the National Championship game, Henderson was the team’s co-captain and paced the team with 18.5 points per game this season.
Laettner would play one-on-one with the veteran, unable to stop his multi-faceted game.
“He hit the three. He could shot-fake the three and go in there and dunk on you,” Laettner said. “More than that, Phil was a friend of mine. He always stayed in touch with me—sometimes you lose track of people and don’t stay in touch so much, but Phil always stayed in touch with me.”
Laettner, who built on what Henderson started by leading Duke to two consecutive National Championships in 1991 and 1992, also had plans to work with Henderson. Laettner runs the Christian Laettner Basketball Academy, most recently in Jacksonville, Fla. The duo had been working on opening a camp together at a resort in Wisconsin, Laettner said, adding that he still intends to go through with the camp and establish a “Phil Henderson Memorial Award.”
“I learned a lot from him,” Laettner said. “He led by example most of the time and didn’t speak up and lead verbally. But when he did, people dropped whatever they were doing and listened.”
Henderson continued that in the Philippines, where Barcenilla said Henderson cared more about guiding the children through life than he did about playing basketball.
But the two were always intertwined in Henderson’s mind because the game is what took him to Duke.
“He had to fight for everything he had,” Barcenilla said. “He said, ‘If it weren’t for basketball, there’s no Duke for me.’”