By Erin Jenkins
Nov. 30, 1982, Sylva--Web-ster’s women’s basketball team had a 43-39 win over Pisgah. Dec. 31, 2019, Smoky Mountain’s women’s basketball team had a 67-63 win over North Henderson. The common denominator in the games, more than 37 years apart, was Carey Phillips.
Phillips reached a career milestone of covering 1,000 consecutive women’s high school basketball games as sports editor of the Sylva Herald on the last day of 2019.
The streak wouldn’t have happened without a small fib, he said.
“It actually started in my third year when there was a conflict with boys’ and girls’ playoff games and I was planning to stay in Sylva to cover the boys’ game,” Phillips said. “Coach Cindi Simmons told me the girls wouldn’t understand if I went to the boys’ game and not their game. So, I changed my mind and went to Murphy that night with the girls’ team.
“I found out some years later that she made that up. But, if I would have gone to the boys’ game, the streak would have never happened.”
1,000 games seemed unachievable at the beginning, but a lot of notes, pictures, postgame interviews and relationships later, the day finally arrived.
“I knew 1,000 was a longshot,” Phillips said. “Each season went by and I didn’t miss a game. There were times when I was sick, but the players come to play when they’re sick, so I expected myself to do the same.”
Previous and current players remember Phillips being the one steady at their games throughout the years. Carol Christopher Thompson of Plano, Texas, started her basketball career the same year Phillips started his reporting career in 1982.
“I counted on Carey like clockwork to be at the games,” Thompson said. “He was like the 11th man on the team.”
Phillips’ favorite game was the 2007 state championship game. The game was an honor for the program and players. It was also an honor for Phillips, said Amy Haggard, a pivotal player on the championship team.
“The state championship win was so special for our community, fans, coaches, players and also Carey,” said Haggard of Tallahassee, Florida. “We kept Carey on his toes that season with pregame rituals and lights out scoring, but I know that win in the Dean Dome was special as he got to cover the first Smoky Mountain women’s basketball championship.”
Seven years later, Haggard and Phillips were inducted together into the Jackson County Athletic Hall of Fame.
Though the wins are important, Phillips’ support for the athletes extends beyond what happens on the court.
“Win or lose, Carey was there,” Haggard said. “He’s covered hundreds of wins and hundreds of heartbreaks, but the true heartbreak will be when he is no longer covering women’s basketball.”
Kyra Fowler, current Smoky Mountain player, has struggled through injuries as a Lady Mustang, but Phillips has been the biggest supporter through it all, she said.
“I never thought I would play ball again and neither did anyone else,” Fowler said. “Carey was the one person through it all that believed I would play again.
“This week I did get to play again, and when I saw him after the game he gave me the biggest hug. We both had an emotional moment together.”
He has always been just like an old friend to current and former players on the women’s basketball squad. Kevonna Tushka, a second-generation player at Smoky Mountain, has experienced Phillips’ legacy herself, as well as through her mother, 1992 graduate Stephanie Maney.
“When I first met him, he started talking like he already knew me,” Tushka said. “I told my mom and she then started to explain who he was and how he covered her when she was a player.”
It is evident that Phillips’ legacy will live on in the players’ lives well past the days of basketball.
“He wasn’t just a fan of us as athletes, he was a fan of us as people,” Thompson said. “It is easy for him to keep up with us now even outside of basketball because he cared about us as individuals.”
Fowler said she plans to stay in touch upon graduation.
“There is no doubt that Carey and I will stay in close contact after I graduate,” Fowler said. “Carey will be invited to my wedding and will be known as Uncle Carey. He has made that big of an impact on my life.”
Phillips hopes to continue the streak, but when it ends both he and the players will be at a loss, he said.
“I know I will miss out on knowing a lot of great kids that come along in the future,” Phillips said. “I’d like to think that in a small way, they’ll be missing out on getting to know me as well.”
For Phillips, this milestone is all about the players he has covered over the years.
“In my career, there have not been many things that I’ve been proud of, but this is something I am proud of because it’s been all about the kids,” he said. “I have been so blessed to make so many lifelong friendships through the years with those kids.”
Jenkins is a junior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. She was a Herald intern in summer 2019.