I know the captain of the Maersk Alabama taken hostage by pirates in a lifeboat off the coast of Somalia. I don't know him well, unless you can say that playing basketball with them means you've seen inside their soul.
We even lived in the same town -- Underhill, Vermont -- until I moved out here to Colorado a few years ago. I never saw Richard Phillips outside of Twin Oaks, in South Burlington, Vermont, and I never saw him in Underhill, a tiny under-the-radar town that constitutes the backside of Stowe, with all the anonymity that implies. I never socialized with him or met his wife. But I found out between games that he was a sea captain, an exotic notion in a state as landlocked as Vermont, and I knew he went away for big chunks of time, presumably on the high seas, before coming home to see his wife and to play ball with us flatlanders.
I don't offer this up as anything but the smallest snapshot of a man we all know almost nothing about. It's too soon to pronounce him a hero because we know too little, but we do know that the crew of the Alabama, bringing relief supplies to Kenya, says that Rich Phillips allowed the pirates to take him hostage to ensure the safety of his crew.
That makes perfect sense to me because on the basketball floor in pickup games, where egos and testosterone rule, Rich Phillips was as unselfish as anyone I've ever played with, unfailingly polite and committed to the cause. If you were lucky enough to have him on your side, you knew you were in for a good game. He could pass, run, and shoot, and he never backed down defensively. I probably played basketball with him, for and against, thirty or forty times.
But the real reason I remember Rich Phillips is that he had amazing powers on the basketball court: the ability to do something I've never seen before or since at any level of the game, something that may have some meaning in this awful context. Rich Phillips, you see, was completely ambidextrous. Plenty of players can dribble equally well with both hands, or take hook shots either way, or throw up a runner with their off-hand. Rich Phillips took jump shots with either hand seamlessly in the course of battle. He could go left or right and do anything and everything with either hand.
When I asked him about he just waved me off: no big deal.
I do remember thinking at the time about what kind of captain he must be, because he was not instantly or obviously charismatic but unassuming at all times. I came to the conclusion then, as now, that Captain Rich Phillips probably led in the best way possible: by example, by doing things the right way without imposing his will upon anyone else -- and perhaps by showing a flash of genius when you least expected it.
Now all we have is hope and United States warships bearing down on that lifeboat off the coast of Somalia. The last time I saw him in Vermont I forgot to wish him godspeed, a wish all of us now share for him.
So godspeed, Captain Phillips. The pirates know by now that you've got game.