Former University of Kentucky basketball player Mike Phillips, a member of the 1978 national championship team, died after a fall Saturday at his Madisonville home. He was 59.
Hopkins County Coroner Dennis Mayfield confirmed the death and said his office was investigating. An autopsy was to be performed Monday to determine the cause of death, Mayfield said.
Joe B. Hall, who coached UK's 1978 championship team, called Phillips a "statue of competitiveness."
"Somebody you'd want in a foxhole with you," Hall said. "He had courage and toughness, yet he was a gentle giant."
Phillips teamed with Rick Robey, both listed at 6-10, to form a "twin towers" tandem that helped Kentucky win the 1978 national championship.
"They were the first twin towers," Hall corrected.
In helping Kentucky win its first national championship in 20 years, Phillips and Robey each averaged double-digit points: Robey 14.4 and Phillips 10.2.
During his four years at UK, Phillips scored 1,367 points. That ranks 25th on UK's career scoring list. Robey scored 28 more points, which puts him in 23rd place.
"We were 'King' and 'Kong,' whatever it was," Robey said in a shaky voice. "The twin towers."
The two became so closely identified that it wasn't unusual for a fan to call Robey "Mike" and Phillips "Rick."
Robey said he sought escape on the golf course Sunday.
"Because you never know what the day brings. Gosh. Mike was, ..." Robey said, his voice trailing off. It's kind of wild."
Former teammate Jack Givens said that Phillips was the first player from the 1978 team to pass away.
"Even at our age now, we feel invincible," Givens said in describing the shock of Phillips' death, "and (believed) we'll always be around. To get that kind of news was really, really sad and tragic."
Kyle Macy, a guard on the 1978 team, said Phillips evolved from a "free spirit" and someone unafraid to question authority as a UK player to a middle-aged man who arrived at team reunions the model of decorum in a three-piece suit.
Macy said he wondered, "OK, what did you do with Mike Phillips?"
Before coming to UK, Phillips was a two-time Mr. Basketball in Ohio (1973 and 1974). Hall said an assistant coach, Boyd Grant, led the recruiting effort to sign the star player from the Akron area.
Phillips made an impact as a freshman (7.8 points per game). He scored 10 points and grabbed four rebounds in Kentucky's celebrated 92-90 victory over unbeaten Indiana in the 1975 NCAA Tournament. (It seemed inevitable, of course, that Robey had the same number of points and rebounds.)
Hall said he played Phillips and Robey together, unusual for the time, in part to help recruit multiple big men in the future. Phillips and Robey made it work even though each was best as a low-post offensive player.
"They played so well together and complemented each other," Hall said.
He also mentioned Phillips' role in another famous NCAA Tournament game. The run to the 1978 national championship almost ended in the first round. Hall's benching of four starters shook the Cats from their lethargy and on to a 85-76 victory over Florida State.
"He was the one I didn't bench," Hall said of Phillips, who had 14 points, a team-high six rebounds and two steals (which tied for the team high) in the game.
After his UK career, Phillips played 11 professional seasons in Spain. He and his wife, Candy, owned a medical supply business and a training/exercise center. Phillips also is survived by a son, also named Mike.
For Kentucky fans, Phillips and his 1978 teammates made an indelible mark by winning the program's first post-Adolph Rupp championship. The triumph was celebrated repeatedly at team reunions.
A reunion to sign autographs within the past year was on Robey's mind.
"What we were saying is we're all still here," he said. "That was a big thing."
That's no longer true.
"We had a bond that went beyond just basketball," Givens said. "We just loved getting together and we loved spending time together.
"It's going to be really, really difficult when we get together next time."