About eight months have passed — hardly enough time, it seems, for timeless grief to run its course. But it’s not hard to imagine Phillips smiling down on little brother Semaj Nunn this week.
It isn’t hard to imagine Phillips doing signature standing backflips in Heaven when Nunn performs the sign of the cross and points up his way before taking the BJCC Arena court tonight.
Handley has its best chance for a state basketball title since 1961, when the Tigers lost to Priceville in the Class A final. Handley will play J.O. Johnson in today’s Class 4A state semifinal at 7:30 p.m., and the Tigers got here with Nunn as a first-year starter, at point guard.
And yes, the season, the Tigers’ run and the role Nunn has played have helped him cope with the loss of the person he called his “role model.”
“It’s made me stronger,” the senior said.
Strength seemed out of reach on the night of June 9 of last year, when Phillips and five others were shot at a pool party at an Auburn apartment complex.
Phillips, that rare combination of speed and size who once lit up Handley’s fall Friday nights with big runs and tackles, was among three who died. Desmonte Leonard has pleaded not guilty to capital murder charges and awaits trial.
Phillips had left Auburn’s football program and was planning to restart his athletic career at Jacksonville State. But he wanted to enjoy a fun night with friends. Nunn, Phillips’ inseparable sidekick, was on his way to join him after an Amateur Athletic Union basketball game, and a life-changing call came to his cellphone.
“He was like my role model,” Nunn said. “That’s who I take after. It was like, he showed me everything.”
That’s a lot for a kid to lose, and the impact became noticeable early in the school year. Handley coach Clifton Drummonds said Nunn’s schoolwork fell off, so Drummonds met with Nunn and his mother, Jemecia Phillips.
“We just had a heart-to-heart talk, and there were some tears shed in there between me, him and his momma,” Drummonds said. “You could tell (Ladarious Phillips’ death) had hurt her, but I think the biggest thing was that (Nunn) didn’t realize know how much it was hurting her.
“I had to make him realize that she had already lost one son, and she didn’t want to lose another one. I told him the best thing he could do was live through ‘Day-Day’ (Ladarious Phillips’ nickname) and not feel sorry for himself.”
Nunn began to right himself, Drummonds said, but handling grief better didn’t make it go away. Nunn said just talking about his brother’s death “makes me mad sometimes.”
Then again, there come days when not talking about it is a worse option.
“It’s been really difficult, for real,” he said. “I try not to think about it that much. Once I do, I just try to find somewhere, somebody to talk to about it just to get my day going.
“When I get out on the court, I just try to tune all of it out and just play the game.”
Ah, yes. Basketball season.
This was to be Nunn’s year. He was a backup point guard during his junior year, but his time had arrived. So had Handley’s time.
The Tigers enter the state semifinals with a 26-7 record, having won the Area 5 tourney, sub-regional and Central Regional. Nunn averages 7.2 points and plays his role of chief ball handler and distributor well, Drummonds said.
“Semaj has been our floor general the whole year,” the coach said.
Headed into the Central Regional, Drummonds challenged Nunn to pick up his scoring. Nunn scored 12 points in a 53-43 victory over Carbon Hill and 14 in an 82-68 victory over Dora in the finals.
While Nunn drew upon his coach’s challenge in the regional, he needed his big brother’s advice to get through a 54-53 victory over Childersburg in the sub-regional.
“He showed me how to be mentally tough and how to not let my nerves take over me in a big ballgame or something,” Nunn said. “Just keep my composure.”
“It was close at the end, and I was, like, nervous. I just thought that, like he said, ‘Just settle down and just let the game come.’”
Nunn said he is holding off making dedications to his big brother. Nunn wants that dedication to be Handley’s first state championship in boys basketball.
Still, it’s nice for Nunn to think about how his brother would view Handley’s season and little brother’s part in it.
“I think he would be proud, because we’ve done came a long way from what we had last year,” Nunn said. “I think he would be very proud.”
How it ends will be decided on the state’s biggest stage for high school basketball. Right before the Tigers file through the tunnel to take the floor in the cavernous BJCC Arena, Nunn will do his pregame ritual with the sign of the cross and a point up.
He said the gesture is for both his big brother and God. And once Nunn makes it?
“Then,” he said, “I just go out there and play hard.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.