Every day Desiree Phillips gets shot by the world's slowest
bullet. The .22 floats around in her leg like a marble in a lava
lamp; she never knows where the new ache will land. She tries to
forget about it while she is draining threes for Division II
Dowling College, dominating the boards at 5'9" and serving out
more dishes than Martha Stewart.
But soon enough she is reminded. One night last season the pain
was so blinding she accidentally overmedicated herself, and she
woke up in an ambulance. Not that a little bullet is going to
stop Desiree Phillips. If a mother with drug paraphernalia in
the house didn't, if an alcoholic father didn't, if having her
baby brother ripped from her arms and taken away didn't, if
moving in and out of three foster homes didn't, do you think a
little chunk of lead will?
For those years most of Dez's life fit in a plastic trash bag.
She'd carry it from foster home to foster home, only to pack it
up again within months. Nothing too special in it--no stuffed
animals, no hug-worn blankets, no favorite toys--just her
clothes and a photo of the mother she was sure would come back
to save her. Why do I have to go? she'd ask. Your time is up,
the social services people would say.
So she would go. This started when she was 11, and the social
services people came at 3 a.m. and took her and her one-year-old
brother, Randolf, away. Somebody must have made a call. Somebody
must have found out that she was stuck there, feeding and
diapering Randolf, wondering when her mom would be coming back.
It was hard to say which was worse for Dez, her mom leaving or
her mom coming back, because there was usually a consequence,
and that came with a hand or a belt or a broomstick.
"It didn't matter what I'd do, I'd get a whipping," says Dez.
"Getting something to eat. Getting something to drink. Not
eating what she wanted me to eat. Answering disrespectful. I
dreamed of running away, taking Randolf and just going somewhere."
When the social services people came that night, they dropped
Dez off at a woman's house, but she noticed that Randolf wasn't
being helped out of the car. "I was crying and screaming," Dez
recalls. "I was pulling onto Randolf. And this man pulled me
away and they drove off. I cried that whole night. They wouldn't
tell me anything."
The first foster mother they put Dez with was nice enough, but
there were too many other kids with her, and it wasn't exactly
The Waltons. "I learned about fake love," Dez says. Within a
year Dez packed the trash bag. "They said my time was up," she
The next foster mother lived in Roosevelt, N.Y., on Long Island.
At the end of that school year Dez was packing the trash bag
again. "They said my time was up," she says.
The third mother was her own. Dez was returned to her in an
attempt to put her family back together. It didn't work. Her
mother couldn't stay straight, lost her apartment, and social
services moved Dez again. All that rejection and packing and
losing just stacks up on a young girl. "I'd sometimes sit and
think what I wanted to be," Dez says. "And I figured, well, I'd
just be nothing."
The next foster mother lived in the Bronx. A year or so after
Dez moved in with her, the social services woman called and,
instead of saying, "Your time is up," she said something
wonderful: "Do you know you have two baby brothers?"
"Two?" said Dez.
"Two. Would you like to go live with them?"
"Well," said Dez, numb. "Yeah."
They took her to a two-story house in Brooklyn's Brownsville
neighborhood, a .38-caliber section of New York City. It was
surrounded by more trouble than you can shake a nightstick at.
Dez walked in and met a special ed teacher named Eunice Miller,
who would save her life. "Welcome to our family," said Miller.
"These are your two brothers."
Standing in front of Dez were twin boys straight out of Disney,
big-eyed and handsome. They were Michael and Jon, born to her
mother after Dez and Randolf had been sent into foster care. Dez
loved the twins instantly.
Miller had taken the twins to live with her, in a houseful of
kids, some her natural children, some adopted, some foster.
Overnight, Dez went from nobody's anything to somebody's big
sister. "In that house," Dez says, "I learned what real love is."
It's amazing what real love can do to a kid. Dez started finding
confidence she didn't know she had. Catercorner to Miller's
house was a playground, and Dez shot baskets there hour after
hour, with a real basketball, and talked her way into some
serious boys' games.
Then, Dez asked if she could find Randolf. "Of course," said
Miller, and sure enough, the agency's motherboard spit him out.
While Dez had bounced around, Randolf had been with one family
the whole time. Dez was sitting on the stoop when a car pulled
up and a four-year-old boy jumped out. "That's Randolf!" she
Randolf remembered Dez's face, too. "I never forgot her," he
says. They put such a hug on each other that you almost needed
the Jaws of Life to pull them apart.
Then, when things were looking just too good, somebody tried to
kill Dez. She and some friends were leaving a sweet sixteen
party in the Bronx when someone pulled a gun on them, took their
money, started to leave and then wheeled around and fired.
Everybody started running, including Dez, but she realized she
couldn't, because of the bullet in her right thigh. Nobody
called the cops because, in this neighborhood, that only means
more trouble for everybody. So Dez's friends put her on the D
train, bleeding, for a 13-stop ride to the hospital. "I wasn't
sure I'd die," she says, "but I was sure I'd never use the leg
again." The doctor in the emergency room decided the best way to
treat the leg was to leave the bullet where it was.
Dez recovered. With a firm hand from Miller, she graduated from
Martin Luther King Jr. High, where she played on the basketball
team. A year later she found a spot on the team at Nassau
Community College, in Garden City, N.Y. She played for one
season, which she absolutely...hated. "Man, playground ball was
tougher," she says, disgusted. She was ready for a change when
another coach, Phil Stern, found her.
He took her to Oakdale, N.Y., and Dowling College, the main
building of which used to be a Vanderbilt mansion. You should
have seen Dez's face on that first visit, lighting up at the
ornate ballroom with the Steinway grand, the swank salon with
the 12-foot chandeliers and the luxurious study.
In Dez's (and Stern's) first year at Dowling, she took what had
been a 6-20 team and led it to a 16-12 record and the school's
first postseason bid. She went for 35 one night, against C.W.
Post. She led the league in scoring and brought to the game a
will that Division II Long Island women's basketball just hadn't
Dez nearly flunked out her first semester, but this year, as a
junior, she crashed the books as hard as the glass, pulling a B
average and scoring 16.4 points per game. Though the team didn't
qualify for postseason play, Phillips was named to the first
team of the New York Collegiate Athletic Conference.
For Dez, the ending isn't all roses yet. Last Christmas morning,
gunfire erupted in front of Miller's house, playing Wreck the
Halls. Grown-ups and kids in Miller's house were flat on their
stomachs around the Christmas tree, and little Jon said, "Mama,
let's open our presents right now before we die."
But things keep getting better. Somebody spotted Michael and Jon
and decided they were too cute not to show the world, and now
they're modeling at $125 an hour. Dez's mom knows that her
daughter has stayed away from gangs and gone to college. "She
said she was proud of me," says Dez, recalling the last
conversation she had with her mother. "Stuff you're supposed to
say, I guess." Dez has not seen her mom in several years and has
no idea how to reach her. Still has the photo, though.
"My dream is to have my whole family together someday for
Christmas," says Dez. "My own family, Randolf [who has stayed
with his original foster family], my mother if she wants to be
there, and Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Miller's kids, all of them, all
of us together, just eating all kinds of food and talking, like
in that movie Soul Food, and hugging and being together."
"We can do that," Mrs. Miller says. "Around here, we make things
"Every day I thank God for Mrs. Miller," says Dez with a smile
you really need to see.
Anyway, the point of all this is just to say, if you ever get
disgusted and wonder where all the love went, you might check a
crammed little house on Powell Street in the Brownsville section
of Brooklyn, where this little point guard has finally unpacked
her life, because her time was really up.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN HUET After getting shot, "I wasn't sure I'd die, but I was sure I'd never use the leg again," says Dez. [Desiree Phillips]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN HUET This year, as a junior, she crashed the books as hard as the glass, pulling a B average. [Desiree Phillips in game]