Basketball stardom wasn’t always the goal for Missouri sophomore guard Terrence Phillips.
In fact, there was a time he actively tried to avoid it, focusing instead on a promising football career to avoid the long shadow cast by his brother — eight-year NBA veteran and Knicks guard Brandon Jennings.
“The reason I went with (football) was to keep our careers separate,” Phillips said.
He felt pressure being the younger sibling of ESPN’s top-rated high school player in the 2008 class.
“When I played travel ball, if somebody put up a video or a hoops mixtape, it said, ‘Brandon Jennings’ little brother, Terrence Phillips.’ It was never just me,” Phillips said. “It got kind of annoying at times.”
Phillips and Jennings, who have different fathers, grew up together in Los Angeles with their mom, Alice Knox.
When Jennings, who is older by 6 1/2 years, decided to play pro basketball overseas rather than sign with Arizona out of Oak Hill Academy, the family moved to Italy when Phillips was in middle school.
After Jennings was selected No. 10 overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2009 NBA Draft, Phillips and Knox settled in Atlanta.
It was there Phillips established himself as a quarterback/running back prospect during his freshman season at Atlanta’s Woodward Academy.
“Honestly, I think he’s stupid for giving up football,” Jennings said Wednesday in a phone interview with The Star. “He was a hell of a football player. He was a freshman starting varsity in the ninth grade, and he was already getting (recruiting) letters. … I felt like the sky was the limit for him.”
Basketball’s allure proved too strong and Phillips transferred to Oak Hill as a sophomore, where he’d set the prestigious program’s career assists record before signing with the Tigers.
“Going to Oak Hill didn’t really help the situation,” Phillips said of the quest to step out of Jennings’ shadow. “Wearing the same number (Jennings wore) really didn’t help the situation.”
Phillips finally carved out his own identity in Columbia, earning a reputation as a gritty point guard and the Mizzou athletics department’s biggest cheerleader.
He also rarely talks about having a brother in the NBA.
“Something (about) Oak Hill may come up, and he’ll maybe talk about (Jennings) a little, but he doesn’t talk about him outside of that,” Tigers junior forward Jordan Barnett said.
It’s not that Phillips minds if people know his relationship with Jennings.
“I’ve never tried to hide who my brother was, but I just don’t brag about it …,” he said. “When I’m here at Missouri, it’s about me and my university and my team. It’s not about my brother, but I’m more than proud to be his brother. I mean, he plays in the NBA. Who wouldn’t be proud of that? But I’m just very humble about it.”
That humility goes out the window when it comes to the sibling rivalry.
“We always fought,” Phillips said. “That’s brotherly love, especially on the basketball court. When I was younger, I always tried to play against him one-on-one just being competitive. I remember one time we were playing in Italy, and I’ve probably only won against him three times in my life, but I beat him with a half-court heave.”
Asked about Phillips’ recollection, Jennings said, “I don’t know about (beating me) three times, but he probably did get the Italy thing off, though.”
Brotherly rivalry aside, Phillips appreciates Jennings’ counsel, which is in ready supply when needed.
When Phillips was briefly removed from the starting lineup after the season’s first 13 games, he reached out to Jennings.
“That’s where he made his adjustment this year, coming off the bench, and I was having to make a similar adjustment in the middle of the season,” Phillips said.
Jennings provided “some pointers about some things he needed to do differently than starting. It’s some things that I go through every day.”
Phillips also got in the gym that weekend and made 600 three-pointers both days during New Year’s weekend and then scored in double figures for a career-high six straight games, his first off the bench for Mizzou.
Phillips is understandably proud of Jennings’ accomplishment, including becoming the youngest player in NBA history to score 55 points in a game during his rookie season, but Jennings is equally proud of Phillips.
“He was always a good kid,” Jennings said. “I just want him to keep being the man he is, keep growing and keep being a bright young man. I heard people out there in Missouri really love Terrence, so I’m proud of that and really love hearing that.”