By Marc Raimondi
Phil Wait had to hit rock bottom before he could rise up. Things had to get worse before they got better.
The 7-foot-1 center, and newest St. John’s men’s basketball signee, faced a turning point in his life four years ago. Just as basketball was taking shape as part of his future at the age of 17, the man who acted as his support died: his father.
“My dad was helping me a lot,” Wait said. “It really took the wind out of me.”
He was a senior in high school, in Manchester, England, at the time and wasn’t sure where the game was going to take him. Growing up, he never enjoyed soccer like most European adolescents and his height — Wait was 6-feet-6 when he was 13 years old — led him to basketball.
After he graduated, his coach with the club team the Manchester Magic, Joe Forber, got him in touch with coaches at Proctor Academy, in Andover, N.H. It was certainly a transition — and not just because Wait was going from England to New England. His love for basketball was waning and his weight was ballooning. Yet, coaches from the prep school heard all they needed to.
“They called [Forber] right back and said, ‘Yeah, we’ll take a 7-footer,’” Wait said.
Things didn’t change a whole lot at Proctor. Wait’s weight increased and he wasn’t playing a whole lot of basketball. He was beginning to think he didn’t even want the sport to be a part of his future. But because he was 7-feet tall, college coaches — including assistant Glenn Braica of St. John’s — took interest in him.
There was one last hoops opportunity for Wait after two years at Proctor and an unlikely one at that. He was set up with a basketball academy in the Canary Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Spain.
“It was kind of a last ditch for me, because I had not played a lot of basketball,” Wait said. “I was losing my love for it.”
Wait lost 50 pounds at the Canary Basketball Academy, running up and down the beach and doing anaerobic workouts in the sea. After a year, some major Division I schools back in America came calling, like UCLA. But Wait had loyalty to St. John’s because of the interest Braica showed in him when he was far from at his best.
“I don’t want to be a tool,” he said. “I don’t want to be a cog in the machine. I want to be wanted.”
He arrived in Queens two weeks ago and so far his experience has been good. Wait gets along with his teammates — especially fellow center Dele Coker — and loves the Red Storm’s coaching staff. The offseason for him means getting stronger. At 245 pounds, St. John’s strength and conditioning coach Pat Dixon calls him “grossly undersized.”
“I hope to get him up to 265 by November,” Dixon said. “But I don’t know how feasible that is.”
Wait does have talent, though. He has a smooth jump hook and a strong mid-range jumper. Like most European big men, his offensive game is fairly refined, but his back-to-the-basket ability sets him apart, Red Storm coach Norm Roberts said.
“He has a good skill set,” Roberts said. “He has the opportunity to be a good player.”
And work ethic won’t be a problem. He has volunteered for two workouts a day with Dixon — one at 6 a.m. and another at 1 p.m. That doesn’t include playing basketball, either.
“I’m persistent,” Wait said. “If I don’t get something right, I want to go back and get it right until I can consistently get it right.”
Reach Associate Sports Editor Marc Raimondi by e-mail at email@example.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.