Beyond the Lines is back! With this column, we continue to explore the core values of athletes and coaches in the Marist community.
High school state champion. National champion. NBA player. And now coach.
Derrick Phelps has achieved more than most while spending his life involved in the game of basketball, and now he can add another title to the list: assistant coach at Marist College.
As an amateur player, Phelps experienced team success at some of the highest levels imaginable. The 6’4” defensive-oriented point guard played a key role on high-profile teams, including the 1988-89 Christ the King Regional High School team that went 28-1 en route to a city and state championship, and even more notably, the 1992-93 National Champion North Carolina Tar Heels.
Amidst those team accomplishments, Phelps developed his own distinct identity on the court.
“I always was a defensive-minded guy,” said Phelps. “Ever since coming out of high school… I never liked people scoring against me, I took pride in that.”
His defensive prowess ultimately paved the way for him. In 1990, he was named to the McDonald’s All-American Team for his play at Christ the King, coming on the heels of the Queens-based high school’s city and state championships a year prior.
“That was leading up to one of my biggest accomplishments as a basketball player at a young age,” said Phelps. “From that journey there, I ended up going to [the University of North Carolina], which is a big step as it is, going to a big, prominent college and university, and playing with the legendary Dean Smith was huge for me.”
Playing under the aforementioned Smith, who served as the head coach of UNC from 1961-1997, Phelps continued to flourish. Surrounded by many teammates and opponents who ended up going pro, he elevated his game to fit into the Carolina system while still incorporating his own brand of basketball.
Specifically, Phelps touted his basketball IQ and ability to be a coach on the floor as reasons for his success at North Carolina. He also felt Smith catered to his skill set from the moment he was recruited, a skill set that makes him the all-time leader in steals at UNC.
“The way they played, the style they played, I think it fit my persona,” said Phelps. “The way I played, too, is why I ended up going to North Carolina.”
He and his team took the regular season by storm in 1992-93, posting a dominant 31-4 record. Their success continued in the NCAA tournament, culminating with a victory over a formidable University of Michigan in the national championship game. Phelps gave credit to that Michigan team for changing the game with the way they dressed, as the baggy shorts and black socks worn by the infamous “Fab Five” had a colossal influence on basketball culture.
Most importantly, Phelps’ experience winning against such a “highly-touted” side proved to him that he belonged with the best of the best. Michigan’s roster included successful NBA players such as Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, making his team’s victory an all-time standout in NCAA history.
With his own team constantly in the spotlight and under the microscope, Phelps learned how to carry himself like an NBA player. He was still in college, but the team’s constant coverage on ESPN and a formal dress code reinforced the notion that he had to act like a professional.
Smith treated his players as such, routinely putting his team on charter flights. When they did have to fly commercial, he made sure his players were seated in first class. Despite the status his team attained, Smith made sure to keep his players grounded to prevent the spotlight from going to their heads.
“And you treated and respected people no matter what type of job they have,” said Phelps. “It could be a janitor, a flight attendant, but you always show respect. Learning from coach Smith, he always taught us to be good people.”
Phelps continued his playing career and achieved his ultimate goal of making it to the NBA, if only for a brief period of time. After going undrafted and playing in the Continental Basketball Association, which Phelps described as the 90’s equivalent of the current-day G-League, he surfaced with the Sacramento Kings for three games during the 1994-95 season.
“I think that kind of opened my eyes of like, ‘I am a pro-NBA player,’” said Phelps.
When it became clear that longevity in the NBA was not sustainable, he went overseas to and ultimately found himself playing in Germany, most notably suiting up for the Telekom Baskets Bonn. Six and a half years of playing in Germany led to other playing opportunities across Europe, as well as his nickname, “The General,” which he says he is still known by in Germany to this day.
“Basketball took me all over the world. It’s one of the best jobs that you could ever have,” said Phelps. “It’s something I’ve been, growing up, all my life doing. And to end up playing at a high level, and going overseas, and also playing at the NBA for a year, and next thing you know, coming back home and falling into coaching.”
With his playing days ending in the late 2000s, Phelps was at a crossroads. Smith had always wanted him to be a coach after his playing career, feeling that he could make the transition from being a floor general who coached his teammates to coaching younger players.
Phelps began working with the players at Christ the King–his high school alma mater–and the head coach took note of the job he did. He was ultimately asked to coach off the bench with him, and he credits that opportunity for his entry into the coaching world.
While coaching at Christ the King for a year and a half, many college coaches would shuffle in to scout players, with some of them also noticing how Phelps worked with the players. A question people frequently asked him: “Why don’t you coach college?”
Phelps would ultimately get his foot in the door of the collegiate world, starting as a video coordinator at Fordham University in 2010. His experience working under head coach Tom Pecora allowed him to observe how things are done at the collegiate level, as he filmed and watched every practice in his role, helping him evolve as a coach.
“It was a big learning experience for me because I had no idea how to do video, and I had to learn on the fly,” said Phelps. “I think a lot of people respected me for that because me being a player who I was in New York City and the career I had, to come in and be a video guy, I got a lot of respect from the coaches in the business.”
After paying his dues at Fordham, Phelps continued to move up the ranks. His next stop was as an assistant coach at Monmouth University, where he coached under his former UNC teammate King Rice. Rice runs a system of basketball similar to what was run during their playing days at UNC, making Monmouth an ideal destination for Phelps in his first official coaching role.
In 2014, he moved on from Monmouth to coach as an assistant under Kyle Smith at Columbia University. He continued to coach under Smith at multiple other stops as the two moved around together, including as an associate head coach at San Francisco from 2016-2019, and then as an assistant at Washington State from 2019-2022.
Phelps credits Smith for recalibrating his understanding of the game of basketball through the use of analytics.
“It was more of an analytical approach with him,” said Phelps. “I never thought of the game from the analytical part – even though you get certain stats, he went beyond that with other stuff.”
Smith brought Phelps many new perspectives on the game of basketball. He realized that evaluating certain statistics can be extremely useful in determining how to build a program, further adding to the coaching knowledge he accrued at other stops.
After a recent reunification with Rice at Monmouth for a few months, Phelps now steps into another assistant coaching role, this time at Marist. Marist head coach John Dunne received numerous recommendations to hire Phelps from his colleagues in the profession, especially from Rice and Van Macon, an assistant coach he worked with in the 90’s who like Phelps and Dunne is also a native of Queens.
“Both [of them] were blowing up my phone in regards to Derrick,” said Dunne.
Dunne specifically touted Phelps’ humility as a standout trait of his personality, especially when taking into account the fact that he has accomplished so much over the course of his basketball career.
“A player who has a championship pedigree, you add those things with the high character that I’m hearing about from people that are recommending him, I thought it was a good fit,” said Dunne.
Now that he’s at Marist, Dunne expects Phelps to do a little bit of everything. As with all of his assistant coaches, he sought an experienced and well-rounded individual to reinforce program philosophy, and believes in further developing his skills as a coach. He also believes that Phelps’ experience coaching out west could open new doors for the program to recruit players from the West Coast.
Phelps welcomes the opportunity to unite with Dunne. He built mutual respect with him over the years after seeing him on the road, and the two hold respect for each other in spite of the fact that Dunne attended Phelps’ rival high school, Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens.
“Everybody said, ‘How are you gonna coach with a guy that was your rival in high school?’” said Phelps.
After returning to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Phelps found himself drawing upon his existing knowledge of the conference, which he gathered while coaching at Monmouth. Phelps feels that his familiarity with the conference ultimately made Dunne comfortable enough to bring him on his staff.
“With me being a guard, and a big guard, I think I can help our guards like [Isaiah] Brickner, guys like Noah Harris, even the young guys that’s in here, Jadin Collins and Josh [Pascarelli] too,” said Phelps. “I think I can give them some great tips to be better and lead their team and be that leader on the floor, to be the coach on the floor.”
Phelps is confident his new players will absorb the information he is able to provide them with due to his experience playing on the big stage.
“I think, with me being a player, the kids gravitate towards me a little bit more because I played at a high level, and I’ve been coaching at different levels too,” said Phelps. “Some of these kids wanna be where I was at a certain level, or even beyond that, so they’ve got something to shoot for. Seeing me and how I approach things too, I think it’s very helpful for a young kid that I coach nowadays.”
On the personal side, Marist is a clean fit. Phelps’ family currently resides in Harlem while his mother lives in Westchester; currently, he has a commute of less than two hours to Poughkeepsie. He anticipates being closer to Poughkeepsie during the season, but even with the current commute, his new job is still in a far more convenient location than past coaching stops on the West Coast.
“I’m an East Coast guy, I’m a New Yorker, why not Poughkeepsie, New York?”
As Marist men’s basketball looks to get over the hump after losing the MAAC title game a season ago, they’ll have a new voice to draw upon, one who knows a thing or two about winning a championship.
Edited by Dan Aulbach
Graphic by Cara Lacey; Photo via Marist Athletics