About 12 years ago, Khalilah and her husband, Kenneth Spencer, resided in an apartment in the Raleigh community in Northeast Memphis.
In their two-bed unit was a narrow hallway, a sizable area suitable enough for their then-four-year-old son, Khalill, to use as a basketball court.
“He had a Nurf (basketball) goal and his father handed him the ball and he went down and did a layoff off the right foot,” Kenneth Spencer recalls. “And then I asked him to do one off the left foot and he did. And then the next week, I took him to Raleigh Community Center and signed him up for a (recreational) team. He was four, but was playing with five-and-six-year-olds.”
As Khalill’s mother explains, her then-infant son often slept with a basketball since he was six months old, a trend that ultimately gave way to a fond admiration for the sport.
“He wouldn’t go to sleep until he had his basketball,” Khalilah said.
More than a decade removed from having erected a basketball court in an apartment hallway, Khalill Spencer is now making his presence felt in gymnasiums throughout the Shelby-Metro area. A junior swingman for a Ridgeway High team that is ranked No. 15 in Tennessee by Maxpreps.com, Khalill is the catalyst of a Roadrunner team that is vying the TSSAA Class AAA championship.
To his credit, the 6-foot-3 junior has demonstrated to be quite efficient, most notably on the offensive end of the floor, where he has recorded a double-double in nearly every contest this season for Ridgeway, this after one stellar season at Booker T. Washington, where he played for his grandfather, legendary coach Fred Horton.
“The sky’s the limit for this kid because he loves the game,” Horton said Khalill. “I was fortunate to coach him his freshman year at BTW.”
After coaching his grandson his first full season of high school ball, Horton decided he would call it a career on the bench, thus announcing that he would not coach beyond the 2012-13 campaign. Consequently, Horton and Khalill’s parents felt it would be best if he reunite with his middle school coach, Faragi Phillips, the current head coach at nearby Mitchell High.
“I was excited,” Khalill said of transferring to Mitchell. “Because we went through a lot of wars together and won state championships. I thought it was going to be a positive move.”
Unfortunately for Khalill, what he sensed was a reasonable transfer to Mitchell ultimately gave way to a colossal stumbling block for one of Shelby-Metro’s finest juniors. After a memorable sophomore campaign in which he quickly evolved into the Tigers’ marquee player, Khalill led Mitchell with 14 points per game, shot an impressive 52 percent from the field, and shot a team-best 41 percent from beyond the arc in helping propel the Tigers to the Class AA state tournament.
However, a bizarre sequence of events transpired during Mitchell’s recent Christmas holiday trip to Louisville, where the Tigers were invited to play in the King of Bluegrass Tournament that featured several of the nation’s best high school teams.
Moments before Mitchell’s second game of the tournament, Khalill re-aggravated his back during pregame warm-ups and was visibly whizzing in pain.
As he tells it, he tried his best to play through the sudden injury, given the Tigers had been invited to play in a national tournament that lured a plethora of college scouts from around the country.
“That was a big tournament,” said Khalill, “but it (his back) hurting. I knew something was wrong because it didn’t stop hurting.”
Khalill said it wasn’t until the team returned to the locker room for final some pregame instructions from Phillips when things took a turn for the worst.
“Coach Phillips comes and says, ‘What’s up, Khalill, can you go?’ I’m trying to work through it for coach Phillips because of the game I love and because of the love I have for him. I was going to go against my dad’s wishes and play. He said, ‘Is it hurting?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Yeah right.’ By him saying that, he was really saying I just want to play, I don’t want to practice.”
Within minutes after the Tigers’ game, Khalill — who didn’t play but sat in the stands opposite Mitchell’s bench — said Phillips called a team meeting in the locker room, where he announced he was dismissing his star player from the team.
“In front of the entire team, in a sarcastic way,” Khalill said.
During an interview with Rivals.com in late-December, Phillips said he dismissed Khalill over “a situation that had been ongoing for quite some time.”
“It’s been going on for six or seven months,” Phillips told Rivals.com. “It finally got to a point that there was no fixing it. I had to dismiss Khalill from the team. When school starts back (in January), I assume that he will withdraw from our school. I don’t know where he will transfer to, but even if he stays here at Mitchell, he will no longer be playing for us.”
Calls and to Phillips Friday afternoon were not immediately returned, nor did the coach respond to text messages sent by MemphiSport.
“That was intentional,” Khalill said of abrupt dismissal from the team. “And that hurt. I was so caught up in my emotions. But I mom said (during a phone conversation from Memphis) that ‘God got me.’”
When Shelby County schools returned from Winter Break January 7, the Spencers enrolled their son in Ridgeway, where Khalill wasted little time becoming acclimated to Roadrunner coach Wes Henning’s system.
“In past conversations I had with Phillips,” he said Khalill is the real deal,” Henning said.
Although his grandson appears to have found his niche on Ridgeway’s roster, Horton, who confronted Phillips about Khalill’s dismissal, said his perception about the Mitchell coach has changed considerably.
“I personally felt betrayed from Phillips from the relationship I had with him,” Horton said. “If (Khalill) was doing all these things (violating team rules), why didn’t he tell me?”
Said Khalill’s mother: “I believe this allowed Khalill to release his stance on what happened regarding his dismissal from the Mitchell High School basketball team. When you are 16 years old and a trusted family coach and friend chooses to “demean your character,” it cuts deep.