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Phelps has taken the long road: Former pro basketball player found new life, God in Vicksburg

Geneva Phelps prayed for her children.

She prayed that God would save them, that they would know the Lord.

Hers wasn’t the most religious of households, but the five boys, five girls and their mother walked a block from their home to church every Sunday.

Michael went along, raised with the church but never feeling wholly a part of it.

But he had basketball.

Not that one ruled out the other, not at all, but Michael spent his time practicing and playing the sport.

See, the kid had a dream.

Geneva remembers Michael, then around 10 years old, running up to her one morning, excited about a vision he had in the night.

“One morning he woke up and said, Mom, I dreamed I went to the NBA,'” Geneva said.

She never had a problem accepting the dream, seeing Michael’s ability.

He practiced on a bucket he set up in the family’s basement, and a growth spurt put him over 6-feet tall by his early teens.

Michael starred on the 1979-80 Vicksburg High state championship team, scoring more than 1,000 points in a single season and catching the eye of a few scouts, not to mention one of his classmates.

It was ninth grade when the two first met, not knowing they would eventually be married.

“He was real quiet,” Patricia Phelps said. “We started playing around in the gym after basketball practice.”

The two began spending more and more time with each other, finally dating.

Even then Patricia could see he had talent. She was quite a player herself, but she knew he had a future in the sport.

The two decided to go to Alcorn State, with Michael getting a scholarship.

He would lead the Braves into the NCAA Tournament in an impressive career as an under-sized center.

As a senior, Phelps led the conference in scoring and earned conference player of the year honors.

The dream, his dream, was coming true.

The Seattle Supersonics finally called Michael Phelps’ name in the seventh round of the 1985 NBA draft.

Clear across the country lay the fruition of Phelps’ dream, his years of practice.

He and Patricia knew they would go on this newest of journeys together, and decided to do so as a married couple.

They were wed at the First Baptist Church in Vicksburg in May of 1985.

The happy couple boarded a plane for Seattle, and for Patricia’s first time out of Mississippi.

It took awhile to adjust to the big-city life. Michael and Patricia didn’t know anybody outside of the Sonics organization, and weren’t used to the fast pace of the city.

And Michael still hadn’t realized his dream.

As a late-round draft pick, he would have to make the team by proving himself to coaches.

“A seventh-round draft pick is almost like a free agent,” Phelps said. “The only thing different is the team pays your way, your air fare and accommodations.

“A seventh-rounder is not likely to make the squad. Most likely it will be a round-trip ticket.”

Still, Phelps believed in himself. He knew he could be one of the four guards the team held onto out of the 12 in camp.

It wouldn’t be easy.

He realized that the moment he stepped into the gym and smelled burning rubber.

“One guy said, Man, that’s those guys out there looking for a job,'” Phelps said.

The smell came from the soles of sneakers burning from friction.

Phelps played just as hard as any other player, holding nothing back in his quest to fulfill that dream.

He let his talents versatility, competitiveness, quickness and tough defense prove to the coaches that he belonged.

When he was put on the roster after the camp ended it simply proved what Phelps had always known.

“Coming up from a youngster and watching (NBA players) on television,” Phelps said, “I knew I could play with those guys.

“Given the opportunity and a fair chance I knew I could make the squad.”

Patricia remembers those first months in Seattle as being the hardest.

Michael had made a few friends on the team, but she was still lonely, too intimidated to even go down the street by herself.

During the first week of the NBA season she didn’t even go to any of Michael’s games.

Finally she went to one, and found a social outlet in the players’ wives.

The group would go out shopping and have gatherings when their husbands were on roadtrips.

Michael had to make a place for himself on the court.

The Sonics were a team coming off a losing season, and had few household names most notable were Jack Sikma, Xavier “X-Man” McDaniel and Tom Chambers.

Those stars took up most of the minutes.

“The first year was limited playing time,” Phelps said. “A rookie don’t see much playing time back in the 80s. They had to wait, sit and learn.”

Phelps averaged 10 to 15 minutes a game, but did start one memorable contest.

Before a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Sonics coach Bernie Bickerstaff told Phelps when he got to the arena that he would be starting, and that his defensive assignment was Magic Johnson.

“I was fired up,” he said, “but it still caught me off guard.”

Basketball was the family’s focus.

It was their livelihood, and it was Michael’s love.

And it didn’t leave much room in their lives for church, much less anything else.

Michael still had to prove himself in training camp after that first season.

The team had added talent, picking up 3-point marksman Dale Ellis and speedy Eddie Johnson, as well as David Thompson.

Johnson and Thompson were attempting comebacks after struggling with legal problems and drug addictions.

Phelps made the team, and even impressed coaches enough to earn a starting spot to begin the season.

“That second year we did real well,” Phelps said. “We went to the finals in the west against the Lakers.”

By that time, however, Phelps had lost his starting spot, and his playing time dwindled as the season progressed.

Patricia began to see the writing on the wall, while her husband overlooked it, too intent on living his dream.

Before the 1987-88 season Phelps once again saw his status with the team challenged.

“Each year I had to prove myself,” he said. “The third year it came down to me and another guy and they released me.”

It was the first time Phelps had ever been cut from a roster, and he didn’t know what to do. Patricia didn’t have a job, and shortly after Michael was cut she found out she was pregnant.

“That was a real hard thing,” she said. “Emotionally it was real hard.”

Michael wasn’t ready to give up on his dream that easily, though, and went to Canada for a couple months to play in a 6-foot-5 and under league run by former NBA great Bob Cousy.

Looking to get back into the NBA, Phelps then joined the Wyoming Wildcats of the Continental Basketball Association.