BIG SANDY — Sometimes the best athletes aren’t the strongest or the fastest. They’re the ones that never give up. They’re the ones that keep pushing forward. They’re the ones that take steps to get better — no matter what life throws their way.
At the intersection of heart and determination is where you will find Big Sandy’s Sonny Phillips.
And lately, he’s put his spirit on display for fans in the Golden Triangle. Last weekend he checked into a junior varsity basketball game against Chinook and hit his first shot in a Big Sandy uniform. The crowd — on both sides — went wild.
The following weekend, the eighth grader checked in to a varsity contest against North Star. His teammates found him on an outlet pass, and this time he only needed one shot: Swish.
The videos were soon shared widely across social media.
“My teammates were pretty excited,” Sonny grinned. “And also the people from Big Sandy were, too."
Sonny looked down, then continued. “I actually didn’t think I was going to make that shot when I shot,” he said. “But I did.”
The points will be recorded in the box score for Big Sandy. But for Sonny and his family, they represented another box to check off, another obstacle he’s overcome in a life that’s thrown him countless curve balls.
“I mean, even now I just have goosebumps and it just makes my heart swell,” said Sonny’s adoptive mother, Karli Phillips.
Sonny has faced challenges his entire life. His biological mother was in and out of his life growing up and he's never met his father. So he and his six siblings were raised mostly by his grandparents, June and Eneas Phillips.
Eneas passed away in 2015, followed by June in 2017. So Sonny then went to live with his aunt and uncle, Victor and Karli Phillips.
“They needed some place for the kids and there were seven of them and we took three of them and there's two sisters that live in different houses in Big Sandy,” Karli said. “He has two adult older brothers that live in Missoula.”
Sonny is also on the Autism spectrum.
“He struggles with learning, he struggles with understanding concepts of things,” Karli said. “A lot of times anything abstract is really hard for him. When he first came to us, he was an introvert that always had his hood up and never made eye contact, never talked to anybody.”
But soon, Sonny took an interest in sports.
“I went onto the computer and watched YouTube videos of basketball and I played a video game that’s about the NBA,” Sonny said. “I liked to play as Kobe Bryant, but my favorite players now are Steph Curry, Anthony Davis and Klay Thompson.”
That led to the decision from Sonny and his family to give sports a shot.
“It has to be hard for him to play sports because things are always changing,” Karli explained. “It's never a play like it's written out; it's, you know, somebody is out of place or somebody blocks the play. And so you got to change it up.”
But Sonny wasn’t deterred. He joined the football team, the track and field team and the basketball team. Basketball is his favorite.
“When I started basketball, I like shooting layups and 3-pointers,” Sonny said.
As he became more comfortable on the court, he grew more comfortable around other people. His teammates encouraged Sonny and helped him develop as a person and athlete.
Sonny is an eighth grader, but he practices with the Big Sandy high school team. And to them he’s just another important part of the Pioneers.
“He's always full of energy. He's always wanting to hop in the drills and he's always trying to do his best,” said freshman Cooper Taylor. “And then he's always running around, having a great time and it's always great to see him with a smile on his face.”
Laci Keller Christenson is the junior varsity coach at Big Sandy and has been in awe of the support that Sonny’s teammates display at practice and in games.
“In the video (against Chinook), you even see one of his teammates helping him where to stand and they were helping him on defense,” Christenson said. “And I think, as a coach watching, that is more rewarding than what the scoreboard says, watching these kids grow into great young men and good people.”
The Pioneers aren’t just teammates to Sonny, they’re friends.
“They do a lot to support me,” he said.
Sports profoundly changed Sonny’s life. And if his varsity minutes and points showed anything, it proved that no challenge is too big for him to accomplish.
“I am not ever putting a boundary on him,” Karli said. “When he was 6, 7, 8 years old I would've never dreamed he'd be doing any of this. He’s just come so far. I don't think there's anything that he can't do.”
Keep shooting Sonny.