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Legendary Bishop O’ Dowd basketball coach Mike Phelps dies

The St. Joseph Notre Dame-Alameda boys basketball team was hours away from its big game against mighty Bishop O’Dowd, and Don Lippi got an important call. Monsignor (the parish leader) wanted to speak to the basketball powerhouse’s longtime coach for a moment.

“He said, ‘Don, I’ve been singing the rosary that we can beat Mike tonight,” Lippi recalled. “I said ‘Monsignor, it’s going to take more than the rosary to beat Mike Phelps.”

Later that day, hundreds of fans witnessed a Mike Phelps special: Bishop O’Dowd utterly dominated St. Josephs — though, Lippi said, the Pilots would get their revenge the following season. The very best coaches make their opposition stronger.

This was one of Lippi’s many lasting memories of Phelps, who died on October 2, 2019 just days after his 74th birthday.

The rabid, overflow crowd Phelps’ team drew that night illustrated the gravity of a winning coach, a winning style. Phelps started his coaching career at St. Josephs in 1971 before a mass exodus there brought him to Bishop O’ Dowd in 1979.

The basketball team followed.

In the next 24 years at O’Dowd, Phelps became the winningest coach in California boys basketball history. His record-setting 829th win came after a 2003 victory over Tennyson, and he’d win 14 more before controversy forced him into administrative leave.

Phelps pled not-guilty that year to molestation charges citing an incident in 1966. Due to California’s statute-of-limitation laws, the case never went to trial. Phelps didn’t step back onto the sidelines again until 2006, when Cal State East Bay hired Phelps as an assistant women’s and men’s basketball coach.

Since leaving the high school sidelines 16 years ago, just four coaches passed him in the record books: Mater Dei’s Gary McKnight, Damien’s Mike Leduc, Westchester’s Ed Azzam and Lippi, who succeeded Phelps at St. Josephs in 1979 and went on to win 872 games (and counting).

For Lippi, Phelps was an aspirational figure.

Mike Phelps, Bishop O’Dowd’s boys basketball coach, yells out instructions to his team against Castro Valley. (Dino Vournas/ Staff Archives) 

“Playing Mike Phelps was always…that was the game,” Lippi said. “Pound-for-pound, the best basketball coach in the Bay Area’s history. I say that because of three things. One, when you play his teams, you better be ready to play because they play very hard. Two, if you want to get a shot off, you better have some good offense because he had great defense. And, at the other end, if you’re going to stop him, you have to be very patient and you have to be using your defense at the highest level for a very long time.”

Phelps was known for his dedication to the game and relentless coaching style. Lippi recalls seeing Phelps scouting his St. Joseph’s team at a game all the way in Vallejo, looking for any competitive edge. In a shot clock-less era, Phelps was known for composing an air-tight defense that strengthened an offense tasked with milking every possession until his team could find the best shot to score.

“Your leadership, commitment, and passion for the game taught us so much more than what we developed on the court,” Luke Jubb wrote in a comment on Phelps’ memorial page. “The influence you had on your players transcended the game of basketball, allowing us to thrive in so many other aspects of our lives. Thank you for the guidance, wisdom, and patience you showed to me when I needed it most. You will be missed, Coach.”

“This is tough to write…Coach, you will be greatly missed,” former Bishop O’Dowd star Garry Hill-Thomas wrote on the memorial page. “Thank you for everything you did for my family and I. You were a great coach and teacher but a better person. You helped me mold the foundation to be a man. You influenced so many lives in your lifetime. We can all hope to have that said about us. I will miss you! Love always.”

Phelps was detail-oriented — he loved basketball, but fell in love with the minutia of baseball coaching, too.

“He was fanatical about details and demanding perfection from his players,” Lippi said.

With attention to detail brought big reward. Phelps won a California state championship in 1981, 24 league championships and 13 CIF North Coast Section titles.

dino vournas/staff 2/2/00 tribune sportsSeven Bishop O’Dowd High School athletes signed Letters of Intent in a ceremony at the school on Wednesday. Basketball coach Mike Phelps got a hug after introducing one of his stars, Garry Hill-Thomas, who will attend the University of Nevada-Reno. 

Phelps’ brother, Steve, died in December of 2017. He was the president of Bishop O’ Dowd from 2005 until his death. Phelps is survived by his other brother, Paul, who left a message on Mike’s memorial page.

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