ELKHART — Phil Preston’s love for basketball pushed the boundaries of insatiable, but it was still outpaced by a generosity that his friends say knew no boundaries at all.
“I don’t think I ever met anybody who loved the game more than he did, and loved helping kids more than he did,” former Concord coach Jim Hahn said this week as he remembered a pal and mentor. “The guy was just a tremendous asset to the local basketball community and helped a whole lot of people along the way.”
Preston, a longtime resident of Wakarusa and Goshen, a husband of 53 years, a father of four and a friend to seemingly all in basketball died Saturday, April 19 at age 76.
“He was probably the most giving person I’ve ever been around,” said Doug Thwaits, a 1974 Fairfield graduate who like Hahn played on all or virtually all of Preston’s powerhouse Wakarusa Pharmacy men’s teams that ruled the loaded Plymouth Summer League for more than a decade.
“If you needed anything, he would take care of it,” Thwaits said. “He was a real ambassador, and knew so many people. He was really good to all of us when we were playing, then years later when it was time for my son (Ryan) to go to college, he was contacting coaches for him.”
Though he carried no formal title within the game, Preston’s presence felt like the presence of basketball royalty.
Coaches at all levels paid attention when he offered opinions born from his keen eye for potential, players from all over benefited from his assistance, and any genuine fan who ever met him couldn’t help but embrace his unbridled enthusiasm for the game.
“I remember one time him taking me to a Notre Dame practice,” Indiana Pacers assistant coach Dan Burke said from Indianapolis, “and we’re walking through parts of the Joyce Center I didn’t even know existed, and security and everybody’s like, ‘Hey, Mr. Preston,’ ‘How are you, Mr. Preston?’ and I’m like, ‘Who are you, the Irish godfather?’”
“When I started the (Elkhart) Sports Center,” said Brett Eldridge, who opened the business in 2003, “he was so influential as far as AAU programs coming in and getting coaches to come in and showcase things. All the big-name people he knew and his love of the game, both those things were just crazy.”
“Sometimes you meet people because of basketball and that’s how the relationship starts, but it becomes more than that,” said Jeff Massey, who starred at Concord, Xavier University and professionally, and has been an assistant at St. Bonaventure University for six years.
“I met Pres when I was a sophomore at Concord, but he wanted to know me more as a person, and he gave me the confidence and courage to deal with what was in front of me,” Massey said. “He pushed me, but he was also my guardian angel. It’s tough to even put into words. He’s always been a phone call away, and was always inquiring on how I was doing. It’s going to be odd not getting that phone call.”
A pharmacist by trade, Preston owned Wakarusa Pharmacy for 30 years before accepting a position with Judd Drugs of Goshen in 1992. Later, after he retired from full-time employment, he kept working part-time at area drug stores.
Shirley, his wife for those 53 years, said he worked a short shift as recently as a month ago — even though he’d been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis over three years ago, had been using a portable oxygen tank for about a year and “really struggled” over his final couple months, often while declining to share the severity of his condition with others.
“Because he wanted to,” Shirley said of why her husband continued to work. “He would’ve worked for nothing if he was well enough. He really liked being a pharmacist and being around people. He loved people.”
Those who know how regularly Preston was at a high school, college or pro gym over many years, or can remember him steering his Wakarusa Pharmacy clubs from 1976 until at least 1986, or can recall him being a regular at AAU games, might be stunned to learn the guy even had his own family.
“I must say it ticked me off when I was home with four little kids and he was off in Plymouth three nights a week, and out for a little refreshment time afterwards,” Shirley said with a laugh, “but he really was a wonderful father. He was human, but he made me laugh a lot. You can’t stay together 53 years if you can’t laugh a lot.”
Shirley met Phil, then a recent graduate of Butler University’s pharmacy program, when he was working at the old Judd Drugs on Franklin Street in her hometown Elkhart. They married six months later in 1960.
Together they raised four children in Marc (1979 NorthWood graduate), Andy (1983) and twins Kim and Karen (1987).
Each of the children worked at one time or another for their dad at his drug store, the kids sometimes gathered with friends at the soda fountain there, and the family took “a lot of nice trips,” Shirley recalled. “One of the highlights was definitely when we went to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.”
Basketball increasingly tugged at Preston, though.
“When we first married, I don’t remember him being into it nearly as much as he was later on,” Shirley said. “He followed Butler, of course, and we always went to Notre Dame basketball and football games together, but when he had that team in the Plymouth league, that’s what really started it.”
Family and hoops sometimes merged. Preston occasionally had his Waky Pharmacy teams and later his Concord AAU clubs over to swim.
“Karen remembers Shawn Kemp in our pool,” Shirley said of the then-NBA star in waiting. “He was in the deep end and Karen said it looked like he was in the shallow end.”
Three of Preston’s children wound up going to Indiana University. Between that and other connections there, Preston followed the Hoosiers closely in addition to his beloved Bulldogs and ND, each of them often in person.
He also attended roughly two-dozen Final Fours, as well as many high school and pro games.
“We went down to Butler two or three times a year together and to the Pacers two or three times a year,” said Thwaits, who accompanied Preston to his last game on March 19.
Preston attended the Pacers’ win over Orlando that night, then the very next night returned to Indy for a Hall of Fame program that included Kemp.
The Pacer tickets came, as they often did, from Burke.
Burke met Preston about 14 years ago through Ryan Carr, a former IU basketball manager under Bob Knight and currently the Pacers’ director of scouting.
“I mentioned to him once that I have seven brothers and sisters in Oregon and they’re all big Notre Dame football fans, and he calls me up one day and is offering me some of his Notre Dame tickets,” Burke said of Preston. “He wanted to help get them to a game and it ended up bringing such great joy to my family.”
Burke reciprocated over the years with Pacer tickets and the two also met for breakfast a few times to talk basketball.
But it wasn’t just the highly placed who often wound up on Preston’s long list of ticket recipients to various events.
“He called me once because he met this usher at one of our games, thought I might know the usher’s name,” Burke said, “and wanted me to tell the usher he’d gotten him those tickets to a Notre Dame game.”