Phil Ricci picked up tricks to the trade early, rising from timid pupil to a forceful and ferocious prospect.
In a dank old Galt gymnasium 21 summers ago, a coach implored Ricci to get brutish with the ball. He wanted the stout 16-year-old to master the drop-step, with a mandate of “take it strong. Be a man!”
Ricci drop-stepped, thundered down a dunk and landed in an instant.
With the rim still in his hand. He handed it to the coach. Drill over.
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Ricci works below the rim these days. The 37-year-old has been hired by the Kings as an assistant player-development coach. Ricci offers instruction to forwards and centers on how to use skill and power to make their point – and to get their points. He will work with interior players with the Kings’ development league affiliate Reno Bighorns and with the parent roster in Sacramento, including in Las Vegas for summer league.
“I still want to grab that rim even now,” Ricci said with a laugh. “I can still bang, but I need a lot more recovery time now at my age.”
The 6-foot-7, thick-bodied Ricci tore down other rims on unsuspecting playgrounds in Galt as a teen. He emerged as The Bee’s Player of the Year in 1998, was the State Community College Player of the Year, went on to Oregon State and logged a year in the D-League and 12 years of pro ball across the globe: the Czech Republic, Israel, France, Spain, South Korea and Japan.
Ricci still calls Galt home, where he and high school sweetheart Alejandra are raising two children. He coached basketball at Galt High School last year, his alma mater, and was delighted to hear from the Kings.
Coach Dave Joerger knew of Ricci during their time toiling in the minor leagues. Joerger joked that he wanted Ricci years ago. He finally got his man through connections with noted area strength and conditioning coach Guss Armstead, and Ricci’s agent, Bill Neff.
“It’s exciting, and it’ll be a lot of hard work, but I love to work,” Ricci said. “It’s a transition going from player to this, but I love a challenge. I can relate to these young guys. The immaturity is going to be there for players, but you can help with that. I’ve had great coaches and mentors help me. I know I can offer a lot.”
Said Joerger, “He’s still able to put a body on guys (in practice drills). It wasn’t about him being local. It was the fact that he’s pretty good. He has a real nice way about him. He can talk to players, and he can teach.
“Just to be there when somebody wants to work out at 9 o’clock at night, or to go to Reno, go on the road with us and work guys before games, practices, whatever. That’s going to be his job.”
Ricci used basketball to grow and mature. When he was 10, living in Sacramento, he was jumped by 12 guys he said were gang affiliated. He was pummeled, bruised beyond what one could see on his face and limbs.
Ricci grew afraid of bigger people, once telling me he would “jump in the bushes” to avoid eye contact.
“When I was a kid, I was scared,” Ricci recalled. “That experience, that fight, it helped me grow. I was intimidated, but that changed once I started becoming a man, and I knew that stuff wouldn’t happen again.”
Ricci’s uncle, Anthony Santistevan became a role model in his life. Ricci’s father left the family when he was young, and he and two siblings were raised by their mother, Ruth. She graduated from Sacramento State in 1991 with a degree in criminal justice, working for years as a corrections officer in Tracy.
Ricci helped transform a 2-26 Galt Warriors team into a first-time playoff entry in 1998, playing in front of sold-out crowds across the region. Galt beat Matt Barnes and Del Campo at Arco Arena in a playoff game in one of the region’s most anticipated prep showdowns.
Ricci landed at Delta College in Stockton, coached by Brian Katz, now at Sac State. When when Katz’s father, Victor, died of heart failure in 2000, Ricci helped console his coach.
Said Katz years later, “Phil helped me realize that, ‘OK, I do need to stop here a second and think about what’s going on.’ Phil has an incredible intuition about people. He cares about people. He’s very humble, very grounded, a man with a great sense of what’s right.”
Ricci was a team captain at Oregon State and a leader throughout his pro days.
“Basketball gave me everything: confidence, identity, opportunity,” Ricci said. “I could feel free out there playing. That was my getaway. It can be for a lot of guys.”
Galt is rooting for Ricci all over again.
“I don’t know what this Kings job will lead to, but Phil will work hard, there’s no doubt about that,” said John Williams, a lifelong Galt resident who worked for years as sports editor for the Galt Herald. “And it’s neat that he’s still a Galt kid. He’s still that nice, tall, gentle giant.”
Ricci said Galt remains dear to him.
“Galt is in me, and it’s my hometown,” he said. “I plan on being there forever.”