At 6-foot-8, Phil Beans, the guy with arguably one of the cooler jobs in college basketball, is easy to spot in a crowd.
The crowd I first find him in is a long line at Messenger Coffee Co. in downtown Kansas City, which is only a couple of blocks south of the Sprint Center, where the 2019 Big 12 Championship Tournament is being held. To help pass the time, I start making small talk with him, focusing — I’m sure wholly unoriginal to him — on his height. “It has its ups and downs,” he responds when I ask him what it’s like living in a world built for shorter people.
After a little more in-line chit chat — about books, about coffee, about traveling — he does what he’s done many times before for many others: He offers me free tickets to watch college basketball.
This is part of his job actually. Beans, a former high-school basketball star and former college basketball center, is an account executive in media sales at ESPN. From his office in Chicago, he does the day job part of his gig, selling ads to his clients across the Midwest, specifically for ESPN radio affiliates and podcasts. But when there’s a tournament going on, his responsibility is to show up and spread the love of basketball to strangers and clients alike. This calling is also known as: working in advertising. (He says he goes to 30 to 40 sporting events a year, a quarter of which are for work.)
Beans turned 28 in December, and dresses like he’s ready to be on TV — a tan overcoat for the unpredictable March weather with a blue-and-white checkered dress shirt and slacks. His hair is wavy blond, and even though he’s tall, he doesn’t lumber like a hill giant; he strides effortlessly to get where he’s going.
He says ESPN expects him to use his pocket full of tickets the right way. I see what he means as we walk up to the entrance of the Sprint Center for the quarterfinals between Kansas State University and Texas Christian University. “That’s the guy that gave us the tickets!” exclaims the dad of a family of K-State fans.
“You guys ready for a great game?” Beans asks.
We use the media entrance to get inside, and then find our seats — not courtside, but not nosebleeds either. Once there, I ask Beans how he decides who to give his tickets to. He says account execs handing out their extra tickets is fairly typical, and there are Basketball Santas like him everywhere, for basically every basketball tournament. As for his approach, “People just come up to me and ask for directions. For whatever reason, I’m a decently approachable big person. Then it’s like, whoever you happen to meet when you’re traveling, you talk to them,” he says. If Beans likes where that conversation goes and thinks you’ll bring something good to the game, you’ll end up sitting in his section.
He says that he got more tickets than he had anticipated for this year’s Big 12 tournament — about 16 tickets to each of the three quarterfinal games. He starts by giving out his priority tickets, which are his ESPN media partners and clients (like Sprint, Yellow Roadway Trucking and Callahan, an ad agency in nearby Lawrence, Kansas.) But he definitely pads his pockets with extras. “I always come to town with some last-minute tickets because you never know who you’re going to meet. The mom and kid sitting next to you, for example — I gave them those tickets. I was at Mildred’s Coffeehouse [in the Crossroads District of Downtown K.C.] just hanging out. I was sitting at a big picnic table, and we were small-talking. They had Kansas State gear on, and I was like, ‘You guys going to the games?’ They said, ‘We wish.’ I told them, ‘I got two tickets — please use them. They’re gonna go to waste otherwise.’ Pretty much all the tickets around where we’re sitting were from me.”
At halftime, we walk a lap around the arena for a stretch, and like me at Messenger Coffee, everyone is taking notice of Beans’ height. It came from his dad, Bill, but his interest in using it on the basketball court came from his mom Cindy, who was Miss Basketball Ohio her junior year of high school — an honor bestowed upon the best female high-school basketball player that year statewide. “I didn’t drink or get girls or anything when I was in high school. I was focused on basketball, because my parents told me that if I didn’t get a basketball scholarship, I’d have to go to the University of Toledo, which isn’t cool. You don’t go to Toledo if you’re from Toledo,” says Beans, a native of the Toledo suburb Ottawa Hills. “Once I got my scholarship to Holy Cross in Worcester [pronounced Woostah], I started to socialize.” He says the combination of being a member of a basketball team that hung out together on and off the court, as well as going to a Jesuit school, imprinted some of his good vibes.
After college, Beans moved to the North Side of Chicago with two of his teammates and the team manager from Holy Cross. They moved to a block of brownstones, and for five years now, they’ve been the cool basketball house on the street. In fact, the neighborhood kids he shoots hoops with know him as “Mister Phil.” “It’s an open-door policy,” Beans explains. “The dads will come over and grab a beer, and the moms will text us that we have to babysit their kids and shit.”
“Have I told you about my babysitting gigs?” he continues. “One of the families has the luxury of taking babysitters with them on their trips — so in December, I got to go to Bali, and I’m going to Egypt, Rome and Capri to babysit these kids. It’s just a crazy block.”
He also volunteers to coach eighth grade basketball in Chicago, and personally trains those who need it most — a side hustle he calls “Phil’s Drills.” “I’ve always enjoyed working with kids. So I developed this curriculum around the scientific term called ‘physical literacy.’ It’s basically the eight aspects of athletics — everything from hand-eye coordination, foot-eye coordination, core strength, agility, catching, throwing and the big one that makes it whole — mindset and mental health,” he says.
In the first session, the students write down goals, and he asks them about what sports they like. Then they begin to focus on the physical training. “The kids gain so much confidence. Parents just want their kids to fit in on a social level — to be a kid, to be included, to make friends, to build relationships, whatever. That part is my favorite part in the world. I mean, I love working for ESPN. I get to travel around, and I get to give people tickets, which is cool. But [Phil’s Drills] is my passion.”
Beans and I return to our seats for the second half of the K-State/TCU game. He sets down his beer and roams around, checking in on the other fans he gave tickets to. He asks one grandfather and his granddaughter if they went to K-State. “No, but I did go to another school in Kansas called Fort Hays. Go Tigers!” The granddaughter asks if Beans wouldn’t mind taking a picture of them to commemorate the day. Beans says “sure,” and that he’s happy they could be there.
A couple of minutes into the second half, senior guard Kamau Stokes hits a three-pointer and K-State finally takes the lead. They ultimately win 70-61, but will be upset in the next round by Iowa State. For now, though, the Wildcat fans all around us cheer and thank Beans for the surprise tickets — myself included.
After we tour K.C.’s Power and Light bar district, Beans and I get a nightcap at The Green Lady Lounge, a great jazz spot in town. There, as the night closes, he tells me that whatever he ends up doing with the rest of his life — whether it’s coaching kids, giving tickets away or something totally different — he simply wants to put good vibes into the world and make the people around him feel good. “I like to pump energy into people,” he explains. “Everyone knows how it feels to feel good, right? I just want to do whatever I can to help them always feel good.”