Like many coaches trying to build a program from the ground up, University of Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett experienced player turnover his first few years. That didn’t sit well with UVA fans, who didn’t like the fact that recruits were being so impatient with their new leader.
In 2012, one longtime Wahoo fan decided to voice his feelings on the subject by creating a Twitter account.
Moments later came the first tweet.
@TheUVAFool Speak for yourself. I had a dream where everyone transferred but Browman. Maryland was the only team we could beat.— Phony Bennett (@IfTonyTweeted) April 10, 2012
There it was, in less than 140 characters – humor, sarcasm, self-deprecation, trash talk, school pride.
Over 25,000 tweets later, those are still “Phony Bennett’s” pillars.
The Twitter parody account (PhonyBennett @IfTonyTweeted) – the bio of which reads, “I’m the dude pretending to be a dude kind of pretending to be another dude” – is one of the most popular pertaining to Cavalier basketball.
With Tony Bennett himself not on Twitter, some UVA fans consider following Phony Bennett – who has over 12,000 followers – the next-best thing.
“It’s become synonymous with UVA Twitter,” said UVA fan Michael Pittman, who runs @WahooBasketball, another popular Twitter account.
So who is Phony Bennett?
After nearly six years of anonymity, the UVA social media personality is ready to reveal himself …
Meet UVA alum, former stand-up comic, avid disc golf player and father of two Chris Dembitz.
“My identity has been leaking out here and there over the years,” said Dembitz, when asked about his decision to step out of the shadows, “and a wise PR professional once told me I need to get ahead of it and control the reveal.
“I have no idea if the timing is right or not. In fact, I’m pretty sure it isn’t. This will probably all blow up in my face and make me regret ever logging into Twitter. Folks will unfollow me, friends will abandon me. I’ll end up broke and homeless on the Corner begging for retweets. It’s gonna be awesome.”
Born in Los Angeles, the 44-year-old Dembitz has lived in Virginia Beach since he was 6.
At Bayside High School, Dembitz was on the debate, trivia and forensics teams, winning a district title in extemporaneous speaking in 1991.
“I was a nerd,” Dembitz said. “I’m not afraid to say it.”
It was while at UVA that Dembitz became more of a sports fan. He worked as a photo editor at the Cavalier Daily student newspaper – which he did, in part, so he could get good seats at basketball games. The gig enabled him to follow the ’Hoos on the road. Some of Dembitz’ fondest memories are of trips to the “Dean Dome” at the University of North Carolina and Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.
After taking the LSAT, Dembitz, a government major, thought he was going to go into law.
But then he had an “awakening.”
Instead of becoming a lawyer, Dembitz started telling jokes about them.
In the five years after he graduated from UVA, Dembitz, while managing a computer company, traveled the country as a stand-up comic.
Dembitz performed two to three times per week. One month, he drove 11,000 miles during a tour in the Pacific Northwest, performing 23 shows in 30 days. “I didn’t make a lot of money,” he said, “but basically got paid to drive around the country and see cities and towns that I otherwise never would have.”
As a kid, Dembitz had idolized Eddie Murphy, whose legendary “Delirious” set he could recite verbatim. Over the years, Dembitz came to most admire comedians Bob Newhart and George Carlin.
“Newhart had the best timing and delivery of any comic out there,” Dembitz said. “He could do more with a pause than most comics can do with a punchline.”
Comedian Jeff Caldwell, who appeared multiple times on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and is still in the business, recalled seeing Dembitz perform for the first time at Virginia Wesleyan University.
Based on his humor, his sports knowledge and his “forays into the dark side,” Caldwell said Dembitz’ style reminded him of comedian Norm Macdonald’s.
“He was a bright guy who knew a lot about politics and current events – so he was able to have interesting premises and jokes,” Caldwell said. “I thought, ‘This guy’s got potential.’ I was really impressed.”
In 2000, Dembitz – despite having dreams of making it in the business – decided it was time to settle down.
Five years later, he and his wife welcomed a daughter, Ella.
Life was good.
But in 2012, the couple learned that their unborn daughter, Audrey, had neuroblastoma, a rare form of childhood cancer. Audrey’s cancer spread, going from a stage 2 to a stage 4S – a more serious condition – in a matter of months.
“That first year, Virginia basketball was my escape,” Dembitz recalled. “A couple times a week for two hours, I could put all of that aside and watch UVA.”
When Audrey was 10 months old, she started showing improvement. Right around that time, Dembitz began doing stand-up again, and created his new Twitter persona.
“I was trying to find my happy place,” Dembitz said. “Trying to laugh again and make people laugh again was something I very much needed.”
In May of 2012, Dembitz got comics together for a benefit show that raised $15,000 for Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk.
“I can kind of look back and see how I was coming out of the darkness at that point – and UVA basketball and Twitter were a big part of that,” Dembitz said. “I was happy to have that resource.”
Especially when Dembitz’ muse began to work his magic.
In 2014, Bennett led Virginia its first ACC Tournament title in 38 years.
Today, 6-year-old Audrey is doing great.
With only so many jokes in his holster about player transfers, the Pack-Line defense and pace, Dembitz eventually made the decision to expand his Twitter repertoire.
“A couple people complained when I broke character,” Dembitz said, “but after a while people just kind of accepted that I wasn’t only doing it in his voice anymore.
“I was lucky because the followers really put up with me doing whatever I wanted once I diverged from just making jokes. It wasn’t just snark. There was a little bit of cheerleading. It’s what kept me engaged.”
Even so, Dembitz said he gave thought to disappearing from Twitter as abruptly as he had arrived. Wouldn’t it be poetic, he thought, to have people wondering, “Whatever happened to Phony Bennett?”
But right around that time, Pittman – who had built up his own Twitter following through devoted coverage of UVA basketball – invited Dembitz to co-host a podcast called “The Hard Hedge.”
The endeavor was an instant success. The podcast, which can be heard via iTunes, has more than 50,000 downloads. Pittman believes Dembitz is the secret sauce.
“The difference in Phony and all the rest of us is his comedic background, his ability to take a situation and quickly produce something within that character limit that makes people smile,” Pittman said.
Shortly after the inaugural podcast, Dembitz was playing disc golf, a sport he has played religiously since 2004, when he received a call from former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg. The ESPN commentator wanted to pick his brain – yes, Phony Bennett’s brain – about UVA basketball in advance of “College GameDay” coming to Charlottesville in 2015.
“From there, I was like, ‘OK, I’m committed to this. There are some neat things that are happening,’” Dembitz said.
You can imagine the fodder that Virginia being ranked No. 1 this season has provided Dembitz.
“I expected the team to be good this year, a lot better than the national pundits predicted,” Dembitz said, “but I don’t know that anyone expected this.”
As the vice president of a property management company in Virginia Beach, Dembitz said he has flexibility in his daily schedule that allows him the time to maintain his alter ego. At his office, he has multiple computer monitors, with TweetDeck always open so he can keep an eye on what’s going on in the Twitterverse. During games, Dembitz’ daughters are often by his side, with 11-year-old Ella often suggesting tweets to her dad.
Over the years, Dembitz has faced the typical social media challenges, such as being on the receiving end of crude tweets from rival fans. Then there is the toughest part of fake coaching – recruiting.
Frequently, Dembitz receives direct messages from high school athletes or their parents who think he is actually Tony Bennett.
“They don’t notice the ‘Phony’ part of Phony Bennett. They’re like, ‘Can you check out my tape?’” Dembitz said. “I’m like, ‘Hey, ‘I can’t offer you a scholarship because I’m a fake coach.’”
As a result of all the inquiries, Dembitz – not wanting to break any NCAA rules – contacted UVA Athletics’ compliance department, who gave him an email to give to anybody reaching out to him in the future.
It begs the question: What does the real Tony Bennett think of all this?
Bennett himself is on record as saying he thinks Phony Bennett is funny. He has said that he doesn’t mind what Dembitz is doing “as long as he keeps it respectful.” And that is something Dembitz said he has always tried to do.
“I don’t use any profanity on Twitter, something I can’t say about myself in real life,” said Dembitz, with a laugh. “I do kind of enjoy the challenge of keeping it clean, not necessarily wholesome, but at least PG-13.”
Dembitz said he has the utmost respect for Bennett, whom he’s been hoping to meet.
“What I admire most about Tony is probably his character, and the character of the guys he consequently recruits,” Dembitz said. “They are representatives of the University, and as fans we can be proud of them both on and off the court. I feel like UVA grads hold their school with a kind of reverence that you don’t necessarily see at other schools, and it makes it extra important that those who represent the University do so in the highest possible way.
“And so when you see the players out in the community doing good things, standing up for what’s right, and speaking out in order to help others, it is very much a reflection of the culture that Tony has cemented there, and as an alum I can be proud of that.”
On the flip side, it would stand to reason that Bennett – whose wife, Laurel, actually follows Phony Bennett – has laughed out loud at a few of Dembitz’ jokes.
Great shot of Coach K and Roy Williams chatting pregame pic.twitter.com/yUKzzQ8679— Phony Bennett (@IfTonyTweeted) February 10, 2017
Things that changed since the last time #UVa was #1:— Phony Bennett (@IfTonyTweeted) February 12, 2018
•The USSR no longer exists
•Civilians can go to outer space
•We hold access to a world of information in the palm of our hands
Things that didn’t change:
•VaTech still hasn’t won a National Championship in anything.
“Any time that we play Tech in anything, you can always count on five or six just really good jabs that are funny,” Pittman said. “I always look forward to those.”
Brian Leung, the founder of the popular UVA fan website Streaking the Lawn, said one of his all-time favorites was about the player turnover in 2012.
Rode the UTS today. BIG MISTAKE. Almost punched a 2nd year when he asked the driver for a transfer.— Phony Bennett (@IfTonyTweeted) April 10, 2012
“That joke was just so on point and timely,” Leung said. “And that’s what he’s best at it – very timely jokes. You see a lot of the same jokes on Twitter, but from him you keep getting fresh-quality gems.”
Dembitz said his key is not trying to force jokes.
“Some games I’m really quiet because I’m just into the game,” he said. “As soon as I feel obligated to tweet and obligated to say funny things, I’m not going to enjoy it anymore.”
Dembitz said telling a Twitter joke is a lot different than telling one on stage.
“In stand-up, you may workshop a joke many times to get it right, and then perform that same bit for years,” he said. “With Twitter, you basically have one shot for a joke and whoever sees it, sees it. You don’t really get to reuse material.
“One thing they do have in common is that frequently what I think is pretty funny falls somewhat flat, and what I think of as a throwaway line or tweet gets a huge response.”
Suddenly, Dembitz – in Newhart-like fashion – paused.
It was as if something had just occurred to him.
“I can’t believe,” he said, “that I’ve been doing this for six years.”