‘Phony Bennett’ Talks March Madness and What Makes UVA Players So Likable

UVA alum Chris Dembitz, a.k.a. “Phony Bennett,” is optimistic about UVA’s chances in the NCAA Tournament.

A little over a year ago, UVA Today solved one of life’s biggest mysteries.

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” – had become a must-follow for University of Virginia basketball fans around the world.

Yet nobody knew whom they were actually following.

As it turned out, the fan behind it all was a UVA alumnus, a father of two and a former stand-up comic who once had dreams of becoming the next Bob Newhart or George Carlin.

Since making the decision to step out of the shadows, Chris Dembitz – with 15,800 Twitter followers – is still going strong.

With No. 1-seeded UVA set to begin play in the NCAA Tournament against Gardner-Webb University on Friday afternoon, UVA Today again caught up with Dembitz.

Q. What has it been like for you since revealing your true identity? Are you still glad you did it?

A. I am glad I did it. I heard from a lot of old friends from UVA, so that was neat. I ended up doing an interview with Harry Minium and the [Norfolk] Virginian-Pilot as a result of your piece, and it was certainly a good article as well. Unfortunately, it ran on the front page of the sports section the day after our loss to [the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament history]. So people pulling the sports section to see what happened in our game were instead greeted by me, which is unfortunate on a lot of levels. I feel bad for those people.

Q. What’s been the funniest reaction when people find out you’re the guy behind the account?

A. An attorney I work with called me to tell me his son was my No. 1 fan. This guy and I have always finished every work call by talking about UVA hoops. But he’s not on Twitter, so I never brought up the Phony Bennett thing. I mean, it’s hard enough to try describing what it is even if you’re on Twitter, but for someone unfamiliar with the platform, it sounds even dumber than it is. And it’s pretty dumb.

Q. This basketball season, which of your tweets have gotten the most attention? Any you’re particularly proud of?

A. The one that got the most engagement (I’m told that if you’re in social media you have to use terms like “engagement”) was my Valentine’s Day response to UMBC’s Valentine’s Day tweet.

It’s pretty interesting, the dynamic between our two schools, because they obviously accomplished something incredible, and they’ve been nothing but respectful about it. And I really think the respect is mutual between the two fan bases. UVA fans recognize that what they did was pretty incredible, and they recognize that their upset was only as big as it was because of how good UVA is.

So they posted this funny Valentine’s Day card the day before Valentine’s Day, and people were tweeting it at me to make sure I had seen it, apparently. So I decided to quote it and do a Valentine’s Day poem. Honestly, I think people were just happy to see a Valentine’s Day poem that didn’t begin with, “Roses are red.”

Here’s a tweet that I liked even though, in the end, it’s not so much about basketball. But it’s more my sense of humor. And it’s somewhat educational! Useless knowledge, but knowledge nonetheless. It was fairly well-received, which is an oddity because generally the jokes I like the most aren’t the ones that get the most traction on twitter.

Beyond those, pretty much any criticism of ESPN’s overwhelming coverage of Zion Williamson did well, particularly with UNC fans. 

Q. What is it that makes UVA players so likable and easy to cheer for?

A. I think this group of players are, to a man, the most unselfish team I’ve ever watched. They play for each other; they celebrate their teammates’ successes more than their own. On and off the court, they embrace Tony’s “Five Pillars.” That makes them not just great players, but great stewards of the University.

Additionally, their humanity and humility was on full display after the UMBC game, and I think as a fan of sport that just makes you want to cheer for them even more, because beyond the pain that we felt as fans, we also hurt for them. And their willingness to share that experience, the pain, the depression, the disappointment, makes us all the more invested in seeing them overcome it this season.

Q. What have been your impressions of this season’s team?

A. They’ve absolutely lived up to, and even exceeded, my expectations. Preseason, I thought that this would be the most offensively gifted team we’ve had, owing not only to having more guys who could score, but also a more versatile lineup than in previous years. And while we still lack a back-to-the-basket kind of scorer, we have guys who can score from any spot on the court.

De’Andre Hunter has shown a willingness to call his own number more often in league play, and is a triple threat when he has the ball on the perimeter. Jay Huff can stretch defenses and open up lanes for other guys. Kyle Guy has the rare ability to square himself in the air no matter where his feet are when he launches, which makes him especially deadly on catch-and -shoot situations; defenses can’t stop it. And of course our defense is as good as ever.

So I’m more optimistic for our postseason chances as I think we have the tools to face off with any team in the nation, and the coaches are doing a fantastic job using those tools well, based on who we’re playing.

Q. Who have been your favorite players to watch this season?

A. De’Andre has improved significantly as the season has progressed. He picks his moments well. He’s an unselfish as ever, but he also knows when he needs to be the one to create. He has all these physical gifts, and he’s finally putting it all together and learning to use it. When he’s at his best, it looks effortless, and no one can stop him.

Mamadi Diakite has played more consistently and, to use a Tony Bennett-ism, continuously. His minutes have become more meaningful as he stays active and makes play after play. And the joy with which he plays in contagious. He’s probably my favorite player to watch, just based on how much I smile when watching him.

Jay Huff is always seconds away from a highlight play, whether it’s a block that he makes look easy, a dunk, or even a three-pointer. He has one of the best-looking jumpshots I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been happy to see his role expanding as the season wears on. I think he’s going to be a name that people all over the college basketball world know next year, and he will have the chance to be a breakout player in the NCAA Tournament this year.

Q. What did you make of Duke star Zion Williamson’s sneaker exploding?

A. I pretty much stayed away from that one. First of all, not knowing initially the severity of his injury, I didn’t want to be insensitive to it. Additionally, everyone was making jokes about Zion’s sneakers. And when that happens, unless you have something really original, it’s best just to stay away. 

Q. What’s your advice for UVA fans who still face ribbing about last season’s NCAA Tournament loss?

A. Those jokes have lost their sting. It doesn’t stop people from going after them, but it’s just white noise for me now. It’s pretty clear that the team has not been hurt by them this year, either, instead using it as motivation. So just tune it out and recognize that you’re privileged to get to cheer for a team that has only lost four regular-season games in the past two seasons.

Frankly, I think they’ve become less prevalent as the season has progressed, but I expect them to return in force in advance of our first NCAA game, for obvious reasons. But once the ’Hoos take care of business, it should be back to a dull, easily ignored roar.

Q. How far do you think the team can go?

A. I truly believe this is the most well-rounded, versatile team Tony Bennett has coached in Charlottesville. We have the personnel to match up with anyone at either end of the floor, and the coaches have done their best job yet at utilizing the talent, making adjustments and guiding us to victories. 

It’s inevitable that the UMBC game becomes part of an ESPN “30 for 30” [feature]. Someone is going to tell that story. But this team has what it takes to make the UMBC game the beginning of the story, not the end. I think we get to the Final Four this year.

And I can’t wait to see what we do once we get there. It’s going to be a story worth telling.

Q. How long do you think you’ll keep this Twitter persona of yours going?

A. Until it’s not fun anymore. I’ve kept my interest in it by not being afraid to not tweet. Sometimes I’m just not in the mood; sometimes I want to lose myself in a game without worrying about Twitter. And doing that keeps it from feeling like work to me, like an obligation. I do it because I enjoy it.

As soon as I feel like I’m doing it because I have to, I’ll walk away. 

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