Chris Dembitz — the manager of the impersonation account of Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett and 1995 College alumnus — lost his two-year-long battle with cancer Tuesday. Known as “Phony Bennett”, his Twitter account, @IfTonyTweeted, grew to over 24,000 followers as Dembitz made jokes regarding both the state of Cavalier basketball and the sport as a whole.
Dembitz’s wife broke the news of his passing with a tweet from the account Wednesday afternoon, prompting hundreds of condolences, memories, thoughts and prayers from the Virginia community for Dembitz and his family.
“I am devastated as Chris left us early yesterday morning,” the tweet read. “He fought cancer bravely, with humor, and with everything he had. He had an immense love for U.Va. and the Hoos. Your memory and light will shine forever, my love.”
Dembitz started the account as a way to distract himself from another cancer battle — that of his newborn daughter, Audrey. Bennett has been known to stay off social media, so Dembitz decided to tweet like he was the Cavalier coach himself when he created the account in 2012. In addition to his persona, he also wanted to promote pediatric cancer research through his Twitter feed.
“We’re using [the account] as a vehicle to help other kids [with cancer],” Dembitz said in an interview with CBS19 Sports in 2020. “If you have that kind of audience, that kind of platform, then it's a missed opportunity to not do something [impactful].”
The Twitter account became so popular among Virginia fans that other sports have begun parodies as well. With the hire of Virginia football coach Tony Elliott, “Phony Elliott” was born, inspired by Dembitz and his account, but no one could truly replicate the wit of Dembitz, whether it came from Virginia’s 2019 national championship or consoling Purdue fans after its loss to Fairleigh Dickinson. Tweets from Dembitz ranged from game commentary on great plays, Kihei Clark memes and general Virginia basketball takes.
A Virginia graduate himself, Dembitz has been a long time fan of the Cavaliers. After revealing himself as Phony Bennett back in 2018, Dembitz has grown into a staple of the Virginia sports Twitter community.
The reveal video — with the help of Virginia media company Locker Room Access — featured Dembitz and his daughter revealing his personality and advocating for cancer research and awareness. He started a fundraiser coinciding with his reveal, raising money for the U.Va. Children’s Hospital oncology unit and selling t-shirts reading “I am Phony Bennett.”
Dembitz’s influence spread across college basketball as a whole, including, of course, the program of which he was first a fan. Bennett released a statement on Twitter following his death on the @UVAMensHoops Twitter acount.
“We are saddened by the loss of Chirs Dembitz AKA Pony Bennett,” Bennett said. “He fought a courageous battle with cancer in the way we knew he would - with strength, humility, and of course, humor. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
Editor’s Note: The Sports Desk extends its condolences to the friends and family of Dembitz, who contributed heartily to the University sports community.