Phil Sellers, now a basketball player only on Sunday mornings, stretches out on a couch in the housing project apartment in which he grew up and where he has returned to live for a while. He has just come in from work.
His tie is loosened, and he has kicked off a shoe. He looks at the ceiling and talks about how high school was his best time. ”I felt so dominating,” he said. ”I just knew I was better than high school players, like the expression, ‘A man among boys.’ ”
He is years removed from a brief and sour career as a professional and from his all-America season at Rutgers, where he was the self-appointed but undisputed leader of a team that came within two games of the national championship. Teammates, some of whom have enjoyed professional careers far better than his, say that a week seldom passes when they are not asked what has become of him. He is the office manager for a Perth Amboy mortgage firm, they reply, and he is a part-time assistant coach at Rutgers.
Dick Vitale, who recruited Sellers when he was an assistant coach at Rutgers, and who later became a professional coach and a broadcaster, says that his career was established because he brought Sellers to the program at Rutgers, then less-than-noteworthy, despite competing overtures made by more than 200 schools.
Ed Jordan, a guard for the Los Angeles Lakers and a college teammate, says that he and several other players chose Rutgers simply because Sellers had.
And Dr. Edward Bloustein, the president of the university, says that Sellers ”epitomized and symbolized in ways that people who gain the public eye sometimes do, a movement at Rutgers toward quality and self-assurance. He helped instill a sense of confidence in the university that persists today.”
It was a confidence bordering on arrogance that made Sellers so compelling a figure on the court. But when he was confronted for the first time with his own limitations in the 1976 National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, that confidence began eroding. Three years later, when Vitale invited Sellers to his Detroit Pistons tryout camp, he saw none of the conceit that had so impressed him when he had first watched other high school players back away from Sellers and college coaches line gymnasium walls to see him play. After the camp’s final day, he called Sellers into his office and told him, ”It’s over.”
”Maybe it was made up; maybe it never was,” Sellers said of the confidence that allowed him to impose himself on a game. ”Maybe it wasn’t meant for me to make it in the pros. I thought I could adjust. This was playing with professionals, and I was in their environment. I just didn’t have control of the situation. It wasn’t Phil Sellers’ show anymore.”
When he was 14, playing in a junior high school basketball clinic, Sellers and the other players were asked to dribble to the basket and shoot layups. He dunked the ball, recalled Jerry Wichern, his coach at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn. Sellers, as a freshman, was 6 feet tall and placed on the varsity.
Forced to Be Assertive
Basketball had not been his favorite sport. But because he was big for his age, Sellers says, he was pressured to play with those several years older, or risk incurring their ridicule. He recalls the games as being particularly physical and that it was necessary to be assertive. ”I used to get beat up and pushed around,” he said of playground games in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.
”I always felt that if you backed down they were going to take advantage of you,” Sellers said. ”People would attempt it if they saw any weakness in you. I became very aggressive in sports.”
By his senior year, Sellers was 6-5 and 190 pounds, and was regarded as the finest high school player in the metropolitan area. Sellers chose to attend Notre Dame. But after signing a letter of intent, he began sensing that his shortcomings as a student could jeopardize his eligibility. He switched his choice to Rutgers, where he could enroll in a program at Livingston College, a division of the university that accepted students of his academic ability. He also enjoyed the prospect of living far enough from Brownsville to be on his own, but close enough so that his family could see him play.
He joined a team that played in a 2,800-seat gymnasium, that had several successful seasons, but gained little prominence. ”All of a sudden there was this explosion,” said Les Unger, then the school’s sports information director. ”There was a large number of black players that Rutgers never had before. There was a change in personality in basketball. Phil Sellers was the most highly recruited athlete that Rutgers ever got. He just had a charisma when he walked on the court.”
Feared a Younger Player
Jordan arrived the following year and became Sellers’ roommate and shadow, following him, he recalls, ”a step behind, hanging on his coattails. He was the man for us.”
When Rutgers set about hiring a new head coach after his freshman year, Sellers asked that he and his teammate Mike Dabney be permitted to attend the interviews. And though the coach he preferred, Tom Young, was hired, an uneasiness grew between them.
”He would have preferred running the basketball team than having me run it,” Young said recently. The friction was such that during Sellers’s junior year, Young told his team, ”Phil isn’t the one who makes out the starting lineup around here.”
Sellers’s domination of the team -he called his teammates ”my players” – was perhaps matched only by his fear of being supplanted by a younger, better player. When Hollis Copeland, who later played for the New York Knicks, came to Rutgers during Sellers’s third year, he was assigned to guard Sellers in practice. The play was savage. ”I was afraid of Copeland,” Sellers recalled. ”I had to keep him down, or I’d be out of the picture.”
During Sellers’s senior year, Rutgers went undefeated during its regular season. The Scarlet Knights were, to his pleasure, a running team, defeating their sometimes-mediocre opponents by an average margin of 22 points. He set the school’s career scoring record (2,399 points) and rebounding record (1,111 rebounds) during the season. Both records still stand. When he scored his record-setting point, the game was stopped and Dr. Bloustein presented him with the ball. Heroics Against St. John’s
Sellers had one last outstanding moment, in the game against St. John’s that put Rutgers in the N.C.A.A. tournament. Trailing by 3 points with less than 5 minutes remaining, Rutgers called time out. The players approached the bench.
”Give me the ball,” Young recalled Sellers saying. ”I said, ‘Phil, we’re going to run our offense.’ He said it three times, ‘Give me the ball,’ ” Young said. In the next 90 seconds, Sellers scored 6 points and Rutgers won. But he scored only 36 points in the next three tournament games after averaging just under 20 points a game during the season. Jordan emerged as the star. Other teammates played well, and Rutgers won.
Perhaps, Sellers says, all the players whom he’d outgrown so early were at last catching up with him. He recalls how much more difficult the game became the older he got and how frightening it was seeing a younger player like Copeland, who could jump so high.
Still, the team won a berth in the tournament’s semifinal round against the University of Michigan. ”For the first time, I got the serious butterflies,” Sellers said. ”I went to practice, and there were 1,500 people there. You couldn’t miss a layup. It was like, ‘Oh God, the interviews, the pressure.’ Sometimes I just used to stay in my room.”
Dropped by Pistons
Sellers was matched against Wayman Britt, who was two inches shorter but particularly skilled on defense. Analyzing Seller’s weaknesses, Britt adjusted his defense. He kept him from getting the ball. He would not let him dribble before shooting. And Britt taunted him. ”I said, ‘Give him the ball,’ ” Britt recalled. ” ‘Give him the ball. You can’t shoot.’ ”
He recalled the look in Sellers’s eyes before the game began. ”His eyes said, ‘I can take you and stuff you if I want it,’ ” said Britt, after whom Michigan’s defensive player of the year award is now named. ”It changed after 10 minutes of second half. He realized our lead was getting stretched. He was probably getting tired. There was no anger, more frustration.”
Britt’s reading was an accurate one, Sellers says. ”I knew I had them,” he said of his limitations. ”It was just a matter of time.” He scored only 11 points. Rutgers lost 86-70.
Although a first-team all American, Sellers was not invited to the Olympic team tryouts, but Jordan was. His value had dropped enough to make him only a third-round choice in the National Basketball Association’s college draft. The Detroit Pistons signed him to a $40,000 contract, but because he could no longer physically dominate players at forward he was converted to guard.
He played sparingly and was cut early the next season. ”I couldn’t play guard. They had doubts. Even me, I had doubts,” Sellers said. ”There was no way I was going to be too sure of myself. That’s probably where the arrogance went. I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand what was going on.
Played in Holland
Sellers married soon after he was cut. He and his wife have a 4-year-old son, Philip. The marriage ended in December. He played in Holland for a season for Amstelveen but, disappointed with the quality of play, returned to New Jersey where he found work as a program coordinator in a Federal jobs program. Later, Sellers, who was 15 credits short of graduating, worked as a courier for U.S. Steel but was laid off. Three years ago, Rutgers hired him as a parttime assistant. Sellers, says Young, has a good rapport with the players and assists in local recruiting. ”His name is still magic in New York,” he said.
For the time being and perhaps for a year, Sellers plans to live with his parents, who are pleased to have one of their children home. Graffiti covers the walls inside their building in Brownsville, and the glass on doors is punched out.
Sellers says he is loath to envision his life as one that burned hot but too quickly. ”I’m not going to let it happen,” he said. ”I’ve heard the stories. I’m not going to be one of those guys sitting in the park saying, ‘I’ve been there.’ Kids ask you, ‘What do you do?’ I tell them, ‘I go to work every day, shirt and tie.’ People see me. They say, ‘Phil’s working.’ That’s getting out – when people in a community know you’ve been some place. I feel I’m doing something.”