Sports

Phil Sellers, Whose Basketball Stardom Was Short-Lived, Dies at 69

Phil Sellers, a brash, high-scoring forward who helped transform Rutgers University into a national basketball power in the 1970s, but whose N.B.A. career lasted only one season, after which he led a quiet life in business, died on Sept. 19 at a hospital in Livingston, N.J. He was 69.

His daughter, Kendra Palmer, said that she did not know the cause, but that he had recently had a stroke, an intestinal perforation and other health issues. A GoFundMe campaign raised more than $100,000 to cover the health costs that his insurance did not.

Sellers was recruited to Rutgers in 1972 after averaging 33.2 points and 22.6 rebounds a game at Thomas Jefferson High School in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. He was considered the best high school player to come to a New Jersey college since Bill Bradley arrived at Princeton University from Missouri a decade earlier.

“Phil Sellers is the biggest catch in Rutgers history,” Dick Weiss, a columnist for The Courier-Post of Camden, N.J., wrote soon after Sellers agreed to play there.

He rarely disappointed. He was called “Phil the Thrill,” and, with Sellers leading a team that also included Eddie Jordan, Mike Dabney and Hollis Copeland, Rutgers kept improving. During Sellers’s junior year, when he averaged 22.7 points and 9.4 points a game, Rutgers had a record of 22-7 and played in the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament, losing in the first round.

Rutgers was undefeated in 26 games during the 1975-76 regular season, Sellers’s senior year. Late in a conference tournament game against St. John’s University that preceded the start of the N.C.A.A. tournament, Sellers clashed with his coach, Tom Young.

“Give me the ball,” Young recalled Sellers saying when he described the incident to The New York Times in 1983. “I said, ‘Phil, we’re going to run our offense.’ He said it three times, ‘Give me the ball.’”

Sellers scored six points in the next 90 seconds, and Rutgers won.

Rutgers then won its first three games in the N.C.A.A. tournament, despite subpar scoring performances from Sellers, to raise its record to 31-0. But the Scarlet Knights lost the semifinal game to Michigan, 86-70, with Sellers scoring only 11 points against the strong defense of Michigan’s Wayman Britt.

Sellers’s college career totals of 2,399 points and 1,115 rebounds are still Rutgers records.

It was the end of his glory years.

Sellers in 1983. His basketball career ended abruptly, but he understood and accepted that he had another, more everyday life ahead of him.Credit…William E. Sauro/The New York Times

Phillip Alexander Sellers Jr. was born on Nov. 20, 1953, in Brooklyn, to Phillip and Rita (Bacon) Sellers. As a teenager, he played so much basketball, he told Sports Illustrated in 1975, that “people used to tell me I was going to turn into a basketball.”

He was heavily recruited by colleges nationwide and signed a letter of intent to attend Notre Dame, but his concerns about his academic skills led him to back out of the commitment. Instead he chose Rutgers, whose lead recruiter was Dick Vitale, the future ESPN broadcaster, who was then one of the team’s assistant coaches.

“Dick Vitale was there all the time,” Sellers told The Courier-News in 2010, referring to his high school games in Brooklyn. “He was an Italian guy; he could talk more trash than the guys who lived there.”

Vitale recalled in a text message that Sellers had a “fierce competitiveness that separated him from many,” was “a man playing vs. boys” and “always competed with a chip on his shoulder.”

Vitale’s assessment was borne out: At Rutgers, Sellers was a strong rebounder, despite not being very big for a forward — he was 6-foot-4 and weighed 195 pounds — and he played with a confidence that seemed like arrogance at times, and with a scowl on his face. Sports Illustrated wrote in 1975 that he was “always jawing at referees, teammates and opponents,” and “taking dramatic falls during games.”

As he explained it: “I get involved when I’m playing. Sometimes I just get carried away.”

Sellers became the cornerstone of a strong Rutgers team.

“We weren’t a premier program on the East Coast, but when we got Phil he changed everything,” John McFadden, a Rutgers assistant coach, said in a tribute to Sellers posted on the school’s athletics website.

“We weren’t a premier program on the East Coast,” an assistant Rutgers coach said, “but when we got Phil he changed everything.”Credit…Rutgers Athletics

Sellers, a consensus second-team all-American in 1976, was chosen in the third round of the N.B.A. draft by the Detroit Pistons. Converted from forward to guard, he played in only 44 games, averaging 4.5 points a game.

“I couldn’t play guard,” he told The Times in 1983. “They had doubts. Even me, I had doubts. There was no way I was going to be too sure of myself. That’s probably where the arrogance went.”

He was released before the start of the 1977-78 season but continued to play for a short while, for the minor league Jersey Shore Bullets and for HV Amstelveen, a team in the Netherlands.

After he stopped playing, he was a Rutgers assistant coach for four years and worked at various jobs, including records manager at Chemical Bank and the mortgage banking firm Margaretten; bus driver for New Jersey Transit; and, for about a dozen years, assistant to the chief executive at Northeast Sequoia Private Client Group, a real estate investment firm, where his roles included chief of staff, bodyguard and driver.

In addition to Ms. Palmer, whose mother, Patricia (Robertson) Sellers, married Sellers in 1999 and died 20 years later, he is survived by a son, Phillip III, from whose mother, Jean Edmonson, he was divorced; a sister, Diane Deas; a brother, Tyrone; and four grandchildren.

Although his basketball career ended abruptly, Sellers recognized with clarity that he had another, more everyday life ahead of him.

“I’m not going to be one of those guys sitting in the park saying, ‘I’ve been there,’” he told The Times in 1983, when he was back living with his parents. “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.’”

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