From low post to DJ booth: Rony Seikaly's journey
A 17-year-old Rony Seikaly was visiting his older brother at Colgate University one summer in the early 1980s as part of a trip he had made from his home in Greece. He was there to participate in the Poconos Five-Star Basketball Camp in Pennsylvania, and Oscar, who was playing soccer for Colgate at the time, had been listening to Rony complain about how boring it was where he was staying in the Syracuse area, some 35 miles from Colgate.
"I said 'I'm kind of bored, what should I do?' He said, 'Why don't you go and play in this basketball camp?'" Seikaly said.
That camp, an annual summer league held at the Carrier Dome by legendary Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, was an opportunity for the coaching staff to evaluate some of the top talent in the country -- only the most highly recruited players were invited.
Boeheim had no idea that a kid from Greece standing nearly seven feet tall was about to enter his gym.
"When I showed up there, I think Boeheim thought that this was kind of like a joke that somebody was pulling on him because everybody is so highly recruited and somebody walking in through the door with my size and telling him 'Yeah, I'd like to play,' he looked at me like, 'OK, it's not April Fools, so what's going on here?'" Seikaly said.
In the NBA, the early 1980s were a time well before the dawn of scouts traveling regularly to random pockets of the world hoping to find the next franchise player. Certainly, it was even less common for college scouts.
"In the 80s, there were unknown players," Boeheim said. "There are not many unknown players today."
Having been born in Lebanon and soon moving with his family to Athens at an early age, it's understandable how a player like Seikaly could fly under the radar back then.
"I said how old are you? Because he had a full beard and I thought he was like 27 or something," Boeheim said with a laugh. "I said 'what are you, 27?' He said, 'no I'm 17. I said 'no.' He said, 'yeah!' Basically, he walked up, tapped me on the shoulder and I thought it was some kind of joke at first and then I realized who he was. I had no idea that he was in town or coming to town or anything."
Realizing who the giant was who had just entered the gym, Boeheim told him to go play with the counselors and organizers of the camp later that day. The Syracuse coach had heard about Seikaly from the word out of the Five-Star Basketball Camp that had just taken place, but he had no idea he was in town, let alone actively seeking out the coach on that summer day.
"The report out of Five Star was kind of luke warm," Boeheim said. "It wasn't well there's this great player here, which he turned out to be. The challenge with Rony was that he never played organized basketball. So just the whole concept of coaching, he thought I was crazy getting him to do this, do that, learning a system."
But from that initial moment where the two had a rather impromptu meeting in the Syracuse gym, the course of Seikaly's history would be changed forever, and in turn he would give the school some of its best years in the history of its storied basketball program.
"Midway through us playing, [Jim] went and got the letter of intent and had me sign it before I left the building," Seikaly recalled with a laugh. "I had such raw abilities, and such athletic abilities, and my basketball IQ was not very high, but I made up for it with sheer determination and athletic ability. I was blocking every shot, was dunking every ball. I was very, very raw and [Jim] didn't hesitate to say 'You're coming here,' and I said, 'Perfect.'"
Boeheim remembers it differently. He said he never had him sign the letter of intent that summer because it would be against NCAA rules. Rather, he said, Seikaly came back to Syracuse for another visit that September and was offered a scholarship to play at the school. He signed the letter of intent in November, according to Boeheim, and enrolled in January. The following season, he began playing for the basketball team.
Strangely, Seikaly was already somewhat of a legacy at Syracuse before he even stepped foot on the campus. His sister and uncle had gone there, as had a handful of his other relatives, each one making the trip from across the world to the overcast suburbs of Upstate New York.
"Don't ask me why," Seikaly said. "Of all the places they could've picked, somehow we have a close connection to Upstate New York. I can't tell you the reason why, it's almost like they paved the way for me to show up and play basketball there. It's funny how sometimes the world works."
As expected, perhaps, he had impressed many of the recruiting eyes at the Poconos camp that summer -- rubbing shoulders with the likes of Rick Pitino -- but by the time any of them had acted on their efforts to sign him, it was too late.
"I had already been snatched up by Syracuse just because I showed up there," Seikaly said.
A few years later -- in 1987 -- he would lead the Orange to its first ever national title game, a one-point loss to Bob Knight's Indiana Hoosiers. His No. 4 jersey has since been retired to the rafters of the Carrier Dome, hanging alongside the likes of Carmelo Anthony's No. 15, Sherman Douglas' No. 20, Dave Bing's No. 22, Pearl Washington's No. 31, Billy Owens' No 30 and Derrick Coleman's No. 44.
"I've had some talented big guys, but he's the most talented big guy that I've ever coached," Boeheim said. "You don't get lucky too much in recruiting where you just find a player. It just doesn't happen. I've worked for years to get guys and didn't get them, and you have one walk in and tap you on the shoulder. Pretty unusual."
For Seikaly, despite not being able to play organized ball in Greece because he was born in Lebanon, Syracuse was finally the opportunity he had needed to take his skills to the next level after graduating from the school.
"I knew that deep inside of me that I was going to become a professional athlete, and Syracuse was just a stepping stone to get to the pros," he said.
"Because he had such a late start, his best years were in the NBA," added Boeheim.
They were both right.
Seikaly was selected No. 9 overall by the Miami Heat in the 1988 NBA Draft. It was the Heat franchise's inaugural season, effectively making Seikaly the organization's first ever college pick. In 1989-90, in only his second season in the league, he was named the NBA's Most Improved Player of the Year with averages of 16.6 points on 50 percent shooting, 10.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, starting 72 of his 74 appearances that season.
That he did it all during a golden age of centers, battling for position with the likes of Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon, is all the more impressive for a teenager who was almost overlooked by every major basketball program.
The transition began nearly a decade ago at the Winter Music Conference in Miami, where Seikaly currently lives. The ex-NBA center has been on the techno scene for decades, but had recently been a part of the annual electronic dance music festival, which brings together some of the biggest names in the business, from DJ's to producers to audio engineers, and credits that appearance as his big break.
After years of refining his skills, Seikaly now regularly plays the South Beach DJ circuit at such clubs as STORY, Club Space and WALL Miami. He also hosts a music show on Sirius XM, Sugar Free, every Saturday and Monday.
His birthday gig this past Friday at the swanky Marquee nightclub in New York City's Meatpacking District was his way of celebrating the final year of his forties. Seikaly arrived to the club shortly after 1 a.m. Walking through a private entrance that leads directly to the DJ booth, he performed deep house music in front of hundreds of fans until the wee early hours of Saturday morning.
The next day, LeBron James and the Heat were set to do battle against the Nets in neighboring Brooklyn. Asked whether he thought James and his teammates would come support another Heat great across the river, Seikaly laughed at the idea.
"This is too underground for LeBron," he said with a smile.
Seikaly has released two Extended Play albums -- a record not quite as long as a standard album but longer than a single. One is called House Calls, released in 2010; the other is called East West, released in 2012. That same year, he released his first full-length album, Nervous Nitelife Presents Rony Seikaly.
Seikaly's passion for music, in fact, predates his serious interest in basketball. It was in his parent's garage in Athens where a 14-year-old Seikaly launched Disco 17 -- the 17 an ode to their street address there. Seikaly's career now as a DJ is not so much a reinventing of himself as it is a revisiting of what had started out as a childhood hobby, a journey Ben Reiter profiled for Sports Illustrated in July 2013.
"Nobody could get into clubs and stuff, so my club was open to all the youngsters in school, so that's how it started back then," he said.
Now, the lens through which he views his current career as a DJ is very much influenced by the kinds of pressure he faced as a professional athlete for more than a decade.
"The only pressure is to go out there and have a good time and make sure that everybody else is having a good time," he said of the differences between his music career and paying in the NBA. "There is no ESPN, there's no SportsCenter, there's no Sports Illustrated criticizing every beat that's being laid down."