Press releases cranked out by Rutgers' publicity office invariably describe Phil Sellers, a 6'5" junior forward, as a "does-it-all" player. The literature naturally dwells on such matters as the 23 points and eight rebounds Sellers has averaged in leading the New Jersey school to a surprising 10-2 record. But what the handouts do not mention is of equal note. Why is Sellers always jawing at referees, teammates and opponents? How come anguish so often clouds his features? Why is he forever taking dramatic falls during games? In short, is Sellers doing it all to become an All-America—which he probably will—or is it an Academy Award he wants?
What makes Sellers' histrionics so striking is his relatively mild manner off the court. Admitting to something of a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, he says, "I get involved when I'm playing. Sometimes I just get carried away." Sellers' involvement has cost him technical fouls—four already this season—as well as a nasty scar on his shoulder from a memorable collision with a press table. It also has led him to complain to the officials virtually every time a call goes against him and, most annoying, to grin gloatingly whenever he gets away with something.
Some of Sellers' reactions are understandable; he is a marked man who usually must fight through double-and triple-team defenses to score. Rugged enough to crash the boards and quick enough for the press Rutgers frequently employs, he is the kind of heavy-duty player unseen in New Jersey since Bill Bradley was putting on his does-it-all act down Highway 27 in Princeton. A deft passer and outside shooter, Sellers also is called upon to play low post, where he must work against bigger opponents. "Phil takes a beating underneath, but he loves contact," says Tom Young, who became Rutgers' coach last year after a winning record at American University. "He takes it right to the other guy."
It is a sign of at least some restraint that Sellers has never been drawn into a real fight on the court. He says, "I'm a lot more help playing than I'd be if I got thrown out." And he acknowledges a desire to curb his passions: "I need to have a little more cool out there. Everybody expected me to play a major role here, and that's put pressure on me. I've still got some growing up to do."
January 20, 1975
Sellers' involvement with the game began on the playgrounds of Brooklyn, where he spent so much time that "People used to tell me I was going to turn into a basketball. They even asked me if I slept with my basketball." Sellers was a schoolboy All-America at Thomas Jefferson High and was selected MVP of Pittsburgh's prestigious Dapper Dan all-star game at the end of his senior season. After sifting through offers from 200 colleges, he signed a letter of intent to go to Notre Dame. But last-minute jitters about his ability to hack it there academically persuaded him to enroll at Livingston College, a part of Rutgers specially designed to help students from low-income backgrounds. Sellers was a 20-point scorer as a freshman while Rutgers stumbled to a 14-11 record. With Young's arrival last season the Scarlet Knights improved to 18-8, but some reporters concentrated instead on what one of them called Sellers' "unbecoming conduct."
As Rutgers now flirts with an unaccustomed spot in the Top 20, Sellers' efforts at self-modulation are apparent. Called for technicals, he apologizes promptly. He also has become less severe with teammates. "Now I pat them on the rear when I criticize them," he says. "I want them to know I don't mean anything personal." At a team meeting Sellers listened sheepishly as Young pointedly said, "Phil isn't the one who makes out the starting lineup around here." But the coach also says, "One of Phil's problems is that he's such a smart player. He picks on the other guys out of frustration. While they're still trying to understand what I'm talking about, he's already learned it."
Sellers' basketball sense also impresses Southern Cal Coach Bob Boyd, who attributes the Rutgers player's abrasive style partly to "outstanding gamesmanship." Specifically, Boyd has in mind Sellers' success at drawing offensive fouls, an art requiring courage, good floor position and, what can scarcely fail to interest an observer from Los Angeles, inspired acting. During the Holiday Festival games at Madison Square Garden, in which Rutgers took third behind upset winner Fordham and USC, Sellers scored 76 points and, amazingly, drew nine charging fouls in three games. In a subsequent 97-87 win over Long Island University, Sellers drew three more offensive fouls. Early in the game he warned Nate Revels, the LIU forward guarding him, "I'm going to foul you out." Then he proceeded to do exactly that.
The boasting was forgivable. Later Revels admitted that it was he who actually started the verbal sparring. One of Revels' fouls occurred when he slammed into Sellers as Sellers was driving for the basket. Stepping to the free-throw line, Sellers grinned hugely. Significantly, he was looking at Revels, not at the referee. As the Scarlet Knights' does-it-all forward says, "I'm starting to realize it's not smart to make the refs look bad." Maybe he has things more under control than it appears.