Brooklyn Boro

Phil Sellers’ biggest battle: Not on the court

July 25, 2023 Andy Furman
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He is the greatest basketball player to have worn a Rutgers University uniform.

And if you didn’t mention Phil Sellers, well, you’d be wrong. Dead wrong.

Oh sure, there are Bob Lloyd and James Bailey and even Ron Harper Jr. and Eddie Jordan.

But remember, Sellers was the best player on the 1976 Final Four team.

He’s 69 years old now, and after a series of medical setbacks, he needs help.

The Thomas Jefferson High School grad remains in a rehabilitation center, and his family wonders how they’ll pay the medical bills.

According to NJ.com, he is bedridden, being fed intravenously and has a tracheotomy to help his breathing.

Hard to believe — especially for former coach Jeff Schrier.

“Phil was on the first high school team I ever coached,” Schrier told the Brooklyn Eagle. “I was an assistant coach at Jefferson when he was a sophomore. He always was an intense competitor, and he had to be. Canarsie had Lloyd Free, Madison had Ron Haigler, Boys had Ernie Douse and Pete Davis.”

You get the drift. It was a golden age for Brooklyn basketball, and Phil was at the pinnacle of it from his sophomore year.

Fast forward to today.

He never had that lucrative NBA career.

Phil Sellers arrived at Rutgers in 1972. It was Dick Vitale who was a Rutgers assistant coach, luring Sellers out of his Brownsville housing complex.

He averaged 19.5 points-a-game his first season.

“He was the best player in New York City,” Schrier said, “As a sophomore, he was immature. He had great talent, but also had a lack of respect for his elders. He explained his temper by saying that he was frustrated easily because he was so talented; his desire to learn and perform better and relate with his teammates was a cause of the frustration because obviously Phil’s talent was so far superior to most of his teammates.”

That 1975-76 season was magical for the Scarlet Knights. They rolled to a 31-0 record, beating Princeton, Connecticut and VMI in the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the Final Four. The run ended in Philadelphia with losses to Michigan in the national semifinals and UCLA in the consolation game.

As for Sellers, he still leads Rutgers with 2,399 points and 1,115 rebounds. He was a consensus All American selection, and in 1988 he had his No. 12 retired to the rafters.

It looked like a pro career was waiting.

His name wasn’t called until early in the third round of the NBA draft when the Detroit Pistons selected him. Playing with his back to the basket — as an undersized power forward — the adjustment was a tough one for Sellers.

He averaged 4.5 points in 44 NBA games before he was cut his second season.

It was Vitale again — this time doing the cutting. Vitale had left Rutgers in 1973 to become head coach of the Pistons.

As for Sellers, the next stop was professional ball in the Netherlands, and then basketball was over.

He wasn’t ready for post-basketball life. An article headlined, “Phil Sellers remembers a better time,” appeared in The New York Times in March 1983, showing Sellers living in his childhood home in Brownsville while working a 9-to-5 job as an office manager for a mortgage company.

Elijah Palmer, Sellers’ son-in-law, told NJ.com that his father-in-law was living in his East Orange, N.J. home this past winter with a broken furnace, wrapping himself in a heavy coat to get through the cold nights. The house where he had raised his family, Palmer told NJ.com. had been overrun with clutter in the four years since his wife, Patricia, had died from pancreatic cancer.

When Sellers complained about stomach pain in May, his daughter, Kendra Sellers Palmer, figured a diet that had consisted of mostly pizza and junk food was to blame, according to the publication. That pain became too much on May 24, and Sellers was rushed in an ambulance to Hackensack Meridian Mountainside Medical Center in Glen Ridge.

Doctors diagnosed him with a perforated small intestine and gave his family a grim prognosis, NJ.com continued. Sellers needed emergency surgery, but given his age and his poor health, the odds for a complete recovery was not good. He required a second surgery two days later to remove fluid in his lungs, and later, he was transferred to Lakeview Rehabilitation and Care Center in Wayne, N.J.

The family has launched a GoFundMe campaign with a goal to raise $150,000 for what is expected to be a months-long stay and the anticipated need for care in months that follow his release, according to NJ.com.

For Phil Sellers, this is the toughest battle he’s ever faced — and he needs to win.

Andy Furman is a Fox Sports Radio national talk show host. Previously, he was a scholastic sports columnist for the Brooklyn Eagle. He may be reached at: [email protected] Twitter: @AndyFurmanFSR.


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