This past Tuesday evening, Phil Sellers passed away far too young at 69. There is no debate among Rutgers faithful that Sellers is the greatest player in the program’s 109 years of existence. Sellers is Rutgers’ all-time scoring and rebounding leader with 2,399 points and 1,115 rebounds and helped lead the 1975-76 team to the school’s first and only Final Four appearance.
The Brooklyn-born native, who attended Thomas Jefferson High School, received a whopping 200 scholarship offers and originally signed a letter of intent to play for Notre Dame, but changed his mind and decided to stay close to home. Legendary sportscaster Dick Vitale, an assistant coach under head coach Tom Young, won over Sellers and his mother on a visit to their Brownsville housing complex.
“Tom Young turned us boys into young men and I give Tom a lot of credit. He took all the guys that Dick Vitale recruited and took us all to the next step. He had no idea what he was getting into, but it didn’t take him very long to lead us to success. Tom trusted me to lead the team. Tom and I used to joke all the time. He used to joke and remind me that he was the coach and I was the player. We used to laugh about things like that.”
Sellers would have an immediate impact as a freshman in 1972, averaging a double-double with 19.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. ‘72 was the year in which the NCAA changed freshman eligibility rules and allowed basketball and football players to play on the varsity team as many institutions dropped their junior varsity squads due to financial reasons.
As Sellers’ game continued to improve, so did Rutgers’s roster, and in 1976 he helped lead a lethal offense that included Eddie Jordan, Mike Dabney James Bailey, Hollis Copeland, and Abdel Anderson to the school’s first and only Final Four appearance. That 1976 Final Four team scored 90 or more points in 24 games.
Sellers would be drafted by the Detroit Pistons and change from his natural forward position to a guard, which he struggled with. He was released the following season and signed on with the Jersey Shore Bullets of the CBA, and then with BV Amstelveen in the Netherlands. In 1979, he tried out for the Pistons under former assistant Rutgers coach Dick Vitale but did not make the squad.
This past July, a GoFundMe page was started for Sellers by his daughter, Kendra and son-in-law, Elijah Palmer, after he was diagnosed with an intestinal perforation in May. Steve Politi published an article on NJ.com, imploring fans to help the Sellers family raise money for the multiple surgeries and cost of daily care at the rehab center. The family recently stated Sellers suffered a stroke earlier this month at the rehab center that he could not recover from.
“He had a lot of ups and downs. Some of his teammates went on to have long careers in the NBA. A lot of his friends are successful businessmen. As much as he loved his wife and his family, he wasn’t totally happy with himself. And when his wife transitioned (in 2019), it was really downhill.”
Elijah Palmer, son-in-law (courtesy nj.com)
Sellers and his 1976 team gave Rutgers fans a glimpse of the great heights possible. The Scarlet Knights turned the 2,800-seat College Avenue Gymnasium, aka “The Barn”, into a house of horrors for opponents, going undefeated in the regular season and winning thirty-one consecutive games before losing to Michigan in the national semifinals and UCLA in the consolation game.
I pulled out some of my favorite quotes from the article published by Rutgers Athletics on scarletknights.com, which has additional excerpts by former teammates and coaches.
“Phil Sellers is Rutgers royalty. He is the greatest player on the greatest team in our program’s history. His jersey is one of three that hang up in the rafters at Jersey Mike’s Arena. He was the ultimate role model for our current Scarlet Knights. Rutgers men’s basketball sends our deepest condolences to his family and loved ones. We love you Phil ‘The Thrill’!
Head Men’s Basketball Coach Steve Pikiell
I am totally heartbroken and deeply saddened on the passing of my former roommate and ALWAYS teammate, Phil “The Thrill” Sellers. Phil led our team, our school and the Rutgers community to the highest of highs and left a lifetime worth of wonderful memories. As much as people may remember Phil with his growl of determination and his aggressive manner of playing basketball, he was mostly a fun-loving human being with a great sense of humor. I will miss him with all of my heart.
Former teammate Eddie Jordan
Phil Sellers was the ultimate competitor, who I would have gone to war with on the hardwood 24/7 and 365 days of the year. I don’t think I ever met anyone who wanted to win and hated to lose more than Phil. He and I were cut from the same cloth like that. R.I.P. my Co-Captain!
Former teammate Mike Dabney
I met Phil before I thought about going to Rutgers. I saw him play against the best players in Trenton at the time. He destroyed them. I started paying attention to this guy. I made the decision to go to Rutgers because of Phil because of what I thought we could do together. In the very first practice, Phil and I got into it and we were getting ready to fight each other. Coach Young threw us out of practice and told us to go to the locker room. Phil looked at me and said, he didn’t really want to practice anyway, let’s go get something to eat. From that point on, we were the best of friends.
Former teammate Hollis Copeland
We all praised Phil and Dabney as our leaders. Phil was a big strong athletic guy, who told you how it was. Dabney was calm, cool and smooth. We all appreciated it from both leaders. I was a freshman at 18 years old having to play a big role. It meant a lot to have a strong leader like him. He played a special part in my life. He played a major part in the rest of my athletic career. I always thought about how tough he played on the court. Off the court, he was a teddy bear. When it was lace up the shoes time, he was a whole different ‘Phil The Thrill’
Former teammate, James Bailey
Phil was one of the reasons that I decided to go to Rutgers. Phil was the best player I have ever played with. I would tell anybody that he is the G.O.A.T. all-time of Rutgers basketball. I played with some tremendous players, but Phil was a head above everyone. He also taught me how to be a leader. Phil, when he told you to do something, he is going to tell you something that he would do too.
Former teammate, Abdel Anderson
I didn’t start following Rutgers basketball until my first year on the banks in 1988 but for those of you who have stories of watching Phil the Thrill play in person or meeting him on or off the court, please feel free to share in the comments below.