Phil “The Thrill” Sellers, the dominant forward who led Rutgers men’s basketball to the 1976 Final Four and remains the program’s gold standard, has died, Rutgers announced. He was 69 and recently suffered a stroke after having been hospitalized for an intestinal illness.
"Breaks my heart," tweeted legendary ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale, who recruited Sellers to Rutgers. "To me he is the greatest star to ever wear a Rutgers uniform."
The 6-foot-4 Brooklyn native remains the Scarlet Knights’ all-time leading scorer (2,399 points) and rebounder (1,111 boards), averaging 21.0 points and 9.7 rebounds per game over his four-year career. How elite was Sellers? He owns two rare distinctions among New Jersey men’s college basketball players:
He’s one of just two players to earn multiple All-America citations from the Associated Press, as a third-teamer in 1975 and first-teamer in 1976 (Princeton legend Bill Bradley was a three-timer).
He’s one of just two Jersey collegians to be a two-time recipient of the Haggerty Award as the top player in the metropolitan area, a feat matched only by Seton Hall’s Myles Powell (2019 and 2020) in the prestigious honor’s 87-year history.
“I am totally heartbroken and deeply saddened on the passing of my former roommate and always a teammate Phil 'The Thrill' Sellers," said Eddie Jordan, who was the point guard on Rutgers' Final Four team and later became the Scarlet Knights' head coach. "Phil led our team, our school and the Rutgers community to the highest of highs and 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 my heart.”
A game-changing arrival
Statistics and awards only tell part of Sellers' story. His arrival at Rutgers in 1972 as a heralded recruit who had previously committed to Notre Dame was in itself a seminal event. Though Rutgers basketball never had been on the national stage aside from a run to the 1967 NIT semifinals, Vitale, then an aggressive 30-year-old assistant coach, got Sellers to take a recruiting visit to New Brunswick along with fellow Big Apple schoolboy legends Lloyd (later World B.) Free and James “Fly” Williams.
Breaks my heart to learn of the passing of @RutgersMBB ex SUPERSTAR. PHIL https://t.co/UMozG4g9q8 me he is the greatest STAR to ever wear a RUTGERS uniform.Have great memories in recruiting Phil when I was on the staff of Dick Lloyd .Along with Mike Dabney led Rutgers in mid…
— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) September 20, 2023
Recalling the courtship in 2021, Sellers (who averaged a whopping 33 points and 22 boards per game as a senior at Thomas Jefferson High) said Vitale sat next to his mother at seemingly every one of his high school games.
"He recruited my mom," Sellers said. "She loved Italian guys."
Dick Lloyd, who was Rutgers' head coach at the time, moved to seal the recruitment by hosting Sellers for dinner at his Piscataway home. It was just Sellers, Lloyd, his wife and their 2-year-old daughter Debbie.
“I was a little uptight about how it was going to work out," Lloyd recalled. "He was such a natural – he picked Debbie up and carried her around. We knew right then we had a real winner.”
Sellers was a double-double machine from the moment he arrived on the banks, helping Rutgers post a 15-11 record as a freshman. He stuck around after Lloyd stepped down and Vitale left that offseason, and as talent continued to pour in under new coach Tom Young – the opportunity to play alongside Sellers was a big drawing card for point guard Eddie Jordan, center James Bailey and others – the program hit the accelerator.
"I made the decision to go to Rutgers because of Phil, because of what I thought we could do together," said Hollis Copeland, a starting guard on the Final Four squad. "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."
As Bailey put it: "Off the court, he was a teddy bear."
Rutgers went 18-9, 22-7 and 31-2 in Sellers’ final three seasons, making its first NCAA Tournament in 1975 and then charting “the unforgettable season” in 1975-76. In the Scarlet Knights’ NCAA quarterfinals romp of VMI – the most consequential victory in school history, in any sport – he posted 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Though Sellers was a force in the paint who played much bigger than his height, he was more than a blunt instrument. He shot 74 percent from the free-throw line for his college career, and as a senior averaged 2.0 steals per game (a high number for any player, especially in the frontcourt).
“I don’t think I ever met anyone who wanted to win and hated to lose more than Phil,” said standout guard and classmate Mike Dabney, who scored 1,900 points for the Scarlet Knights. “He and I were cut from the same cloth like that.”
How was Sellers so dominant underneath at just 6-foot-4?
“He was excellent at boxing out and he had great hops – he wasn’t taking off from the foul line and dunking the ball, but he had great vertical hops,” Dabney said. “Bottom line, he had a nose for the basketball.”
After Rutgers, ups and downs
Chosen in the third round of the 1976 NBA Draft by the Pistons, Sellers played one season in Detroit before falling out of the league. Despite his relentless motor, he was too undersized to flourish inside at that level.
After his playing career Sellers served as an assistant coach at Rutgers for four years under Young, helping develop star center Roy Hinson, and later worked at NJ Transit and elsewhere. Through the years he came to games from time to time and usually attended reunion events. He was inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010 and his No. 12 hangs in the rafters at Jersey Mike’s Arena, one of just three retired Rutgers basketball numbers.
The building still known as the RAC was one of Sellers’ legacies. So many people clamored to see his teams that the Scarlet Knights outgrew the 3,000-seat College Avenue Gym, regularly scheduling contests in Madison Square Garden. Construction on the RAC began shortly after the Final Four season; it opened in November 1978.
Current Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said the program will do something to commemorate Sellers during the 2023-24 season, whether it's a uniform patch or a tribute along those lines.
"He was the ultimate role model for our current Scarlet Knights," said Pikiell, who had met Sellers on a few occasions.
In recent years, though he still came around with a megawatt smile and spellbinding anecdotes, Sellers had fallen on hard times financially and physically as he lived alone in East Orange. His health deteriorated over the past year, to the point where a GoFundMe campaign was launched, and Rutgers fans helped raise more than $100,000 for his medical bills.
It’s been a tough couple of years for participants in the Unforgettable Season. Beloved assistant coach Joe Boylan, who had become the program’s radio analyst, died after suffering a stroke during the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Young died in March 2022 at age 89 after battling heart and lung ailments.
“He turned us boys into young men," Sellers said of Young at his passing. "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 in me to lead the team.”
Lead them he did, earning an eternally high place in the Rutgers sports pantheon.
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Phil Sellers, Rutgers basketball's gold standard, dies at 69