Class of ‘53
I start by apologizing to my good friends Glenn Cooper and the late Leroy Charles. Both were born in 1953 and were very good high school basketball players in New York City. But when I think of their age peers---and my idea for an ESPN 30 for 30---I don’t consider them. I think of the intersecting narratives of Mel Utley, Fly Williams, Larry Fogle, Phil Sellers, and World B. Free. You could have found numerous scouts to claim that each of these players possessed the most potential, and I am convinced that somebody with the right resources could produce a good documentary.
Mel Utley (1/2/1953—9/24/2019
After starring growing up in the Redfern Houses and starring at Far Rockaway High School, Utley, a 6’-3’’ guard, had a distinguished collegiate career at St. John’s. He amassed impressive points and assists totals, and he served as co-captain during his senior season. After being the 33rd pick in the 1975 NBA draft, he was the last cut by the Cleveland Cavaliers. That’s the closest he came to playing in the league. Utley played minor-league ball for a few years, including a stint for the Long Island Ducks of the Eastern Basketball Association, for whom he was the leading scorer during the 1977-1978 season. Although he made no major mark as a pro, Utley completed his degree and made notable contributions in education and community service. Those activities are worth coverage.
Fly Williams (2/18/1953-)
A filmmaker would have to resist the temptation to keep the camera too much on James “Fly” Williams. The 6’-5’’ Williams definitely was that dude in terms of reputation, and his epic rise-and-fall story, not unusual in New York, is what viewers, including me, eat up. A top-five NCAA bucket getter, averaging 28.5 points per game over two seasons, he was picked sixth in the 1974 ABA draft by the Spirits of St. Louis. Never disciplined on or off the court, as has been well documented, Williams never became a professional star, remaining one of the greatest streetball legends instead. Naturally, street stories followed him. And that a mega talent like him was the 152nd pick in the NBA draft in 1976 behind dozens of players that you never heard of says a lot. After various ups and downs, Williams was indicted in 2017, at the age of 64, for running a drug distribution ring. He is serving an eight-year sentence.
Larry Fogle (3/19/1953--)
Another 6’-5” super talent, Fogle developed his game in Brooklyn before moving to Detroit and becoming the player of the year in Michigan. In one game he scored 73 points for Cooley High. I remember Michael Eric Dyson, proud son of Detroit, trying to convince me that his city had the best prep players in the 1970s. His prime example was Fogle. Because Dyson was a guest at a conference I organized, I let him off the hook and kept quiet about Fogle being from Brooklyn. At any rate, Fogle averaged more than 33 points per game one season at Canisius, leading the nation. He was selected with the next pick after Utley in the 1975 NBA draft and played two games for the New York Knicks (Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe were still the starting backcourt). Ironically, he and Utley became teammates on the Long Island Ducks before Fogle left to play for the Rochester Zeniths in the short-lived All-American Basketball Alliance.
Phil Sellers (11/20/1953--)
Sellers received more than 200 scholarship offers while at Jefferson High School in East New York. He chose Rutgers, becoming Dick Vitale’s first significant recruit. Of this group, Sellers enjoyed the most team success in college. Rutgers beat Utley and St. John’s in 1975 to make it to the NCAA tournament. The following year, Rutgers went 31-0 and made it to the Final Four before losing to Michigan in a semi-final matchup and to UCLA in the consolation game. The classic tweener at a strong 6’-4,’’ Sellers’ frontcourt game didn’t translate well to the pros. He was selected by Detroit with the 38th pick in the 1976 NBA draft and asked to play guard. Last year, I had a conversation with Phil’s brother, who expressed that Phil being asked to play guard---and not having developed guard skills---was the main reason his NBA career was so short (44 games).
World B. Free (12/9/1953)
The shortest and least heralded member of this group, he was perhaps the most athletic---44-inch vertical---and had the most successful career. A Brownville neighbor of Fly Williams, who, from what I understand, always kept a wary eye on Free’s progress, the 6’-2’’ shooting guard came out of Guilford College to become the 23rd pick in the NBA draft---ten slots ahead of Utley and eleven in front of Fogle. He played thirteen seasons in the NBA, averaging more than 22 points per game in eight of them. Other players who played exactly thirteen seasons in the NBA include Hall-of-Famers Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, and Tiny Archibald. Free has more career points than each of them. Free went to the NBA Finals in 1977 as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. A former All-Star and All-NBA selection, he is still involved with the league as an employee of the 76ers.
I don’t know much about all the interactions among this group. Free has sometimes spoken on the record about Williams, so there’s a start for a film. Maybe Cooper, also a fine media talent, can narrate.