When Antonio Sellers was a little boy, he always had one goal in mind. The 16-year-old Hudson Catholic sophomore dreamed of playing college basketball at one place.
“Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke,” Sellers said Thursday at the Hudson Catholic gymnasium.
A year ago, that looked like a possibility.
Antonio was a standout for the Hawks, a key player who averaged 11 points, five rebounds and four assists per game. Still maturing, Sellers already had a great 6-foot-6 frame and a diverse array of talents that he displayed. He was already receiving college scholarship offers.
Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing, the former New York Knick superstar, offered Sellers a scholarship the first time he saw Sellers play.
There wasn’t a single thing that Sellers couldn’t do on the basketball court.
But now, because of the horrific and heartbreaking golf-ball sized malignant brain tumor that was diagnosed on young Antonio last March, Sellers won’t get the opportunity to play basketball at Duke.
However, Sellers will now get a chance to watch perhaps the most heated rivalry in all of organized sports – namely Sellers’ beloved Duke against neighboring rival North Carolina.
Thanks to the incredible Make-A-Wish Foundation, Antonio Sellers and his family will head to Durham, North Carolina for the Duke-Carolina game next Saturday.
Sellers, his father Keith and his mother Felicia, will head the Sellers family contingent for the game.
Both Antonio’s mother and father were great players at neighboring St. Peter’s University, known as St. Peter’s College back when Keith Sellers and Felicia Harris were becoming 1,000-point scorers for the Peacocks and Peahens in the 1990s.
Last Thursday afternoon, in front of an entire assembly in the Joe “Rocky” Pope Gymnasium, the great people at Make-A-Wish, headed by Jersey City native and St. Peter’s College graduate Tom Weatherall, the president and CEO of Make-A-Wish New Jersey, granted Antonio’s wish of going to Duke to see his beloved Blue Devils face the rival Tar Heels.
Weatherall received one phone call, then read the Hudson Reporter column about Antonio’s plight from last June , and realized that Antonio was a perfect recipient for what Make-A-Wish does all the time, granting wishes of seriously ill teens and children.
“We work with children facing life-threatening situations,” said Weatherall, who said about 50 percent of the Wish children are cancer patients like Antonio.
This was a story that really resonated with Weatherall because of the local angles. He was born and raised in Jersey City. He attended St. Peter’s College. He’s a member of the school’s athletic Hall of Fame, much like Keith and Felicia. Even if the majestic Make-A-Wish Castle is located in Monroe Township, Weatherall’s roots remain in Jersey City. Antonio’s wish was one that simply had to be granted.
“What touched me so much about Antonio’s Wish were all the relationships we needed to have this Wish done,” said Weatherall, who has been with Make-A-Wish New Jersey for 18 years and served as the president and CEO for the last 15. “The more I got involved with the Wish, it became evident how small of a world it is. Every single one of our wishes is so incredibly special. But I would be less than honest if I didn’t think this one was even more so. Today we kicked it up a notch a little with my hometown community and the layers of people we needed to get it done. My heart is always in Jersey City. It carries so much meaning to me.”
Make-A-Wish is providing transportation for the Sellers family to get to Durham. Because of Antonio’s condition, he’s unable to fly, so they have to drive to North Carolina a few days ahead of Saturday’s game. Make-A-Wish is also providing hotel accommodations for Antonio and his traveling party, as well as some spending money, just in case Antonio wanted to hit the Duke bookstore for some new Blue Devil apparel.
Just how many Wishes does the organization handle? Well, the numbers might surprise you.
“It’s my 18th year with Make-A-Wish New Jersey and during that time, we’ve granted 9,500 of the 11,500 Wishes,” Weatherall said. “We will grant 600 wishes in New Jersey this year. I will tell you that every single child is a VIP.”
But this was a special Wish that was granted.
“There was a lot of Hudson Catholic pride in that gym,” Weatherall said. “They all wanted to rally around a fellow Hawk.”
So there were other aspects to the Wish Granting celebration at Hudson Catholic.
Jim Spanarkel, the first true star basketball to come out of Hudson Catholic and later became an All-American at Duke, then played in the NBA and is now one of the top television analysts in the game of basketball, was on hand to offer a few words of encouragement to Antonio.
Mike O’Koren, who was Spanarkel’s teammate on the 1975 Hudson Catholic team that won the school’s first-ever Hudson County championship, also attended the ceremony. O’Koren also gave Antonio a few inspirational words.
While Spanarkel and O’Koren were incredible teammates at Hudson Catholic – one couldn’t say Spanarkel without saying O’Koren back then – they became rivals in college, playing in – you guessed it – the storied Duke-North Carolina rivalry.
O’Koren, who also went on to play in the NBA with the New Jersey Nets, faced off against his friend and teammate Spanarkel several times during their collegiate career.
O’Koren and his North Carolina teammates played in the NCAA championship game in 1977, when the Tar Heels lost to Marquette. A year later, Spanarkel led Duke to the NCAA title game and unfortunately the Blue Devils lost to Kentucky, but that appearance in the Final Four was the beginning of what became the Duke dynasty under legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“When I think of Duke-North Carolina, I immediately think of Spanarkel and O’Koren,” Weatherall said. “They’re fellow Hawks. I grew up idolizing those two. I think they helped to spawn the rivalry.”
Mike Granelli, who coached Felicia Sellers at St. Peter’s College, was also on hand. Spanarkel, O’Koren and Granelli are all members of the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame. So is another coach, but he’s in a Hall of Fame of a grander scale.
Legendary Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley of St. Anthony fame was also very instrumental in putting the pieces of the Wish together, along with his wife, Chris. They unfortunately missed the ceremony because of an illness.
“They were the ones who opened the door at Duke,” Weatherall said of the Hurleys, whose son Bobby (the current head coach at Arizona State University) was an All-American at Duke.
Weatherall was also able to secure video wishes from New York Knicks rookie R.J. Barrett, who was a player with the Blue Devils last year, New York Giants rookie quarterback Daniel Jones, a fellow Duke alum and the Hall of Fame coach of the Blue Devils, the man known as “Coach K.”
There was a lot of smiles, a lot of applause and happy people, but there were also a lot of tears. It was an emotional time, even for the wheelchair bound Antonio, who still struggles with his speech and hearing since the two surgeries last year, but handled himself magnificently in front of television cameras and reporters’ notebooks.
“This is crazy,” Antonio Sellers said. “I was told just to come to the school today. I didn’t know what for. I’m about to cry, but I swatted those tears back. I still may cry a little, but I’m excited about this and I can’t wait. I wished for this for a long, long time. All I ever wanted to do what play for Duke and I still might do it.”
Felicia Sellers, the dean of discipline at Lincoln High School, was a bundle of emotions throughout, but managed to give poignant statements.
“This caught us all by surprise,” Felicia Sellers said. “Antonio watches the games every night. Our journey to Duke might be a little different than what we expected. I’m speechless. I’m excited for Antonio. I just want him to be happy. He’s truly my warrior. He’s someone I actually now look up to.”
Keith Sellers, who handles the patient activities at Hoboken University Medical Center, knew how much this would mean to his son.
“Basketball has always been his passion,” Keith Sellers said. “This means everything to him. He’s going to see the campus, maybe meet Coach K. Look at the smile on his face. It says it all.”
“I’m not going to cry,” Antonio Sellers said. “I’m not.”
Antonio put on his new Duke basketball jersey with No. 1 on it. No question, he was No. 1 Thursday.
“This year has really been tough on our family,” Felicia Sellers said. “But we’ve been able to get through this. He’s our joy. Just look at that smile.”
With that, Felicia looked over at her son, who wiped away any tears and flashed that trademark wide smile.
“This just reminds us all how beautiful, precious and wonderful life can be,” Weatherall said.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com, follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar and listen to the Hudson County Sports podcast. This week the special guest is former Bayonne High School three-sport star Danan Hughes, who went on to play in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs and is now a successful broadcaster. You can listen to the podcast on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.