There are trees and there are basketball trees.
Tony Sellitto got to witness and enjoy two former players guide their basketball teams to state championships on Saturday night. It was, he said, a greater thrill than winning a small-college national title. Kelly Grant, who played on the first and only Maryknoll state championship team under Sellitto in 1984, guided the Spartans to a 30-2 season, beating Punahou 50-34 in the final. Alvin Stephenson, recruited by Sellitto to HPU out of Southern California, led Damien to the D-II state title in the earlier game at Stan Sheriff Center.
Sellitto built a powerhouse boys basketball program at Maryknoll, once coined by legendary broadcaster Chuck Leahey the “Freeway Five” for practicing on the school’s outside court, long before the gym was built at the elementary school campus. Sellitto went on to coach a successful program at Hawaii Pacific before retiring.
Sellitto chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Sunday afternoon.
HPW: What do you remember about the 1984 Maryknoll team’s championship game against Maui?
Sellitto: Jim Leahey and Artie Wilson were doing the game, I think it was on TV. Maui had JJ Vroom and I’ve always played a zone. Maybe in a single game (we would use) maybe four or five zones. We had worked on a box-and-one a little bit. The minute we did it in the third quarter, they said, ‘They’re doing something different. Looks like a box-and-one.’ I was hoping nobody could hear him.
HPW: Was it Jim or Artie?
Sellitto: It was Artie. It worked and they were completely, they didn’t know what we were doing. I think Kelly Grant and Ben Valle were on that team, they both started and both were very, very smart players. They weren’t the kind of guys who had to do a lot of repetition. We had Tony Turner, who was 6-1, 6-2 playing center, the Ostrowskis (Dominic and Kui), all mobile, intelligent kids. People don’t understand you could be the best player in the world, but if you’re not smart, you might not be as effective. Our kids were effective.
HPW: How would they compare to this year’s Maryknoll team?
Sellitto: Our guys were very anxious to learn. Not my best team, not even close, not as talented as this year’s team. I like who they have coming back. Sage (Tolentino) is 6-foot-10!
HPW: He keeps growing. When he was in sixth grade, he already had a nice shooting touch in the youth leagues.
Sellitto: He will get scholarship offers when he’s a junior. He’s improved a lot.
HPW: How uncanny is it that both state-championship teams are coached by your former players?
Sellitto: I want to tell you, Alvin and his assistant coach, Jamar Miller, were my starting guards at HPU. Alvin was way too good, playing for HPU. It was like, you couldn’t believe it. I got two players coaching (in the finals). One wins the first game and all Kelly has to do is win his game. When do the stars align like that?
HPW: Two championship coaches, played under you, and they’ve definitely got their own personalities.
Sellitto: I don’t fool around. I’m not to try to win friends, I’m trying to win basketball games. I think it sunk in with Kelly and Alvin. You help a lot of kids, but you’ve got to win to be effective because people don’t like people who don’t win. A guy who loses, could be the greatest guy in the world, and they’ll be upset. I was in the Farrington section and they were yelling, Damien shouldn’t even be at this (D-II) level. I”m thinking what are you talking about. Damien is not a large school and they were winning big. I called Neil Everett (of ESPN), who worked with me at HPU, and I said, ‘Maryknoll won the state championship and Alvin is coaching the Damien team that won D-II. He said, ‘I gotta call somebody because this is a great story.’
HPW: It didn’t register with me until Coach Kelly mentioned it.
Sellitto: One of the greatest nights of basketball I’ve ever had in my life, even greater than winning the (NAIA) national championship. The thing is, I was sitting down watching it again this morning. How did you feel winning states or national championship? I live in Hawaii. Everybody knows you and everyone says hello. You win the national championship, maybe five people are watching the TV, and people at school know, but not people in Hawaii, not in Molokai or Kauai. But you win the state championship, it means something to everybody.
HPW: So the 1984 Spartans play the 2019 Spartans. What happens?
Sellitto: It was a different game in 1984. Completely different. The ’84 team was a little bit smarter on the court. I didn’t ever sub, maybe five, six seven guys played at that was it. This (’19) team here though is way, way more talent. They were good, and they’re good up front. We were good with the Ostrowskis, and it was. Different types of players back then.
HPW: Coach Kelly said you called before the game.
Sellitto: I do not talk to Kelly about coaching. Every coach thinks differently. If Kelly is 29-2, what the heck am I going to tell him? Now you’re 30-2. You don’t want to impose your comments on them. Let them do what they want to do.
HPW: Coach Alvin said you called him, too.
Sellitto: I said to Alvin I hope some of this stuff rubs off and he said all of it does. Alvin has a much different approach with his players than I did. Kelly approaches like I did, you have to perform or you’re not going to play. Alvin is a much more father-type figure, put your arm around them, don’t worry about missing shots and free throws. He’s a much more laid-back guy. Kelly is serious.
Yesterday, I called (Grant) and he said I’m watching film. Who watches film in high school? He is serious. I knew his mother, and that’s how I recruited him to come to Maryknoll. She said he was a very good basketball player. He was about 4-foot-11 and I thought he was very, very small.
HPW: I remember him being taller than that by eighth grade, maybe 5-7 or 5-8.
Sellitto: He was in seventh grade. He turned out to be a terrific player and a very good DB in football. He’s bigger than me now.
HPW: So it would’ve been interesting if Damien had opted for Division I.
Sellitto: I think Alvin really knows what he’s doing. I watched them play Maryknoll and Damien dominated them and I could not believe it. I could not believe it. Their two guards (Jydon Hall, Hayden Bayudan) scored all these points. They’re quick, quick, QUICK. Super good. For high school, very effective. Some of the basic ideas Alvin has, I’m sure transmitted, but he runs what they’re best at.
HPW: When I collect votes for the weekly Top 10, it’s always interesting to see where Damien lands. There are lots of voters who put most of the weight on a regular-season resume, not preseason when Damien beat Punahou, St. Francis, Maryknoll.
Sellitto: I think a little differently. We won the the (ILH Class A). You had to play Kamehameha, ‘Iolani, Punahou every week. We had 250 students and we played in D-II until the playoffs. And we won (the Class A state title) three years in a row starting in 1978. Then we just said, we’re better than all those guys, no way they could beat us if we went D-I. But now you have to go up to D-I (after winning D-II multiple times in a row). People say this all the time, I could be grossly wrong, but if Kentucky beats Duke, Kentucky is better. I don’t know about this or that. If you can’t win because your guy has a sprained ankle, you’re not doing a good job recruiting. We lost Roger Huggins when he tore up his knee. We put in Mike McDaniel from Aiea and he was phenomenal.
HPW: So you would vote for Damien higher than No. 4 or No. 5?
Sellitto: I think Damien should be No. 2 and Maryknoll No. 1. I watched the game, that was no game at all and I’m a Maryknoll guy.
HPW: Does it raise your stress level watching your former players coaching, your former program on the court?
Sellitto: I’m going to those Damien-Maryknoll games, I’m not stressed at all. The only time I’m stressed is if I’m playing. As a (fast pitch) softball pitcher, everything is up to me. But when you’re coaching, you don’t know who broke up with his girlfriend, or whose mother is yelling at him. Speaking of which, when I played softball, Les Murakami was my teammate. Him and I used to discuss this all the time: you’ve got to recruit. I don’t know what these guys are talking about. You can be the greatest coach in the world. You’ve got to recruit big people, good big people.
HPW: Coach Murakami is a legend.
Sellitto: They were fantastic. One game, I’m pitching and he’s playing first base. The other team, big hitter at the plate. Les comes to me and says, don’t pitch to him. I said, no I’m pitching. The guy hits a home run at me. Les walks to the mound and says, ‘You shouldn’t have pitched him’ and walks back.
HPW: Not a yeller.
Sellitto: No, not at all.
HPW: I remember a lot of our friends from Washington Intermediate School and Boys Club being recruited by Maryknoll, University and other schools. It was an honor, flat out. Sometimes, they were held back a year at private school. It was normal. But there are people who believe that’s a form of cheating.
Sellitto: When I was at HPU, there were no local kids from Punahou, Scott Kato from Kalaheo, Shannon Lee from Kaimuki. I redshirted every one of them. It was too much of a jump to play immediately, but one, they are the toughest kids in the country and I’ve been all over the country. They get in the weight room. Two, they’re going to graduate because they went to school five years. The team that won the national championship, everyone graduated. I think redshirting is to be determined by the mental and physical abilities of the kids. I had two kids from Red Hill, and you’re sure as heck they stayed back a year at Maryknoll. I believe in that tremendously. A year in a young kid’s life is a tremendous amount of time.
That’s the mentality Alvin and Kelly have. They want you to go out there and be good. You can see teams that go out there and just play. I thought that Damien was going to tear Farrington apart. Farrington couldn’t get the ball across halfcourt. At halftime, they walked off the court visibly not happy. Their physical and mental effort weren’t the same as the Damien, and Maryknoll has the same thing. You can’t be afraid of the big stage.
HPW: Farrington had a really good season on the whole.
Sellitto: If I was still coaching, I would recruit the (Raefe) McEnroe kid. He can play, that young man can play. Imagine redshirting him a year like we did with Shannon Lee, he’d mature and become a killer. If I were a D-II school, I’d sign him in a second.