Tony’s In Charge
Tony Sellitto, the only Hawaii college coach to win a national basketball championship (he has two, plus a state high school title), is back at the helm at HPU. And if you think Tony the Tiger has mellowed at age 69, well, think again
Tony Sellitto is back chasing victories at HPU, but most of all he’s a molder of young men whose main message is: ‘Do the right thing’
When HPU welcomed Coach Tony Sellitto back to the helm of its basketball program, it didn’t just get the only national championship hoops coach in the state of Hawaii, but also one of its finest forgers of men.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a good guy, I’m a wise ass, a tough son-of-a-b****, and I don’t like people all that much, but there are certain things you have got to do,” says Sellitto, whose language can run as blue and turbulent as the Pacific Ocean itself.
“You’ve got to go to school, you’ve gotta do your work, you’ve got to graduate, there is no place in America society for a man without a diploma. So if you are going to come here, you’d better go to school and do your work. You’ve gotta say ‘Yes sir, no sir,’ be a gentleman, do what’s right no matter how hard it is, gotta raise your family - these basic things are very important.
“You come to Hawaii, you are supposed to behave yourself, you are not supposed to go to jail, and you are not supposed to go out drinking. You are supposed to work on your body, get yourself into shape, do your studies and say your prayers at night.
“That’s not corny, that is just the way life is. If you don’t do that, I tell you what is going to happen: You are going to experience a lot of difficulty, I don’t care what you do. So do the right thing. Send your mom and dad a Christmas card; you will be a better person for it. I am not teaching them to be a great guy, ‘cause I am not, but there are certain things you have to do.”
While his basketball philosophies are as important to him as any coach, Sellitto understands that the game will be with his players for but a few years, but the principles he instills in them will last a lifetime.
“I think of myself as a parent. When they are playing for you they hate you, 10 years from now they think you are the best guy that ever stepped into their life,” says Sellitto, who grew up in West Orange, N.J., where his dad worked the docks.
“That is great for me. It was the same way with my dad. You’ve got to learn to be responsible for your actions and play hard. Just today I asked a kid, you had zero points last game. What’s the problem? He said,‘I only took three shots.’
“That is the worst answer you could give anyone. Why didn’t he say,‘Don’t worry, coach, I will get 20 the next game’? You’ve got to get the kids away from that and thinking on a positive note.”
Being tough on kids is hard, especially in today’s me-first generation, but the youths are more likely to listen when you have the list of accomplishments Sellitto boasts.
He began his career at Maryknoll in the mid-‘60s when he was discharged from the Army and decided to turn his back on his native New Jersey and make Hawaii his home. He worked his way up through the ranks until he took over the varsity basketball team, where he led the Spartans to several ILH championships and a state championship in 1984.
In 1988, HPU tapped him to head its program, which he immediately turned around, leading the Sea Warriors to the NAIA National Championship Tournament in only his second year. Over his 14-year tenure he took the team there a total of seven times, leading fans to nickname him “Tulsa Tony” after the city in which the tournament is held, with his crowning achievement coming in 1993 when the Sea Warriors won the national championship and he was named NAIA coach of the year.
His career was cut short by health concerns in 2002, just two wins shy of 300 with HPU, and he spent the next few years recovering from a stroke and prostate cancer. Doctors limited his activities, so he spent much of his time watching, he estimates, 500 basketball games. He notes that he went undefeated in those games and felt none of the pressure he had lived with for the previous four decades.
“When you go to become a doctor, and the class graduates and you are No. 1 out of a class of 30, the 30th guy who graduates from that class they still call doctor,” says Sellitto, before finishing with a laugh. “When you are a coach and you finish last, they call you fired.”
Despite that, a coach is always a coach, and when university president Chatt Wright asked Sellitto to return, he welcomed the opportunity to bring back his philosophy to the hard court at the Blaisdell.
“I’ve got this idea about basketball: God didn’t say you’ve got to jump high and God didn’t say
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