June 13, 2016
Sometimes, coming to the country can teach city people a lot about themselves. That’s what happened to Brooklyn, New York’s Seldon Jefferson, a three-year standout men’s basketball player for the West Virginia Mountaineers in 1995, 1996 and 1997.
Jefferson, in town recently to take part in Bob Huggins’ Fantasy Basketball Camp, said his four years spent in Morgantown, West Virginia were exactly where he needed to be at that point in his life.
“Coming to West Virginia prepares you for what else life offers,” he said. “I think you’ve just got to take your hat off to the people here who helped prepare us for life.”
Jefferson, now an assistant principal and assistant basketball coach at Thomas Jefferson High in Brooklyn, New York, speaks fondly of his time at WVU.
“The great thing about the city is that it’s not going anywhere,” Jefferson explained. “When I left, one of the things I wanted to do was go somewhere where it was peaceful and didn’t have a lot of hoopla and the run-around that the city had. If that were the case, I would have stayed home and gone to St. John’s.”
Or, possibly Cincinnati.
“I remember when Huggs first got the West Virginia job and we spoke about the visit I didn’t take. He still gets on me about that because I was supposed to take a visit to Cincinnati after the West Virginia visit, but I called Huggs and Coach (Larry) Harrison and told them I was going to go to West Virginia,” Jefferson recalled.
Seldon was part of a run of talented New York City players to WVU that began with Parade All-American forward Chris Brooks in the mid-1980s and, really, has continued into the present.
NYC natives Lawrence Pollard and Wilfred Kirkaldy were instrumental in helping West Virginia’s No. 1 recruiter at the time, Ron Brown, land Jefferson, considered one of top guards in the city during his senior season playing at Bishop Loughlin High.
“Once I got here it helped that Lawrence and Wilfred were here – two of my childhood friends,” Jefferson said. “Coach Brown told me, ‘Once you come on campus you probably won’t leave.’ Plus, I knew that we were going to the Big East and that was important for my family to be able to see me play, not just on TV, but live and the opportunity to go back home and play in the Big East definitely helped that.”
Sadly, Pollard’s and Kirkaldy’s careers at WVU never really blossomed because of a serious automobile accident they were involved in while returning to campus following spring break in 1992. Kirkaldy’s injuries were so severe that he eventually had to have his leg amputated, and Pollard was never really the same player, although he did appear in 23 games during his junior and senior seasons in 1994-95.
So it was Jefferson, in 1995, who basically took over Pollard’s role as West Virginia’s main outside shooter and scorer when the Mountaineers were transitioning from the Atlantic 10 Conference to the Big East.
That transition – going from playing in Olean, New York, one year to playing in Syracuse’s famed Carrier Dome the next, remains probably the most difficult conversion the basketball program has ever made.
West Virginia’s first-ever Big East game was against sixth-ranked Georgetown before more than 15,000 spectators at the WVU Coliseum. The Hoyas were stacked that year with outstanding guards Allen Iverson and Victor Page, and a trio of rim-rattling bigs in Othella Harrington, Boubacar Aw and freshman Jahidi White.
The Mountaineers actually led the Hoyas at halftime by eight and were up 12 with 2:34 left but were unable to hang on, eventually losing, 86-83, in overtime.
“I always tell people I scored the first points of the game and then I sat down defensively and said I’m about to lock this dude up (Iverson),” Jefferson laughed. “And he was a blur. He went by me so quick I told (teammate) Cyrus (Jones), ‘Switch man. You go over there (and guard him). I’m going to go over here and mess with Vic Page.’”
Following the Georgetown defeat, West Virginia lost by 10 to seventh-ranked Connecticut, dropped a one-point decision to Pitt, fell by five at St. John’s and lost by two to seventh-ranked Villanova before finally knocking off 12th-ranked Syracuse, a team that would eventually play for the national championship that season, 90-78, at the Coliseum to earn its first Big East win.
That’s a heck of an introduction to big-time college basketball, starting right off the bat with a loaded Georgetown team that reached the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight that season.
“We were all competitors,” Jefferson said. “Damian (Owens) was a fierce competitor. Jarrod West, Greg Simpson, Cyrus Jones and Sandro (Varejao) – all of them were competitors. It made us work harder because they were good. (Georgetown) started five pros. You knew what you were getting so it was up to you to be prepared for what was coming. To open up against them at home, jam-packed crowd, national TV, if you weren’t ready you were going to get embarrassed. The one thing we didn’t want to do was embarrass ourselves or embarrass the University.”
A year later, in 1997, West Virginia won 11 of 18 Big East games, including a pair of victories over nationally ranked Syracuse and Villanova, with Jefferson leading the way by averaging a team-best 15.6 points per game. The 101-79 victory at Syracuse in the Carrier Dome remains one of the more impressive road wins in school history.
At the time, it was the largest defeat any Syracuse team had ever absorbed in the Dome.
“Gordon Malone dominated that game,” Jefferson said. “We didn’t have a bunch of McDonald’s All-Americans, but we had some talent and we meshed it well together.”
The Mountaineers in ‘97 won 19 games before losing to Providence in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals and failed to receive an NCAA bid. The Big East got just four teams into the Big Dance that year.
“We should have been in,” Jefferson said.
Instead, the Mountaineers made a nice little run in the NIT by beating an excellent Bowling Green team at the Coliseum in an exciting, up-and-down game, and then going to Raleigh, North Carolina to knock off N.C. State to reach the quarterfinals.
“Bowling Green had Antonio Daniels, and he’s got two NBA championships, so we were okay,” Jefferson noted.
These days, Jefferson is helping out his boy Pollard at Thomas Jefferson High. This past year, Pollard led the Orange Wave to its first city championship in 62 years, a 90-61 victory over Lincoln High, and Pollard has Thomas Jefferson on track toward becoming one of the powerhouse teams in the city.
And Seldon Jefferson is right there with him. He says he frequently uses his experiences as a WVU player to help the kids he’s working with.
“There is a difference when you are reading a book and telling somebody as opposed to actually walking in their shoes and going down their path,” Jefferson explained. “You can help them out. And I think it’s a two-way street, too, because a lot of times administrators, whether it be principals, coaches or teachers, we don’t listen to kids enough. I think you have to establish that two-way relationship – ‘I want you to listen to me, but I am going to listen to you as well.’”
Jefferson has been back to Morgantown occasionally, and whenever he visits the basketball practice facility or the student rec center, it never ceases to amaze him how far his alma mater has come during the time he’s been away.
When Jefferson was a player, any extra work he wanted to get done took place down at aging Stansbury Hall.
“This is phenomenal,” Jefferson said of WVU’s practice facility. “I tell guys, ‘I don’t see how you can’t play if you come to a school like this with this facility.’ These guys can come in here and shoot and do all the things they need to do.”
Had the basketball practice facility been around when Jefferson was a player, he would have taken great advantage of it, just as he took great advantage of the valuable experiences he received as a WVU basketball player – scoring more than 1,000 career points, helping the Mountaineers to 21 victories during his senior year in 1997 and, most importantly, getting an outstanding WVU education.
“West Virginia has been good to us. This is a beautiful place to come. You learn a lot and you love the people here. And it’s not too far away,” he concluded.