Sam Sessoms listens to the conversations, the recruiting pitches these college basketball coaches make. He can envision where he fits at their schools, on and off the court. He gets regular text messages, returns all the small talk. There might be only one thing missing.
"They talk like they've already offered me,'' said Sessoms, quickly becoming an expert on the nuances of basketball recruiting. He's heard a mid-major coach tell him he's their top target without actually offering him a scholarship — while offering others. He shows a long text chain from one Division I assistant full of photos..
Maybe the top pure point guard in the senior high school class, a guy who already has taken his game from the Bottom neighborhood of West Philadelphia to the Shipley School and a Nike-sponsored travel team, Sessoms gets the basics of the recruiting game. It's how basketball, and life, really works: You still need to prove yourself, even after you've already proven yourself. He talks of the whole process matter-of-factly, including what it means that he doesn't have a D-I offer yet.
"A lot of people think I should be mad," Sessoms said. "I just tell people, 'Be patient, still have a lot of time.' "
"It's almost to the point I'm sweating this thing more than he is," said Shipley coach Phil D'Ambrosio. "He tells me, 'Be patient.' "
The coaches aren't just blowing smoke at him. They have their A and B and C lists and even playing on the top Nike spring and summer circuit, Sessoms isn't on any D-I A lists, it sounds like he's on plenty of B lists. Everyone can't get their top wish list choice and that's where the experts say Sessoms will come in. This is life, especially when you're 5-foot-10.
"A lot of schools love him, they just haven't offered yet," said Aaron Burt, his Team Final travel team coach. Burt keeps telling Sessoms: "You're going to go to college for basketball."
Every day, he said, another Team Final coach, Nate Hodge, tells him there will be an offer.
His first court was outdoors, just down the street from his house, behind the Sunoco off Girard Avenue right by the zoo, 38th and Poplar. A legit full court. Sessoms doesn't get out there anymore — other than stopping by to show it to a visitor — but it used to practically be home.
"I lived in the same house the whole time," Sessoms said. "I was playing on there as long as I remember. There were good dudes but there weren't any dudes who were known in the city. It was always great competition because it's playground basketball, barely any fouls. It made me adapt. I had to get stronger on my own, be able to fight through contact."
His first team was the Bottom Ballers, which had a big neighborhood reputation.
"We were all like the same height — it was a group of small gritty guards," Sessoms said. "There were a lot of top guards in the city. We grew up playing together. We used to play full court no fouls for like 15 minutes," and that was just the warm-up. A hotshot player showed up with a fancy step-back jumper, they looked at the new guy like he was soft.
If your father was a point guard at University City, a lifelong West Philly product, and your mom is Samoan, athletes in her family, maybe toughness gets baked in. That's D'Ambrosio's theory.
"You don't have too many guys his size who give you eight rebounds a game," D'Ambrosio said. "He's one of those guys who goes to the basket, you literally have to punch him in the face for him to not get that layup off."
Tough and loyal.
"He's the most loyal kid I've ever had," said Marvin Stinson, coach of the Bottom Ballers. "He didn't want to leave, didn't want to break my heart. I had to go to his home and talk to him and his dad."
An elementary school teacher knew Sessoms was a ballplayer but also saw his maturity in the classroom. Her own husband, Shawn Harvey, was a West Philadelphia High star who had played college ball and professionally overseas and their son was already at Shipley. They suggested Sessoms might be a fit there, too.
Sessoms remembers taking the entrance test as a seventh-grader and not quite passing muster. They graded the test 1 to 9, Sessoms said, and his vocabulary was a 3 or 4 — "I had to get that up." So he grabbed books from his teacher and from the library — "I had to," Sessoms said, to study vocabulary words, "I had to pick that up. Root words, you have to get definitions from roots, stuff like that."
Paying some tutor? No, there wasn't money for that. He just did it. The next year, the test score was up, Sessoms was accepted, and Shipley "mulled over quite a while that summer,'' D'Ambrosio said, whether to hold him back a year, until administrators decided this guy was too mature to hold back.
Confidence always has been part of the package, the coach said, like at the Mill Creek summer league game when Sessoms knew he was taking the last shot. "Sam's telling everyone, 'Get your phones out,' " D'Ambrosio said, remembering the move that set up the winning three-pointer. "He oozes confidence."
And if the highlight is meant for someone else, he gives up the ball. He was throwing alley-oops to high-flying teammates this spring at the Donofrio Classic. You get the sense teammates like having this guy with the ball.
Sessoms hit another one of his own shots this month at West Catholic, a step-back three to force overtime in the Battle for Independence one-day tournament. It was a closed recruiting period, no D-I coaches allowed.
"If it been an open period, they would have been lining up for him," said Norm Eavenson of the Middle Atlantic Scouting Service after watching Sessoms score 46 points over two games against some guys already with D-I offers.
The woman taking admission money outside the Imhotep Charter gym — already packed inside — saw Sessoms gliding past her table and told him right off, "You've got to turn it up."
Walking in, Sessoms had been saying the same thing, since a couple of star teammates were away playing for the U.S. national team. This was last weekend at an event dubbed the Battle for the Bell, two of the top travel teams in the city, Team Final and K Low Elite, facing off in three different age groups. Sessoms would have the ball in his hands in the main event.
On the car ride over from Girard Avenue, Sessoms joked about wishing he'd worn a hoodie so he could move around a little more incognito. "Every time we walk into events in Philly, you've got to shake, like, everybody's hand," Sessoms said.
Sessoms is a sociable guy. A full gym just means a lot of hands. "That's why I give people head nods," Sessoms said.
D'Ambrosio picked up Sessoms for the quick ride over to the gym on North 21st Street. They talked hoops, the Celtics picking up a Morris twin, the new Dion Waiters contract, a bit about the state of the Sixers.
"You want to get out and I'll just go find parking?" D'Ambrosio said when they reached the corner by Imhotep Charter.
"No, I'll wait," Sessoms said.
It's unusual to have a full gym and a rivalry game in the summer but that's what this was. Three age groups, the first two results were a split, which meant the 17-and-under teams were playing for overall bragging rights. College coaches weren't here yet, still four days before the July open period began. But at least four scouting service evaluators were in the gym.
This year actually has been a tough one for Team Final. The presence of star players Cam Reddish and Louis King didn't equate to big success. Everyone struggled with roles. Sessoms had his own ups and downs. The first half at Imhotep made you think maybe that's why Sessoms didn't have an offer, since the other guys on both teams seemed to have the athletic edge. If he thought he had to force the action, his teammates seemed to be thinking they had to too. Things weren't clicking.
Until halftime. After that, Sessoms took over. His team down seven points in the third quarter, Sessoms saw a mismatch, took a screen, which resulted in another mismatch, a drive and two free throws. Next possession, his drive and kick produced a three-pointer, his team within two. When his team grabbed the lead, Sessoms drove and shielded his body from a big man for another hoop. The fourth quarter, he pretty much had the ball, and kept getting to the line, converting nine of 10 foul shots in the last three minutes to put the game away, 71-59.
There was a quick MVP presentation afterward. Sam Sessoms, Team Final. He got a case of energy drinks to take home. This time, Sessoms got a ride home from Shawn Harvey, his own dad in the front seat.
"I was exhausted," Sessoms said in the car. "The second half, that's when they started killing me."
The older men didn't say much to him. Driving home, he found his stats. Someone had posted them on Twitter: 19 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds.
"I'm sure there are a lot of dudes in my position," Sessoms said of waiting on a college offer. "I know I'm not the only one."
The game was still first on his mind. He was one of the last ones out of the gym.
"Halftime, you all didn't think we were going to win, did you?" Sessoms said to the rest of the car.
Nobody in the front seat said a word. They've gotten used to the guy in the back seat silencing doubters. Better to keep quiet.