The past 10 years or so have witnessed nothing less than the collapse of the social contract between the “street dudes” and ball players. This collapse is characterized by proliferation of gun violence involving college bound student-athletes, by the normalization of death among 16-22 year old student-athletes, by the high levels of drug use among student-athletes, by the emergence of a parasitic cadre of “handlers” and by an increasingly frequent failure to meet NCAA eligibility requirements. Elite student-athletes in cities like Philadelphia, Chester, Coatesville and Camden are especially vulnerable.
Elite basketball and football players were once considered off limits. Those of us of a certain age can certainly recall numerous occasions where the “ol’ heads” would emphatically declare “this ain’t for you youngbul… take yo ass home.” Later on, you would learn there was a fight, a robbery or some other illicit activity that the ol’ head protected you from.
It was an unwritten, but rigidly adhered to “code.”
Ball players and good students were off limits. The drug dealers and the gun toters were always prevalent in urban communities. They were there… you encountered them on a daily basis. They may have given the ball players some new sneakers… They may have had the ball players on their summer league teams… They may have shared some of their winnings from wagers on the games with the ball players… They may have even helped the ball players enter into “entanglements” with some of the fly young females in the community.
But when it was time to “strap up” or “put in work,” real ol’ heads ALWAYS declared “this ain’t for you youngbul… take yo ass home.”
Those days are gone. No case illustrates this point more than that of Sam Sessoms, Jr.
A magnificent basketball player, Sessoms hails from the hard-scrabble Mantua section of Philadelphia. The “Black Bottom” as it colloquially known in Philly is one of the most violent neighborhoods in America. Violence and mayhem have long characterized the Bottom. As far back as 1987, during the throes of the crack epidemic, the Mantua community saw twelve murders.
An excellent student, Sessom, Jr. leveraged his considerable basketball talents to gain entry in the highly competitive Shipley School. Sessoms would go on to have a legendary school boy career. He was a four-year standout for coach Philip D’Ambrosio, leading the Gators to 68 wins during his career and berth in league championship game in back-to-back seasons in 2017 and 2018. Sessoms was named all-league and All-Mainline accolades all four years and all-state twice with first-team honors as a senior. He poured in 28.8 points per game as senior and 23.0 ppg for his junior season, finishing his scholastic career with a school-record 2,091 career points.
Sessoms accepted a scholarship to Binghamton University where he continued to excel. He was named to the CollegeInsider.com Freshman All-America Team and named the America East Rookie of the Year after earning America East Rookie of the Week honors seven times. His sophomore campaign was even better. Sessoms started in all 29 games and finished season with a conference leading 19.8 points per game.
Sessoms decided he wanted the challenge of playing at the high major level and transferred to Penn State after his sophomore season. In his first Big 10 season, he played in 24 games in with the Nittany Lions as a key sixth-man player. He had nine double-digit scoring efforts and was the only Nittany Lion to score in double figures in first seven games, all off the bench.
Fully acclimated to the Big 10, Sessoms was looking forward to summer of hard work in preparation for a new era in Penn State basketball under first year Head Coach Micah Shrewsberry.
Those that know Sessoms fully anticipated a break out season in the Big 10.
But… Real life down the Bottom is getting in the way. The absence of the code has never been more obvious.
On May 17, 2021 at approximately 3:30 pm, Sessoms’ 6 year sister was shot in the leg while playing with friends outside the family home on the 3800 block of Wyalusing Avenue. This was a high profile shooting of an innocent child in broad daylight. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw noted that the girl’s parents were inside a vehicle when the shots rang out. Some of those bullets did hit the windshield but no other victims were struck. According to Outlaw, a group of men were running toward the children around the time of the shooting. “We do know that there was information that there was a vehicle, a dark-colored sedan, that was following the group of males that was running prior to the shooting,” said Outlaw.
What “code”? They are shooting 6 year-old girls jumping rope on the sidewalk in front of their home.
Sessoms’ father, Samuel Sessoms, Sr. is friend of mine and at the time, he told me was trying to move his family away from his beloved Bottom. His daughter fully recovered and, shortly thereafter, Sessoms, Sr. moved his family across town to the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia away from daily violence permeating the Mantua streets.
At least, that’s what he thought.
On September 16, 2021, exactly 4 months after his little sister was shot in front of the family home, two shooters walked up onto the porch of the new family home and fired at least eight shots into the home, striking Sessoms’ 19-year-old brother, Sidney and his father Sam, Sr.
His brother, Sidney, later died at the hospital. His father is listed in critical but stable condition.
As reported by 6ABC.com, “Minutes after the gunfire rang out, police responded and a witness was able to alert police to an area where the shooters fled. Soon after, officers found a male suspect running. That’s when the suspect started to shoot at officers, according to investigators.”
“We believe that our suspect fired at least six shots at two or three uniform police officers. They are very, very lucky, they didn’t get hit. They didn’t return fire because there was a lot of people out on the streets, but they did chase this individual who was firing shots at them,” said Chief Inspector Scott Small with the Philadelphia Police Department.
Police were able to apprehend the assailant and he is now behind bars.
In a 4 month span, Sessoms’ sister, brother and father have been shot. His sister and father were seriously injured but expected to fully recover, his brother did not make it.
So now, when he should be focused on his studies and preparing to lead the Nittany Lions through the Big 10 gauntlet, Sessoms has to muster up the intestinal fortitude to lead his family through these very trying times. Facing yet another move just a few months after the last move and unexpected funeral expenses, Sessoms has launched a GoFundMe campaign:
“Hey, my name is Sam Sessoms and I am launching this fundraiser to help cover my little brother’s funeral expenses and also help move my family to a different location. My little brother and father was recently shot multiple times inside of our home. My father has been in surgery all morning but he is making progress. Unfortunately, my little brother did not make it. We have to cover the expenses to that and also find a new home. Our house is completely damaged and we are being forced to move. Life is hard right now, and I truly need all of you guys support for me and the family. Please donate so we can lay my baby brother to rest and also have a roof over our heads. We do not care if it is 1$, please help us.”
This brief video from an interview I conducted in March 2020, gives you a look inside the dynamics of the relationship between Sam, Jr. and Sam, Jr. Both are my friends. Both are real men. Both live their lives by a code that no longer exists.
These are real men. Sam is a Nittany Lion and, I am sure, Happy Valley will wrap their arms around him and lift his family in their time of need.
Damn shame this persists in any society. Poverty, uneducated and drugs don’t make people stop caring. I grew up in North Philly during the serious gang warring era. I saw what I didn’t want to do or be first hand. Seeing different parts of the country and the world, showed me there are many other ways to “live and let live.”