Penn State guard shows Philly toughness while playing this season with heavy heart

MIKE JENSEN
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Penn State's Sam Sessoms (3) and Wisconsin's Lorne Bowman (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

It's kind of a cliché — tough Philadelphia guard — except when you've seen Sam Sessoms play basketball, any level, it all fits.

"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," his former Shipley School coach, Phil D'Ambrosio, once told me.

Man, a punch in the face does not even describe what Sessoms is playing through for Penn State this season. He lost his younger brother in September to Philadelphia gun violence. All the talk about a guy who plays with all his heart, while true, sounds empty.

"I've been doing the best I can mentally," Sessoms said in a phone interview. "I'm still trying to play for my brother, but it's just too hard to put all that pressure on yourself. I try to go out there with a clear head."

Sam will tell you Sidney, two years younger, was his biggest supporter.

"He always came to the games," Sessoms said. "You couldn't tell him someone was better than me. There was an argument."

Sure, there was familial bias.

"But there was a point where he actually believed it," Sessoms said.

Penn State's Sam Sessoms (3) and Wisconsin's Lorne Bowman (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

Tough upbringing: The same streets that gave Sessoms his basketball toughness, the Bottom neighborhood of West Philly, was the one his family had to get away from this year.

"I grew up different than a lot of dudes," Sessoms said. "I've been around murders. A close friend was murdered. It's not like I'm completely shocked that this happened. ... We had moved out of the neighborhood. My 6-year-old sister had gotten shot. My little brother, he was arrested at the time. We knew we had to get him out, because he was going to be under house arrest."

The streets still found Sidney, in Port Richmond. Shots fired, Sessoms said, "through the windows, through the porch door."

His brother reportedly was hit in the face. His father was hit in the arm.

"My dad's doing good," Sessoms said. "He got out of rehab a while back. But he's out of work. He was a sanitation worker for the city. He can't do that. His arm is still pretty messed up."

The details: An Inquirer story detailed how two police officers chased after a suspect, who fired shots toward them.

The officers weren't injured.

The suspect was arrested, charged with murder, attempted murder, and two counts of attempted murder of a police officer. In December, the same 19-year-old from West Philadelphia was charged with two more counts of murder for a separate shooting last summer.

Friends check in on Sam, see how he's doing.

"It really doesn't help," he said. "It's kind of annoying. I kind of block people off. Most people who support me don't know how deep it is. They don't come from that type of lifestyle."

He's not hiding from his pain.

"It's just tough mentally," Sessoms said. "I'm kind of in a place where I'm like, yeah, whatever. Losing a close one ... you start to reevaluate people, how you view life."

Beloved in Philly hoops circles: Seeing him on the court, you're not going to know. Sessoms is practically beloved within local hoops circles, including by opposing coaches, for all sorts of reasons.

"He's such a great kid," said his Team Final travel-team coach, Aaron Burt.

Sessoms noted in 2017 how he took the Shipley entrance test as a seventh-grader but he didn't quite pass 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."

He was identified as a candidate for this path not just because of his basketball skills, but his maturity. There wasn't money for a tutor, 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 isn't a problem: His former coach also noted an otherworldly confidence, no basketball obstacle too high. like at a 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 a move that set up a winning 3-pointer.

His path to the Big Ten was not a straight line. I wrote about the path in 2017 when he went into the summer before his senior year at Shipley with no Division I offers.

"A lot of people think I should be mad," Sessoms said at the time. "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," D'Ambrosio said that summer. "He tells me, 'Be patient.'"

Landing at PSU: Soon enough, Binghamton made an offer, and Sessoms played two seasons there, averaged 17.8 points as a freshman, was America East rookie of the year, then scored 19.4 as a sophomore.

The 6-footer then transferred to Penn State, averaged 8.2 points last season off the bench, and now is at 11.4 points a game, starting 10 of Penn State's 19 games. His offensive efficiency is up and his three-point percentage is the highest of his career, 44.9.

All the coaching changes he's been through, five coaches in six years if you go back to high school, adds to the degree of difficulty.

"Every coach brings different sets, different things they want," Sessoms said.

That's not a knock on the individual coaches. Different is just different. Like new Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry ... "He's a good coach, knows exactly what he's talking about on X's and O's."

Looking ahead: Once his playing days are over, could Sessoms see himself coaching?

"Nah, not coaching," Sessoms said. "Something like helping kids from similar communities."

But not coaching them? Sessoms doesn't completely rule it out, just sees the process of getting to the point where you earn a decent salary as a climb. Now if somebody wants to offer him a job on a college staff right away, he says he'd listen. He's not done playing, will keep doing so after college as long as he can get paid to do it.

This season, Sessoms sees Penn State doing good things, with a chance for more good things. Penn State couldn't quite pull out a tug-of-war Saturday at Wisconsin, losing by 51-49, but Sessoms was the high scorer for either team with 14 points in 25 minutes.

To be clear: Sessoms doesn't leave what happened behind ... his brother means too much to him.

"Focusing on your loss can have negative effects as well," he said. "It's kind of hard to put effort into things."

Among Sam Sessoms' gifts ... telling it like it really is.