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How basketball has helped Penn State's Sam Sessoms Jr. through tragedy and in support of his family
Centre Daily Times - 11/24/2021
Nov. 24—UNIVERSITY PARK — Basketball has long been a constant in Sam Sessoms Jr.'s life. It helped bring him, his brother Sidney, and his dad, Sam Sr., together when the boys were young, and it brought Sam Jr. shoes and gear from playing travel ball with Team Final of the EYBL.
Eventually it brought Sam Jr. to Penn State where he has found success on the court and where he hopes to keep finding success in pursuit of helping his family.
It's also where he was in September when he heard the news that some of the family members he wanted to give better lives to — his brother and dad — were shot in their home in Philadelphia.
Sam was sitting in the Morgan Academic Center in a study hall with teammates Greg Lee and Jalanni White when Sam's mother called him.
"My mom was just like crying, so I knew it was bad," Sam told the Centre Daily Times. "She was like, 'yeah they just came in the house and shot up Sid and Daddy."
Sam doesn't remember the full day but he does remember how that call played out. His mom's emotions. Her giving him the details about his brother and dad laying on the floor, unconscious. His own shock, the impact of what his mother said not quite taking hold.
"I hung up on her," Sam said. "I remember I was like, 'Yo, why the f--- my mom just call me saying my little brother and dad just got shot up?'"
At that moment, what happened hadn't sunk in yet in Sam's mind, but one piece of it would become clear as the day wore on — Sid was gone.
Growing up in Philadelphia
Sam remembers the first time he heard gunshots outside.
He was seven years old, playing outside with his younger brother in the middle of the block when two men started shooting. One of them was eight feet away, Sam estimates.
"I was just standing there, me and Sid, watching it like it was a movie," Sam said. "We don't really know what's going on. We don't know what death is or nothing."
The brothers' uncle ran and picked up the Sessoms brothers and took them in the house, and while that was the first time, it surely wasn't the last.
Where Sam grew up in Philadelphia, gun violence is common. He remembers having friends killed, but for the most part, things like that didn't happen when he was around.
He was an athlete, and in a community like Sam's, they were off limits.
"Athletes are, like, off limits for everything," he said. "Some of my friends did drugs and stuff but they would never do it around me. They definitely protected me."
That protection didn't extend to the promising basketball player's family, though, and Sam couldn't be around to protect them all the time. Still, when he was he commanded a respect from his loved ones.
Affectionately known as "Poppy" to his family, Sam can control a room when he goes home. He has fun with his two younger siblings — Katie and Saint — but they know when it's time to be serious and when play time is over.
"Katie and Saint listen to me more (when I tell them to do something)," Sam said. "They know the love is there."
Sam has a bond with his younger siblings and his entire family, but the bond he built with his dad and his brother was special. The two boys and their father would play together when they could and it allowed them to grow closer.
But it wasn't just about playing with the family. Sam loved playing with anyone he could, and in his neighborhood that meant playing pickup games.
He started at a young age, wanting to play well before his time, and would grab a ball whenever he could. Sometimes that meant those pickup games and sometimes it meant three-on-three with his dad and his brother as his teammates.
"In Philly, every Sunday morning people go out and play basketball from like 8-12," Sam said. "I would go out there a lot, so from a young age everybody in my neighborhood knew me because I was the kid trying to play all the time when I was young. Sid would come out and play basketball a little bit. At times we would all go shoot around and go down there on nice days and play three-on-three versus other people. Basketball made me and the boys in my family closer, for sure."
Regardless of who the young Sam played with, they took notice. It was apparent quickly to those around him that he had a shot to make it through basketball.
Finding consistency in basketball
Sam's love for the game began at a young age, and so did the recognition. He would go to the court to the play and he could hear people start to talk about him.
Even then, he didn't realize exactly what basketball could do for him and his life. He was just playing a game that he loved.
He found out later, in high school, that it could create a path for him.
"I was always a confident dude," Sam said. "But I never grew up thinking about colleges. ... That's not what people think in my neighborhood in Philly. I had no dream school. But when I was playing basketball, probably around 11th grade, I thought I was one of the best in the city."
Sam was taking on some of the best talents in the city in his eyes and he was outperforming them. He continued growing on the court and schools began to take notice.
He was an unranked recruit when his journey took him to Binghamton University, where he accepted a scholarship offer to play basketball. Sam stepped into a role immediately with the Bearcats, averaging 17.8 points per game in the 2018-19 season and winning the America East Rookie of the Year award.
It was then that he realized there was even more to tap into.
"After my first year at Binghamton, I was super confident in myself," Sam said. "I knew I could really take this somewhere."
Eventually that talent got him noticed and had him ranked among the top 10 sit-out transfers in the transfer portal following the 2019-20 season. His recognition landed him at Penn State, where he was sold on getting the degree he hadn't thought much about as a kid.
"Most importantly, when it came time for me to decide, it was ultimately because getting a degree from Penn State is tremendous," he told the CDT prior to his commitment in 2020. "The basketball is going to stop bouncing one day, so I was thinking about it from that aspect. I was thinking about after basketball."
He played in 24 games in his first season as a Nittany Lion as he adjusted to the Big Ten in the COVID-19-affected 2020-21 season, averaging 8.2 points per game.
Still, his play had room for growth and he was in position to take a massive leap forward under new head coach Micah Shrewsberry. Shrewsberry was hired following Sam's first season on campus. Several players on the team entered the portal after the new coach was hired, but Sam was not one of them.
He instead focused on honing his craft and maximizing the opportunity at hand, spending the offseason preparing to be one of the focal points of a team that would come together on the fly after introducing five new scholarship players via the transfer portal. He was one of the pillars who was set to take a jump and show why he stayed.
Sept. 16 — the day Sidney was killed
Sam's summer of work came to a screeching halt with that phone call on Sept. 16. His life shaken, he called a friend and drove to Philadelphia to be with his family, not knowing the extent of what had happened. He made a call first, to Penn State director of player development Mike Green, who also hailed from Philadelphia and understood the type of neighborhood Sam grew up in.
The two bonded right away when Green was hired as part of the new coaching staff with their similar backgrounds. Both point guards from Philly, they connected and Green quickly understood the similarities between Sam and a younger version of himself.
"(Connecting) was one of the first things I did once he was on campus knowing that he was a Philadelphia guy," Green told the CDT. "That similarity pulls you together. ... I remember being that same kid. The way he talks, the way he carries himself when he's upset, when he's happy, all of those things were familiar things because I was legit that same kid at one point in my life. ... We've got those similar backgrounds, those same social upbringings."
The bond they had formed made the director of player development the choice for Sam to call when he heard about the shooting. He reached Green and let him know what was going on.
He didn't want anyone to call him and he didn't want anyone to reach out to him. He wanted to handle things how he wanted to handle things, something Green understood.
"You could hear him holding back tears," Green said. "Very hurt. At that point you wanna call someone you can trust, somebody that can understand the situation. I was that for him. ... It's a tough thing, man, these type of things happen so often but in this case it was his brother."
Sam's trip home was a blur. He recalls a stop at a Sheetz and some stray thoughts but nothing in-depth, until a call to a friend who had connections within the police department in charge of investigating the shooting. She told Sam that one person didn't make it in a text, then called him to give him the details.
That's the last he remembers until he got to the hospital, already knowing what he would walk into. His brother was gone at 19 years old and his dad was in critical condition as doctors worked to help him.
Sam remembers crying for the first 25 minutes he was with his family, mourning the loss of Sidney in the hospital. But then those tears stopped.
"I was like out of tears," Sam said. "I just wanted to see my little brother and sister."
Getting back on the court
Sam has had basketball and family as a constant throughout his life, and one led him to the other when things went wrong. After his brother's death he made the trip back to Penn State, just wanting to play basketball to get everything off his mind.
"Basketball is my escape, for real, for real," Sam said. "I came back fast as hell when that shit happened. My coaches didn't even think I was gonna come back that fast. I didn't wanna sit back in Philly. ... I came to Penn State and practiced a couple times and went back on Friday for the funeral on Sunday."
His return allowed him to focus on his play on the court and work toward improving at one of the things that made Sidney most proud.
The two brothers bonded, along with their father — who spent weeks rehabbing the injuries he suffered as a result of the shooting and was set to return home by the end of November — through basketball and Sidney believed in his older brother's talents.
Sam has always played the game for his family, and his brother's death increased that motivation, but he's also aware of the pressure doing something like that can place on someone.
"You just wanna do good for him," Sam said. "Because he was a big fan of me. You couldn't tell nobody in the world that they was better than me. ... But not just for him, for my whole family. That's always been my motivation. He just adds more fuel to the fire. But in a way, I don't think it's real healthy to do it like that, in a way, because every bad game, every bad moment, it's like I'm letting someone down. ... And I ain't trying to put all that weight on myself."
The work the senior guard put in to begin the season has already begun to pay off. He set a new high scoring mark in his time at Penn State with 26 points against St. Francis Brooklyn and is averaging nearly 20 points per game while showing he's one of the most important players on the team.
He's a leader on and off the court for the Nittany Lions and established that — if a player wants the cold, hard truth — he's the guy to go to.
"I think Sam's energy is what kind of helps," Shrewsberry said. "... Sam's gonna say it. There's no holding back. He's gonna talk and he's gonna communicate. The other thing that we know as a staff is how to communicate with him. His personality, you have to be direct with him, can't beat around the bush. ... His energy every day is what we need."
Sam's success as a leader and a player shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who knows the boisterous Philadelphia native.
He has long given his heart and his soul to his family and to the court.
While a piece of that family — and his biggest fan — is gone, Sam's motivation is not as he continues to do what he loves and do it for those back home in Philly.
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