BY NEIL HAYES
For the Sun-Times
One politician in particular has unique insight into the cities of Chicago and Cleveland and the rivalry between the Bulls and Cavaliers.
The teams are playing each other in the second round of the NBA playoffs, and it could be 1989 all over again.
“When the Bulls are healthy, they are a hell of a team,’’ said Brad Sellers, the Bulls’ first-round pick in 1986. “There may be new faces, but we’re going to pick this thing up from the 1990s and it’s not going to be watered down or for the faint of heart.”
Sellers is the first native of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, a community of approximately 15,000 located 16 miles east of Cleveland, to be elected mayor. He has served in that capacity since 2011.
He also inbounded the ball to Michael Jordan before he buried “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series in 1989. Jordan leaped into the air in celebration. Cleveland hasn’t fully recovered.
The Bulls went on to knock the Cavs out of the playoffs in 1992, 1993 and 1994. James and the Cavs beat the Bulls in the first round in 2010 before being eliminated by the Celtics.
“The first thing people want to know is how it feels to stick it to your own hometown,” Sellers said. “Not a week goes by when someone doesn’t bring that game up to me. But they don’t hold it against me. They’ve given me a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Sellers’ parents were activists who often took him to various community-related events. He was offered a chance to become the director of economic development soon after he ended his basketball career, which included nine NBA seasons. He eventually accepted the position but made it known that it might not be for long.
He was on the job 11 years before running for mayor.
“I’m going to finish my tenure here,” he said. “I’ve got to improve this school system, but my door will be open. I can’t give you a timetable that I’ll be here.”
Sellers and longtime Phoenix Suns point guard Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, California, often talk about how well their NBA careers prepared them for a life of public service. Sellers expects Johnson, the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, to become the next governor of California.
He has told LeBron James that he has even greater political potential.
“There’s no question he has given his heart and soul to the city of Akron,” Sellers said. “He is the face of that community and is always trying to help people. He loves Akron. He would have no problem raising money. Nobody around here could beat him in a race for mayor of Akron. If he were to serve two terms and learn the craft, he could be a voice for the voiceless. The Democratic Party could run him for governor. I’m not saying he would be a slam-dunk winner, but he has a compelling rags-to-riches story and would have the support of many.”
Sellers learned firsthand how being a former professional athlete can be beneficial in 2012 when he was one of several public officials to meet Air Force One at the Cleveland Airport. President Barack Obama did a double-take after recognizing Sellers.
“Nobody told me there was a Bull back here,” the president shouted.
The subsequent photo of Obama looking up at the 7-foot tall Sellers went viral.
“You never know who you touch when you play in the Windy City,” Sellers said. “Now he’s the president of the United States, and he actually remembered me. It was the coolest thing.”
Sellers has fond memories of his Chicago days and keeps in touch with his former Bulls teammates, who remain close 20-some years after their playing days ended.
For this former Bull, the playoff matchup with the Cavs requires a high level of diplomacy, even for a politician.
“It crushed this whole organization,” Sellers said of the 1989 playoff loss. “Nobody remembers how good that team was. If it weren’t for that shot, who knows where they go? That was a hell of a team. It was a tale of two cities. One ascended, and one got crushed. It’s never been the same here. It’s like an umbrella over the city. The sun is shining, and everybody thinks it’s going to rain.”
THE BRAD SELLERS FILE
Then: Bulls first-round draft pick (ninth overall) in 1986.
Now: Mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio.
Quote: “Winning in Chicago is different from winning in Cleveland. It’s great to win in Cleveland, but in Chicago it’s more of a pressure cooker. You can’t ignore it. You have to expect it and embrace it.”
Contact Neil Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org or at neilhayeswriter.com.