Sallie's Perseverance Is Paying Off for Memphis

Roburt Sallie lets fly one of his 15 three-point attempts against Cal State-Northridge. He made 10.
Roburt Sallie lets fly one of his 15 three-point attempts against Cal State-Northridge. He made 10. (By Orlin Wagner -- Associated Press)
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By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 21, 2009

KANSAS CITY, Mo., March 20 -- Frustrated and beaten down mentally, Roburt Sallie watched last season's national championship game on television in his dorm room at the City College of San Francisco. He wondered why he couldn't play Division I basketball like his former prep school teammates on Memphis and questioned whether he would ever get the chance.

"I had a lot of time to think about it," Sallie said.

Sallie's 35-point performance in his first NCAA tournament game Thursday, which included a school-record 10 three-pointers for Memphis, would have been one of the tournament's early story lines if Sallie represented nothing more than a reserve guard who played the game of his life when his team desperately needed it. But the journey of the 23-year-old sophomore is even more improbable considering his obstacle-laden path to Memphis: one junior college, two prep schools and three failed attempts to play for Division I schools.

Sallie's saga illustrates the unpredictable and ephemeral nature of the NCAA tournament, which routinely makes stars out of the unlikeliest of candidates. Players short on size or reputation -- others who slipped through cracks of the recruiting world and NCAA clearinghouse -- can squeeze their way into tournament lore with a breakout game or even a single shot.

Before Thursday's first-round game against Cal State-Northridge, Sallie had averaged 4.5 points this season and had never scored more than 13 at Memphis. In fact, he had played in nine games in which he did not score a point.

Sallie, who played high school basketball at Sacramento (Calif.) Valley High, initially committed to Washington. But he needed to raise his SAT score and improve his grades, so he enrolled at North Carolina's Laurinburg Prep, where he played with current teammates Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier. Sallie moved on the following season to the Patterson School, where he played with current teammate Pierre Henderson-Niles.

After passing his standardized test, Sallie committed to Nebraska and reportedly began attending classes. But the NCAA, which had been reviewing legitimacy of prep schools across the country, denied his transcript.

Through it all, Sallie said there were plenty of times he contemplated never playing basketball again, but he did not seriously consider quitting. After Nebraska fell through, Sallie's next stop was the City College of San Francisco, where he said he earned a 3.0 grade-point average in one academic year.

"After you get denied, you have to wait another year or face another obstacle to get where you need to go," Sallie said. "When in junior college, I took 17 units a semester to get out in a year. I wanted to show the NCAA, okay, you didn't think the work was mine, look what I did now."

Sallie next thought he was headed back to Nebraska to finally play Division I basketball. But a Big 12 rule states that players cannot return to a conference school after they have been denied eligibility.

"I was ticked off," Sallie said. "That was the second time I had done everything I needed to do to get into college and something came up. Things opened up, and I came to Memphis."

Anderson said that is when Sallie called him and said he was not going to Nebraska and was planning to take visits to Cincinnati and Kentucky. Anderson said, "Hold on, let me talk to Coach Cal."

So Anderson called Coach John Calipari and recalled saying, "He can help us. He can really shoot the ball."

After he arrived this season, success came slowly. The 6-foot-5 Sallie said he had trouble picking up the dribble-drive motion offense. There were issues with his defense at first. And Calipari got on Sallie for not playing well in games early in the day, saying that he was in a "coma in the morning."

That's all changed with one performance. After making 10 of 15 three-point attempts, Sallie has changed opponents' scouting reports and immediately got the attention of Maryland Coach Gary Williams, who said, "Obviously we are aware of that now."

After wondering whether his opportunity would ever come, Sallie now has a different perspective.

"If I didn't have this long journey," Sallie said, "I wouldn't be here right now."

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