The Wild Ride Of Slice Rohrssen, College Basketball's Great Persuader
Barry "Slice" Rohrssen has acted in movies and managed hot NYC nightclubs, but hoops has always been his heart. Now he's the best recruiter in college basketball.
Photo by Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports
Barry Rohrssen cuts an imposing figure on the St. John's sideline. The assistant coach is nearly always outfitted in a three-piece suit, and stands well over six feet tall; his broad frame underlines his reputation as a fierce rebounder who used to wear sneakers instead of Italian leather. That he's known by players and coaches alike as "Slice" perfectly completes the picture.
The other important thing to know about Rohrssen is that he is arguably better at what he does than anyone else in college basketball. His job is simple and secret. He is the guy who gets players, from three-star recruits to the most NBA-ready of prospects. Outside of Kentucky's John Calipari and a handful of other coaches, Rohrssen is the game's most well-connected recruiter.
"There are only a few guys who can do what Slice does in recruiting," says Greg 'Shoes' Vetrone, a Rutgers assistant who was on UNLV's staff with Rohrssen in the mid-1990s. "When I was coaching, I would walk into a gym, look to my left and see the coaches I can handle, and then look to my right and say, 'Oh shit, that guy is here?' Slice is always on the right."
Rohrssen has been an assistant all across the Division I map, from his alma mater St. Francis in Brooklyn to Las Vegas and Pittsburgh. His only head coaching stint, at Manhattan, ended with his firing in 2011. He reunited with Calipari, his former Five Star Camp roommate, at Kentucky last season, a job he described in his introductory press conference as "a dream come true."
But last spring, though, Rohrssen left the Valhalla of coaching staffs for St. John's. Chris Mullin, one of his oldest and best friends, had been hired to resurrect the Red Storm program, and as Rohrssen told the New York Times, "when Mully says he needs me, I'm there." Bailing on a dream job to help rehabilitate a floundering Big East program is an unconventional career choice, but Rohrssen has had an unconventional career and an unconventional life. It makes sense that his next chapter would unfold in New York.
Most of Rohrssen's coaching peers joined the profession immediately after their playing careers were done. Rohrssen didn't return to the game until he was in his mid-30s. Before that, he lived in New York City, where he managed one of the city's hottest nightclubs, and paid his bills by acting in commercials and whatever film and TV jobs he could get.
While he's now out of the acting business, Rohrssen remains a forceful communicator, a skill that has served him well in all of his coaching jobs. When Rohrssen wants to make a point, he tends to lean forward in his seat. In this instance, he did so and began to methodically tap the table between us, in the St. John's coaches offices, with his finger. "Acting is a craft, and I am respectful of that craft," he says. "Personally, I acted because I found acting more interesting that collecting stamps and coins. I've had one of the more blessed lives ever, but basketball was always a career. This is what I wanted to do for as long as I wanted to think about it."
Rohrssen is a Brooklyn native, born and raised in the heart of Park Slope, but his obsession with the game took him around the city, to wherever the competition was best. As a teenager in the mid-1970s, that meant traveling to the Manhattan Beach courts in Sheepshead Bay. There were three courts, and new arrivals had to start on the furthest court from the park's entrance. "If you could play a bit, maybe you got to the second court," says Rohrssen. "And then when people start to know you, then you got to the court where you first walked in. It took me a few years to get to that first court."
Engineer a NYC player from scratch, and Rohrssen is the result: attacks the basket hard, leaper who can sky for tip-ins, tough as shit on defense, mostly can't shoot. Even his nickname comes from his ability to slice through defenders with his 40-inch vertical leap. Those Sheepshead Bay courts are where he first met Mullin, running fives with him or killing time between games and eating an Italian combo hero from nearby Jimmy's Famous Heroes.
Rohrssen's mom once saw, but didn't recognize, the future NBA All-Star at a Bay Ridge photo shoot. She complimented Mullin on his beautiful dribbling, and said if he practiced hard enough, he could become as good as her son. His mother did not do any more scouting, but while Rohrssen quickly realized he would never be as good as Mullin, he had some game. He played forward at St. Francis, a low-major Division I school in downtown Brooklyn, but knew the NBA wasn't in his future. For a while, he bounced around overseas, and had a cup of Gatorade in Israel. After that, he had a short stint with the Washington Generals; his tryout included playing one-on-one with Red Klotz.
During his summers, Rohrssen would work the legendary Five Star camp. For someone who wanted to get into coaching, the camp was a dream scenario. He met dozens of future college and NBA coaches at the Pittsburgh-based camp, including Calipari and Bill Bayno; Howard Garfinkel, the camp's founder, became an early mentor. "He's one of my all-time favorites, and a terrific person," says Garfinkel about Rohrssen. "But he wasn't going to be a player, so he went his own way." The money to be made in coaching wasn't enough for Rohrssen. He decided to do something else.
While in college in the early 1980s, Rohrssen had worked intermittently as a doorman at Magique, a Midtown East club that opened in the wake of Studio 54's initial closing. According to Morris Levy, a former promoter who publicized parties at the two-story venue, "Magique was one of the hottest dance clubs in the city. It had this oval dance floor in the middle of the room. Every celebrity migrated there."
What better job for a man in his early twenties than working at a nightclub, let alone one with a custom laser lighting system and a famous clientele? "It was just part time job," says Rohrssen. "My priorities were school and basketball, so this was to have some employment. Just maybe a bit different than working at Starbucks."
According to Bayno, who recently was an assistant with the Toronto Raptors, "Slice knew he would make more money working nights at a club than he would as a small-time assistant."
And that's the shape Rohrssen's life took. He'd play ball at the Cage on West 4th Street or at the Downtown Athletic Club on West Street throughout the afternoon, and then work nights. "It fit at the time, and I had the opportunity to play against college level guys in my 20s," he says. His success at Magique—"Barry is a sweetheart, but he is a silent, tough guy type," says Levy—led to other jobs within the city's nightlife scene.
"Fortunately, someone told me to major in business in college," says Rohrssen. "I had a good background for running a business." He also had the thousand-yard stare that born-and-bred New Yorkers possess, and there was this new nightclub in Chelsea that had opened a year or so prior and needed an experienced doorman. Rohrssen was the right man for this very specialized job.
While the Club Kids were still a few years away from invading Peter Gatien's Limelight, the converted church was still the place to party in the mid-1980s. Rohrssen was a perfect fit. "Because of my hard work and background, I ended up managing Limelight," says Rohrssen. "It fit at the time, but it wasn't something that I wished to settle into. I know that, and I understood it while I was living it."
But his gig made for an undeniably nice perk when his coaching friends came through town to recruit various NYC-area high schools. Limelight became the go-to nighttime destination for Calipari, Bayno, and Fran Fraschilla, among other coaches, who wanted to kick back after spending all day journeying to high school games at Tolentine in the Bronx or Archbishop Molloy in Queens. "Barry has got an incredible gift for getting along with people," says Fraschilla, an ESPN analyst and former St. John's coach. Fraschilla grew up with Rohrssen and was an assistant at Ohio University during Rohrssen's Limelight tenure. "Since many of us recruited the city, and were young, single guys, the Limelight was a natural place to go," he says. "We knew Barry, and we knew he would get us into the club."
Sometimes, Rohrssen would skip his afternoon pick-up runs and join Calipari on recruiting trips. Mostly, though, he saw his future peers at night. "Everyone liked Barry," says Bayno. "And because he was there, Limelight became very popular for any college coach recruiting the city."
It was at Limelight that Rohrssen began his transition from nightlife to acting. A then-unknown Chazz Palminteri replaced Rohrssen as the club's doorman, and one night Mike Starr, himself still an unknown, visited Palminteri at Limelight. The two were in a play well off Broadway, and Palminteri wanted Starr to meet his boss.
Starr was then a struggling actor—he would eventually accumulate nearly 200 acting credits, including roles in Dumb and Dumber and Summer of Sam—and soon he and Rohrssen began attending casting calls together. In the late 1980s, casting directors, especially those casting commercials, were looking for athletic looking actors. During the previous decade, what Starr called "skinny guys who didn't look like athletes" were being hired for football or basketball scenes, and casting directors had noticed that the inauthenticity grated on the audience.
Franklin Martin also attended those same casting calls. "Basketball players were in high demand then," he says. "And if you landed one, they were easy money. I remember Slice and I both tried out for an Olympic commercial in 1988."
Starr's connections paid off for Rohrssen. "I told Barry, 'I am going to introduce you to my friend, Peter,'" Starr says. "And Peter will say, 'I need a white guy who is 6-4 and can dunk.' Sure enough, Barry meets Peter and introduces himself as a former college basketball player, and Peter asks, 'Can he dunk?' Barry thought I set him up."
"I think that was for Arby's," Rohrssen says. Even though the commercials boosted his income, he didn't consider it a viable career path. "It was just a byproduct of being in New York," he says. "Things were going well, and I just happened to be in a place, or a situation, or had opportunities that put me in front of people in that world."
Rohrssen again put his head for business to use by networking, and playing some first base, at weekly Central Park softball games with actors like Starr; a diverse crew—diverse enough to include both Meat Loaf and Al Pacino—also played in the games.
"You'd find yourself in front of a director, or a producer, and they say, 'Hey we'd like to see you for this part,'" says Rohrssen, who claims his first commercial was happenstance. While waiting for Palminteri to audition as a catcher in a baseball commercial, a casting director saw him and told him that his tryout was next. "She just thought I was the next guy in. She pulled me into the thing, and then boom," he says. "I was just being myself, but people always saw some kind of resemblance."
His peers, coaches and actors alike, would say that Rohrssen was being too modest. "Barry never had to pretend," says Fraschilla, "because he has a gift of personality that comes from who he is. He never needed acting lessons."
Rohrssen's commercials are impossible to find, relegated to dust-covered VCR bins in storage unit sales, but his film reel is available. His debut was Glengarry Glen Ross, James Foley's adaptation of David Mamet's legendary play about capitalism, desperation, and real estate salesmanship. Rohrssen considers the role his acting highlight. Perched atop a desk in Kevin Spacey's office, Rohrssen was cast as a non-speaking assistant detective; he has often joked that you miss him if you left the theater to get popcorn. In the credits, his name is misspelled as Barry Rossen.
He has three other credits, not including a documentary about Kevin Laue, a one-armed center who played for Rohrssen at Manhattan. There was Maverick Square, a 1990 TV pilot set in east Boston starring Michael Chiklis in which Rohrssen played Bobby The Butcher. "Just like in every neighborhood or town, there was a butcher shop, and I guess I looked like a butcher in east Boston," he says.
He then acted in A Novel Romance, a 2011 rom-com with Steve Guttenberg and Shannon Elizabeth. Rohrssen appears in one scene, a friendly flag football game that turns rough when he starts talking trash. "He was very good in that scene," says Morris Levy, the former New York club promoter who produced the film, "and I really think he would have acted more—he loves to get involved."
His latest film, 2014's Affluenza, opened right after he accepted the Kentucky job. While the film is loosely based on The Great Gatsby, it's set during the past recession; Rohrssen helped produce the film, and has a role as a detective. The movie has a 20 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. "I did see A Novel Romance, and I liked that one, but I never saw Affluenza," says Rohrssen. "I was actually busy and working on other stuff."
By the time Glengarry Glen Ross hit theaters in 1992, Rohrssen was in his early thirties and itching for a career change. It was, finally, time to get into coaching. "Who's to say Maverick Square doesn't become a hit, and I have a recurring part?" says Rohrssen. "I would still wind up coaching. If we would have shot it in Boston, I would have been at Boston College's practices once a week. The Boston Celtics' practices once a week."
Rohrssen had a conversation with a friend from the neighborhood who also needed an assistant: Ron Ganulin, then the head coach at St. Francis Brooklyn. That was the start of his departure from what had then been his bubble—Rohrssen left the nightlife world behind, with barely a toe dipped in the acting scene and a SAG card he dusted off annually "just to keep it active."
From there, he reunited with Bayno, his longtime friend, who had just been hired as head coach at UNLV. Rohrssen then followed Ben Howland back east to Pittsburgh, where he created a fruitful Big Apple-to-Steel City pipeline, landing recruits like Carl Krauser, Levance Fields, and Ronald Ramon, who helped turn Pittsburgh into a brawny Big East power. "Slice has his own way of talking," Krauser says. "When he is into the game, he's into the game, and I still remember him walking up and down the sidelines, saying, 'Let's get these motherfuckers!'"
Rohrssen stayed at Pitt for much of the 2000s before finally getting his first head coaching job at Manhattan in 2006, a job he kept for four seasons.
Now at St. John's, he has come full circle. "I say this respectfully to the people are trying to act, it isn't something I pursue anymore," he ssays. As if to prove a point, following our conversation, Rohrssen comes back into the office, pantomimes see? and shows me his caller ID—Larry Brown of SMU is on the phone.
"I wasn't settled in," Rohrssen said at one point while laying out his winding life's story. "I didn't say this is what I am going to do, and this is what I want to do. I had always known I was going to coach one day." In Queens, alongside his old pickup running partner and in the only job he ever really wanted, Rohrssen is finally home.
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