OSU's Jared Sullinger: smooth moves
He's a thinking man's basketball player, just the way his father brought him up to be
Up by only four on the road, 5:30 left in what should have been a throwaway conference game against an unranked team unqualified to be this close, Jared Sullinger steps to the line. He's not thinking, not the way he should. He doesn't hear the regular voices in his ears. He doesn't hear the voice in his head.
He misses the free throw.
A minute later, the same thing. This time, the lead has shrunk to two. And now, the last free throw is in his head. Sullinger is trying to hear past the insanity of a Northwestern University crowd attempting to frustrate him. But they don't know him. They don't know how routine this is.
He misses both free throws.
Score tied now with three seconds left, and Sullinger is (what else?) fouled. He steps to the line once more. This time he is thinking. Maybe too much. He's never been the type of kid -- or player -- to get caught up in moments like this. He's penguin cool. Fridgitte Bardot.
He misses the free throw.
As the ref hands him the ball for the second shot, the crowd goes into a We're about to beat the No.1 team in the country for the first time in school history kind of euphoria. And at this moment, Sullinger hears his brothers, J.J. and Julian, and his mother. They're screaming at him. Yet, they are not here inside Welsh-Ryan Arena.
And then he hears another voice.
"He heard me saying to him," Satch Sullinger, his father, says two days later, "'One smooth movement.'"
Satch wasn't at the game, either. But he knows the Jedi training he put his son through. He knows that when those times arrive, it will all come back to Jared. Obi Wan to Luke.
One smooth movement.
Net pierced. Free throw made. 58-57. :03, :02, :01, a missed desperation 3 by Northwestern's Drew Crawford, :00. Game over.
Ohio State University remains undefeated. Ohio State University retains its top spot in AP's Top 25 and the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. And Jared Sullinger maintains his position as the player a basketball nation of thousands has to go through to win an NCAA title this year.
The heir to the empire has arrived.
On the back of Sullinger's shoes is the message: "#TEAMSULLY." This is where our story begins.
"[It] means his mother, his dad, his brothers and his uncle," Satch says. "It means when we are not there, he can look down at his shoes and know that we are there with him."
Like Tiger's dad? No, like a Tiger Dad, only he and his wife, Barbara, used basketball rather than a piano or a violin to shape the three young black men they raised. They used basketball to help instill the discipline, help to turn their boys into men. To find themselves. To survive.
Satch has preached his "TD Jakes" to every kid he's coached over the past 30 years. But Satch and Barbara's youngest son, it seems, is the one we will all learn from in the end. Jared is the one who has taken those homegrown life lessons farther (and maybe more to heart) than anyone else.
He is arguably the No. 1 player in the country, on inarguably the No. 1 team. Halfway through the college basketball season and only two others (Jimmer Fredette of BYU and Kemba Walker of UConn) seem to be close to challenging Jared for POY honors.
And in what seemed like "upset week" in college basketball, in which five top-10 teams (Kansas, Pitt, Duke, Connecticut and BYU) lost, Sullinger, at the line to shoot that last free throw in Evanston, didn't succumb to the pressure that has folded lesser players.
"I know this is kind of off-topic," he tells me in the middle of a conversation while he's sitting on a stationary bike after the Northwestern game. "In high school [Northland High in Columbus], to being No. 1 in the country [there], to winning a whole bunch of games, and then coming to college and then being No. 1 in the country, I mean, I've pretty much had a taste of the target [on my back]. I just never had a taste of it to the point where you go to other environments and it's sold out and, it's it's a great feeling but I was already battle-tested before I came here."
It'd been two years since I'd last seen him. And although a lot -- rewind: a LOT -- has happened, not much has changed. Not in him.
His voice still holds the squeaky innocence of a kid who isn't supposed to be a 6-foot-9, 270-pound man-child treating college basketball as a right-to-bypass instead of a right-of-passage into the NBA.
His genuineness is still the same. His sincerity, still the same.
He remains the same kid he was two years ago, laid-back in Nancy's Home Cooking Cafeteria just off the Ohio State campus, when he told me this day would come: He'd be a Buckeye, playing ball, loving college, outshining his brother's legacy. (J.J. was one of the captains of OSU's 2007 squad that lost to Joakim Noah and the University of Florida in the national championship game.)
While not even thinking about the NBA.
At 16, Sullinger saw all of this. Saw exactly what we are witnessing. But at 18, he is not allowed to think past the moment in which he is living right now. Team Sully don't play that.
"With Satch Sullinger as your father, you have no choice but to stay in the moment," Jared says. "As soon as you step outside of the moment, you either get smacked upside the head or cursed out in text messages."
"You see," Satch says in a phone conversation, "too many people have used that college uniform as an audition uniform. The only way, I believe, you can be successful is by staying in the moment and not auditioning for something else. Jared is having fun. 'Yesterday is history, tomorrow's a mystery, today is a gift that's why they call it the present.' That's what I always tell him. That's why we stay in the present [moment]. It all starts with the seconds God gives you, Scoop. God is not going to give my son this time in his life back."
The image in the sports section cover story of Jan. 18's USA Today is of Sullinger, lying on his back. He's laid-back. That's just who he is, never what he does. Nothing fazes him. In the story, he is called a "phenom."
What, though, is the difference between a "phenom" and a kid who is just a helluva ballplayer? A kid who can straight hoop better than anyone in the country at his level? An 18-year-old who will not be the next Kevin Durant -- honestly, no one can score like that -- but could easily be the second coming of Tim Duncan? (Same game. Sullinger is just a smaller, thicker version.)
A kid who in the next two years (if we remove ourselves from the present for this) could be doing things in the league on a DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love and (when healthy) Carlos Boozer level. Depending, of course, on whether he enters the draft this year, which in part depends on whether there's a lockout in the NBA.
But there's something else. Something that puts Sullinger's basketball purpose into a powerful yet more personal perspective, one that isn't being discussed openly just yet because it makes him the final piece to an unsolved puzzle.
Look past the peripherals of the best player in college basketball and into the beginning of how his immediate future can play out. If Team Sully makes "the decision" that a one-and-done is the smartest option, look at how -- if everything aligns and every obstacle falls away -- Sullinger could do something even more significant than lead the Buckeyes to that one shining moment.
Think Ohio. Think basketball. Think LeBron James. Not the player, but the way the player entered the NBA. Think of how history -- in the oddest, strangest, most karmic of ways -- might be in repeat mode. Think of the door that's been left open.
A high school kid from Ohio (this time, Columbus), recognized nationally in his sophomore year, wins a state title as a junior and takes his team the next season all across the country to claim top ranking in the land according to the publications that hand out that infamous mythical national high school championship title. The kid is honored as the Naismith High School Player of the Year. Wins co-MVP of the McDonald's All-American game.
The kid then goes to play for his hometown team (this time, college). The rules work in his favor, this time making him play at least one year of college ball. Allowing the world (and scouts around the NBA) to see what they wouldn't if the kid been able to enter the league fresh from prom, to see that regardless of who comes out for the draft this year, he will be without question the "best player available."
Now, the kid's home state team (Cleveland) is on a 22-game losing streak and has the worst record in the NBA. Very much like it was in 2002-03, creating a very déjà vu-ish scenario to the one that presented itself eight years ago when the last basketball "prodigy" from the state of Ohio stepped into the arena.
With me so far? Déjà vu-ish, right?
One smooth movement.
Dan Gilbert couldn't get this lucky. Or could he?
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.
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