Commentary

Jared Sullinger's hoops roots run deep

Updated: February 3, 2011, 1:03 PM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When Barbara Sullinger was pregnant with her third child, her husband would hold his hand to her expanding belly.

Nothing. No kick, no reaction.

He'd try a football.

More disinterest.

Baseball, tennis ball, teddy bear? Forget it.

And then Satch Sullinger grabbed a basketball and presented it to his soon-to-be born son.

"They said I started kicking like crazy,'' Jared Sullinger said.

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesJared Sullinger hasn't always been able to dunk, but a basketball has been in his hands his whole life.

Family tall tale? Maybe.

But as Satch Sullinger sagely remarked while sitting in the lobby of the high school where his youngest son put himself on the map, "The gene pool is a powerful thing."

And the Sullingers are swimming in a pool three generations deep in basketball.

When super freshman Jared Sullinger suits up for Ohio State, he carries something even more precious than the heft of the Buckeyes' No. 1 ranking and undefeated record.

He carries his family's name.

And in Columbus, the Sullinger family name means something.

"That name runs deep here,'' said former Ohio State star and Columbus native Michael Redd, now with the Milwaukee Bucks. "There's a reputation associated with it. People know who the Sullingers are and how they are. The Sullingers are about basketball.''


It started with the Suitcase.

Yes, that's Suitcase with a capital S.

In the 1920s and 30s, many years before Jackie Robinson would cross the racial barriers of sports, the Sioux City Colored Ghosts barnstormed the country, entertaining audiences with their skills and showmanship.

A sort of precursor to the Harlem Globetrotters, the all-African-American team originally was put together as a fast-pitch softball team but eventually added basketball to keep the act going year-round.

And like the Globetrotters, everyone had nicknames: Oats Fields, String Bean Potts, Tree Collins.

Harold Sullinger went by "Suitcase."

"He had big hands, enormous hands,'' Satch Sullinger said of his dad. "So he was Suitcase, Suitcase Sully.''

Suitcase eventually got married, settled in Columbus and had two sons, James and younger brother Harold Jr.

Following in the Suitcase's tradition, James became Satch -- short for Satchel -- and Harold Jr. became Briefcase, which ultimately was shortened to Brief.

The boys, of course, played basketball. Satch led Oberlin College to a conference title in 1976 and Brief, who moved to Camden, N.J., after his parents divorced, became a Dapper Dan All-American at Woodrow Wilson High School. His coach was a young guy named Gary Williams, who was just starting on a path that would ultimately take him to a 22-year career at Maryland.

Brief played two seasons at Iowa before joining the Marines.

After he was honorably discharged, Brief moved back to Columbus, where he worked as a Realtor until his death in December.

Satch stuck with the family game, becoming a coach. Aside from three years at his alma mater, he has made his mark in the high schools, the last 10 at Northland High.

Jared Sullinger
Photo courtesy Satch SullingerThrough the years, basketball has truly been a way of life in the Sullinger household.

And along the way came the next generation, a family of boys who knew nothing other than basketball.

"I mean, it wasn't forced on us, but that was our game,'' Jared said.

His oldest son, J.J., starred at Thomas Worthington High and, after two years at Arkansas, transferred to Ohio State. Julian played for his dad at Northland before winning three Mid-American Conference crowns at Kent State.

And now it is Jared's turn, the player Satch says might be the best of all.

"Him or Brief,'' Satch said. "Now Brief, you gotta understand, he was a bad man on the basketball court.''

The boys got plenty of schooling from their elders.

Uncle Brief, as the boys called him, was a regular in the stands, sitting alongside his brother to cheer and offer advice.

"I remember after a game when I picked up two quick fouls, Uncle Brief told me to go after the shooting hand, to swipe at that,'' Jared Sullinger said. "I did that in a game against IUPUI and the whole time I was thinking about Uncle Brief.''

But Satch and Brief had more to offer than just game tips.

They imparted their one simple principle, the one that Suitcase handed to them: respect. Respect the game. Respect yourself. Respect others.

"I always told the boys if you win a game and those people aren't in the stands, what does it mean?'' Satch said. "It means more because of the people who are watching. You owe them your time. You owe them your attention. When you're with them, they need to be the most important thing at that moment and if you don't feel like talking or being with them, then stay home and eat your baloney and chips. Don't fake it.''

Wildly demanding and equally stern, Satch lived by his words, famously benching Jared for not completing his homework before a district semifinal game.

Northland lost the game, as Satch knew they probably would, but he didn't care. He told his son he'd rather lose without him than win with him under the circumstances.

Jared Sullinger
Photo courtesy Satch SullingerJared and Satch Sullinger shared an emotional brace on senior night at Northland High.

In Columbus, Satch is known for that reputation as much as his successes. And by proxy, Jared is known for it as well.

"The Sullinger name is synonymous with basketball, but it's also synonymous with the sort of values people here want kids to have and their athletes to have,'' said Ron Stokes, a former Buckeye captain who is now the game analyst for the team's radio broadcasts. "Anybody wants guys who work hard and are unselfish. But they also want good kids, players they can be proud of.''

The only thing the second basketball-playing Sullinger generation failed to pass on was its penchant for nicknaming.

"We tried to call J.J. 'Duff' for duffle bag,'' Satch Sullinger laughed. "It didn't stick.''

So there is no Backpack Sullinger, no Messenger Bag, not even a Man Purse.

"If I was a girl," Jared Sullinger noted. "I know I'd be Purse."


Sitting atop the rankings and parading an undefeated record into February, the Ohio State Buckeyes may be the biggest thing in college basketball right now, but they aren't the biggest thing in Columbus.

"Oh, it's still a football school and this is a football town,'' said Kevin, a longtime season-ticket holder who was grabbing a beer with some friends at the High Beck Tavern before a recent game. "I'm not sure it will ever catch up.''

When the Buckeyes hosted Purdue a week ago, a showdown of the best in the Big Ten, the Schottenstein Center wasn't entirely full. Granted, the seats remaining weren't the greatest -- up somewhere in the nether reaches of the atmosphere and on an end line -- but they were available. And they were empty.

So Jared Sullinger, all 6-foot-9, 280 pounds of him, could have gone somewhere where he would have been more than just the literal big man on campus.

He could have gone to a school where basketball is king, where people are so desperate for basketball tickets that they camp out.

Except then he wouldn't be in Columbus.

Then he wouldn't be home.

"I'm a product of Columbus. I love when people say that about me,'' Jared said. "I think people here appreciate me because they know me. When they tell me 'good game' or want to talk to me, it's not like they just figured out who I was. They know me. It's genuine.''

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Sullinger
AP Photo/Kiichiro SatoJ.J. was the first Sullinger to play under Thad Matta at Ohio State.

And so rather than running from a place where he is still often referred to as "Little J.J." or "Little Satch," Jared embraced it. He loves that the Sullinger name means something here, that people know where he comes from and more, who he comes from.

He calls his older brothers his heroes -- "one is the Green Lantern and the other is Captain America, that's how I look at them,'' he said -- and was never more proud than the moment he first donned an Ohio State uniform, intentionally choosing 0, the same number J.J. wore as a Buckeye.

Yet at the tender age of 18, Jared has mastered the tricky tightrope that some grown-ups never figure out: How to be proud of where you come from but still be your own person.

And Jared is most certainly his own person.

He is proud of his pink phone case and doesn't mind telling you that, in his dorm room, his clothes hang on pink hangers and he showers behind a pink shower curtain.

"I used to have a pink pillow that I took to games,'' he volunteered. "But it turned brown so I had to get rid of it.''

He is also the ringleader for perhaps the loosest No. 1 team since those Joakim Noah-led Florida Gators.

Jared famously starred in the Miley Cyrus sing-along video that turned Aaron Craft into basketball version's of William Hung and he is a proud practical joker who loves to pour hand sanitizer in his teammates' shoes or switch up their car keys.

"I'm just a big kid,'' he said. "I want to be taken seriously on the court but I don't want to be a man too fast. That may not seem like it makes sense but it does to me.''

His father gets it. Satch understands how his son can be the very definition of a man-child, walking the path of the man in one instant while clinging to the route of the child.

Jared was a big deal in high school, naturally. Winning 94 games and losing just three will do that to a guy. Winning trophies for yourself and your team doesn't hurt that way, either.

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
Paul Abell/Getty ImagesDespite his many accolades, Sullinger has remained humble and close to his parents

Somehow, though, Jared never got that hard, too-cool-for-school exterior postured by most teenage boys, let alone teenage prodigies.

As proof, Satch pulls out his phone (no, it is not pink). He flips through the pictures until he settles on the one he is searching for. It was taken after a Northland game a year ago. Satch and Jared are in the bleachers watching the JV team play.

Satch has his arm around Jared and Jared is laying his head on his dad's shoulder, almost snuggling there.

"How many 17-year-old boys do that?" Satch said, shaking his head as he looks at the picture. "I love that picture. He's this big deal to so many people, but he's still my little boy."


That zero on Jared Sullinger's back? It might as well be a bull's-eye.

Everyone knows the stat by now: No team has gone from start to championship without a loss since Bob Knight's Indiana team in 1976. No one has entered the NCAA tournament unblemished since Jerry Tarkanian's UNLV Runnin Rebels in 1991.

In fact, over the past eight seasons, only four teams have carried a goose egg in the L column into February -- Saint Joseph's in 2004 (lost March 11), Illinois in 2005 (lost March 6), Memphis in 2008 (lost Feb. 23) and now Ohio State.

And so with each passing game, with each added victory, the burden grows on Jared's broad shoulders.

It is not so much people wondering: Can the Buckeyes go undefeated? It's more like: When will they lose?

It would be hard to bear anywhere, but carrying the hopes of your university in your hometown only ups the ante.

"To play at home and to be a success is incredible,'' Redd said. "But of course because people know you, they expect more.''

That's nothing new for Jared Sullinger, though.

People have been expecting big things from him since before he was born.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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