NBA: Sullinger quietly making an impression

Former Ohio State star adjusts to life away from family, Columbus

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Eamon Queeney | Dispatch
Jared Sullinger, right, and teammate Avery Bradley listen to Celtics coach Doc Rivers during a game against the Pistons.

BIRMINGHAM, Mich. — Tone-deaf to the call of the wild, Jared Sullinger squeezed into a bistro booth far removed from the advertised glitz of NBA life on the road.

The clock approached midnight. Instead of a club scene on this Saturday night, the Boston Celtics rookie took comfort in a late meal with his family.

At Jared’s behest, Barbara and Satch Sullinger had driven to suburban Detroit from their home in Columbus — the same three-bedroom house in which they raised Jared and his two older brothers — on the eve of Boston’s recent game against the Pistons.

Their middle son, Julian, also made the trip, along with his girlfriend and the young couple’s 21-month-old daughter, who ate the same meal of chicken tenders and french fries ordered by uncle Jared, a two-time Ohio State All-American.

Sullinger, 20, remains a child at heart. During the summer, before he left Columbus for Boston, the family threw a party featuring soda for the adults and juice for the five Sullinger grandchildren.

“Jared was just tearing into the juice boxes,” said eldest son J.J. Sullinger, an Ohio State basketball player from 2003 to ’06, who joined the family later on the trip. “I’m like, ‘Jared, you gotta leave some of those for the kids, man.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I am a kid.’ ”

All 6 feet 9 of the kid is doing a man’s job as the top inside reserve for the Celtics, who in June took Sullinger in the first round of the NBA draft. He quickly earned the team’s trust and respect, and his increased playing time and production during January have been a bright spot on an inconsistent club.

“He’s been great,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s been what you saw at Ohio State. Jared is Jared; he does what he does. He rebounds. He makes shots. He’s a terrific passer. He’s still adjusting to the NBA speed at times, but he’s figuring it out.”

Sullinger also is absorbing life away from Columbus for the first time. He’s happy, settled into an apartment, living his childhood dream.

Still, he admits to missing his hometown and an Ohio State team that he led to the Final Four last year.

“It’s hard to cut the cord just because of how much those guys — the coaches, my teammates and the whole university — did for me,” Sullinger said. “I feel like that university changed my life.”& amp; amp; amp; amp; amp; lt; /p>

His love for Ohio State prompted him to drive to East Lansing, Mich., after Boston’s team flight landed in Detroit. Sullinger tried to talk his way inside the Breslin Center as the Buckeyes lost at Michigan State. Security wouldn’t budge.

He did, however, get to see Michigan guard Trey Burke, his longtime friend, during a stop in Ann Arbor. The spur-of-the-moment visit with his former Northland High School teammate required Sullinger’s parents to wait for him for dinner.

No problem. They hadn’t seen Jared since spending six days with him in Boston before Christmas. They have had to cheer from afar, watching his games on television.

“I’m talking to the television,” Barbara Sullinger said. “I’m yelling like I’m at the game.”

The Sullinger parents, like their youngest son, are in a period of adjustment. The other boys have long been gone from home. Jared left the house two years ago for Ohio State, but he remained in town.

Not now.

The house, which had light fixtures that used to rattle from the boys’ games, has been quiet. Too quiet.

“He’s the last of the Mohicans,” said Satch Sullinger, who coached Jared at Northland and still teaches there. “It’s hard to let that last one go. It’s an empty nest. Everything changed when he left. It’s an awkward stage. He misses us and loves us, but he also wants his distance, too.”

As dinner wound down, their son needed something else, too.

He had a list of grocery items that veteran teammates had ordered him to buy for them.

“Hey, Mom: Will you go to CVS for my rookie duties?” Jared said.

Barbara didn’t answer.

“Text me the list,” Satch said.

Embracing the game

Satch Sullinger leaned his 6-foot-8 frame onto a grocery cart and waded through a crowded Kroger.

“Jared sounded like he needed this stuff yesterday,” he said.

Boston’s lone rookie had to produce the products requested by the team’s big three — All-Stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo — and other players before the Detroit game started in seven hours.

“Let’s see, I’m looking for peanut butter,” said Satch, who coached in and around Columbus from 1983 to 2010 at East, Beechcroft, Reynoldsburg, Northland and Oberlin College.

Satch, 63, has forever taught his son in a booming voice to do the dirty work without complaint. Rebound. Set picks. Find the open man.

So if you’re Dad, you also assist your son by finding the wheat bread, jelly, and soap. And pick up the $48 tab.

“I’m nothing but another rookie,” Satch said.

The Celtics don’t think of his son that way. Pierce said Sullinger should be invited to the NBA All-Star weekend to participate in the game between rookies and second-year players.

“He has good basketball intelligence,” Pierce said. “He picks up things quickly. He’s played 40-something games now. His confidence has grown. There’s nothing like getting in-game experience to figure out the NBA. He’s seeing what it takes.”

Garnett, a 15-time All-Star, immediately took to Sullinger, deeming the rookie worthy of the wisdom garnered from 1,300 NBA games in 18 seasons. They have become close.

“He’s a good kid,” Garnett said. “He comes from a well-rounded family. He listens. He works hard. He keeps to himself, but as I’ve gotten to know him, I’ve been very impressed with his work ethic for a young guy. He’s not a real loud person, but with his play, he’s very vocal. He wants to be heard with his actions.”

Sullinger also earned Garnett’s attention by not retreating — just as he used to come back for more punishment against J.J. and Julian in their ultracompetitive childhood games.

Jared credits his tenacity and discipline to his mother, an algebra teacher at South High School. His No. 7 jersey honors her birth month of July. He can recite all the “Satchisms” preached by Dad. The older brothers paved a good path, and many others swaddled him with love.

“The values I learned from them were put into one pot and made me,” Sullinger said. “I understand those values are pretty big. They taught me what to do, what not to do, who to associate with, who you don’t associate with, what’s right, what’s wrong. I think all those people played a big-time part in me being here.”

Now he’s trying to navigate more on his own, which, he acknowledged, isn’t easy on his parents.

“One day they’re going to realize I’m grown up. I’m out there paying my own bills,” Sullinger said. “I’m never going to reject them or flat-out tell them to leave me alone. But every now and then, there might be a time when I don’t call them for a week. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think about them.”

The brother 10 years older than Jared has run interference.

“My dad wanted to talk to him about everything under the moon,” J.J. said. “I said, ‘Dad, we’ve got to let him do his job. We’ve got to let Jared be Jared. He’s got to be able to come home from work. At some point, he just has to be Jared our son, our brother.’ That’s the biggest adjustment for us.”

On his lone trip to Boston this season, the former coach asked his son whether he could watch a Celtics practice.

“Jared said, ‘Oh no,’ ” Satch said. “He said, ‘There are no other dads there, and I’m not going to be the first on the team to ask if his dad can come.’ I said: ‘No problem. Just tell me where I can fit in.’ ”

So a few weeks later, after dropping off groceries to Jared’s hotel room, Satch sat alone in a hotel lobby.

“This is game day. I back off,” Satch said. “He might want to rest and do his ritual and routine. He needs to do what he does if we were not here.”

Loosening up on the court

On the court later that night, Rondo drove the lane and clanged a shot. Sullinger snared a rebound in his huge hands.

No one was near him. Tweet went a whistle.

The referee called Sullinger for a foul, sending three people into shrieks nine rows up from the court in section 101 of The Palace of Auburn Hills.

“Nooooo!” J.J. yelled . “He didn’t do nothing! He’s gotta box him out, ref!”

“He did nothing!” Satch yelled. “That’s totally ridiculous!”

“We need a make-up call!” Barbara added.

The Celtics needed more than that.

They staggered through a dismal 103-88 loss to the Pistons, and Rivers ripped his team to the media before heading to Cleveland to complete a two-game trip.

Sullinger’s seven points and seven rebounds were a little down from his performances since a breakout game of 16 points at Brooklyn three weeks earlier. He has since had highlights of 16 rebounds against Phoenix, 15 rebounds against Chicago, and 14 points and 11 rebounds at Houston.

“Before my first NBA game, I was thinking: ‘Don’t make a mistake. Don’t make a mistake.’ ” Sullinger said. “When I kept thinking that, I kept making mistakes. Ever since the Brooklyn game on Christmas Day, I’ve just been going out there and playing basketball. I think that’s what has made me play really well.”

Sullinger was projected to be a top-five pick after his freshman season, but he returned to Ohio State. He was supposed to be drafted in the top 10 after his sophomore year, until a physical at an NBA predraft camp detected a bulging disc in his back. He slid to Boston at No. 21.

“I think it was a blessing, though,” Sullinger said at the team hotel in Cleveland. “Everything is working out perfectly. I’m very happy.”

Happy even though the $2.6 million in the first two guaranteed years of his contract is about $2 million less than he would have received if he had been drafted No. 10.

More important than money to Sullinger is the comfort he feels on a team with wise and accepting players, several with NBA title rings. The Celtics feel like family. Every day, he asks questions of teammates, especially Garnett.

“You can learn a lot of stuff from one crystal ball of knowledge,” Sullinger said.

A night later, he showed how much.

Managing the ‘roller coaster’

Sullinger looked at home in his first NBA game in Ohio. He hit the Cleveland Cavaliers for 10 points and eight rebounds in 14 minutes during the first half, and finished with 12 and 10.

But he also fouled out, continuing a problem that has hampered him in his first season.

“They’re not letting the kid play,” Rivers said. “He plays hard and aggressive like everyone else on the floor, but he’s a rookie.”

His sixth and final foul occurred with 22.8 seconds remaining, the Celtics down three. Sullinger slid into defensive position as Cleveland All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving drove the lane. The All-Star got the call.

Irving made the basket and added a free throw, part of his 40 points in a 95-90 Cavaliers victory.

The fourth consecutive loss dropped Boston to 20-21.

Sullinger isn’t used to losing. His Northland teams went 95-4 and won a state championship. His last three AAU teams went 201-9 with three national titles. OSU went 65-11 in his two seasons.

“I’m trying to find how to ride the roller coaster,” Sullinger said.

Even Mom was frustrated.

“It was winnable, but they just couldn’t pull it out,” Barbara said. “Losing is tough.”

She would replay the game in her mind on the drive home to Columbus, where a 5:30 a.m. wakeup call awaited. No off days for teachers.

A hometown group of about 20, dressed more in green than Ireland, mingled at Quicken Loans Arena. Jared received a postgame hug from a family friend.

“You look good,” Keith Bell said. “I’m very proud of you.”

“Thank you, sir,” Sullinger said.

The rookie commiserated about the loss with his brothers and friends. They found reasons to smile. Jared laughed with his 9-year-old nephew. Mom and Dad were hawk-eyed but provided their son space.

A Celtics official announced that it was time to go. A flight to Boston beckoned — as did another game in two days.

Sullinger, in jeans and a hoodie, walked up to his mom and kissed her forehead. They exchanged whispers.

Father and son slapped hands.

“I love you, boy,” Satch said.

“I love you, too, Pops,” Jared said.

“I know you do,” Satch said.

tjones@dispatch.com

@Todd_Jones

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