Commentary

Sullinger no stranger to the comeback

Updated: December 17, 2009, 12:33 PM ET
By Ryan Canner-O'Mealy | ESPN RISE

This story appeared in the NE Ohio and Greater Cincy of the November ESPN RISE Magazine.

How would you handle the pressure?

Not just run-of-the-mill, algebra-pop-quiz pressure. We're talking about the kind that would make some of the world's best professional athletes fold.

It's the Ohio Division I state championship. The game is tied at 58 with 2.7 seconds on the clock and you're at the line for three free throws. More than 12,000 people are in the stands watching. And to top it all off, you're on the court at Ohio State, the school where you'll be playing in two years.

If you're Jared Sullinger, it's exactly where you want to be.

"I want to be the one who determines if we win or lose," he says.

Sullinger isn't like the rest of us. For one, the Columbus (Columbus, Ohio) Northland senior power forward stands 6-foot-9, 260 pounds and is the best basketball player in Ohio. Rated the No. 2 recruit in the ESPNU 100, Sullinger has been thriving under pressure his whole career. That's what happens when you grow up getting challenged daily by two older brothers who would go on to play D-I ball. When your father is your coach. And when you commit to the Buckeyes as a freshman, putting a Greg Oden-sized bull's-eye on your back at age 15.

So when Sullinger stepped to the line for the biggest shots of his career, he was ready.

He took the ball from the referee, went through his routine -- deep breath, three dribbles, spin the ball, bend knees, pause and shoot -- and watched the first shot bounce around the rim and in. Then he did it again. He missed the third shot intentionally so Princeton wouldn't have time to set up a play.

Princeton misfired on a prayer at the buzzer and Northland triumphed, 60-58, behind Sullinger's 15 points and 11 rebounds. For Sullinger, it was sweet redemption, one year in the making.

***

How would you handle the humiliation?

Not just run-of-the-mill, turned-down-for-the-prom humiliation. We're talking about public embarrassment, the kind that's talked about in newspapers and on Internet message boards for weeks. The kind that some people don't recover from.

[+] EnlargeCleveland RISE Cover
ESPN RISE MagazineJared Sullinger is the No. 2 ranked player in the ESPNU 100 and is headed to Ohio State.

It came in Sullinger's sophomore year, when he was in the midst of a second consecutive dominant campaign. Averaging 19 points a game, Sullinger led Northland to a 21-0 record heading into a district semifinal game against Westerville South.

There was only one problem: Sullinger had been falling behind in his schoolwork, blowing off homework assignments and slacking off in class. He landed on academic probation and was given plenty of chances to get his act together, but the message wasn't getting through. So Satch Sullinger took a stand. Some schools and coaches might be willing to let academics slide on the eve of a big game, but not Satch. Working double duty as Sullinger's coach and father, it was a no-brainer for Satch.

Sullinger would sit.

"What am I going to do?" Satch asks. "Either he's running the show or the program is going to stand for something." First, Sullinger was angry, questioning his dad's move and punching lockers in the school gym. And when Northland lost to Westerville South, 67-59, he was heartbroken.

"I cried in the locker room after that game," Sullinger says. "And I vowed to all the returning players that I would lead them to a state championship the next year."

Since then, Sullinger has gone from academic probation to the honor roll. On the court, he's played like a man possessed. He averaged 20.4 points, 14.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game as a junior while delivering on his promise.

And on the final play of the state title game against Princeton, he took over. With 7.5 seconds left and the game tied at 58, Northland was in a timeout, getting ready to inbound the ball at halfcourt. Satch was drawing up a play when his son spoke out.

"My dad is in the middle of the huddle calling a play and I say, 'Give me the ball,'" Sullinger says. "It's probably the rudest thing I've ever done on the court. At first, he yelled at me, but I said it again. He stepped back, erased the board and drew up a play for me."

"When it's crunch time, I see the look," Satch says. "I don't know how to describe it, but I know it when I see it."

***

How would you handle the expectations?

Not just run-of-the-mill, your-mom-and-dad-want-you-on-the-honor-roll expectations. We're talking about the whole state watching, with players from all over eager to make a name against you.

What can Sullinger do for an encore after winning Ohio's Mr. Basketball and a state title in such dramatic fashion as a junior?

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
Riku+Anna\ESPN RISESullinger posted a double-double in leading Columbus (Columbus, Ohio) Northland to the Division I state title.

"I don't know how we can top it, but we'd like to do it again," he says.

Then there's college, where many expect Sullinger to be the latest in Ohio State's freshman-turned-NBA-draft-pick assembly line.

The last three top-ranked big men who played for the Buckeyes -- Oden, Kosta Koufos and B.J. Mullens -- spent one year in Columbus before moving on to NBA riches. That's a tough legacy to live up to, especially since Sullinger is the lone sub-7-footer in the group.

"People ask me all the time if I'm going to be the next one-and-done," he says. "But I don't think about that. I just want to win a college national championship, however long it takes."

Before joining the Buckeyes, Sullinger hopes to have plenty more experience at their home gym.

On March 27, the Division I state championship game will be held at Ohio State's Value City Arena. Four days later, the gym will host the McDonald's All-American Game.

Odds are, Sullinger will be starring in both. His team is favored to repeat as state champ, and barring injury he's a lock to be in the McDonald's game on the 31st.

As Sullinger's career has proved, a lot can happen between now and then.

But one thing is certain. If he gets there, he's going to handle it just fine.

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