Big Kid On Campus
SLAM 147: With his old-man game, Jared Sullinger has Ohio State primed for a Final Four run.
by David Cassilo
A few years ago, on a summer day in Columbus, OH, a 16-year-old named Jared Sullinger went toe-to-toe against Greg Oden, and no one in the building ever forgot it. Like with most legends, this story is repeated with a different spin from every player in the gym. When you piece them all together, you start to find out how it went down.
Like he’d been doing since the day he began to walk, Jared had tagged along to the gym with his big brother JJ that day. Among those joining them would be future NBA players like Evan Turner, Mike Conley Jr, and, of course, Oden.
But while the gym was full of world-class talent, the game quickly became about two players—the baby-faced Jared and the ever-rugged Oden. And this was the “selected before Kevin Durant” Oden, before his body began consistently betraying him.
As the two went back and forth, it became obvious that the high schooler was getting the best of the former No. 1 overall pick, knocking down jumpers and giving Oden drop steps, jump hooks and post-ups.
“Greg definitely taught him a few things here and there, but he did really good for a 16-year-old kid,” Turner says.
At one point, Jared had hit four buckets in a row, and that was more than enough for Oden. The next time down the floor, GO called for the ball, muscled the kid out of the way and dunked it on him, hard. Some say he even slapped the glass and screamed.
“It was kind of like a reminder, saying, You are still in high school,” JJ recalls. “Basically, everyone else took it as, We see that you know Jared is getting the absolute best of you.”
Just two years later, Jared is doing to every frontcourt in the country what he did to Oden. Just a freshman for Ohio State, he’s a contender for National Player of the Year and is the leading scorer on the last college basketball team to lose this season.
While you might be tempted to call him the most dominating big man in the country, he’d prefer you call him a big kid. “I don’t like grown-up stuff,” Jared says, while wearing socks on his hands and sporting a handmade paper-clip earring. “I’m a child, and I’m going to have fun ’til the day I die.”
It’s that mentality that is as important to Ohio State’s success this season as what he does down in the post. In addition to being perhaps the nation’s best team, the Buckeyes are also one of the loosest, partly because Jared is constantly making sure that his teammates are having a good time.
“He’s always playing around, jumping on people and tackling people,” senior guard David Lighty says. “He’s too big for that.”
But even at 6-9 and 280 pounds, Jared doesn’t seem to be too big for anything. He tweets about missing episodes of Disney’s Phineas & Ferb, drinks Capri Sun at family parties, prides himself on being able to hide three months worth of dirty laundry and enjoys pulling pranks on his older brothers, JJ and Julian.
“When we’re all at home sitting around, he walks by me and pulls my pants down,” JJ says. “I get pissed off, but I gotta step back and think he’s only being an 18-year-old kid.”
The youngest of Barbara and James Sullinger’s three children, Jared will forever be the little kid in the eyes of the rest of his family. He’s the 3-year-old who could hit a free throw and the 5-year-old who would routinely knock down three-pointers.
Being a member of Columbus’ first family of basketball, he had a lot of help along the way. His oldest brother JJ played college ball at Ohio State and in ’06 told Head Coach Thad Matta he’d be making a big mistake if he didn’t recruit Jared. The middle child, Julian, played four years at Kent State. The two made sure to foul their younger brother almost every time he got the ball in pickup games, toughening him up for the abuse he would figure to see in his later years.
“He gets fouled pretty hard now because he’s so big, but it doesn’t seem to bother him too much simply because he’s used to it,” JJ says.
Jared’s father, a long-time coach who goes by “Satch,” has spent the last 10 seasons at Northland High School, where Jared played. An adherent to fundamentals, he’s been teaching his youngest son the proper drop step since he was 2 years old.
Then there’s Jared’s mother, Barbara, the tough-as-nails Brooklyn native who makes sure basketball talk and the dinner table remain mutually exclusive. “My mom is one person you don’t want to mess with,” Jared says. “She will knock you out without a problem.”
Along with that toughness, Jared thinks his mom gave him a few physical attributes that have led to his success as a post player. “I got a big ol’ butt from my mom,” Jared says, “and I got my long arms from her, too.”
While the butt, the arms, the drop step and the ability to take a hack had him aware that he was better than the rest of the kids his age by the time he was 5 years old, it was not until Jared was 15 that he was able to put that all together and do something he never could do before: beat JJ one-on-one. Jared knows the exact date and location that this monumental event took place—August 23, 2007, at Life Time Fitness in Columbus. (JJ contends that he was wearing flip-flops for the game. “Don’t let him lie to you,” Jared says. “He wasn’t in flip flops.”)
The whole family was there, of course, with Mom and Dad having to referee because of the brothers’ tendency to argue. It came down to the last bucket, and Jared threw up an 18-foot fade-away jumper that JJ points out “went off the glass” before it dropped through the net. After it went in, Jared took a victory lap around the court to rub it in big brother’s face.
On January 29, Jared terrorized Northwestern for 21 points, 8 rebounds and a game-winning free throw with three seconds left. Afterward he sat on an exercise bike for no particular reason and joked around with reporters.
“On the court, he’s a man amongst boys,” JJ says.” But off the court, he’s a gentle giant.”
Yet it doesn’t take much for that playful demeanor of Jared’s to morph into the nastiest post disposition in the country. “It’s an automatic switch that I’ve had since I was young,” Jared says. “On the court, I try to carry myself as a man and just play like a man.”
Jared conveys the same passion discussing how to be a great offensive rebounder as he does while explaining why he loves Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock” video. He’ll boast to you as much about being able to pass out of a double team as he does about having every Jay-Z album on his iPod. He’s a senior mixed with a freshman with a dash of each Sullinger thrown in. Combined, this makes Jared the big kid on campus who will make sure there’s plenty of madness in Columbus this March.