Fixing the Pros
He fixed Dwight Howard’s shot. You can see Tim “The Target” Sullivan coaching Howard in the YouTube video below. Howard makes free throw after free throw, then a series of three-point shots. It’s remarkable. Howard’s mom was at the session. “After we were done,” Sullivan says, “she came down from the bleachers, grabbed my arm, squeezed it and said, ‘“You fixed my baby!’”
The Howard session was Sullivan’s big shot. He’d been working toward this moment his entire life. If he fixed Howard, he’d be the most sought after shooting coach in the country, and he’d have financial security. Most of all, he’d finally get what he desired: respect. Sullivan knew a permanent fix would require more training sessions, but he proved to Howard that his system worked. After the audition, Sullivan waited and waited, but didn’t get a callback from Howard or an explanation why. This rejection has haunted him. He has ruminated on the reasons. What could he have done differently? To this day, he believes he could have fixed Howard.
I first met Sullivan at the 2009 NBA Draft Combine at Attack Athletics in Chicago. I was doing an article for SLAM on athletic testing. As part of the article, I went through the same tests as the athletes. When I finished my last test, the lane agility drill, I heard a shout: “Do you want to learn to shoot?” It was coming from the court where the players had been going through the basketball skills portion of the NBA Combine. I turned, and looking straight at me was a guy holding a basketball. I looked around, thinking he couldn’t be talking to me. He held out the basketball and repeated the question: “Do you want to learn to shoot?” He looked like a coach. He was wearing red basketball shorts (with white stripes and blue stars), a 2009 NBA Draft Combine shirt (a little too big for him), and Nike basketball shoes (not the latest model).
“Sure,” I said.
He introduced himself as, “Tim ‘The Target’ Sullivan” and tossed me the ball. “Take a few of shots, so I can see your form,” he said. He analyzed my stroke, and began a 20-minute session, taking me through a crash course in what he called his “schema.” He used different shooting tools. He put an elastic band on my arm. The band had beads that could be adjusted to align with my joints: wrist, elbow and shoulder. “Align the beads in a straight line as you aim your arm at the basket to shoot,” he instructed me. Later in the session, he placed a piece of foam he designed between my fingers. It separated the two fingers (ring and index) that released the ball, creating a stable foundation to launch the shot. He called this shooting tool, “the Splitter.”
As I started to make more shots, Sullivan kept building me up. I couldn’t help but smile when he said, “The basket’s too big for him. Time out! The other team has to call a time! How can we stop this guy?” By the end of the session, several people were watching and smiling, as I made shot after shot. Sure, I’d miss, but then I’d make six or seven in a row, miss, then go on another little run of shots. After a series of makes, he announced, “Kurt’s ready for the Draft,” ending the session.
Sullivan and I stayed in contact over the years. I helped him get some private clients in New York City, so I’d see him occasionally. Before the Howard session, he told me he was going to Los Angeles to work with Dwight. He was excited. Then, after his failed audition in 2012, he quit calling.
The Hunger Strike Texts: Part One
The next time he reached out was in November 2014. He sounded both desperate and manic on the phone. His life was falling apart. He was living in a tiny apartment in Perry, New York, a small upstate town. All his utilities had been shut off in the midst of a late fall Arctic blast. He was using candles for light and layers of clothing and blankets for heat. This was a side of Sullivan I had never seen. He explained that he was on the verge of being locked up for not paying child support, which meant he would be labeled “A Deadbeat Dad.” The only thing Sullivan loved more than basketball was his daughter, Hannah. He also told me, without any setup or fanfare, that he was on a hunger strike.
He explained his situation. A former client owed him money for coaching sessions. He would use the money to pay off the $5,000 he owed in child support. He was not going to eat until this client paid him. Over the last four days, he had been sending rambling texts to this client to inform him of his hunger strike. I was also getting the texts.
Day 4: I can’t sleep. It is 9 degrees in the house. Spiders fight for the warmth of my body. I now know near body death. God let’s go back to the places and times. I have no choice. Crucifixion is empowerment. My departure is more the musing of the surreal that consoles me… The memory of the green blue couch that as a boy I greeted with the fast hard smell of Grandma… I believe I’m closer to all those before, ready to make a passage, scary and lonely… My grandma is here and teary my eyes. She loves me sooooo. It is so hard here. I don’t want to leave Hannah. I never fit in here as spiders bite my body…
I had witnessed his focus and determination on the court; I could feel the same commitment to the hunger strike. Sullivan never backed away from long shots. His life was a long shot. Holed up in his rented room, Sullivan was determined to collect the money and pay his court debt or die. He gave me the contact information for the client and asked me to make a call on his behalf (since his own calls and texts were not being answered). I called, leaving an awkward, rambling message about calling on Sullivan’s behalf and explaining how we first met. I figured the chances were slim to none that his former client would return my call.
With each day Sullivan got skinnier, colder and more delirious and desperate. If Sullivan was a betting man, he would have doubled down that he would not be alive as 2015 rolled in. Sullivan, a devout Catholic, was pretty sure the only one listening and the only one who cared was God. Knowing that Sullivan was a devout Catholic, I Googled “Catholic churches in Perry,” thinking they could do an intervention if necessary. I wrote down the number of St. Joseph’s on Park Street. As I would find out later, the reasons for the hunger strike were complex and went way back, starting with a premature birth. Sullivan had a rough start. He was born at five months with fetal alcohol syndrome.
To understand how Tim “The Target” Sullivan ended up hunkered down in a hunger strike requires a closer look at his personal history. Sullivan and his two brothers grew up in Batavia (upstate New York). They were all good athletes. His brothers also excelled in school, but Sullivan struggled with academics. He suffered from a collection of learning disabilities and biochemical challenges: obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Tourette Syndrome and bouts of mania. To some degree, he was able to productively channel these issues when he practiced sports.
Sports helped Sullivan control his demons. He constantly tried to conquer physical challenges. “Sully would do it for hours; it started when he was around 10. He’d grab a branch from a tree and go out in this open field and hit rocks with the branch,” John Biegas, a childhood friend of Sullivan says. “He’d nail every rock. Small crowds would gather to watch him hit rock after rock after rock, sending them sailing. He’d do it till his hands bled. It was something to see. But I’ve seen Sully do all sorts of amazing athletic feats. Forget about it when it comes to shooting a basketball. It’s like he never misses.”
Because his father was a wrestling coach and Sullivan was small, his athletic skills first began to shine as a grappler. “I wrestled since I could walk. I had a cauliflower ear operation when I was in third grade. I was scrappy. I didn’t lose a match until eighth grade. After I lost that match, I quit. I lost to the kid because he was stronger. I was skinny and I thought I’d always be weak, so I figured I’d always lose to the stronger kids. In my mind, once I lost that match, my wrestling career was over. I also knew I wanted to play basketball.” The reasons for quitting wrestling were more than a single loss. It also involved creating a safe buffer against his father.
Having given up on the idea of becoming a champion wrestler, his mind was now free from trying to figure out the tangling of body parts and the leverage angles on joints. Instead, he began to focus on the trajectory of objects and their intended targets. Most of the time this meant basketballs, but not always. Although he was a good boy, Sullivan also had a mischievous streak and a twinkle in his bright blue eyes. His impish side and his obsession with hitting targets collided in his eighth grade religion class at St. Mary’s Middle School.
The target on this afternoon was his teacher, Sister Anthoniel. As she gave a lecture on a bible story, the words buzzed by Sullivan, as he thought about a physics problem from a previous class. “I was sitting at my desk in the third row, thinking about launching projectiles. I loved Sister Anthoniel. She seemed a little OCD like me, very particular and cute and fun to tease. So, even though I wasn’t really listening, I couldn’t take my eyes off her as she talked. As I watched, I pondered Newton’s Laws of Motion from Physics class.” Sullivan was imagining how missiles hit their targets. When you stop and ponder the miracles of science, it’s both humbling and wondrous. It takes a kind of mischievous conjurer or mathematical magician to harness the power of nature to one’s own ends, to make a missile travel hundreds of miles and hit its intended target.
Sullivan had that kind of imagination. As the Sister Anthoniel talked, he loaded a wad of paper on a rubber band that was supported by his index and middle finger, calculating trajectory and distance. “I knew I had to keep my fingers and the rubber band level as I aimed and released the wad of paper.” He let the paper ammo fly at the cute, fast-talking nun he had a little crush on. “It twanged her right in the nose. I don’t know why I did it though, because I knew exactly where I’d hit her. I guess I just needed proof. I didn’t think she’d catch me, but I finally admitted to it, because she said if the person didn’t come forward the whole class would be punished. She told my dad and I knew I was in big trouble.”
Sullivan’s father was just a rock’s throw away at Notre Dame High School where he was a teacher and coach. The punishment was swift and severe. He talked to Sullivan’s basketball coach, convincing him to kick Sullivan off the team, kind of. His father requested that he stay on the team and practice, but he wouldn’t be allowed to suit up for games. Just when Sullivan had made up his mind to be a basketball player, he had to watch all the games from the bench and focus on being a hardworking team member in practice.
“That was a killer. But it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” Sullivan said.
Watching from the bench, he started to analyze the shot. He had a chance to study it, the way a coach would. This planted the seed for what would become his life’s passion. As a basketball player, all the way through his high school years, Sullivan struggled on the court and spent most of his time on the bench. He was a good shooter, but he couldn’t understand the traveling rule. “I traveled all the time. I just couldn’t’ figure it out or I’d get too excited. But I was great at taking charges. All the coaches were great, but I sat on the bench most of the time, because when I got the ball it was an automatic violation.”
The teenage years were rough for Sullivan. A combination of his learning disorders and severe outbreaks of acne left him feeling like an outsider and a misfit. “A big social event at St. Mary’s Middle School was Friday night bowling,” Sullivan said. “I loved to bowl, but I’d never go. I felt too socially awkward. I didn’t like myself as a kid, not ever. I was picked on, too. So I’d go in the gym and shoot baskets. The gym would be empty on Friday nights and it was a peaceful escape. Even back then I knew there had to be a reason why I made a shot and why I missed. If I made one shot, shouldn’t I be able to make every one? In the gym, shooting, the torture of my mental challenges disappeared, along with my teenage anguish.”
Sullivan’s home life was even tougher. In initial conversations, Sullivan would only describe his father in idealistic terms: a multisport athlete at Hobart College and the beloved wrestling coach and teacher. His father died of cancer during Sullivan’s junior year in high school. But, over time, Sullivan began to tell another story about his father, not the greatest father in the world story. Besides being a teacher and coach, his father, a larger than life personality, was the headwaiter at a popular local restaurant, so everyone in town knew him. He had been Errol Flynn’s stunt man. He had gotten shot in the ass by a harpoon in World War ll. He was also a raging alcoholic.
“When he died, I was glad. I loved him, but I was glad,” Sullivan said. “Cause I was scared of him. I was so scared of him, I didn’t want to even dream about him. For 40 nights after he died, I prayed to God to not let me dream about him. Then on the 41st night, I said, I’m ready. That night he came to me in a dream, his face was large as the moon with a big smile on it. Then I knew it was all right. He was so good at everything. I try to mimic him. I channel him.”
Sullivan’s older brother, Sean, explained their family’s challenges: “We lost the mother we knew and needed to debilitating depression and bipolar disorder when I was 10 (Sullivan was 8). Our father died of cancer, but we lost him to alcohol and severe depression much sooner. By the time I was 16, our family had come apart. I did not ask for the help we needed. I was embarrassed that these things were happening in our family. I didn’t understand the options available, and I was too caught in my own fear and shame to find out. I told myself we could handle all of this by ourselves. But I was wrong.”
After graduating from the Notre Dame Academy in Batavia, Sullivan got a college scholarship to Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, not for sports, but a special needs scholarship, based on his learning disabilities and his academic potential. It was like a get out-of-jail-free card.
During his junior year at Canisius, Sullivan joined the basketball team, the Golden Griffins, a mid-level Division I team, as a walk-on and got some playing time in his senior year. “I didn’t miss a shot my senior year,” Sullivan said proudly. “Well, OK, one half-courter at the buzzer. But, besides that, I went 4-4 and 8-8 from the line, 16 points. The crowd used to chant my name, ‘Sully, Sully, Sully’, trying to persuade the coach to put me in. I was an animal on defense. I’d always take a charge. It was a little embarrassing. I didn’t want to upstage anybody on the team. At the awards banquet my senior year, they gave me this award called, ‘The Unsung Hero Award.’ It meant the world to me.”
In his hometown, people believe Sullivan fabricates or exaggerates when he tells stories, and as he told me the story of his senior year at Canisius, I must admit it seemed fanciful and maybe a bit imaginative (chanting his name, Sully), especially since his point totals were so low. I tracked down his head coach when he was at Canisius, Nick Macarchuk. Macarchuk’s last job was as head coach at Stony Brook University, where he retired in 2013. He had a long career—26 years as a Division I head coach. He was elected into the New England Coach’s Hall of Fame in 2004. I called the Sports Information Director at Stony Brook to set up a phone interview.
After a little basketball small talk about his career and his college playing days, I brought up Sullivan, saying, “It was over 30 years ago, but do you remember a walk-on named Tim Sullivan when you coached at Canisius?” I expected a puzzled response.
“Oh yes,” he said, without missing a beat, “Sully was a great kid. He had a special love for basketball. He wasn’t tall or exceptionally quick, but he could shoot.”
“Do you remember if he won an award his senior year, something called ‘The Unsung Hero Award?’”
“Yes. He got The Unsung Hero Award at the sports banquet at the end of the season. We only gave out a few awards: the MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and The Unsung Hero Award.”
“Did they chant his name to try to get you to put him in the game?” I asked the question timidly, feeling a little foolish, again expecting a puzzled response.
“Oh yeah, he was a crowd favorite and they would chant for him. If I didn’t put him in the game the crowd would get after me.”
The fanciful becomes the factual.
After Canisius, Sullivan went to graduate school at the United States Sports Academy (USSA), where he studied sports science and coaching. “I had to understand why we make and why we miss, and to do this I needed to understand how the human body works, all the different systems: muscular, skeletal, neurological, physiological. USSA gave me this knowledge,” Sullivan said. He took this knowledge and began to build his shooting system. “I had been shooting mostly by heart, repetition. I needed a complete system to coach and become the best, so I started to apply math and physics. I studied pictures and videos of basketball players going all the way back to the 1940s. I broke down famous makes and misses. I applied math and physics: launch projectile, photon band connectivity, standard deviation tolerance. I put a mathematical grid on the shots, showing the deviation tolerance on makes and misses. It’s the math of getting inside the basket. My board members are Euclid, Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, and Jesus is my chairman of the board. I broke down Chalmers’ game winning shot in the NCAA Championships for Men’s Health, explaining why it went in.”
Then Sullivan asks, almost rhetorically, “Through my research, who had the best shot, the most biomechanically efficient form?” He immediately answers his question: “Jerry West.” It makes sense, since he’s the NBA logo. “When I’m shooting at a camp, sometimes I’ll say out loud, ‘Albert, did I do all right?’ ‘Mr. Newton, how was my math on that shot?’ Or ‘Thank you Jesus, Chairman of the Board.’ Step-by-step I built my schema for the shot. It’s about understanding everything that happens between the shooter and the basket—everything that can go wrong and what needs to go right. Shooting is my savior. Being on the court and trying to figure out why a player makes or misses gives me peace.”
It was this sensitivity and the challenges Sullivan had as a kid and as an adult that makes him a great coach. “Sometimes people don’t like themselves for whatever chemical makeup they have inside. They don’t have a great serotonin release. They have depression. I felt like I sucked at life. I couldn’t walk in a public place because I thought people could see those thoughts inside me. I’ve gone to great doctors. I’m on medications that help, but they don’t ultimately solve the problem. They help me manage. When I’m shooting or coaching, I don’t think about those things, and I don’t let kids feel those things. People have to succeed at something to feel like they want to live. People die because they don’t have a place to go in their mind. I can sit and get joy and peace out of imagining shooting the perfect shot over and over and over.”
One of the young players Sullivan effected was Jason McElwain. McElwain was an upstate kid from Rochester who attended Sullivan’s camps. McElwain was a special case. He was diagnosed with autism at three. He loved basketball and became the manager for his high school team (Greece Athena High School). His senior year he became a household name, thanks to his coach’s plan.
Coach Jim Johnson added McElwain to the roster for the team’s final home game. This allowed McElwain to wear a jersey and sit on the end of the bench. Johnson wanted to play McElwain for a few minutes, if the team got comfortable lead. With four minutes left, his team’s advantage ballooned into a double-digits, so Johnson put McElwain in the game. McElwain, his nickname was JMac, attempted a three-point shot and missed. He got a second chance to score, but missed a lay-up. McElwain then caught fire, sinking six three-pointers in a row and one two-point shot, scoring 20 points in less than four minutes. When the final buzzer rang, fans stormed the court in celebration.
McElwain would go on to win a 2006 ESPY Award for the Best Sports Moment of the year and became an inspiration to thousands around the country. “I don’t take credit for what JMac did,” Sullivan said. “But we had a special connection, because we both had to overcome special challenges. And he really picked up the schema. I wasn’t surprised.”
As Sullivan’s shooting system began getting results with young athletes, his career as a coach took off with regular gigs at camps and local schools. Word spread as people saw him shoot, making shot after shot, talking out loud to Einstein or Newton or God, turning clinics into performance art. “The truth is,” Sullivan says, “I had the schema in my body and when I’d shoot I’d hardly ever miss. And, if I had the schema in my body, then I should be the best.” Having a good Catholic education, Sullivan created his own version of a Thomas Aquinas proof for the existence of God, but his was a proof for making the open look. He reasoned: “If the schema is in my body and the schema is the truth, then I am the best. If I am the best, I should be able to prove I am the best. If I’m not the best shooter, then my schema isn’t correct and I should take a job at Walmart. I needed to put myself to the test. There was this shooting contest called Still Hoopin, featuring some of the best shooters in the world. First prize was $25,000, so I entered the contest.”
For the 2009 contest, the prize money attracted former NBA legends: Glenn Rice, Dale Ellis, Hersey Hawkins, as well as world famous shooting coach and legendary sharp shooter Ed Palubinskas, who was considered one of the best shooters in the world. “When I saw who was in the contest,” Sullivan said, “I regretted putting so much pressure on myself and making the stakes so high. I was a nobody, no one had heard of me.”
Sullivan won the Still Hoopin contest.
He had cinched victory when he still had six shots left. It was important for him to win by a landslide. He swished the last six.
Winning the contest put Sullivan on the map as a shooting coach. He got invitations to major camps. He did the Syracuse camps under legendary coach Jim Boeheim. He even worked with Boeheim’s kids. Sullivan also started working with the Syracuse players after they declared for the draft. “Syracuse assistant coach, Mike Hopkins, would open up the Carrier Dome on the weekends and I’d work with these players, including Michael Carter-Williams, to help him get ready for the Draft.”
Sullivan’s body of work—the clinics, winning the shooting contest, the Syracuse connection—led to his big break. He was hired at Attack Athletics in 2009 as the shooting coach by Tim Grover. At the time, Attack Athletics had the reputation of being the leading basketball training facility in the country, and Grover was, arguably, basketball’s most famous strength coach. He gained this title by being Michael Jordan’s strength coach during his days of dominance with the Bulls. After Jordan, his clients have included Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant. Grover parlayed these associations into a flourishing career.
At Attack Athletics, Sullivan offered nuggets of shooting advice to the parade of players who worked out in the gym. The regulars included Michael Finley, Antoine Walker, Juwan Howard, Tracy McGrady, and Gilbert Arenas. The players called Sullivan “Powder,” after the lead character in a movie of the same name. In the movie, Powder was an outcast albino boy who had magical powers because his mother was struck by lightning when she was pregnant with him. Powder was also a little touched and different, but noble.
Sullivan and Grover have a complex relationship. Grover has always championed Sullivan and at times each has been frustrated with the relationship. “I met Tim when he reached out to me in 2008 via email,” Grover said. “He had so many ideas and concepts about shooting, very scientifically-based, most of them completely different than anything anyone was doing at that time. In my experience, all shooting coaches are just off…completely obsessive about this one thing. That’s Tim. He’s so focused on this one skill, which is what makes him so good at what he does.”
Grover and Sullivan continued to stay in touch. They began collaborating on a shooting tool. “When Sullivan came to Attack Athletics, he showed me this shooting aid he fashioned out of tape and foam,” Grover said. “He used it to separate and train the two shooting fingers, helping a player get a clean and stable release of the ball. I watched him use it with players and it really worked. So I took it to the sports science lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago and did some kinesiology testing on it. Then Target and I took the idea into beta testing, using it on a variety of players. After the testing phase, I worked on the design and manufacturing to make it a viable product to bring to market. Now we sell it as a training tool. Tim was, and is, an important partner with this product.”
During period Sullivan was also building a long-term coaching relationship with Ali Fitzgerald. He began coaching her when she was in fifth grade. Her father, Bob Fitzgerald, was a supportive dad, who skillfully managed his daughter’s athletic development. Fitzgerald was on her way to becoming one of the best young shooters in the country and Sullivan was on his way to becoming one of the nation’s top shooting coaches when he got the Howard audition offer. Bob Fitzgerald paid for Sullivan’s ticket to Los Angeles for the Dwight Howard session.
Wine Coolers and Driving Under the Influence
Sullivan filled in the backstory about his missing years after the mysterious Howard failure. He was depressed, feeling that his one big chance had clanked off the rim. He told everybody he was going to fix Howard, and when he returned home, the locals ridiculed him and called him a fraud. They even taunted him about the Splytter, saying his name wasn’t on the website, saying it was one hundred percent Grover and zero percent Target Tim. Sullivan’s weakness was wine coolers. He started drinking.
Sullivan recalls the night of the drunk driving arrest. His drinking was out of control. “That night, I had gone to a basketball tournament to watch Ali Fitzgerald play (more on Ali in next section). I was drinking wine coolers in the car before I went in. I walked into the gym drunk. I wasn’t even thinking about the game. All I was thinking about was getting back out to the car and drinking more. After the game, I was supposed to meet Bob Fitzgerald (more on Fitzgerald in next section) for dinner, but he couldn’t make it. So, I’m eating alone, watching a game on TV. Howard is playing. The Lakers are playing the Spurs. The announcer says after Howard misses both free throws: ‘Isn’t there anyone out there who can fix that guy?’ Now, I’m screaming inside.”
Sullivan replays his afternoon with Howard over and over, trying to answer the question, “Why didn’t Howard hire me?” When Sullivan struggles to answer this question, recounting the process, it’s as if a clear answer might magically appear during this retelling. The words come out fast, almost as if by rote:
“I put the beads on him, got him straight, then we worked on his distance control. Howard’s hands are so big and the basket is so small. I totally get the relativity and difficulty of something bigger handling a smaller object. It’s like trying to shoot baskets and dribble with a tennis ball. Steve Nash worked with a tennis ball to improve his ball handling skills. So I take him back to the three-point line to shoot. This increases the amplitude of what he has to do, so he can feel it better. After three minutes, I tell him flat out, you got it. Now you can make every shot. Then I see his agent on the phone, making calls, and he gives me this strange look. I go from believing I was going to be his shooting coach to thinking I’m a fake.”
Working through the Rockets media representatives, I made several attempts, without success, to talk to Howard about Sullivan. It remains a mystery. Sullivan makes it clear that Howard is not responsible for his drinking.
After the Lakers and Spurs game, Sullivan started drinking heavy. “I get lit up. I figure I’ll sleep in the car. It was a rental. I get in the car and all I can think is I want to go home. I start driving, but I figure I’m not doing very well and I should pull over. I look in the rear view mirror and a police car is behind me, lights going. I’m done. I don’t know what it was, but the police are really nice to me. They take me to the station for two hours and talk to me about everything. Then they gave me DWAI (Driving While Ability Impaired by Alcohol), which is a less severe charge. The police tell me they knew I was doing bad. Still, the charge sets you up to go down. I can’t drive to clinics. I can’t pay my phone bill. Everyone knows if you’re on a bike or walking, you must have a drunk driving violation. So I ran everywhere, no one sees me walk. Every time I go to the store, I run. I don’t look side to side. I only look straight ahead.”
Sullivan rose from rock bottom in July 2013. It was the second summer session at the Syracuse basketball camps. It was around eight o’clock and starting to get dark. Sullivan was walking out of the Carrier Dome. He had fallen earlier in the week and cut his face. As he walks to his car, he hears, “Yo Tim. Yo Tim.”
Sullivan turned around. It’s Gene Waldron. Waldron was a Syracuse standout in the early 1980s. In 1983, he hit 13 of 17 shots, scoring 40 points against Iona in the Carrier Classic Championship, earning the tournament MVP. At the time he graduated, Waldron was second All-Time in assists at Syracuse. Waldron tells Sullivan, “You ain’t the same. You’re all wishy-washy. Look at your face. It’s cut.” Then he asks Sullivan, “How’s your sobriety?”
“What he did to me in that moment,” Sullivan says, “is he went right into my brain and heart. He told me how he drank his life away. That man did something. The way he looked at me clicked something off as fast as it started. Now I’m free of all that. Since that day, I have not had a drop.”
Sullivan kicked the wine coolers, but losing his license set him back financially and affected his ability to pay child support.
Hunger Strikes Texts: Part 2
The drunk driving spiral was humiliating, but the deadbeat dad charge, dropped Sullivan to an all-time low. It cut as deep as a cut can go. This was his daughter. It was bigger than basketball. As the days pass, the arctic freeze does not lift and neither has Sullivan’s resolve not to eat. Sullivan also reveals the client he claimed didn’t pay. It was Bob Fitzgerald, the father of his long-term client, Ali Fitzgerald. The hunger strike reaches day eight.
Day 8: I never failed. Put Michael Carter-Williams and Tim Sullivan in Google. Tell Hannah. I do not want to die. I am so hurt and my daughter is my kryptonite. I love my daughter and will prove and uphold Jesus’s promise of heaven when I carry cross. I am so hungry, weak, and cold. I am aware that the cold sucks energy that a meal would surely aid. I will eat when paid.
Besides the text messages, Sullivan and I talked on the phone a couple of times a day. I tell Sullivan I still haven’t gotten a call back from Fitzgerald. I don’t know Sullivan’s and Fitzgerald’s business relationship. I’m only getting one side. There is no reprieve in sight. The hunger strike and the text messages continued into day nine and pick up intensity on day ten:
Day 10: I am going somewhere else there is a place no one can find me. … I was promised and I don’t get. I cannot let Hannah see her dad in jail. Promised me a salary till signing day. 11 days at midnight, last text this one. My heart has fluttered.
This text makes it clear that it’s time to call St. Joseph’s to get someone from the church to make a visit. Then my phone rings. To my surprise it’s Fitzgerald, returning my call. Fitzgerald, who owns a real estate company in Rochester, assures me that he always pays his bills. He says, he paid Sullivan what he owed him and even more. He said this is not the first time Sullivan has hit difficult times financially and he will not bail him out again.
We continued to talk. Fitzgerald describes himself as the quintessential basketball dad. Then we share stories about Sullivan’s ups and downs, his biochemical struggles, his big heart, and his genius as a shooting coach. He tells me, in many ways, that his daughter is Sullivan’s protégé. He’s worked with her off and on for the last seven years. We make an appointment to talk the following day.
The next conversation is a long one. Fitzgerald tells me the coaching story of Sullivan and his daughter. “The first time I saw Sullivan shoot was at a clinic at our local high school,” Fitzgerald says. “I had taken my daughter, who was in fifth grade, to the clinic. What caught my attention was he literally hit fifty three-pointers in a row. I’d never seen anybody make so many 3’s without missing. I knew there were shooting coaches that worked with kids and I had heard “Target Tim Sullivan” was one of the better ones. It had got around that he beat a bunch of NBA players in a contest. I heard that he worked with Syracuse University basketball players and at Coach Boeheim’s camps, which was big deal if you live in upstate New York.”
“I was equally struck by Sullivan’s talk at the camp,” Fitzgerald says. “He said anyone could do what he did. He said it was your right as a basketball player to make every shot. I’d heard a lot of sales pitches around youth basketball, but not this one. He said it was all about physics. He talked about a schema he had created that would enable a player to never miss a shot. It seemed a little bit over the top, until I gained a deeper understanding of it.” This talk represents the political-spiritual side of Sullivan’s shooting philosophy. He believes that every kid, no matter their economic status or natural gifts deserves the right, through effort and dedication, to become a skilled shooter.
“When people see my daughter making shot after shot, they think she’s a freak,” Fitzgerald explained. “She’s not. She’s a hard worker, and she went step-by-step through a very methodical process with Tim’s coaching. He started out by first teaching Ali how to shoot straight, on line with the basket. He would use a simple analogy: your arm is like a rifle and you have to aim straight at the basket. He had different teaching aids he invented to help her. In the early days, Ali had an armband with beads on the elbow, wrist or shoulder. Ali’s task was to keep all the beads aligned and aimed at the basket when she shot. If the beads were out of alignment to the right, the shot missed to the right. If they were out of alignment to the left, she missed to the left. He’d always have Ali assess why she missed. In the beginning, it was all about aim; hitting the front and back of the rim were considered makes.”
“Sullivan then began to work on more precision with the release,” Fitzgerald continues, “focusing on having the ball come off two fingers at the same time. One of Sullivan’s core principles is that if the ball comes off both fingers equally, it will go straight every time. Early on, he brought in another training device he invented, called the Splitter, a piece of foam that Sullivan shaped to separate Ali’s two shooting fingers, helping to create the V shape. Sometimes he’d put tape on the tips of all her other fingers, athletic tape, electric tape, whatever he had, so the only fingers with a tactile sense were the two shooting fingers. This helped Ali really zoom in and connect those two fingers to the ball.”
Fitzgerald is very honest about his daughter’s athletic ability. “She’s got a D-3 body and a D-1 shot.” By a D-3 body, he means she’s a good athlete, but not genetically gifted with speed, quickness and the ability to jump. “She’s just a normal kid who learned how to shoot. Tim was very precise and purposeful in his coaching, building up from fundamentals: shooting the ball straight, distance control, two-finger release, and thumb position. It wasn’t just the hours she put in—and she put in a lot of hours. It was Tim’s instruction that made the hours purposeful and precise and with goals. And, he made her understand why she misses and how to correct it: Why did the ball hit the front of the rim? Why was it long? Why did it go left or right? It was astonishing to see her explain the reason why she missed. She might point to her shoulder and say, ‘shoulder recoil.’”
“Sullivan is a showman and likes to wow the kids,” Fitzgerald says. “That’s the magic show element at his clinics. This does him a disservice, because it’s about methodical hard work. He likes to tell players after a clinic that they have it and now they never have to miss another shot. But, his schema, like with Ali, takes thousands of hours of practice to master. Shooting is a complex skill and needs constant attention to key details. It doesn’t stick like magic, either. Knowing what to do is important, but training your body to do what you know is a challenge. What I’ve seen with my daughter, even when she knows the adjustment she has to make, is it takes time and practice. When we have something to work on, it takes between 1,000 and 3,000 shots to correct it and get it integrated into her shot.
“This process all happens in stages: Tim coaches Ali, standing behind her and correcting her. Then Ali makes shots on her own with Tim coaching her from the sidelines. Then she makes shots on her own, no coaching. Then she can do it in practice, then in a pick- up game, then in a real game, and finally, after all the hours of practice, under big time pressure in a game.”
Sullivan’s genius, Fitzgerald believes, is that he set a standard for his daughter. The standard is: You can make every shot. Sullivan truly believes if you know the schema, why you make and why you miss, you can, in theory, make every shot. The laws of physics and gravity don’t change, so why not? “Like I said, I’m just a dad and Ali is a high school kid, but when we watch the NBA and Kobe misses, we know why he missed. His thumb dropped, it’s so simple to fix. This is because of Tim.”
As Fitzgerald finishes his Target Tim story, his voice has softened. In the telling of their odyssey, his heart has changed. After a long pause, he says he’s willing to help Sullivan one more time. A deal between Fitzgerald and Sullivan is struck and the relationship is repaired. He’ll do some more coaching with Ali, as part of the agreement. Sullivan pays his child support and avoids jail. It all happens in a flash or as Sullivan describes it: “A miracle from God.”
I think of Sullivan and his method. He doesn’t claim he invented the schema. That would be like saying Newton invented gravity. Sullivan just uncovered the method for never missing. Sullivan has identified and mapped the elements of the perfect shot. He has taken the human factor out of the equation, meaning you don’t have to be Steph Curry. You can be, well, you.
It’s never easy for Sullivan, but he perseveres and beats the odds, making it through 2015. It’s not easy: He battles through homelessness… He struggles to pay his bills… His car breaks down… He rides his bike to do clinics… He’s still ostracized in his hometown… He reconnects with his older brother in a positive way… Then they start to fight again… As 2015 comes to an end, variations on a theme… But progress… And, Sullivan has a big idea for 2016.
2016: Breaking the World’s Record
The text comes as the new year starts. Sullivan has a new goal.
I am able to refine the system. God’s promise is perfect… My little girl is precious… And her mom is a gift that proves god is. I am building a foundation for 2016. I feel solid I’m ready to break the record.
Sullivan’s goal for 2016 is to break The Guinness World Records for the most three-point shots in a row: 209. Sullivan, alone in the gym, says he’s already broken the record. He has created another Thomas Aquinas type proof for his quest: “The schema is in my body, and if the schema is true, I should be able to make more shots in a row than anybody else in the world. If I can’t make more shots in a row, then the schema is not true and I should get a job at Walmart.” It’s the same logic he used when he entered and won the Still Hoopin shooting contest back in the day. Sullivan will use his shooting skill to put him back in the game as coach.
Sullivan builds on what is positive for the new year. He’s stayed in regular contact with Fitzgerald and helps with her shot when needed. She is captain of her Penfield High School team and she has committed to Seton Hall University (in the competitive Big East Conference).
Sullivan is in the gym everyday practicing, and he’s testing new biomechanical and training breakthroughs. He’s in a stable and productive space—mind, body and spirit.
“My dream for 2016 is a Rocky ending. That’s my favorite movie,” Sullivan says. From birth, Sullivan was always a long-shot. He knows it. So why not embrace the gamble with the long ball and a world’s record? Sullivan has beat the odds and proved doubters wrong his whole life. In the end it always comes back to something simple, the essentials: air, food, water, the ball and the basket…
Stay tuned, SLAM will be there to officially film and document the event.
Kurt Brungardt has covered the sports and fitness beat for nearly 20 years. He has written twelve books on fitness and sports training, including the bestsellers The Complete Book of Abs (Villard), The Complete Book of Core Training (Hyperion), and The Running Revolution (Penguin). He has written for Men’s Health, SLAM, and Vanity Fair. His 2007 feature article for Vanity Fair, “Galloping Scared,” was nominated for a Genesis Award. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.