There’s a paradox inherent in Sullinger’s coming-of-age. Even as scouts and sportswriters were naming him a top prospect, critics questioned his potential. He was too big or too slow. He wouldn’t make it at the college level. He wasn’t quite tall enough for his position. Even Rivers, who had watched a teenage Sullinger play against Rivers’s son, Austin, in competitive amateur games, once thought of Sullinger as the “fat, slow guy.” “Jared’s been trying to prove himself throughout his entire life,” says Aaron Craft, a junior standout on the Ohio State team who played alongside Sullinger for years. “He wants to prove people wrong and wants to show people how successful he can be with what he’s been given.”
Now Sullinger finds himself tested once again, determined to come back strong and help lead the Celtics into the future. I ask Satch whether it was hard, as a parent, to watch his son suffer a season-ending injury, just as he was starting to get traction. “What we want and what happens are two different things,” he says. The fortunate thing, he says, was that the surgery came after the Celtics already knew he could play. “Fate,” he says, “is God’s way of staying anonymous.”
WHEN SULLINGER FIRST joined the Celtics, one thing stood out in his reports back to friends and family: the education he was getting from Boston veterans. “He told me, ‘I’ve learned so much from guys like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce,’ ” says Ohio State head coach Thad Matta. “A lot of guys don’t want to go in there and learn.”
That humility, paired with a holistic sense of the game — both gifts from his upbringing — endeared him to his new teammates. “He brings a lot to the team,” says guard Avery Bradley. “Somebody that learns fast.” Another guard, Jason Terry, praises his “basketball IQ.” Jason Collins, whom the Celtics traded in February to the Washington Wizards, says Sullinger is capable of averaging a double-double (double figures in points and rebounds per game) in his NBA career.
Most notably, Sullinger has embraced the role of pupil under Garnett, one of his idols growing up and the man he may yet succeed. When Sullinger first moved to Boston last summer, he worried what playing under Garnett would be like. Would he get screamed at? Cussed out? Humiliated? “I was just mentally being prepared to not cry on the bench,” Sullinger told USA Today last November.
But Garnett took to him after seeing his desire to improve. “Me and Sully have a really good relationship,” he told the newspaper. When I ask Sullinger how he got in Garnett’s good graces, he says it was relatively simple. “You’ve just got to play basketball,” he says. “It reminded me of my father.”
Sullinger, listed at 6 feet 9 inches and 260 pounds, became, this season, one of the youngest starters ever for the Celtics. He’s still a rookie, though; indeed, Rook is one of his nicknames. He has had to fulfill rookie duties, like buying peanut butter and soap for the all-stars. As a newcomer, he drew frequent foul calls from NBA officials.
It was difficult, he says, to accept that back surgery would put a hold on everything. “But I’d rather have the surgery now than later in my career,” he says. Comments by Ainge and others suggest the Celtics feel the same way — that getting the surgery out of the way could prepare Sullinger for a prosperous future in Boston. As of February, the team expected him back for training camp for the 2013-2014 season. (Disk problems have slowed other prominent NBA players over the years, including Rivers himself and Larry Bird, who had surgery toward the end of his career on the court. More recently, Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard has battled to return to top form after undergoing surgery on a herniated disk in the spring of 2012.)
The Celtics will need fresh legs. Pierce and Garnett don’t have many years left. Ray Allen, the third pillar of the Big Three, which brought Boston the 2008 NBA championship, left for the Miami Heat last year. In addition to Rondo, Avery Bradley, at 22, and forward Jeff Green, who is 26, are other young players who could figure largely in Boston’s future.
Those who know Sullinger say his personality, maturity, and “old-school values,” in the words of his agent, make him a good fit for the organization. “You like being on the floor with him,” says Chris Jent, an assistant coach at Ohio State who played for the Buckeyes and in the NBA. “He’s got a good way about him. It’s just fun to see kids like that be successful.”
After a while, Sullinger intends to finish his college degree, too. He doesn’t really have a choice. He promised his mom.Continued...