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Sullinger has things to prove

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / July 3, 2012
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Excuse Jared Sullinger if he wasn’t basking in the glory of being a first-round NBA draft pick. Sullinger was introduced as a Celtic Monday at Jackson Mann Educational Complex in Allston and he wore a sullen, focused expression throughout the news conference.

Sullinger apparently did everything the right way. Instead of darting to the NBA the moment he was projected as a top-10 draft pick, he returned to Ohio State to pursue another chance to win a national title and to refine his game.

Last April, the Buckeyes reached the Final Four for the first time in five years, but a difficult matchup with Kansas’ Thomas Robinson in the national semifinal began a difficult period for Sullinger. Suddenly, the burly power forward with the soft hands and smooth touch around the basket didn’t seem athletic enough to handle power forwards.

In addition, a physical at the pre-draft combine detected a bulging disk in Sullinger’s back and lottery teams began scattering. The big man who had worked so feverishly on his conditioning was thought by some to be damaged goods, despite the fact that he was in better shape and more skilled than the freshman Sullinger who may have been selected in the top five.

The Celtics took Sullinger 21st and he strolled into Monday’s news conference looking svelte in his gray suit, ready to participate in the first practice for the Celtics’ summer league entry, not set to have back surgery. It’s not that Sullinger feels betrayed by those who critiqued him, but he definitely believes he was a victim of the draft process.

When you ask players such as Austin Rivers, Bradley Beal, or Marquis Teague why they were so eager to leave school after their freshman season instead of returning and perhaps improving their games, they will point to the cautionary tale of Sullinger.

And Sullinger will use his detractors as motivation as he attempts to become a contributing rookie for the Celtics.

“If you consider me landing to the Boston Celtics a drop, then I’ll do it all over again without a hesitation,” he said. “So honestly, it’s been like that all my life. When I was younger, everybody said I was too big. Going into high school, they said I wouldn’t be able to play that fast. Going into college, I wouldn’t be able to keep up. It’s just the way I live my life, obviously. So I’m just ready to get started.”

Sullinger will report to camp with a determination, trying again to prove that he can compete and succeed at the next level. His father, James, watched the news conference with pride, thrilled that his son was drafted by the Celtics but hardly forgetting the difficult past few weeks.

Sullinger was projected as perhaps the No. 1 overall pick after his freshman season, and James Sullinger, known as “Satch,” had to listen to those television commentators pepper his son with criticism.

Anyone with the nickname Satch in the Boston area brings back memories of former Celtic Tom “Satch” Sanders, but James Sullinger’s nickname has been around for more than 50 years.

His father, Harold, played professional basketball for the Sioux City Colored Ghosts in the 1930s. James said his father’s hands were so big that his friends said they resembled suitcases. And because a smaller suitcase is considered a satchel, James was tabbed Satchel or “Satch” and his brother, Harold Jr., was called “Brief,” as in briefcase.

“Satch” Sullinger has been instrumental in his son’s basketball career, and seemingly has a checklist of media types he believes “stepped across the line” in assessing his son.

“You get grounded, No. 1, and that privileged thing slips right out the door and you become hungry again,” he said of his son. “You understand that you have to work your way. So there’s way more positives that took place than any negatives. The only negative side, there’s a couple of guys out there in the media that I felt that were very subjective rather than objective and they need to understand their words are heard by many. But that’s fine. In time, they’ll expose themselves again.”

The younger Sullinger said he fully expects to participate in summer league and his back issues will not be a hindrance. Regardless of whether his back causes any discomfort or interruption in his career, the perception that he was damaged goods and lacking in conditioning cost him millions of dollars on his rookie contract. Last season’s No. 1 overall pick, Kyrie Irving, earned $4.2 million in his first season, while 21st overall pick Nolan Smith earned just over $1 million.

Satch Sullinger has told his son that location and opportunity are more important than money at this point. His experience with the Celtics will be invaluable in the end, and Sullinger appears ready to start now.

“You tell me what first-rounder wouldn’t want this?” the elder Sullinger said. “If you’re chasing money, then maybe not. But I always raised my boys, you never chase money, because when you chase money you’re miserable. If you do the job and look over your shoulder, money’s chasing you. For the longevity of a productive career and the opportunity to win right now, you tell me what No. 1 wouldn’t want to be here in this position.”

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe

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