Growing up in Columbus, Ohio State sophomore guard J.J. Sullinger had plenty of idols he loved to watch compete on the floor of nearby St. John Arena, but it was one particular Buckeye great who made up the first vivid memory of Sullinger’s young basketball life.
Sullinger was at home watching the 1988-89 Buckeyes playing at Iowa when Jay Burson, Ohio State’s senior guard, co-captain and Buckeye from 1986-87 through 1988-89, tumbled violently to the hardwood. As Burson was lying on the floor with a serious neck injury, Sullinger felt his Buckeye passion burn for the first time.
“I was ready to fly to Iowa and get that guy who broke his neck,” Sullinger said.
Though he knew the injury, which would ultimately end Burson’s college career with seven games remaining, was no one’s fault, Sullinger hated to see one of his heroes in pain.
At the time, Sullinger’s father, a teacher and long-time coach of high school and college basketball, James “Satch” Sullinger, said his son had already been harboring his own dreams of picking up where Burson left off.
“When J.J. was 7 years old his mother made him keep a journal,” Satch Sullinger said. “He wrote in it that he wanted to be a Buckeye, so he wanted to be a Buckeye from the start.”
Despite his wishes, the younger Sullinger, whose given name is James but who was dubbed “J.J.” by his father for “James, Jr.” did not begin his college career at Ohio State. He spent a year as an Arkansas Razorback, playing for legendary coach Nolan Richardson, a friend of the Sullinger family. At the conclusion of Sullinger’s freshman season, however, circumstances led to the end of Richardson’s time as coach of the Razorbacks, causing Sullinger to rethink where he wanted to continue his college career.
“When I went to Arkansas, I went solely because of Coach Richardson,” Sullinger said. “Don’t get me wrong, Arkansas was a nice school, but he compensated for the 800 miles between my family and me. He was a friend of the family and a great guy. I wanted to go there and play for him. When he got turned away, I got turned away myself. I didn’t feel like it was the place for me anymore.”
As the Arkansas chapter of Sullinger’s life ended, the next step for him was natural. He knew immediately he wanted to go to school closer to his home and his family. There was really only one place he could do that.
“Where else would I go but Ohio State?” Sullinger rhetorically asked.
He said he was not sure if he would be able to make his dream of returning to his hometown school come true initially, but after gaining his release from Arkansas he called the basketball office at Ohio State to express his interest in playing for the school. Upon doing so, Sullinger learned they were in need of a guard, which happened to be his position.
Sullinger enrolled in his first classes at Ohio State in time for the beginning of summer quarter 2002, paid his own way for a quarter, and started making up for the credits that did not transfer from Arkansas.
Though the year he was forced to spend on the Ohio State bench, because of NCAA rules transfer rules, was difficult, he said he could not be happier with the decision he made to come home.
“I couldn’t ask to be anywhere else. I love it here,” Sullinger said. “The fans are great. The arena is nice. I’m at home. I get to see my family just as much as any guy in high school would. I couldn’t ask for a better situation.”
Sullinger’s mother, Barbara Sullinger, also is happy to have her eldest son closer to home.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “All mothers love their sons. It’s so nice being able to drive 15 minutes to see him, or to hear the key turn in the lock and it to be him as a surprise.”
She also said the time in Arkansas was positive for her son. Barbara said the opportunity for J.J. to be on his own and to see how people in another part of the country live was good for him.
Despite his shifting backdrops, a constant for Sullinger was always basketball, the game he loves.
“If I’m sick or away on vacation where there’s no basketball, I get irritable,” J.J. said. “I absolutely love this game. I would play it all day if I could.”
His mother, a math and algebra teacher at Medina Middle School in Columbus, made sure her son grew up with a life away from the basketball court. She said she knew with her husband being a coach, basketball would always be present in their household, but she wanted to make sure her sons knew there were other hobbies to pursue, so she encouraged them to try knew things. For J.J., some of those activities were writing in a journal, playing the saxophone and even tap dancing.
He no longer plays the sax and his feet eventually grew too big to allow him to be the next Fred Astaire, but Sullinger continues to write in his journal when he is troubled.
“My mom taught me that a lot of times you really don’t know how you’re feeling until you write it down and actually read how you feel,” Sullinger said. “It’s a lot easier to write how you feel than to say how you feel. Sometimes what you say is affected by how you feel right then and there. If you write something down and let it sit there for a while, you can go back and read it and say, ‘Oh, OK, that’s how I’m feeling. That’s what’s wrong.'”
Barbara Sullinger said she knew from early on in her 15 years as a “stay-at-home mom” that she wanted all her sons to be able to express themselves.
“I knew I would want all my sons to be good husbands,” she said. “I knew men have a hard time communicating at times, so I consciously tried to teach all of my boys to communicate.”
Always, though, there was basketball.
“I wanted to be like my father,” Sullinger said. “When I saw my father going to the gym, it was only right that I went. As soon as I could, I was allowed to go to practice. Saturday mornings I wasn’t really involved with the cartoons. I went to practice with my dad.”
From that early start, the younger Sullinger picked up the game, learning to dribble, pass, shoot and play defense. Satch Sullinger has a better recollection of when his eldest son began to really take to basketball.
“When J.J. was 7 years old, Jay Burson had a camp for 10-year olds at Ohio Dominican and I asked him if it would be okay if J.J. went,” Satch said.
Burson, whose father also was an accomplished basketball coach, was not immediately sure if it was a good idea for J.J. to compete with the older boys, so Satch suggested a compromise. He said if his son could not handle the increased competition on the first day, he would not bring him back for the second.
“Well, Channel 6 ended up being there taping,” Satch said. “J.J. took the ball to the rack on a kid and scored. What does every kid do when he scores? He celebrates, but J.J. didn’t celebrate. He just got back on defense. Then he stole the ball and went down and scored again. That was when I knew he was special, that he had a keen understanding of how the game should be played, because he didn’t celebrate.”
Satch was proud of his son that day and that pride has not diminished.
“As a father, I’m proud that I have a son who suits up in the scarlet and gray. Not a day goes by I’m not proud he goes to The Ohio State University,” Satch said.
The son gave credit to his father for the opportunity to don the Buckeye uniform.
“Ultimately, he has taught me the most of anyone when it comes to the game of basketball. He got me involved early,” J.J. said. “He never really forced it upon me. It was always something that I wanted, but he told me if I was going to want to play I was going to have to play hard and really be serious, but my dad’s coaching style goes way further than basketball. He coaches people through life.”
Whether it was cutting off the baseline and taking a charge in a game or doing the dishes to earn a meal at home, J.J said his father always stressed to his sons and to his players the importance of doing all the “little things” in life and in basketball. Though it was not always easy, J.J said he is a better person and player thanks to the lessons of his father.
“Ultimately, I think it helped me. If you can play for my father, you can work for anybody,” Sullinger said. “Not to say that he’s a tough coach to get along with, he just puts you in situations and leads you into situations that help you down the line in life. That’s his philosophy and I think that’s what he wants to be known for: not necessarily the X’s and O’s of basketball, but the X’s and O’s of life.”
His father said he simply does not tolerate nonsense. Satch said he often sees young people worry only about the present when making a decision, so he tries to stress the importance of anticipating the results of a decision and how they will affect the future. He also believes, as does his wife, in the value of listening. He said the mistake many young people make is being willing to discuss an argument only after it is over, neglecting to listen “during the battle, when it’s hot.”
“The parable I have for that is it’s like putting your seatbelt on after you have already gone through the windshield,” Satch said. “It’s not going to do much good.”
With the lessons from his father to follow, J.J. hopes to add the mentoring of his current coaches at Ohio State and become the kind of player he used to look up to as a young boy. When his playing career is over, the African-American studies major hopes he can switch from pupil to teacher.
“Ultimately, I would love to be a teacher,” Sullinger said. “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. Both of my parents are educators, so it kind of came naturally.”
He said he could see himself as a high school teacher or possibly as a college professor.
“Recently I’ve thought of being a high school coach,” J.J. said.
That possibility arose after spending this past spring coaching young kids, from ages 6 to 17, at the Nike All-Ohio summer league.
“I enjoy it so much,” J.J. said. “I don’t like to criticize too much, but I do like to motivate. I’m always smiling. It’s fun. I like coaching.”
His father was not surprised J.J. found coaching enjoyable. He said his son has a real feel for how to deal with kids. The younger Sullinger has even been able to offer advice that has helped the old coach become better at his job.
“I think he would be a great coach. Because sometimes when I am talking about problems on my team, he gives me some insight into how the fellas might be thinking,” Satch said. “He has tremendous communication skills and tremendous people skills.”
No one needs to look far to see where J.J. found those.