Columbus, Ohio, is one of those big-little Midwestern cities. You can’t go very far without running into an old rival. Just ask Satch Sullinger. As head coach at East High School, he’d designed his defense to shut down Eastmoor Academy star shooting guard Benji Burke. The lithe Burke would dive and dart across the court, stealing the ball on one end and scoring it on the other. The Sullingers and the Burkes had a little history. Years before, Sullinger had matched up on the playground and in summer games against Benji’s father, Alfonso Burke. “Columbus was a small town then,” Sullinger recalled. “We called him Pookie — and Pookie was a hell of a player.” Alfonso Burke starred for East High School in the 1950s. When Sullinger stalked the school’s sideline nearly three decades later, he sought a little payback against Alfonso’s son.
The 1983 season opener marked Sullinger’s first as a head coach. He tried masking his nervousness. That he had become a coach would have been a surprise to even him years earlier. After Sullinger graduated high school, he drifted from job to job, never satisfied with the money in his pocket — until he started toting a gun and selling drugs. He ran the streets of Columbus while maintaining a day job counseling troubled kids — children whom he warned to stay off the same cocaine and heroin he sold. One day, police busted down his door and hauled Sullinger off. Pat Penn, then the coach at Oberlin College, knew Sullinger from his playing days at South High and spoke on his behalf in court. A judge sentenced him to an education-based probation. Sullinger could avoid prison if he managed to turn his life around.
His brush with the law straightened Sullinger out. He became a 26-year-old freshman at Oberlin in 1975, which paved his return to the game and a conference championship the following season. Basketball runs in the Sullinger family. Satch’s father, Harold, was known as “Suitcase Sully” because of his enormous hands. He played for the Sioux City Colored Ghosts, a black barnstorming team in the 1920s and ’30s that was a precursor to the Harlem Globetrotters. Satch’s brother, Harold Jr., earned the nickname “Briefcase” and played at Iowa. Satch — whose real name is James — was a 6-foot-8 bruiser at Oberlin who bullied inside, just like Alfonso Burke.
Benji Burke did not play like his father. “He was a scorer,” Satch Sullinger said of the sweet-shooting Benji Burke. “And he had a real quick release. We had to find a way to slow him down.” Sullinger noticed that Benji’s sweet spots came at the wings. He installed a one-three-one zone that flooded the area with defenders. Sullinger may have been a novice coach, but his defenders snapped to on his command. “Baby boy!” he would yell before barking an instruction. “Baby boy!” When they finally faced off, the game between Eastmoor and East High teetered back and forth. Sullinger prevailed in his debut, a streak of winning openers that would span more than three decades. Twenty years after the inaugural victory, he’d win a particularly satisfying opener when he coached his own son, Jared, and Benji’s, Trey.
Today, Jared Sullinger and Trey Burke are at the earliest moments of promising NBA careers. The dual dream started in the Burkes’ basement when they vigorously competed against one another in any and every game they could imagine. “So much that it sounded like they were tearing up the house,” said Ronda Burke, Benji’s wife and Trey’s mother.
Their present is a manifestation of generations of basketball, each pushing a little bit further than the previous one. Finally the Burkes’ and Sullingers’ double fantasies have become a reality.
“You know what it takes because you’re familiar with the game,” Satch Sullinger said. “We weren’t novices at this game. We watched guys make it and we watched guys not make it. We didn’t realize what we were observing, but when it comes to your own, you try to give them your experiences, and because we were experienced in the game of basketball, we weren’t just stabbing in the dark. As boys, that’s what they wanted to do.”
They didn’t think much of each other at first.
“When I first saw Jared, he was kinda fat,” Trey Burke said. “Like, he was big.”
“Oh man,” said Jared Sullinger. “Crying, whiny, always frustrated. He never liked to lose.”
Benji Burke went to Northwest Missouri State, where he set the school’s (since broken) steals record during the 1989-90 season. When he returned to Columbus to start his family, he taught his son to play the game the same way he did.
“Trey, you’re the smallest guy on the court,” he’d tell him. “The only way you’re going to get the ball, is you’ve got to steal the ball.”
Trey took to the game quickly. His thefts became so prevalent that one league created a rule that he had to stay behind the line until the opposition passed midcourt. When he began to form a team, Benji Burke could hardly find a third-grader who could keep up with his son. By then, “Sullinger” and “basketball” had become synonymous in Columbus. Satch’s oldest son, J.J., had played shooting guard at Ohio State. Satch coached his middle son, Julian, at Columbus’s Northland High School. Julian later played at Kent State. Benji Burke knew of J.J. He had seen Julian play. But he didn’t know Satch’s youngest boy, Jared. The first thing Benji noticed was Jared’s belly — he’d labored after a couple of runs back and forth. But he marveled at young Sullinger’s nimbleness. Satch had Jared performing footwork drills by the age of 2 and shooting regulation free throws by 3. For a big kid, he moved like a dancer.
“Jared was huge,” Burke said. “Not just tall, but he was 200-plus pounds, and when he got it on the block, his footwork was very, very advanced. Drop step either way, using both hands, smacking the glass on his layups. And we’re talking a fourth-grader who was probably as big as most of the eighth- or ninth-graders.”
Meanwhile, Satch admired Benji’s son’s skills. “It looked like a beach ball that he was dribbling,” Satch said with a chuckle. “But he was able to handle it.”
Jared was less than a year older than Trey, so Benji Burke asked the fourth-grader to join the AAU squad, Team Reebok, that he was putting together. Julian Sullinger showed up to practice one day to check on his little brother’s progress. He left amazed by both Jared and Trey.
“After I left, the only thing on my mind was this little 2-foot-nothing kid, Trey Burke,” Julian Sullinger said. “Jared would get the outlet — this was when Jared was really overweight, he could barely get up and down — and he’d literally throw a Kevin Love pass past half court. Trey would score on a one-on-four fast break and get an uncontested layup somehow. It was ridiculous.”
The boys became fast friends. “It was kind of like Rob and Big,” Julian Sullinger said. “They would argue because they’re both so competitive.”
Dinners at the Burkes’ would devolve into ravenous eating contests between the two boys. “Trey would always say that he could eat just as much as Jared,” Ronda Burke said, “like that was a big accomplishment.” Jared kept clothes at the Burkes’ and stayed days or weeks at a time. He called Benji “Dad” and Ronda “Mom.” Jared and Trey would come home, eat quickly, and run down to the basement. A bucket stood for a hoop and the two played a game they called “5-4-3-2-1.” They imagined themselves as NBA stars. One guarded the other with only five seconds to shoot their tiny green ball. “We played this game every time he came over, and he was over at the house all the time,” Trey Burke said. A big bucket eventually replaced the smaller bucket. “If we were playing on the little bucket that was sitting on the floor, it was definitely Trey [who was better],” Jared Sullinger said. “If we were playing on the big bucket, it was definitely me.”
Though Sullinger was typically a gentle giant, he could be pushed too far. One day, the pair skipped their usual 5-4-3-2-1 matchup and decided to have a slap-boxing match. Trey got too excited and threw a blow that bloodied Jared’s nose. “I could tell he just got enough,” Trey Burke said. “He got mad. So I just ran up the stairs. I was too small to really fight him, so I hid in my sisters’ room.”
“He didn’t come back down for about two hours,” Sullinger said. “He knew what it was, and ever since then, he never messes with me like that no more.”
The competiveness that could get out of hand in the Burkes’ basement bonded them on the court. Their AAU team also featured Traevon Jackson, the son of former NBAer Jim Jackson and Wisconsin’s starting point guard, and Adam Griffin, the son of two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin.
“I always knew Jared was going into the NBA because he was this big, fat kid that had more moves than like half of college basketball,” said Adam Griffin, who played football at Ohio State. “But he could only make it up and down the court about two times. Trey, he used to get so angry, snot would be coming out his nose when he was playing and then he would just take the ball and just shoot a floater from almost the 3-point line.”
The team caravanned across the country. That cycle of games and the travel didn’t exactly help Jared trim down. “It was crazy because I had a kid bigger than Jared,” Benji Burke said. “I had a sixth-grader who was 6-4, 250 pounds. We would go to McDonald’s and Jared and him would get two double cheeseburgers, two chicken filets, two small fries, and a large drink. That’s what they got every time we go to McDonald’s. You go to McDonald’s two or three times a day. At the time, I wasn’t health-conscious. I was just trying to keep them happy because they were rebounding and killing inside.”
The Burkes moved to Atlanta for a short period when Ronda Burke’s job changed, but the pair reunited in middle school. Through their travels, Benji continued coaching Trey. “It was tough at first playing for him,” Trey Burke said. “He was my dad and it was hard for me to see him as a coach and as a father.”
Shortly after Jared and Trey were reunited, the time came for Satch Sullinger to inherit the coaching duties.
“I tell people all the time, he was the Bobby Knight of high school basketball,” Julian Sullinger said of his father. He meant it in the nicest way possible. Satch coached at Oberlin when J.J. attended high school, so Julian became the guinea pig in the father-son, coach-player experiment. “Whenever we stepped on the court, he was coach and I was player,” Julian explained. “I was never to call him ‘Dad’ on the court, never. And he expected more from his sons than he did from other players. We probably got the shorter end of the stick. But my dad didn’t really just coach X’s and O’s. He was turning boys into men.”
The family had a rule. “In the gym, I’m not your daddy,” Satch Sullinger said. “I’m your coach. Outside the gym, I’m not your coach. I’m your father. Everybody has to have their place, where they can come and lick their wounds. And your home is where you come when you’ve been beaten up by the world.”
But Satch didn’t always adhere to his policy. Julian still remembers the car rides home, gazing out the window as his father rambled on. “When we’d get into the house, I’d go straight to Mom and say, ‘Mom, he still wants to talk basketball and we’re at home.’” Barbara would remind Satch of their pledge. “I have to say that I was not always that successful,” she said with a mix of laughter and resignation. “It used to get him so upset,” Julian said. “So mad.”
By Jared Sullinger’s sophomore season under his father, he’d trimmed much of his baby fat, his sizable posterior transformed into a verifiable weapon for clearing out space in the post. The Burkes decided to enroll Trey at Northland as well, choosing it over Eastmoor, where Benji served as an assistant coach.
“Jared was the no. 1 player in the country in high school at the time and I wasn’t playing as much,” Trey Burke said. “I wasn’t playing, really, at all my freshman year, and Coach Sullinger wouldn’t let me play JV. He didn’t want me playing down there because he felt like I wouldn’t get any better.”
Those Vikings carried a pristine record of 21-0 into the postseason. But Jared’s schoolwork had slipped and he landed on academic probation. He was averaging 19 points a game, but after he failed to file a biology class assignment, Satch Sullinger benched his star player — not to mention the focal point of his team’s strategy and his son — during a district semifinal game against Westerville South.
Before the game, Satch Sullinger stopped Jared when he tried to put his jersey on. He told his son that if everyone fouled out, he would rather play with four players than let him into the game. Northland lost, 67-59. The perfect record, their season, all of it, was lost and over. Jared watched the game in silence, hoping that the worst wouldn’t happen. When it did, when the team returned to the locker room with no tomorrow, he punched lockers. He cried.
The Sullingers returned home. Satch Sullinger turned off his coach’s brain and again became a parent. What happens if my son has a learning disability? Am I putting too much pressure on him? he wondered. He asked the school psychologist to sit down with Jared. The doctor found no learning disability. Instead, Satch was told that his son was purely interested in making it to the NBA. Everything else was unimportant to him. Satch wouldn’t accept that.
“If you’re doing just enough to get by academically, then you’re going to do just enough to get by athletically, too, and eventually like your academics will run out, so will your athleticism and your ability to play,” Satch told Jared. “During crunch time, whatever’s normal is going to come out. If normal is half-assing things, then you’re going to half-ass basketball too.”
Jared Sullinger walked to the free throw line nearly a year later. He had straightened himself out in the classroom and Northland had enjoyed another banner season. Sullinger earned the state’s Mr. Basketball title. With more playing time, Burke blossomed, too, reemerging as Sullinger’s running mate. More than 12,000 people packed the Value City Arena bleachers for the Division I state championship game between Northland and Princeton. Burke had hit a free throw to give Northland a 58-56 edge with 27.6 seconds left, but he fouled a player behind the 3-point line 13 seconds later. Orlando Williams sank two of his three free throws, evening the game.
A Princeton player stunningly fouled Sullinger behind the 3-point line on Northland’s possession with 2.7 seconds remaining.
Burke slid next to Sullinger before his three attempts. “5-4-3-2-1,” he said. “This is what we do. This is how we make shots. This is what’s going to take us to the championship.”
Sullinger made the first shot. “I pretty much knew he was going to knock them down. Just because he was always pretty good under pressure,” Burke said. “He looked at it like another moment in the game.”
Burke thanked Sullinger between shots. “I would’ve been devastated if we would have lost,” Burke said. Sullinger made the second. His third careened out. A heave by a Princeton player fell short as time expired.
To Satch Sullinger, the result reflected a transformation in his son’s life.
“If he hadn’t prepared himself for that opportunity, then guess what,” Sullinger said. “The outcome could’ve been totally different.”
Jared Sullinger and Trey Burke settled into their final season playing together. Northland replicated its success during Jared’s senior season. The Vikings won national games against high school powerhouses Findlay College Prep of Nevada and Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy. The Sullingers swept the James A. Naismith Awards as the top prep coach and player. No. 1–ranked Northland shockingly fell to Gahanna Lincoln in a district final. Sullinger amassed 24 of Northland’s 45 points.
Sullinger would become a Buckeye after his senior season. He, Aaron Craft, Jordan Sibert, and J.D. Weatherspoon had played together for the same AAU program and they all committed to Ohio State together. Burke originally hoped to follow a year later. He and Sullinger fantasized about how they could be like Mike Conley and Greg Oden, lifelong friends, one small and one big, who played at Ohio State before entering the NBA. But Ohio State had already offered a scholarship to Shannon Scott, a highly rated guard from Georgia.
“People wanted to see that special combination again and that’s why it was kind of a shock that Ohio State was the only one in the world that didn’t see that specialness in those two together,” Benji Burke said. Trey Burke committed to Penn State.
“At the time, Trey was going through a growth spurt and Trey wasn’t who Trey would be,” Jared Sullinger said. “I knew who Trey could be and I knew he was going to get bigger and he was going to get stronger. He’s going to get faster, but at the time Shannon Scott was the top point guard in that class. Coach [Thad] Matta pulled the trigger on him and we didn’t want to bring him in under Shannon and Aaron Craft.”
Jared Sullinger had one of the better freshman seasons in recent memory at Ohio State, propelling the Buckeyes to 24 straight wins to start the 2010-11 season. “Seeing him do what he did his freshman year in college, that motivated me even more going into college,” Trey Burke said.
Burke decided he had committed too early and reopened his recruitment. He signed with Michigan, figuring that he would spend a season apprenticing under Darius Morris before taking over the program.
Still, Burke remained overlooked in his senior season. Rivals.com rated him the 142nd-best player of his class. “When we were no. 1, everyone looked at Jared, everybody looked at J.D., they failed to look at who had the keys to the engine, which was Trey,” Sullinger said. “Trey knew how to play with power. Then when they graduated, Trey’s role changed. He started averaging 25 a game for me because we didn’t have the inside that we had with those guys. I turned him loose.”
Burke had a stellar season at Northland and assumed Jared Sullinger’s title of Mr. Basketball. “There’s this look that he gets when it’s time to win, when his bottom chin just flops,” Satch Sullinger said. “When I saw it, I knew: OK. He understands what time it is in the game.”
Northland, however, fell in the state championship game against Cincinnati’s LaSalle. Burke managed just 10 points and misfired on all seven of his 3-pointers. He vowed to never fail in a big game ever again.
The time that Barbara Sullinger and Ronda Burke had dreaded finally arrived.
Jared Sullinger, to the surprise of many, returned to Ohio State for his sophomore season, temporarily stiff-arming the NBA. Despite his strong start, Kentucky had upset Ohio State in the Sweet 16 and he wanted to advance further in the tournament. “I wish he was a senior here right now is the first memory,” Thad Matta recently said about Sullinger. “Jared was a winner and he was one of these guys that just had a great understanding of the time, the score, the situation, and what he needed to do to make plays.”
John Beilein, Michigan’s coach, had been cautious about Burke during his recruitment. He had taken a look at him only at the urging of his staff. “And thank goodness we made a decision late after seeing him in July again,” Beilein said.
Burke skipped Morris’s mentorship when Morris skipped college for the NBA. Burke stepped in as the team’s point guard. “It was all business, every day,” Beilein said. “He’s had this chip on his shoulder. He wasn’t Trey Burke. He was Jared Sullinger’s point guard. And he comes to our place as an under-recruited player. And that chip on his shoulder has been really a driving force for him.”
Burke and Sullinger faced off for the first time in late January 2012. No. 4 Ohio State hosted the 20th-ranked Wolverines. “Of course, as a mom, I wanted to see Trey be successful in that,” Ronda Burke said. “On the other hand, I knew what losing would do to Jared.”
“That was probably one of the more difficult games to watch,” Barbara Sullinger said. “Mentally, I wanted Jared to win, and I know Ronda wanted Trey to win, but at the end of the game, when Ohio State won, I don’t think I was excited as I usually was.”
Each wanted to claim the first win. Of course, neither played very well. Foul trouble limited Sullinger, while Burke tallied 13 points in Michigan’s 64-49 loss. Michigan claimed revenge the next month, sending Ohio State to a 56-51 loss in Ann Arbor. With time running out, Burke stopped short and released a midrange shot when he saw Sullinger in the lane, knowing that his old pal would position himself to take a charge. Burke’s rainbow floater helped clinch the game.
Ohio State again fell just short of Sullinger’s goal, losing in the Final Four to Kansas. Ohio University had already shocked Michigan, ousting the Wolverines from the tournament in the second round.
They had not come into college together, but they planned to leave at the same time. Sullinger declared for the NBA. Burke wanted to make the jump. Things didn’t work out the way either had hoped.
NBA teams medically flagged Sullinger because of back problems. He had once been projected as a consensus top-five selection. Instead, he plummeted in the draft, spiraling down to Boston with the 21st pick.
“It was pretty tough,” Satch Sullinger said. “As a parent, you want to protect your child, but at the same time you realize you can’t protect him from everything.”
Interest in Burke after his freshman season was lukewarm. Several point guards, including Damian Lillard, Kendall Marshall, Tony Wroten, and Marquis Teague, were ranked higher than him. “Listen, if you go back to Michigan, you’re going to be a preseason All–Big Ten, All-American, and the marketing that Michigan does for their basketball team, it’s free advertisement,” Benji Burke told his son. “You’re going to play on national TV half of your games. You’re going to be able to prove that you’re one of the top picks in the next draft.”
Jared Sullinger became a favorite pupil of Kevin Garnett during his rookie season in Boston. Burke returned for what would be a transformative sophomore season at Michigan. The Wolverines had once been an elite program in college basketball. The Fab Five recruiting class of 1991 represented a cultural phenomenon. But in the years since, the Wolverines had been hit hard by sanctions and upheaval. Burke helped reenergize Ann Arbor. The team sprinted to its best start in school history during Burke’s sophomore season. He earned national player of the year honors and guided Michigan to the title game.
Sullinger, for one night at least, became a Wolverines fan.
“I support my brother,” Jared Sullinger said. “And my brother was here before Ohio State offered me a scholarship, so regardless, I was also a supporter for that national championship game.”
The Wolverines lost to Louisville. Burke played only six minutes in the first half with foul trouble, but he returned with a fury and finished with 24 points. The game changed in a crucial moment when it appeared Burke cleanly blocked Peyton Siva’s attempt at the basket with 5:09 remaining. Burke was called for a foul and Siva hit both free throws to initiate a 7-2 run from which Michigan never recovered.
“That was clean as a whistle,” Benji Burke said.
Burke had little to mull over about leaving for the NBA. When Beilein accompanied Burke to Los Angeles for the Wooden Award presentation, he asked his star point guard about his plans. “There was no way I suspected he was going to say that he was going to come back, but he needed to say [he was entering the draft],” Beilein said. He did. “And I said, ‘That’s what I expected. Let’s go for it with everything you have.’”
Trey Burke was no longer just Jared Sullinger’s point guard. “We look back and now [not attending Ohio State] is a blessing because Michigan was such a great experience, and look what it did for Trey,” Benji Burke said. “It put him in a position to be able to be a professional.”
Minnesota took Burke with the ninth overall pick and dealt him to Utah. He was the first point guard taken in last year’s draft.
One day while they were still in middle school, Jared and Trey waited at the Sullingers’ before a Northland game. Jared had been ironing his clothes, but was interrupted by an impromptu game of catch.
“He ain’t catch it and the ball went through the window — broke it and everything,” Burke said. “So we’re over there trying to figure out how we’re going to explain it. Jared took the blame for everything. He told his mom that he was ironing his clothes and he tripped over the cord. Just so I wouldn’t get in trouble for it.”
“Yeah, I copped to breaking the window for him,” Sullinger said. “It’s all good, though. We did a lot of stuff our parents will never know about. That’s what brothers do for each other. I took his back on a lot of things that I won’t tell Ronda or Benji, and he took a lot of things for me that he won’t tell Barbara or Satch, so those are the things we’re going to take to the grave.”
Barbara Sullinger said she’s resigned to never knowing what really happened to her window. “You know what?” she said. “It’s only recently that they kind of, sort of hinted that it had more to do with a ball than an ironing board.”
Sullinger exceeded expectations during his rookie season before undergoing season-ending lumbar disk surgery on his back in February. He returned this season to a rebuilding Celtics team without Garnett and Paul Pierce, and for the first time in his life had to come to grips with frequent losses. He takes offense when he hears that the organization is tanking. In one memorable moment this season, he scored 17 fourth-quarter points while trying to wrest a win away from Memphis. The effort, like many of Boston’s games this season, fell short. However, last week Sullinger earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors after averaging 20.3 points and 12.7 rebounds.
Burke missed the start of the season while recovering from a bone fracture in his right index finger. The team started 1-13 before he took over as starting point guard, and the Jazz then went 15-18 during his first 33 games. He is now one of the few bright spots in an underperforming rookie class, not to mention a key figure in Utah’s future.
“He was starting to understand what we were looking for before he got hurt, and then when he came back, he just got right back into the flow of it full speed,” said Tyrone Corbin, Utah’s coach. “And it was great to see that because he didn’t wait to work his way back in. He just jumped back in with two feet and just wanted to get back into what we’re trying to do.”
Jared forewarned Trey about the NBA’s rigors. But Burke couldn’t know until he experienced it for himself. Trey trudged down to the lobby of a hotel to be interviewed for this story, still weary from the previous night’s game, with another one ahead of him that evening. “We traveled right after the game, and once I got here, it was kind of hard for me to even take my clothes off when I started laying down,” he said. “But I think I’m adjusting pretty well. I would say off-the-court adjustments are the biggest thing for me.”
They both still listen to their fathers. Sometimes. “The worst thing in the world is being 21 years old, having money, and able to do a lot of things,” Satch Sullinger said. “Just because you can do them doesn’t mean that you should. Money to a 21-year-old isn’t the same as money to a 30-year-old, and I’m glad he still lets me be Dad and he lets me counsel him. I don’t dominate my son, but I counsel him and he listens.”
Satch Sullinger retired from coaching in 2011. He has since written the book on coaching, literally. “You really don’t appreciate it,” said Julian Sullinger, now an assistant coach at Tiffin University, said of his father’s counsel. “Even at my age, I don’t know if I fully appreciate it yet. But he does so much for us off the court. He taught us more off the court [than] while on the court.” Benji Burke, meanwhile, is Trey’s agent.
The odds of a male high school basketball player making it to the professional ranks are about 3 in 10,000. For two nearly lifelong friends to both make it? The odds are practically impossible. Still, they overcame obstacles. One was too big, the other too small. One had a bad back. The other a crooked shot. Yet here they are, the fat kid and the pip-squeak playing basketball with a bucket in a basement. They’ll face one another for the first time in the NBA later this month when Utah hosts Boston.1 But they will again be teammates this weekend in the league’s Rising Stars Challenge, the all-star game showcasing the league’s best freshmen and sophomores.
“We’ve talked about how this is what dreams are made of,” Jared Sullinger said. “We wanted to make it to the NBA, and we’ve been talking about it ever since we were little boys.”
When Burke was selected in last year’s draft, Sullinger congratulated him. “You did it,” he said. Burke stopped him before he could say anything else. “Nah, I didn’t do it,” he said. “We did it.”