NBA

Father’s Tough Love Turned Around Sullinger’s Season

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It’s not unusual for Satch Sullinger to travel to Boston to watch his son play for the Celtics. Over the past two seasons he has become a familiar face around TD Garden, often coming to town for long home stands at a time. When Satch decided to visit Jared in late January, the 21-year-old thought his dad was coming to check in on him. Turns out Satch was traveling to put him in check.

Satch didn’t like what he had been seeing during games. The attitude, the expressions, they were not up to the standard he had set for his children when it comes to professionalism. Just weeks after leaving from a month-long stay, he returned to Massachusetts to let his displeasure be known.

“He came up and cussed me out,” Jared Sullinger told Basketball Insiders of his father. “I was thinking he had to tell me something or he wanted me to talk about how everything was going because he seemed worried about me. But instead the conversation just started off – well, his conversation started off – and I was just saying, ‘Yes sir. Yes sir. Yes sir.’ I was kind of in shock. He was telling me my body language sucks, my attitude sucks, I’m disrespecting the Sullinger name the way I’m acting on and off the court, and when he says off the court he means on the bench.”

Satch’s fire is fueled by the fact his family is deeply rooted in basketball. Satch is a former coach, which included coaching Jared in high school. Older sons J.J. and Julian competed at high levels, but Jared was the only one to make it to the NBA. Yet when Jared was drafted by the Celtics with the 21st pick in 2013 out of The Ohio State University, Satch wasn’t about to let up. He may have retired from coaching, but he never quit the game.

He has expectations of how his son should carry himself. No complaining, no sulking, no moping. The NBA is a job, act like a professional at all times. Satch felt Jared needed a reminder of that. Jared, however, was not so receptive upon hearing it. Voices were raised and tempers rose. Hours passed without resolution.

“Very strong words from my father,” Jared said. “It was a heated argument at first. Then around, I’d say, four hours later after I slammed my door and kicked him out of my room and made him go to his room, I realized that I was wrong and he was right. I just apologized and told him I’m sorry, he’s right and I never meant to disrespect the family name.”

It wasn’t easy to admit initially, but Jared knew his father’s criticisms were warranted. For the entire month of January he had been letting distractions get in the way of his performances. He held on to sources of malcontent, letting them linger for days without brushing aside the unhappiness. Flagrant fouls were called, his shooting percentages dropped. That combined with nagging hand injuries led to a version of himself Jared didn’t like watching – nor did his father.

Satch was never lax on Jared growing up. If Jared wanted to play with his brothers, he had to hold his own. No special treatment for the youngest of the family. Either step up your game or don’t play at all. Jared thrived on those challenges – he learned how to rebound at age four – expanding his skills beyond his older counterparts. He became one of the top options on his teams, a role he was used to entering the NBA.

However, with the Celtics, Sullinger hasn’t been the go-to guy – a struggle that were foreign to Jared. In high school, he was named a McDonald’s All-American and won the Naismith Award. He accumulated piles of accolades in his two years at The Ohio State University and was projected as a lottery pick prior to health concerns about his back.

“When you grow up and you’re a basketball player, you’re kind of the go-to guy or you’re not only the go-to guy, but you get a lot of shots and you hardly ever come out. That’s what I was accustomed to,” Sullinger said. “Then when I got here, it kind of hit me like, ‘I’m not that guy anymore. I’m not that guy here at least.’ I just kind of woke up.”

In spite of falling in the draft, Jared showed why he garnered top-five talks early into his rookie season. He averaged close to 20 minutes a game, a rarity on a veteran-heavy Celtics team, and earned praise from hard-to-please Kevin Garnett. Jared was well on his way to establishing himself as one to watch before his season ended abruptly with a back injury that required surgery.

He made his return this season and while he still had to improve his conditioning following the lay off, he recorded three double-doubles in November and another two in December. Jared averaged 13.5 points and 7.0 rebounds the first two months of the regular season while adding a long-range shot to his repertoire.

But as 2013 came to an end, Jared shot a combined 8-for-29 FG (16 points) in the final three games of the calendar year. The beginning of 2014 wasn’t much better. A 3-for-17 shooting night was followed by a 3-for-11 performance early in the month. Weeks later, he went 0-for-5 from 3-point range during a 4-for-14 showing against the Miami HEAT. That same week he shot 3-for-10 (including 0-for-4 from behind the arc) in a loss to a Kevin Durant-less Oklahoma City Thunder.

Jared was still rebounding at a high level (nine double-digit games in January) but the frustrations were building. He fouled out once and 10 games of four fouls or more. Little things began accumulating into a larger mound of angst.

Satch had seen enough. He delivered a large dose of tough love.

“He cussed me out multiple times. Then he probably felt like he was good,” said Jared. “My dad always talks about karma. As long as you have karma off the court, you have karma on the court. Me, I would hold on to that game or hold on to that foul call throughout the whole game, throughout the next day, going into the next game, going into the next game, the next game. It happened and it was a snowball effect. Once it started rolling, it just got bigger and bigger and bigger, and I couldn’t stop it. … Finally it hit one of my cars, that’s what I say, it basically hit one of my cars and now one of my cars is damaged. But mentally I’m ok now.”

The change in Jared has been drastic since processing his father’s message. He has recorded five straight double-double dating back to January 29. During this span he is averaging 21.1 points (48.9% FG) and 13.4 rebounds, and his fouls have dropped to 3.0 per game.

“He’s putting up numbers,” said Kris Humphries. “He’s been big. He’s making shots, he’s rebounding the ball well, he’s getting putbacks. He’s playing great.”

Last weekend, Jared had a monster performance of 31 points and 16 rebounds against dominant big man DeMarcus Cousins. On Monday, he was named NBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week. Jared will also be heading to New Orleans to participate in the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge during NBA All-Star Weekend.

“Pretty much I just let everything go,” Jared said. “If a ref makes a bad call or a call I don’t agree with, I let it go. If there’s a play call that I don’t think is the right play call, I let it go. If it’s me coming out of the game when I’ve got things rolling, I let it go. Before I would hold on to certain things like that.

“I’m smiling more. Before, in January, I hardly ever smiled. Then on top of that I’m just going out there and playing with a good attitude, a great attitude. I’m understanding whatever Coach (Brad) Stevens does or whatever the ref calls, that’s final, and live with it.”

Building mental tolerance can be challenging for young players. Often times it is easy to forget Jared is only 21; his stature makes him look years older. Teammate Gerald Wallace was drafted when he was just 18 and knows the ups and downs of barely being an adult NBA.

“You just can’t dwell on it because it’s a long season, there’s a lot of games,” said Wallace. “You’re going to make mistakes, things aren’t going to go your way, but you’ve just got to continue to play and move forward. I think knowing that fact, once you get stuck on something or something frustrates you, it takes you out of the game and mentally messes you up and lingers to the next game. You’ve got to learn to let it go, move into the next game, and stay focused on what you’re doing.”

Jared understands he can’t let growing pains affect him on the court. He has to carry himself with the same maturity and poise as players who have been in the league for 15 years. Age was never an excuse for him, and it isn’t about to become one now.

“It just means that I’ve got to grow up,” said Jared. “A lot of times I’m leading by example by going out there and doing certain things, it’s just going to take time.”

Jared will see his father during All-Star Weekend and Satch plans to travel to the Celtics’ upcoming road games against the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz. Jared has given him full permission to dish out another reminder if he sees his son slipping up again.

Without Satch around, Jared has his own ways of staying focused and remembering the basketball values his father instilled in him. Last season, Jared watched “The Lion King” (a childhood favorite) while rehabbing from his back surgery. He liked the movie’s message of overcoming challenges and drew motivation from it.

This time around he is drawing another lesson from the Disney classic, one about family. Being told he was disrespecting the Sullinger name impacted Jared. He had been taught being a Sullinger meant playing hard and respecting the game, similar qualities to wearing a Celtics uniform, he said.

Jared watched the movie prior to the January 29 game against the Philadelphia 76ers in which he broke out of a slump and posted 24 points and 17 rebounds. He estimates he has watched it in its entirety every non-game day since then.

“I think my favorite part is when Simba realizes he has to go back because he’s disrespecting his father,” Jared said. “His father pretty much laid the foundation down of who he is, and he forgot about it because he thought running away from his problems will finally erase the memories that happened. But at the end of the day, the only way to leave memories is by learning from them.”

For a brief period of time Jared cared too much about the wrong things. He got caught up in frustrations that weighed him down and frustrated thoughts that held him back on the court. His father’s visit reminded him of who he really is – he is a Sullinger, he is a Boston Celtic, he is a talented NBA player who is only scratching the surface of his potential.

“I’m just a guy that plays blue-collar Celtic green basketball,” he said. “That’s about it. I’m back to my old ways, but certain things don’t matter. What matters is us winning, what matters is me going out there playing my hardest.”

Sullinger lowered his voice into a near whisper as if repeating his mantra out loud.

“Hakuna Matata,” he said. “It means no worries for the rest of your days. It’s our problem-free philosophy. Hakuna Matata.”

About Jessica Camerato

Jessica Camerato

Jessica Camerato is a bilingual reporter who has been covering the NBA since 2006. She has also covered MLB, NHL and MLS. A graduate of Quinnipiac University, Jessica is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association and the Association for Women in Sports Media.

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