On Saturday, The Basketball Tournament kicked off and Jared Sullinger was on the sideline for Carmen’s Crew. He was the coach of the team filled mostly with Ohio State alumni. It’s a role he relishes. Yet it’s not a role he wants to assume permanently.
Sullinger, the Celtics’ first-round pick in 2012 who enjoyed four solid seasons with the club, still has aspirations of returning to the NBA. He’s only 28 but hasn’t played in the league in three years. His post-Celtic career lasted just 11 games with the Raptors, and then Sullinger learned about the harsh reality of being injured and considered damaged goods.
He has recovered fully. Sullinger is married and the father of twins. He reflects on his Celtics years fondly but hopes he’s not done gobbling up rebounds with his burly frame.
“I want to play and, of course, the NBA is the ultimate goal,” he said. “The last two years I just felt like I had to find myself. I had to find something that drives me and makes me want to play. In the NBA, you kind of get lost in the shuffle because you have so many games, and when I got out there in [the Chinese Basketball Association] it was kind of a retreat for Jared Sullinger to learn himself and fall in love with the game again.”
When Sullinger was on the floor, he was effective. In four seasons with the Celtics, he averaged 11.1 points and 7.7 rebounds. But he missed 70 games over those four seasons because of various injuries, including to his back and foot. Privately, team officials thought excess weight may have contributed to his issues. When Sullinger signed with Toronto, he required foot surgery that eventually led to a trade to Phoenix, which waived him.
Once considered a potential No. 1 overall pick, Sullinger was out of the league in less than five years.
“I tell people that college is the last time you play basketball in the purest form,” he said. “Everything was just perfect. Sometimes you lose that and sometimes you start using basketball as a business and you lose focus as to why you play. Things happened real fast. Being in China helped me find of the passion of why I’m playing basketball.”
In his first season with the Shenzhen Leopards, he averaged 30.4 points and 16.7 rebounds in 38 games. Sullinger averaged 27 points and 13 rebounds in 15 games last season before leaving the team to attend to his pregnant wife.
“I thought to myself, if I’m not ready [for an NBA return] let me go find a place where I can get ready,” he said. “I’m completely healthy. I feel good. The ultimate goal is the NBA. I’m trying to give it one more shot. Sometimes it’s a yes, sometimes it’s a no. No hard feelings. If they don’t want me I’m going to have to make a business decision and go elsewhere.
“There’s no perfect story, but there is a story.”
Sullinger is still working out to prepare for a return, but the pandemic wiped out summer league and any opportunity for Sullinger to get a chance at training camp. He said he’ll continue to prepare until that chance comes.
While he waits, Sullinger is coaching Carmen’s Crew, filled with several of his former Buckeyes teammates, and has enjoyed coaching. Teams play for a winner-take-all $1 million-plus prize at The Basketball Tournament.
Fatherhood also has changed Sullinger’s life. He was stunned when he found out his wife, DeAnn, was expecting twins.
“I just remember when we were coming back from China and we kind of had an idea she was pregnant and the doctor says here goes one heartbeat and here’s a second,” he said. “And I was like, ‘A second?’ I was in the corner like quiet, I didn’t know how to accept having twins.”
Sullinger’s reflections include some regrets. Not keeping himself in top condition, perhaps waiting too long to have back surgery. When the Celtics needed to clear cap space to sign Al Horford, they waived Sullinger.
“If you look back, they gave me four years of being in the NBA, and regardless of the situation there’s a lot of people that never got a chance to play in the NBA,” he said. “For me, to be one of the staple guys for four years for the Boston Celtics, one of the most storied franchises of all time and being somebody that’s important on that team, if I said I had a bad time then I’d be lying. I had a great time playing in Boston. It was amazing. A dream come true.”
LEARN BY DOING
Smith’s camp enlists all-star counselors
Former NBA standout and current TNT analyst Kenny Smith has devised a two-hour live basketball instructional stream that includes some of today’s current stars, including the Celtics’ Kemba Walker and former WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart. The videos feature five-days sessions with the likes of Trae Young, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, and Victor Oladipo.
Smith watched as his kids learned at home online, but their basketball camps were canceled.
“I have a basketball camp in North Carolina, 700 kids, canceled. I do a camp in Europe, 45,000 kids, canceled. So how do you reach them?” he said. “So my son and my daughter were saying, ‘Why don’t you just do it online?' I had to take it to another level. You just work side by side with your favorite basketball player and you’re doing the drills that he actually does. It’s live and you can do questions and answers.”
Participants get a chance to learn from NBA and WNBA players.
“I thought, ‘Why should COVID and social distancing stop your development?' They get to experience while it’s happening,” Smith said. “That’s the difference. Kemba, if he ain’t showing how to do the step back and the snatch back, this camp ain’t worth it. I told him, you’re going to have to reveal what you really do in your workouts. You’ve got to give these kids something they’ve never seen before. And he’s loving it.”
Basketball instruction has changed considerably over the last several years, and Smith hopes this virtual class will allow players to improve regardless of their circumstances.
The NBA season is set to resume July 30 in Orlando. But there is a high level of uncertainty about how it will turn out and which team will respond better to the different circumstances.
“This interruption has been a long interruption, long enough where you would be starting a new season by now,” Smith said. “The identity of the teams are not the same. All bets are off on who’s the favorite. There are going to be five guys that come back and we’re going to be like, ‘Damn, I didn’t know Jayson Tatum could do that now,’ ”
Smith aspires to be a general manager, but the NBA has had issues in recent years with diversity in front offices. He hopes that recent events will cause the NBA power structure to closely examine hiring.
“To think people don’t gravitate toward people who are like them, look like them, or are like-minded, then you don’t understand the basis of stereotypes and racism, which is two different things,” he said. “If I make my decisions based on race and not having the ability to have the opportunity, then I’m a racist. It’s a simple process. White America is like how do I figure it out? You’re making the decision and you’re taking into account that it will hinder someone based on their race. That’s a racist act, period.”
What bothers Smith and many other former players is that front office candidates who did not play the game but are astute analytically are somehow seen as more qualified than former players.
“You mean to tell me LeBron James couldn’t put a team together? He puts it together now. You’re telling me his production and consumption of information is not more valuable than someone who’s never played the game? It’s impossible. It’s an awareness.”
Sigh of relief for anxious execs
The NBA announced on Thursday that 25 of 351 players tested were positive for COVID-19, a 7.1 percent rate. The number is less than what league and union officials expected. The league is preparing for more positive tests, but hoping that the bubble environment will facilitate a safe atmosphere where constant testing will eliminate many concerns.
“I think one would have been concerning, but God forgive me, I’m somewhat relieved that the number was not higher,” NBPA executive director Michele Roberts said. “I’m also relieved that we had the foresight to identify the players that would be testing positive now because our goal, of course, is to make sure that when guys do report to campus that they’d be reporting having been tested negative. I’ve been holding my breath for the last few weeks, and again, maybe I should be less enthusiastic or optimistic. If nothing else, it’s told me that the great majority of our players have been doing exactly what they should have been doing, which is keeping safe. Again, one is too many, but 150 would have been devastating.”
Commissioner Adam Silver has been working hard to ensure players and team officials that the Florida bubble will be a safe environment.
“I’ll just add that ultimately I share Michele’s reaction,‘‘ he said. “I was relieved not just that the number came in roughly where we expected it would, based on their age group and similar testing in other situations from other leagues and other industries, but also that none of the 16 [players who tested positive last week] were seriously ill in any way, and that was also a big relief for us.”
Uniforms will have more say
ESPN’s The Undefeated reported the league and players’ union have settled on what could be placed on the back of a jersey if a player chooses to make a social statement. They agreed not to place the names of those killed by police, such as George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. Instead, players will be able to place sayings such as “I Can’t Breathe,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Power to the People” on their jerseys.
“As far as the players are concerned, I think at the end of the day this is a platform where because of the game and because of the popularity of the game and more specifically the popularity of our players, the world is going to be watching,” NBPA executive director Michele Roberts said. “And the more the guys talk about it, the more this is the platform where the world will be watching.
“We’ve been spending a lot of time going from dealing with the outbreak to spending hours on the phone talking about the ways we want to engage players and the community and keeping the conversation going.
“I don’t want to blow the lead-up, so I won’t tell you specifically, but it’s a special opportunity for our players to both learn and teach and, of course, promote and advance. In addition to playing basketball, I think there’s going to be some historical things being done by our players, for our players and with our players and engaging the community at the same time. This is going to be truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and to the extent this horrific virus and these awful killings have a silver lining, I think this is it.”
The discussions between the league and players’ union have been amicable. They each realize the importance of harmony during these times (see, Major League Baseball), and the league has not only understood but encouraged players to express themselves on social issues.
It was the Celtics’ Enes Kanter who said this past week, “If the season finished, Adam Silver should get the MVP.”
“I think the thing for us as players and the league is like we all understand, too, like I said, we’re aware we’re not just basketball players,” NBPA president Chris Paul said. “We are — like me, I’m a Black African-American with kids and a wife and a family and stuff like that, so everything that you’ve seen from George Floyd to Breonna Taylor to Rayshard Brooks, and related to Elijah McClain, you see this stuff. So we can’t act like we don’t because these are our communities, these are the streets that we walk on, that we’re raised on, that we grew up on, so we’re aware.
“We also understand how powerful our voice is, and so even if we’re back to playing, we understand that our voice can still be heard, our message can still be screamed loud and clear on an unbelievable platform, so just know that you’re going to continue to hear us. Just know that. It’s never a shut-up-and-dribble situation. You’re going to continue to hear us and see us.”
There is a groundswell of support for the eight NBA teams that won’t be going to Orlando to practice and play games in a central location. The thought is those teams, if they did not return to action, would have perhaps nine months of inactivity because of the suspended season. That’s a long gap without basketball, especially for younger players who could spend that time improving. So while those games would have no tangible meaning in the standings, it could serve as valuable experience . . . A salute to play-by-play man Kevin Calabro, who decided to step down before the Trail Blazers resumed play next month. While Calabro, 64, spent the past four years in Portland, he is most popular for being the SuperSonics play-by-play man for 31 years until their departure to Oklahoma City. Calabro also had done work for ESPN radio. This reporter got a chance to spend three years with Calabro in Seattle and he was a true professional and one of the top play-by-play voices in the game . . . The Celtics reported no COVID-19 positive results as all of the roster underwent tests once the players returned to the Brighton practice facility. They have a full roster and will be able to take Tremont Waters and Tacko Fall to Florida for support. There are available players who could help teams, such as Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley, but the Celtics appear content with their roster . . . Beasley is an intriguing player because he is only 31 years old and has been working out during the pandemic with All-Star James Harden. Beasley had a 26-game stint with the Lakers before he was traded to the Clippers for Mike Muscala in February 2019. The Clippers released Beasley and he’s been looking for work ever since. Beasley has cleaned up his once-soiled reputation and has always been an above-average scorer who could help a team off the bench. Players such as Beasley will be waiting for their opportunity as teams finalize their rosters. If a club has a positive COVID-19 test or a player who decides to bypass the resumed season, teams have the option of filling that roster spot with a replacement player. The Wizards added former Bull Jerian Grant to their roster this past week.