Former Teammates Sullinger, Burke Prepared for First Face-Off
By Ben Axelrod
COLUMBUS, Ohio — During a Wednesday teleconference, Michigan point guard Trey Burke said that he and Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger have played in a thousand games together over the course of their friendship.
If Burke’s estimate is correct, the 1,001st game featuring the friends of 11 years will be the first in different uniforms.
After playing together for three seasons at Columbus’ Northland High School, the past two Mr. Ohio Basketball’s will reunite on Sunday when Burke’s Wolverines head to Columbus to face Sullinger’s Buckeyes in a battle for first place in the Big Ten.
Sullinger said he’s kept in touch with Burke, who’s averaging 14.1 points and 5.0 assists per game as a freshman with Michigan, but Sunday’s match-up has yet to been brought up by either of the former Northland Vikings.
“We just talking basketball at this point,” Sullinger said.
“He’s really not saying nothing about this basketball game and I’m not saying nothing about this basketball game.”
Just because Burke—who’s received several ticket requests for Sunday’s game from friends and family—hasn’t said anything to Sullinger about his homecoming, that doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about it.
“It’s a game I’m definitely looking forward to. We’re tied for first in the top of the conference with Ohio State, so it would definitely be a big win,” Burke said.
“Just to have the opportunity to go back home and play in Columbus in front of a lot of my supporters is big. I’m just going to go in to the game with the same mindset I have all year, just making plays for my team and doing what’s best for us to win.”
According to Burke, the only thing that Sullinger has said to him about Sunday’s match-up is that it will bring tears to both of their parents eyes. That shouldn’t be very surprising considering how long the former teammates have known each other.
Sullinger and Burke first met when Jared was a third grader and Trey was a second grader, but really started to develop a friendship two years later. It was at that time—when Burke was a fourth grade—that the two played in their first of many basketball games together.
“My dad told me that we were going to get a kid named Jared. At the time I knew who J.J. Sullinger was. I think he was playing for Arkansas at the time and he told me that he was J.J. Sullinger’s brother,” Burke said.
“He was kind of like short and he was fat kind of. He could play, he had good footwork and things like that. Couldn’t anyone stop him down low ‘cause even though he was out of shape, he had good footwork and could finish around the rim and things like that.”
From there, the two became fast friends, with Sullinger even spending five or six days straight at the Burkes’ house. Aside from the occasional scrimmage or showcase, they rarely competed against each other on the basketball court, but they manage to develop quite the rivalry in the Burkes’ basement.
“We’ve always played against each other in video games,” Burke said.
“We were so competitive with each other in video games and things like that and little basketball games downstairs in my basement. That’s really the only time we’ve played against each other.”
Sullinger remembers those Xbox battles well, but recalls Burke’s reaction to losing them even better.
“He was a crybaby,” Sullinger said.
“Every time he lost, he cried about it. He finally grew out of that. It was crazy when we was younger.”
When his mom took a new job before the start of his eighth grade year, Burke was forced to move to Atlanta. He would return to Columbus a year later and just in time to reunite with Sullinger at Northland, where Jared’s father, “Satch” was the head coach.
By that time, Jared had already committed to play for coach Thad Matta at Ohio State, and the Buckeyes were also showing interest in another Viking, the high-flying and now OSU forward J.D. Weatherspoon. Burke too wanted to join his teammates in playing college basketball down the road at Value City Arena, but with Buckeyes having already targeted point guards Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott, he felt like the odd man out.
“The coaching staff really wasn’t as interested in me as I wanted them to be,” Burke said.
With no scholarship offer from OSU, Burke committed to Penn State as a high school sophomore, but later de-committed and reopened his recruitment. The 5-11 Burke eventually wound up in Ann Arbor, Mich. where he’s started all but one game for the Wolverines and now has the opportunity to put his team in first place with a win over the Buckeyes on Sunday.
“Once I got to Michigan, I saw that this was the best decision for me and the best place for me to be,” Burke admitted.
Sullinger, for one, isn’t surprised by the success that his former teammate’s found in Ann Arbor and admitted that it will be strange to see him in a maize and blue uniform on Sunday.
“I knew ever since we was younger. Everybody was always doubting him and when he you doubt him, that’s when he comes out with his biggest games,” Sullinger said.
“The biggest thing is I just miss him as a brother and as a friend. We’ve been around each other for so long. It’s just kind of awkward not seeing him in the same color jersey as me and on the opposite side of the floor.”
With the Big Ten lead on the line, the OSU forward said that he’s prepared to put 11 years of friendship on hold for 40 minutes on Sunday.
“It’s all about Ohio State at that point,” Sullinger said with a laugh.
“I’m just proud of the way he became and how he’s handling success.”