By RUSTY MILLER/ AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – They started hanging out when they were 10 or 11, scooping the snow off of driveways and outdoor courts before grabbing a basketball and pretending they were playing in huge showdowns.
“He was kind of short and he was like fat, kind of, but he could play,” Michigan’s Trey Burke remembers of the first time he saw Jared Sullinger. “He had good footwork and things like that. No one could stop him down low because even though he was out of shape he had good footwork and he could finish around the rim.”
The two battled in everything. Sullinger said that no matter who won, it usually ended in a fight because they were so competitive.
But they were best friends and learned a lot from each other.
“Trey was about 5-foot and I was 5-foot-7 or 5-8. I was overweight at the time and just trying to handle the ball,” Sullinger said. “And trying to beat Trey off the wing was really challenging so that really helped me out tremendously. We always played one-on-one, down in the basement in his house.”
Now, years later, they’ll meet on Sunday in a big rivalry game – on opposing teams. Burke estimates that they’ve been teammates in more than a thousand games, in middle school, at Columbus’ Northland High School, on AAU teams. This will be the first time they’ve ever gone against each other in a game that mattered.
Burke, a standout freshman point guard, and Sullinger, an All-American sophomore big man at Ohio State, were together when they won lots of games and lots of championships.
This time they’re playing with a share of first place in the Big Ten on the line between the 20th-ranked Wolverines (16-5, 6-2) and No. 4 Buckeyes (18-3, 6-2).
“Playing back in Columbus it’s going to be kind of, I won’t say weird, but it’s going to be kind of different,” Burke said. “It’s going to be a lot of people that are Ohio State fans there that I know really, really well and they just want to see me do well – but want to see us lose.”
Sullinger, a 6-foot-9 man-child, averages 17.3 points and 9.3 rebounds a game while shooting a hair under 60 percent from the field. He verbally committed to Ohio State early, around the time he won the first of two Associated Press Mr. Basketball awards as the best player in the state. Along with J.D. Weatherspoon, a jumping-jack forward who now comes off the bench for the Buckeyes, and Burke, Northland won the state championship three years ago and was ranked among the top teams in the nation.
A year younger than Sullinger and Weatherspoon, Burke at first said he was going to go to Penn State. In the meantime, Ohio State locked up prized point-guard recruit Shannon Scott, the son of former North Carolina and NBA star Charlie Scott, and didn’t have an opening for Burke.
Michigan swooped in and grabbed him just before he won the Mr. Basketball award. The Wolverines have been thrilled how it all worked out – Burke is averaging 14.1 points and 5 assists a game and is considered among the top freshmen in the country.
Sullinger was there when Burke signed his letter of intent with the Buckeyes’ hated rivals.
No hard feelings.
“That was really special because that’s like a brother of mine,” Sullinger said. “It almost brought tears to my eyes, because of all the stuff that all the people said about him. They said he was too slow, too short, couldn’t shoot, couldn’t pass. Now everybody who looked past him is, like, `Wow. We should have recruited that guy.’ He’s just making everybody eat their words.”
The momentum has been building to the eventual showdown.
Michigan coach John Beilein has cautioned Burke to rein in his emotions.
“We have spoken,” Beilein said. “Embrace this experience that you’re going back home – embrace every minute of it – but it cannot become a distraction.”
Burke has been looking forward to what all of the friends knew would eventually be a red-letter day.
“It’s going to be great playing against him,” he said. “It’s going to be so competitive. He’s going to want to win so bad and I’m going to want to win so bad.”
Just like it in the Burkes’ basement.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)