Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEWARK — When Jared Sullinger steps on to the Prudential Center court Friday night against Kentucky in an NCAA Tournament East Regional semifinal, he may take a moment to reflect about a man who can’t be there to share it with him.
Harold “Briefy” Sullinger, Jared’s uncle who won a state championship under Gary Williams at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, N.J., passed away Dec. 3 of an apparent heart attack. He was 58.
Jared, a 6-foot-9, 280-pound Ohio State freshman, commemorates his uncle by writing “RIP, Uncle Brief” on his sneakers.
“[He will be] a big motivation,” Sullinger said Thursday.
“He always just told me what I need to do and what not to do. He was really kind of a big help. He was really more of a positive guy than a negative guy. I don’t know too much I can say because Uncle Brief, he was like not only my uncle, he was my friend. I miss him terribly.”
Williams, now the Maryland coach, was a 24-year-old high school coach at Woodrow Wilson when Harold Sullinger moved to Camden from Columbus, Ohio.
“Harold grew up in Columbus, Ohio,” Williams told the Philadelphia Inquirer in December. “His mom got a job as a schoolteacher in Camden. That was probably my first great recruiting job, convincing Harold to enroll in Woodrow Wilson instead of Camden High.”
Powered by five Division 1 players, that team went 27-0 en route to the New Jersey Group 4 state championship.
Along the way, they beat a strong Elizabeth team in the state semifinals before knocking off previously unbeaten East Orange at the Atlantic City Convention Center on a night “that ended with a wild brawl between spectators that spilled out onto the Boardwalk,” according to the Inquirer.
The 6-8 Sullinger posted 15 points and 10 rebounds in the 82-71 victory.
“That was a difficult time in our society,” Williams told the Inquirer. “The city was changing. There were riots. The way those guys played, the way they represented the city of Camden, that meant so much to the city in those days.
“They were really good people, all of those guys. They never wavered from doing the right thing.”
Harold moved on to the University of Iowa and played two years under coach Dick Schultz, who later became head of the NCAA and the United States Olympic Committee.
Sullinger concluded his career at Temple and later joined the United States Marine Corps.
He often attended his nephews’ games and rooted them on from the stands, along with his brother, James “Satch” Sullinger, Jared’s father.
Before Jared, Harold and James shouted instruction to Jared’s older brothers, J.J. and Julian, who, in turn, beat up and molded Jared into the player he is now.
“He always went to my basketball games,” Jared recalled. “He was always the voice I could hear, other than my mom.”
Jared said his uncle was constantly in touch via text, sending him pointers and tips.
“I can think about everything he said to me from Day One and how he used to text me,” Sullinger recalled. “The day before he died he texted me and said, ‘Instead of always going for the charge, swipe at the offensive hand he’s shooting with and you’ll get a couple misses.’ And I do that sometimes.”
On Dec. 9, the day Ohio State played IUPUI, Sullinger skipped the morning shootaround to attend Harold’s funeral at Columbus’ Love Zion Baptist Church.
He then went out and put up the first 40-point game at Ohio State in almost a quarter of a century.
“It was tough because I went to his funeral the day of the IUPUI game,” Sullinger said.
Now a Naismith Award Finalist, Sullinger enters the Kentucky game averaging 17.1 points and 10.0 rebounds.
“Going against Jared Sullinger will be a tough task,” said Kentucky big man Josh Harrellson. “One of the best big men in the country, if not the best big man. He has a lot of skills. He can do a lot of things to beat you.”
Sullinger is the best player on the No. 1 team in the NCAA Tournament. He remains coy about his immediate future and whether his plans for next year include the NBA or not.
But for now, for this moment, he faces the biggest game of his young life. And Uncle “Brief” won’t be there to share it with him.
“He would’ve loved it,” Sullinger said. “He would’ve been here.”
**Former teammates Irving, Strickland in Sweet 16
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.