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Commentary: Sullinger needs to conduct himself like a winner at all times

Cody Cousino / Multimedia editor

With the 2012 NBA Draft just hours away, some have questioned the ability, size and health of former Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger, and it remains to be seen where he’ll land in the draft.

After watching a couple unfortunate on-court incidents involving Sullinger this past season, as well as his interactions with the media both during the NCAA Tournament and during pre-draft workouts with NBA teams, my biggest concern for Sullinger is his maturity.

Sullinger’s a winner, both on and off the court, but he’s got a bit of work to do before the rest of the world sees that.

Based on wins and personal accolades, Sullinger is everything you’d expect from a player that opted to forego his final two seasons of collegiate eligibility. He received Associated Press First-Team All-American honors and helped lead the Buckeyes to 65 victories during his two seasons at OSU.

Of course, Sullinger played a massive role in the Buckeyes’ run to the Final Four in New Orleans, and was named the NCAA Tournament East Region’s Most Outstanding Player for his work in postseason games against Loyola (MD), Gonzaga, Cincinnati and Syracuse.

After the 77-70 win against Syracuse at TD Garden in Boston to send OSU to the Final Four, Sullinger couldn’t keep a cool head, though, and, through a toothy grin, continued a habit of sparring with the media.

“I appreciated everyone that doubted us,” Sullinger said after the win. “I want to thank you all because, through the adversity, we constantly pushed through that. I mean, we came from nothing, according to you all, to something.”

No one in the OSU media troupe had it out for Sullinger, or the team in general for that matter. Heck, a considerable percentage of the media are OSU alumni or current students. Having covered the Buckeyes throughout the 2011-12 season, I can say that criticism of the team was valid, particularly during a stretch that saw it lose 3-of-5 games between Feb. 11-26.

The first of those three losses came at home against Michigan State on Feb. 11, and the Buckeyes were convincing, 58-48, losers. Statistically, Sullinger had one of his worst outings as an OSU player, tallying 17 points but connecting on just 5-of-15 field goal attempts.

Worse still was his lack of composure.

Sullinger trailed behind a play along with then-senior Michigan State forward Draymond Green. The two players had been yapping all game, and everyone in the gym saw that Green was in Sullinger’s head. OSU’s big man couldn’t keep his cool and Sullinger proceeded to entangle himself with Green and hauled him to the floor. The oafish act, which you rightly could have considered purposeful had you observed Sullinger throughout the game, was evidence of the player’s thin skin.

Maturity was lacking once again in a dust-up with the media following a pre-draft workout with the Toronto Raptors when Sullinger was asked about the ESPN.com report regarding back injuries and being “medically red-flagged” by doctors.

Sullinger demeaned the media while discussing concerns about possible back injuries throughout a two-minute interview – even when one reporter pitched a “softball” questions about what the player is trying to showcase during pre-draft workouts with teams.

“My ability to finish over length,” Sullinger said in a NBA.com video while shrugging and rolling his eyes. “Everybody said I can’t finish over length.”

Then came an equally fair question about the widely-discussed subject of “Sully” slipping in the draft.

“No offense,” Sullinger began, “but most of you guys never player basketball, so what can they say?”

Sully is right – some in the media haven’t played basketball since junior high school, but does that mean they have a less-discerning eye when it comes to evaluating talent? You can be sure that Sullinger would run with any praise he received from the same non-player, media types as well.

The burden of scrutiny, especially when it comes in the form of criticism of the inter-workings and flaws of the player’s body, is a heavy cross to bear.

It’s also part of life as a professional athlete.

Does Sullinger expect to be coddled throughout his professional career? Is he going to be perturbed by every legitimate question or criticism that he may decide is offensive or unwarranted?

Jared – where you’re going (that’s a first-round draft selection, by the way), it doesn’t work like that..

Jared, I’ll tell you what – I’m going to steal a line from the movie “Moneyball” and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Oakland Athletics manager Art Howe who, in the movie, said of newly acquired – and highly-flawed – first baseman Scott Hattieberg: “I like him, but I can judge him.”

No one has a personal vendetta with you, Jared, but it’s well within our bounds to criticize you. And when the criticism comes, Jared, that doesn’t mean the media has it out for you.

Your “Underdog” cartoon character avatar on your Twitter profile – get rid of it. You’re the only one that considers yourself an underdog. People are going to criticize you in pro ball every single day. Consider this:: The expectations and hopes of a professional franchise will be on you.

The pressure you faced getting ready for the Final Four this past season – magnify that by a considerable degree because now there are financial investments being made in you by NBA team owners and advertisers and season ticket holders.

Even the scalpers outside the stadium need you to ball as soon as you hit the hardwood in your new NBA city.

Can you handle that?

You’re about to enter a new world where the pressure will be unlike anything you or, as you’ll likely point out, I have ever seen.

And that’s if you end up in a market where the pressure is lessened, like Phoenix or Minnesota or Golden State.

Suppose you land in one of the cynical Northeastern corridor media markets like New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Washington D.C. They won’t just criticize you, they’ll have a laugh after you try to talk back to reporters, and then you’ll look doubly foolish.

Jared, I watched you dominate in the Duke game this past season. I saw the disappointment on your face when you couldn’t go against Kansas back in December 2011. You’re an animal, you want this NBA dream, and to borrow another line from “Money
” and Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, you may not always act like a winner, but you are one.

So, let’s grow up, shall we, Jared? Handle your media responsibilities, stay cool on the court. If the ESPN.com report about your back injury is false, as you, your father and brother say it is, then convey it in a way that doesn’t come off as whiny. 

If you can’t deal with the repetitive questions from media critics and analysts, get in a room with some NBA public relations people and learn strategies for getting in and out of those interviews as quickly and painlessly as possible.

The truth is that you do have the mental and physical toughness to stick it out in the NBA. As Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane character might say, you are a winner.

Now, go get drafted, celebrate, but be sure to carry yourself like a winner for the rest of your career. Being flippant on the court and in the media room could jeopardize your marketability and the longevity of your success. 

And remember this quote from “Moneyball” which I’ve edited for the purpose of this column: “Listen up. You may not look like a (winner to some in the media), but you are one. So, play and act like one.”

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