During pregame warm-ups before Columbus Northland's 73-59 victory against Warren (Ohio) Harding in the state semifinals at Value City Arena, Ohio's Mr. Basketball sat alone on the bench for about five minutes. Running through his mind for the entire time was a lyric he picked up from his brother, Jared.
That line goes, "If there's one thing for sure, I'm not going to fake it." Those 11 words remind him of his suspension for a state playoff game one year ago by his father and coach, Satch, due to an academic situation.
Without Sullinger in the lineup, the Vikings dropped their contest against Westerville South and abruptly exited the state playoffs. Now a year older and a year wiser, Sullinger said he is constantly aware of the lesson he learned as his sophomore season came to an end.
"I say that every time," he said of the lyric. "It gives me energy and gives me courage. I was trying to fake my schoolwork, and that's a no-no now. That song, it's a real motivational song."
The message clearly has gotten across. In addition to his ranking by Scout.com as the nation's No. 1 center prospect for the class of 2010, Sullinger is no longer subject to random grade checks from his father.
On the court, the news is just as positive. Having entered the semifinal game averaging 18.9 points per game, Sullinger put up a double-double against Harding with 22 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.
His father said he prefers to look at the present rather than reflect on the past, and that viewpoint allows him to see the growth his son has made.
"This is his life. This is his character. This is who he wants to be," he said. "I'm a safety net. I can't steer him through the storm. I can tell him the storm is coming, but he's got to steer that thing."
Even a year removed, however, the way the 2007-08 season ended evokes a passionate answer from the Ohio State verbal commitment.
"My motivation this year was last year," he said. "I'm doing my schoolwork and handling things off the court. With that being said, it cleaned my soul. I had that burning fire that wouldn't go out. I was just so frustrated. I was ready to fight anybody who even said ‘Westerville South.' "
The incident last year was an isolated one, his father said. Taking the advice of his own father, Satch said he did not push the panic button but rather had faith that his son would pull through better for the wear.
In essence, the coach said, his son came to a fork in the road and took the correct path.
"He said, ‘Every kid is going to try a little something, so don't hit the panic button. When you hit the panic button is when you see him getting in the rocking chair with it and getting comfortable,' " Satch said. "He wasn't comfortable. I said, ‘Jared, we aren't doing it this way.' "
Both father and son might have moved on from last year's incident, but it continues to help fuel Jared to achieve greater heights.
"I think about it before every game," he said. "It just makes me mad and madder. The more I think about it, the more I get mad. That's what the coaches want so that's what I do."
Now what remains to be seen is if a state championship can finally close that chapter in the Sullinger family history. They get their chance Saturday night.