COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There's a cruelty in this that sometimes cannot be explained.
Jared Sullinger is supposed to be in New Jersey, inside the Prudential Center, in a never-before-worn custom suit, at a table draped in navy blue linen, surrounded by his immediate family, waiting for his name to be called.
Instead, he sits inside Eddie George's Grille 27 in Columbus, Ohio, on the campus of Ohio State University (still surrounded by family), in a black Ralph Lauren polo and True Religion jeans, watching the NBA draft on a flat-screen television, waiting for his name to be called.
Less than two weeks ago, Sullinger was being spoken of as one of the top players in the draft not named Anthony Davis. Anywhere from the fifth pick to the 10th was where mock drafters and many NBA draft experts had Sullinger slotted.
Then the red flag. NBA doctors, who after examining Sullinger and watching him work out, discovered what they felt was a back problem (disc) that could or would eventually shorten Sullinger's career. NBA execs flinched.
Flashbacks of Greg Oden seeped into the minds of those controlling top draft picks. Then flashes of Tracy McGrady's and Baron Davis' back-problem-ladened careers. Visions of Larry Bird lying on the court in front of the bench at the end of his career. Sullinger's stock dropped like Facebook.
In the span of 10 days, Sullinger went from believing he was going to be a lottery pick to not being invited to the draft for fear of, and protection from, embarrassment by the league. The NBA didn't want another Rashard Lewis on its hands.
As much as Sullinger and his family say that this doesn't bother them, hugging former Ohio State standout and European pro Scoonie Penn (who came through to give Jared support) instead of shaking David Stern's hand has to hurt to a degree. Their lives have been too invested in anticipating this moment for them to not feel the pain.
Welcome to the hardest pill to swallow in sports: the business side of the game. More than anything outside of a career-ending injury, it's the cruelest part of any athlete's venture into his or her profession. Especially if this is the player's introduction to the game professionally.
With Sullinger, the cruelty did not discriminate. Just days ago, he was being spoken of in some circles as possibly being the neo-generation's next Tim Duncan. Now players such as Dion Waiters (No. 4/Cleveland), Damian Lillard (No. 6/Portland), Terrence Ross (No. 8/Toronto), Meyers Leonard (No. 11/ Portland), Maurice Harkless (No. 15/Philadelphia) and Andrew Nicholson (No. 19/Orlando) -- players who did not accomplish anything close to what Sullinger did during his two-year college career -- are going ahead of him. Having these players drafted before him is the equivalent of feeling someone pouring salt directly into the stab wound and then twisting the knife. Cold-blooded.
As if those players selected before him were greater and going to be greater than him. Noxious.
All because of an unofficial, undiagnosed injury that has never really affected his play and never stopped Sullinger from twice being named an AP and Sporting News First Team All-American and arguably one of the five best players yet to enter the NBA.
Yeah, this side of the game is kinda merciless. And this time, Jared Sullinger just happened to be the victim.
He finally hears his name called. He's going to Boston. It's a bit of consolation for the money and attention he won't be getting by not being a lottery pick. But still, in the back of Sullinger's mind, is the reality: He is here, when he should have been there.
"I'm glad the way it worked out. I got to be with family and friends that really care about me," he said while close to a hundred "family and friends" celebrated around him in his honor.
There have been players in the past whose stock had dropped prior to draft night that used the cruelness to fuel them. Think Amare Stoudemire and Paul Pierce. In 2009, DeJuan Blair was coming off a co-Big East Player of the Year campaign at Pittsburgh, only to have the medical disclosure of him not having any cartilage in his knees be held against him by just about every team in the NBA. He dropped from a top-15 prospect to the 37th pick overall.
Similar to Sullinger, there was never a major incident in Blair's college career that gave teams reason to run from him in that manner. So the fact that with Blair there hasn't been a health issue or an incident in the three years he's been in the league has to make the teams that passed on him feel they didn't do the right thing. Some teams, looking at whom they drafted instead of Blair, have to be kicking themselves or contemplating firing someone.
Sullinger takes this whole thing differently. He looks at this as a blessing in drag as opposed to one of life's cruelties.
"To me," he says, with a Celtics cap resting atop his head, "this (not being invited to the draft, being picked low) still tells me I'm not a good enough player yet. They told me I wasn't good enough, now it's time to work."
This is what will make him stronger. This is what Sullinger has to hold on to.
This is also what will haunt him. Jared Sullinger will use being picked 21st in the draft and not being invited to New Jersey as his base incentive to prove doctors, GMs, league execs and every team in the NBA that passed on him wrong.
Yes, cruelty is a part of the game, but how one handles it once it sinks its teeth in is the true measure of the type of player one will become. It's a much better indicator for what type of future a player will have than any questioned and questionable medical report.