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Best friends on opposite sides

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The third-grader heard all about him -- this kind of short, kind of overweight, kind of insanely talented fourth-grader his father wouldn't shut up about. The father, also his youth basketball coach, hinted that the fourth-grader kind of wanted to join the team.

When that fourth-grader, Jared Sullinger, showed up at a local basketball tournament at "The Hoop" in Columbus, Ohio, no one involved could have predicted what the next decade-plus would bring. Not Sullinger. Not the coach of that Team Reebok squad, Benji Burke.

And not his third-grade son, Trey Burke.

What transpired was a friendship that melded the Sullinger and Burke families together forever. Benji coached them both on Team Reebok. Jared's father, Satch Sullinger, coached the pair at Northland High School in Columbus.

Until last month, the two had never faced each other in a basketball game that counted. Now, they'll play against each other for the second time in their lives Saturday when No. 6 Ohio State faces No. 19 Michigan.

But this all started on a childhood AAU team with four future Division I athletes on it: Burke, Sullinger, Wisconsin guard Traevon Jackson and Ohio State defensive back Adam Griffin.

"We had a pretty talented group of guys growing up," Jackson said. "Watching all of us grow up and seeing the success we had when we got older was real cool."

After that first tournament, the Burkes had the entire team sleep over at their house that night. Sullinger showed up and felt kind of comfortable, but Ronda Burke, Trey's mom, said he wasn't eating nearly as much as he could have.

She learned this later, when she watched her son and Sullinger get into competitive eating contests in which both would pig out and the smaller Burke would sometimes win.

Sleeping over one night led to Sullinger staying with the Burkes almost every weekend, turning their finished basement into Jared and Trey's personal domain. Trey, though, asked for it.

They saw similarities in each other -- two players who loved basketball, who thought about things the same way, and it turned a friendship into a brotherly bond. In Burke, Sullinger saw a confidant his own age -- his actual brothers were much older than him. In Sullinger, Burke saw the potential to have another boy in a house filled with sisters.

So the two latched on to one another and, save for one year when the Burkes moved to Atlanta because Ronda took a new job, they were inseparable.

"Everywhere they went, they were together," Benji said. "If they went to a high school game, they were together. It carried off the court, because they both had the same goals in common. They wanted to be good.

"Every weekend he was at our house. Every weekend. Whether we played there or not, he was there."

As their off-the-court friendship flourished, something similar transpired on the court. The two friends as close as brothers made the basketball community in Columbus take notice.

Team Reebok
It wasn't a team that would be together forever, but Team Reebok was a special one. It was their first experience on the national AAU circuit, funded in part by Griffin's father, former Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, and Jackson's father, former Ohio State and NBA player Jim Jackson.

And it was one in which the kids who eventually would become college athletes were learning to play basketball. Scholarship hunting was secondary.

"I didn't think, 'Would they be Division I athletes?' " Benji said. "We were focused on getting a medal, finishing top 10, top 12 at nationals. I didn't think about it. I knew they were good around here, in the Midwest, we'd go and win tournaments in Kentucky and Indiana.

"I knew they were as good as those guys in those states, but I didn't look beyond that."

The players weren't thinking like that, either. Friendships were forming. Sullinger, who was then an overweight kid, wanted to eat as much McDonald's as possible.

Burke would make fun of Jackson for having big eyebrows by holding up shoes to his head, saying they were as big as Jackson's eyebrows.

"It was pretty funny," Jackson said. "At the time, I didn't think it was funny, but now that I look back, that was hilarious."

If anything, the players talked about what colleges they liked. And as they did, the idea Burke and Sullinger eventually would play apart started to grow. It just wouldn't happen for almost 10 years.

The split started last season, when Sullinger was a freshman at Ohio State and Burke was leading Northland to the state championship game while being named Ohio's Mr. Basketball the year after Sullinger was.

It continued when Burke decided to attend Michigan. Ohio State never really recruited him, and it finally set up the two friends as foes.

"When we were young, Trey loved Duke and Arizona and really the Pac-10 and the way they played, that it was a guard type of conference," Sullinger said. "He talked about Duke and how they played. I always talked about UConn when I was younger, so we always had a sense that we were going to break from one another.

"But it didn't seem like it, because when I went to middle school, he was at my middle school. When I went to high school, he came to my high school. It was just impressive."

Even though they talked about their mutual dream of playing college basketball, they never thought it would be like this. They never thought they'd be two of the Big Ten's best players.

They just wanted to play. At the time, they were playing together, and it took until Jan. 29 for them to be basketball opponents anywhere other than a scrimmage or in Burke's basement.

Friends and foes
Javon Cornley turned on the television that Sunday afternoon, flipped the channel to CBS and saw what he used to see live every day at Northland being played out in front of millions on television.

Back then, he watched Jared and Trey make fun of Satch. Jared imitated his father's gait and his voice. Cornley, a former Northland teammate, said Trey chimed in yelling Satch's familiar phrase, "Baby boy. Baby boy."

He had seen them as the closest of friends. He wanted to see how they'd handle being opponents.

"I was looking for all the little bumps and things like that," said Cornley, now a defensive end at Indiana. "I saw one, I think it was during a TV timeout where they both were walking toward the bench, they said little things to each other.

"I don't know what they said, but you could tell it was some personal stuff."

As much as Burke and Sullinger said it wouldn't be different, it was. It had to be. Human emotion wouldn't allow it to be anything else.

These were kids who fought over everything, from video games to eating competitions to wrestling in the Burkes' basement. Carrying it to a national stage brought more exposure. More pressure. More expectation.

"It was a little different," Sullinger said. "For the first time, I didn't root for Trey to play well. I rooted for Trey to play kind of bad. It felt weird, but at the same time I knew why I was doing it."

They were opponents.

Late in the game, Sullinger waved his arms to rile up the Schottenstein Center crowd as the Buckeyes pulled away. At the same time, Burke happened to be walking by and Ronda saw the look on her son's face.

He wasn't happy. Not with the way his team played. Not with Sullinger. Ronda wanted to say something to Sullinger -- the families are close enough that that could happen without any ripples following.

Then she asked Trey what he thought.

"Trey's reaction was, 'Yes, he should have [done that], Mom. I would have done the same thing,'" Ronda said. "It's like they know each other so well. Jared knew that if Trey was in this position, he'd be getting his crowd amped up right about now.

"At that point, when Trey said he'd do the same thing, I realized there is nothing I could say to Jared, because he did exactly what two brothers would do."

There is one other thing brothers would do. Sullinger knows it's coming, too, probably sometime close to tipoff Saturday night, when Michigan and Ohio State play for the second time with a national audience watching.

Sullinger knows Trey Burke hates to lose. So what does he expect?

"Revenge," Sullinger said.

As only a brother would know.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.