March 3, 2011

Sullivan’s basketball ride to end; new chapter to begin

by Bill Reynolds, Providence Journal columnist

PROVIDENCE — He played on a high school team with Michael Jordan's two sons, played a high school game on ESPN, met Barack Obama when he was being recruited by Brown, has played for two coaches in college and two years with his younger brother, Matt. Oh yeah, he also will end his career this weekend as the fourth all-time scorer in Brown history.

Peter Sullivan has had one memorable basketball ride.

"It's crazy what's all happened," he said. "I never would have expected it coming in."

He was sitting in a room inside Brown's Pizzitola Gym that overlooked the basketball court. Down below his teammates were getting ready for one of their last practices of the year, the Brown season ending this weekend at Cornell and Columbia.

After that his long basketball ride will be over — all the youth games and AAU trips, all the practices and bus rides, all the hopes and dreams. All of it.

That's the thing that so often gets forgotten, the fact that these are not just college careers that are coming to a close on all these senior nights. These are the symbolic endings of long journeys through basketball culture.

And the other thing that often gets forgotten in this new basketball world?

College basketball once was an end in itself, not some way station on the road to professional basketball, whether it's the NBA, or a year and a half in Turkey. College basketball once was supposed to be about graduation as the passport to a better life, not merely some place to work on your game for the next level.

That awareness is also part of Sullivan's basketball story.

"I didn't know what to expect when I first came here," he said. "I've been very fortunate."

He was a center as a junior in high school in suburban Chicago, a 6-foot-5 kid on a Loyola Academy team that was one of the best in Illinois, one that had Michael Jordan going to all the home games. He was thinking of a Division III school, because how are you going to play in Division I as a 6-5 center? But the summer before his senior year he worked on his perimeter game, made some shots in some AAU tournaments, and one day he heard from Brown coach Craig Robinson.

That was the beginning.

"I didn't know anyone who had ever gone to Brown," he says. "I really didn't know what to expect. Would there be people like me?"

Eventually, he found out that there was, that Brown was big enough, and diverse enough, and open enough, to find your niche, whatever that niche may be. But when he first arrived in the fall of 2007 he felt like a stranger in a strange land. New school. New part of the country. Division I basketball. Complete with all the anxieties that came with that. How was he going to fit in? Was he good enough to play at this level?

But then he scored 19 points in one of the first games and all the anxiety went away. He went on to be the Ivy League rookie of the week four times.

He's been that way ever since — steady, dependable, tough, one of those blue collar players any coach would want on his team.

"His accomplishments are based on his consistency," said Brown coach Jesse Agel. "He's never had a bad day of practice, and each year he added something to his game."

He was third-team All-Ivy as a sophomore. As a junior he was only the fourth player in school history to already have scored 1,000 points. Then this past fall, in only the second day of practice, he hurt his right shoulder, an injury that's bothered him all year. He recently missed five straight games in the heart of the Ivy season, a dagger not only to this Brown team, but also to his senior year.

For this is it for Sullivan's basketball career.

There will be no attempt to play in Europe. There will be no chasing the dream that haunts so many college players, the sense that if they can only get a little stronger, or get hit by lightning, they can go on to have a career overseas, as if the ball doesn't get deflated when you leave college basketball these days, it just keeps bouncing somewhere else.

Sullivan already has a job, one with a medical records company in Madison, Wisc. He is one of four Brown senior players who already have jobs for next year, two on Wall Street.

Still, there's also the sense he's leaving something behind, this game that's defined him for so long, and in many ways opened up the world to him, this game he's put more hours into than anything else he's ever done. And there are times when it doesn't seem real that he's about to put the game in some childhood footlocker.

"I don't know if it's hit me yet," he said, "but I have no regrets. Some of my best friends are through Brown basketball. I've had as great an experience as anyone."

He paused a beat, as out the window came the sounds of basketball practice, and when he spoke his voice got quieter.

"You can only ride basketball for so long," said Peter Sullivan.

Even if it's been a great ride.