If Justin Sullivan has learned anything in his seven years away from organized basketball, it's how to appreciate an opportunity.
As the 6-foot-2 former Watertown High School star resumes his career with the Jefferson Community College men's team this season, his main goal is to ensure his teammates learn that same lesson.
“The limelight is not really there for me, I just want to be there for my team,” Sullivan said. “I don't care if I make two points or if I make 20, if I play a minute or if I play the whole game, I'm just more there for my team right now. I've made the commitment and I want to see these guys succeed. That's the best part for me right now.”
Area hoops fans likely remember Sullivan, a starter for the Cyclones from 2002-05 and a Times All-North selection in his senior year.
Whether he was rising up for a thunderous dunk or blocking a shot that you would think he had no chance to get to, Sullivan played on a different level, athletically, than just about all of his peers.
According to JCC head coach Charlie Bridge, Sullivan is now on a different maturity level than just about all of his colleagues, making him a natural leader for a team that has just two sophomores out of 16 players.
“His maturity is definitely a lot further ahead than the other guys. His academic work, too, is very impressive,” said Bridge, whose team will kick off its regular season on Friday night in the Mohawk Valley CC Tournament.
Sullivan had plans to play for Division III Utica College out of high school, but said that didn't work out for various reasons.
Sullivan said that his academics suffered back then due to a little too much partying. And, after being robbed at gunpoint for his stereo system, he decided to leave Utica and come back to the area.
“It's tough to learn from those mistakes, and now I'm trying to build from it and help these guys build their character,” Sullivan said. “So that when they go outside of the school they have something to represent themselves with besides just basketball. Have some character, some core values.”
Not too long after Sullivan returned home, his brother went to jail on charges of possessing a controlled substance and a loaded handgun. That proved to be another learning experience for Sullivan.
“With these guys, if I see any signs of anything wrong, I want to instantly stop it,” Sullivan said. “Just tell them, 'Cut it out. You got a golden opportunity here, take it and make the best of it because there are some guys who wish they could have the opportunity.'”
Over the last few years, Sullivan has focused on starting his family and career.
He and his girlfriend have a 3-year-old daughter, Ryanna, whom Sullivan said is just as basketball crazy as her father.
He enrolled at JCC last fall to finish earning his business degree. He plans to start his own business specializing in air-brushing, a passion that was born in high school when he routinely altered his basketball shoes with a marker in order to make them look different from his brothers.
Sullivan has earned above a 3.5 grade-point average in each of his two semesters at JCC, and is on his way to keeping that streak alive this fall.
“That's very impressive for a student athlete,” Bridge said. “Having that under his belt, it kind of helps him ride some of the younger freshman, academically, and show them how to do it the right way.”
“I try to make sure that these guys know the importance of keeping your grades up,” said Sullivan, who gives several out-of-the-area players rides to class each morning. “It's not just about playing ball. Ball is a privilege.”
On the court, Sullivan is expected to be an impact player, though the rotation is still being sorted out with so many new players being worked in.
Sullivan said that his speed and explosiveness is not quite what it used to be, but he and Bridge believe he is much stronger than he was in high school. He is expected to be an inside presence for a team whose tallest player is listed at 6-foot-4.
Here is a look at both the JCC men's and women's squads:
Outlook: The Cannoneers have lost their entire starting five from last year's team that finished second in the Mid-State Athletic Conference. Gone are Jabriel Blue, who led Region 3 in scoring in each of the last two years, and 6-foot-10 center, Tom Kelso. Kelso's departure has helped force JCC to go back to its traditional fast-break, up-tempo offense. Bridge believes that the team has a good group of athletic combo guards, and will look to play full-court man-to-man defense and get in transition at every single opportunity. Though the team is young and relatively small, Bridge believes his squad may be the deepest he has had in his seven-year tenure.
Coach: Charlie Bridge (7th year).
2011-12 record: 14-15.
Players to watch: Damien Jackson, Ryan Tomlin.
Roster: Tyler Edgar (6-3, Fr., F); Chris Furr (6-0, Fr., G); Alex Sullivan (6-0, Fr., G); Samuel Durodola (6-3, Fr., G); Derrick Williams (6-1, So., G); Jared Hickok (6-1, Fr., G); Denzell Davis (5-11, Fr., G); Damien Jackson (6-2, Fr., G); Camryn Mapp (6-0, Fr., G); Ryan Tomlin (6-2, Fr., G); Anthonnelli Ramos (6-0, Fr. G); Justin Sullivan (6-2, Fr., F); Kenneth Thomas (6-2, Fr., F); Kwante Arthur (6-1, Fr., G); Isaiah Butler (6-3, Fr., F); Andrew McNitt (6-4, So., F).
Outlook: The Cannoneers will again have a thin bench with just eight players due to losing a few commitments for various reasons this fall. But coach Josh Woodward said that the talent level is clearly higher in his second year at the helm. Second-year starters Morgan Kiernan and Amber Dibble should benefit from the year of experience and be able to follow up on their respective strong freshman seasons. The team has a true, talented point guard in Jasmine Canady, a freshman from Overhills High School in Spring Lake, N.C. The team will also rely on strong contributions from Tapulei Vaveao, a former South Jefferson player, and freshman Kaitlyn Rajner from Indian River. Like the men's squad, JCC will open the regular season this weekend at the Mohawk Valley CC Tournament.
Coach: Josh Woodward (2nd year).
2011-12 record: 6-21.
Players to watch: Morgan Kiernan, Amber Dibble, Jasmine Canady.
Roster: Jasmine Canady (5-5, Fr., G); Dalian Ramos (5-0, So., G); Kaitlyn Rajner (5-6, Fr., F); Amber Dibble (5-10, So., F); Kari Gehrke (5-7, So., G); Taylor Murtha (5-6, Fr., G); Morgan Kiernan (5-8, So., F); Tapulei Vaveao (5-7, Fr., G/F).