WALTHAM, Mass. — It is way, way to early to say that Jared Sullinger has learned his lesson, just as it is too early to say all those early concerns about his balky back were unfounded. Only time and actions will prove or refute either claim.
So while Sullinger said all the right things in accepting his one-game suspension from the Celtics for his role in an assault case that was dropped Monday, only the least gullible observer will let the second-year forward skate without waiting and seeing whether this incident turns out to be just a blip in his career or a more serious trend.
For now, however, it sounds like the former.
“I totally understand,” Sullinger said Tuesday at the Celtics’ practice facility. “We’re trying to build a culture around here, so I totally accept that one-game suspension.”
Sullinger met with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge ahead of the team announcing his punishment in a statement on Monday. Ainge, who will watch the Celtics’ season opener against the Raptors in his office with Sullinger on Wednesday night, said he was satisfied with Sullinger’s response to the suspension and was looking to move on.
“He took the news like he felt that it was warranted,” Ainge said. “He took it well. He wants to play and he’s really anxious to play. But I think he understood it.”
From the moment the accusations came to light in early September that Sullinger had pinned his girlfriend, Deann Smith, to the bed during an argument, he and the Celtics did a commendable job of addressing and getting out in front of the issue. The team and the player issued statements as soon as charges were filed Sept. 3, and Ainge and Sullinger both fielded questions following Tuesday’s practice. If there is a playbook for how an organization should act in situations like this — aside from not doing anything to cause the situation in the first place — Sullinger and the Celtics followed it to the letter.
Still, this is not over. It can never be over. If Sullinger is completely without guilt, that is unfortunate. He will forever be a target for opposing fans and he will suddenly have detractors who will always dislike him, even if he plays another 15 years and lives for decades without a sniff of similar incidents. Every game he plays, every day he walks around, he will have something to prove to those people.
Regardless of what the future holds for Sullinger, though, suspension sent a message within the Celtics organization. Even though the case was dropped, the team still maintains a higher standard, which holds that a crime doesn’t have to be committed for an individual to show bad judgment. No, the Celtics are not expected to win many games this season, so Sullinger’s one-game absence might not hurt the team that greatly, but that was not the point.
The point was to remind every player that even if on-court expectations are lower, off-court expectations are just as high.
Sullinger seems to have gotten that message and he understands, but understanding and contrition are two different things. He maintained that he has not admitted to doing anything wrong and said the biggest lesson he took away was “discipline,” which could mean any number of things.
“Things happen and you’ve got to move forward from it,” Sullinger said. “The more I look into the past, the more everyone’s going to understand or know what happened. So what I’m trying to do is just push it behind me and just move forward.”
“It was just a couple mistakes by young people,” he added. “It won’t happen again.”
People make mistakes. Sullinger may or may not have made a serious one, but either way he now has an opportunity to redeem himself. In dealing with the first non-basketball challenge of this rebuilding era, the Celtics sent a message that mistakes may be made — potentially, mistakes far more serious than this — but that players should not expect those mistakes to be simply brushed aside.
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