Jersey Boy: Sullivan?s Mountaineers uniform is about to enter its second retirement.
Jersey Boy: Sullivan?s Mountaineers uniform is about to enter its second retirement. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Jack Sullivan will have his basketball jersey retired next week by Mount St. Mary’s. This is the second time that shirt has gone through the ritual, actually.

The latest retirement will take place during halftime of a regionally televised prime-time game. The original retirement came 51 years ago and was less formal.

“After my last game [in 1957], somebody handed it to me in the locker room and said, ‘Here’s your jersey. Nobody else is going to wear it,’” Sullivan says. “They didn’t do ceremonies back then.”

As good as Sullivan’s college career was, his jersey deserves the re-retirement. In the half-century since anybody wore No. 32 at the Emmitsburg, Md., college, nobody’s put up the sort of numbers Sullivan did.

Sullivan remains the Mount’s leading all-time scorer, with 2,672 points—also still the record for all Maryland colleges. (For perspective, Juan Dixon holds the University of Maryland’s career record with 2,269 points.)

Sullivan, now living in Adelphi, also still holds career records at the school for scoring average (25.4), field goals made (993), free throws made (686), and free throws attempted (961). And the single-season records for points (1,070), scoring average (33.4), field goals made (402), field goals attempted (787), free throws made (266) and attempted (367).

Again, all these marks have withstood the years and NCAA rules changes that have opened up offenses.

“We didn’t have the three-point line, you know?” says Sullivan. “But I guess I was a white boy who could jump, and there weren’t a lot of those back in those days. I drove hard, had a good jump shot, went to the line a lot, and I could make foul shots.”

Sullivan’s career—before, during, and after the Mount—touched on all sorts of bygone eras of this area’s basketball history.

He grew up in Brookland, the son of a D.C. cop—“The neighborhood was all D.C. cops’ or firemen’s kids,” he says—at the start of the golden age of D.C. hoops.

The city’s parks were segregated into the early 1950s. Sullivan’s courts of choice were at Turkey Thicket, a rec center near his home, which had been a historically all-white venue.

Basketball players decided to make it otherwise.

“In 1952 and 1953, blacks couldn’t play at Turkey Thicket, and whites weren’t allowed in Banneker. Those were the rules, anyway,” says Sullivan. “But the players didn’t follow. We went where we wanted, where the best basketball was, and nobody stopped us.”

The city’s reputation as a talent factory came from the playgrounds after they were integrated. Turkey Thicket was particularly esteemed, a place where folks flocked to watch a black kid everybody at the park called Rabbit. The rest of the world later grew to know him as Elgin Baylor.

Sullivan has fond memories of being there when Baylor’s legend was born. “Rabbit could play, for sure, and what a good guy,” says Sullivan.

Sullivan’s other childhood hoops hangout was the Chevy Chase playground, where Red Auerbach honed his talent-spotting ways. Auerbach would later land Sullivan a cushy job at Kutsher’s Country Club in the Catskills. “We were officially bellhops,” says Sullivan. “But we were really paid to play basketball to entertain the guests.” Other bellhops during Sullivan’s tenure included a tall, musclebound kid from Philly named Wilt Chamberlain.

Sullivan starred at the neighborhood Catholic high school, St. Anthony’s, graduating in 1953, the last year of segregated prep ball in D.C.

After making all the all-city teams available to him, he chose to play college ball for Mount St. Mary’s because relatives on his mother’s side had gone there.

The school’s basketball fortunes picked up considerably after Sullivan’s freshman year, when Mount St. Mary’s signed a young ex-Marine named Jim Phelan to coach the team.

Phelan wouldn’t leave for 49 years. He retired in 2003 with 830 wins, the fifth-most in NCAA history.

The Mount won at least 20 games during each of Sullivan’s three seasons playing under Phelan and in 1957 made the Final Four in the NCAA’s College Division (precursor to today’s Division II).

“I never had a scorer like him,” says Phelan. “He could do everything. He hit hook shots from three-point range without the three-point line. All my guys still talk about Jack Sullivan.”

Sullivan attributes his own successes to Phelan’s post-practice tutelage.

“Every day, after every practice, I’d play him one-on-one,” says Sullivan. “And he never fouled me once. He’d beat on me, and I’d leave the gym bloody and bruised every day. But, if you ask him, he’d say he never fouled me. He was something. That helped me tremendously.”

Sullivan, who was named College Division All-American his senior year, got drafted in the second round of the NBA by the Philadelphia Warriors. But he ended up signing with the Marine Corps instead.

“Phelan was a Marine, so I guess I wanted to follow him,” Sullivan says. “And it’s not like in those days players were getting paid. I remember that [Warriors star] Paul Arizin was making like $8,500 a year—and he was one of the best players in the league.”

Just as his bellhop job was a ruse to play basketball, Sullivan’s primary duty as a Marine officer came on the courts, playing for travel teams that every military base had back then.

He led the team at Quantico, which played a schedule of top AAU and college teams, to various service-league titles from 1958 through 1961, and he was named to the elite All-Service team in 1959.

When he left the Marines, Sullivan finally got a shot at pro ball. Sort of.

He was signed in 1961 by the Washington Tapers, a team in the fledgling and doomed American Basketball League, a confederation founded by Harlem Globetrotters mastermind Abe Saperstein.

The Tapers, owned by the makers of Tuck Tape, began play during the 1961-1962 season at the Washington Coliseum. Sullivan briefly played alongside Willie Jones, a former Dunbar and American University star, and Gene Conley, known as the only guy ever to win both a baseball World Series (with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957) and the NBA championship (with the Boston Celtics from 1959 to 1961).

But before the team’s first season was over, the franchise was relocated to Long Island.

Sullivan didn’t make the move. Good thing, too: The entire ABL folded within a year.

He coached for a few seasons at Gonzaga before taking up a career as a labor lobbyist.

Now retired, Sullivan has two artificial knees to remind him of all the time he spent on local blacktops. He gets his athletic thrills by watching his grandchildren play sports—one granddaughter just got a lacrosse scholarship to Mount St. Mary’s—and satisfies his own competitive jones on area golf courses.

The skills that brought Sullivan his two jersey retirements haven’t translated to success on the links.

“You get in a sand trap,” he says, “and nothing you ever did in basketball will help you get out that sumbitch.”