New Orleans • The carpet in the basement made it difficult to dribble the small rubber ball, and there was no toy backboard or rim to play on.
But that didn’t stop two best friends from finding a game. In the basement of that Midwestern home, Trey Burke and Jared Sullinger spent untold hours growing up locked in battle, fighting to shoot into a bucket.
“We always put ourselves in situations, down three with 10 seconds,” Burke says. “If you were down you had to find a way to come back and win and it was always competing. It wasn’t like a kiddie game. We was always competing.”
From the time Burke and Sullinger met in grade school, theirs was a brotherhood built around basketball.
On Friday night, the two kids from Columbus, Ohio, were back together again — albeit on a slightly larger stage.
Burke and Sullinger were teammates in Friday’s Rising Stars game, an event featuring the NBA’s best freshmen and sophomores, during All-Star Weekend.
The Boston big man Sullinger got going early, hitting a trio of 3-pointers and finishing the night with 13 points. The Utah Jazz’s budding rookie point guard, meanwhile, struggled with his shot. Burke went 3-for-12, for six points and six assists.
In the end, their team, selected by former NBA star Chris Webber, lost 142-136. But the two players were all smiles afterward, enjoying this step in a dream they’ve shared since childhood.
Growing up, they played whenever they could, at school, in the neighbor’s driveway, or in that carpeted basement. Sullinger was always bigger. Burke was a “little pipsqueak,” he said. The first few games they would play, Sullinger says, the big man won. But over the course of a few contests, Burke would take over.
“I couldn’t really keep up with him,” Sullinger said.
They weren’t always playing against one another, of course. They played on the same high school and AAU teams. On road trips to and from tournaments, they would play a game in the car, taking turns naming NBA players from a certain era without repeating.
“We filled our minds up with the NBA,” Sullinger said.
Sullinger, a 6-foot-9, 260-pound power forward, got heavy recognition from college scouts. By the time he was a senior in high school, he could have had his pick of schools. He chose to stay in Columbus and play for Ohio State.
“Me seeing him evolve into the No. 1 high school player in the country, that gave me more motivation,” Burke said.
Burke would have loved to join Sullinger and the Buckeyes, but he never got an offer. He originally committed to Penn State before eventually settling on Michigan, Ohio State’s biggest rival.
“Even when Trey was at Michigan, I was still cheering for him,” Sullinger said. “When he didn’t play well, I let him know. When I didn’t play well, he let me know. At the end of the day, we’re brothers.”
Sullinger was drafted No. 21 overall by the Boston Celtics in 2012.
A year later, Burke was the ninth pick.
On Friday, at All-Star weekend, the two spent time together sharing stories of their childhood. They stood side by side during their interviews, allowing Sullinger at one point to reach over and playfully poke his friend in the ear.
Then, of course, there was the basketball.
It was all part of a dream they had talked about for years.
“That’s normal talk for every kid in America,” said Benji Burke, Trey’s father. “For them to have it come true … it’s just amazing.”