Remembering the fire starter: Jerry Sullivan

Remembering the fire starter: Jerry Sullivan
Former Milwaukee Bucks Basketball Camp director was a basketball pioneer for the state of Wisconsin
by Mark Hutchinson / this story originally appeared in Community Newspapers' SouthMilwaukeeNOW

Jerry Sullivan worked for 30 years as the associate director of the Milwaukee Bucks Basketball Camps. (Getty)
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December 20, 2007

MILWAUKEE -- Like many of you, I read Jerry Sullivan's obituary last week. I don't know if any of you caught this or not, but they left something out.

The text covered most of the bases.

Jerry was a Christian, husband to Sandra, father to surviving sons Dan, Tim and Jeremy, a grandfather of nine and a great-grandfather of one. He was preceded in death by another son, Robbie.

He was a member of the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association and Northland College halls of fame.

He coached South Milwaukee High School to the 1976 WIAA Class A state championship over Eau Claire Memorial and coach Dick Bennett.

His Rockets won 223 games and lost 98 spanning 1963 through '77, and South Milwaukee High's gymnasium was named in his honor in 2006.

Since retiring from teaching, he spent many of his years in the small northwestern Wisconsin town of Cable.

What the obit didn't mention, though, is that Sullivan was a construction worker, too, dating back to his teen years as an Ashland High School Oredocker and a Northland College Lumberjack.

He continued that career not only throughout his teaching and coaching years at Tomahawk (Wis.) and South Milwaukee high schools, but well beyond them.

His specialty was building bridges.

And the many individuals who saw him at work will testify that he always put the best construction on everything.

God brought Sullivan home, ending his lengthy battle with cancer last week.

I'm sure that folks from all over northern Wisconsin turned out at his funeral at St. Ann's Catholic Church in Cable last weekend - friends from his youth, from his college days, from his coaching career and his retirement years.

I know that a contingent of his South Shore friends braved a snowy forecast to make the long trek northward, too.

But Sullivan did not limit his bridge-building to wherever his back yard happened to be.

He went to great lengths to stay connected to his family, his childhood friends, his many teaching and coaching colleagues and, like no other coach I've ever known, to his former players.

He traveled cross-country to visit a number of them, including such former SMHS standouts as Jerry Marifke and Kurt Nimphius.

Marifke was an all-state forward who played on what Sullivan considered the best team he ever coached in 1974-75.

Nimphius was an all-state center on the Rockets' 1976 state title team and went on star at Arizona State University before enjoying a 10-year National Basketball Association career.

Thanks to these and other South Milwaukee alums, Sullivan became America's guest, taking in Super Bowls, Final Fours and a variety of other big-time professional and college sporting events.

Ask any of Sullivan's many benefactors, and they'll tell you that he gave them so much more in return.

Jerry the bridge-builder did not rest once he had established his many connections with family, friends, fellow coaches and ex-players, either.

He spent over 30 years as associate director of the Milwaukee Bucks Basketball Camps, which were integral in establishing a fan base for the Bucks when they were an NBA expansion team in the late 1960s.

Sullivan and Ron Blomberg, the camps' director, could have operated those camps successfully right here in the Milwaukee area, but they were in the bridge-building business together.

With the help of Bucks coaches like Larry Costello, Tom Nissalke and Hubie Brown and such early Bucks stars as Jon McGlocklin, Flynn Robinson and Oscar Robertson and many others, they loaded up their Milwaukee Bucks Basketball Camps station wagon and set out on journeys for places like Crawfordsville, Ind.; Orange City, Iowa; Galesburg, Ill.; and Chadron, Neb.

Sullivan's bridge-building did not begin and end with basketball. Anyone who knew him or attended his gymnasium dedication ceremony realized that he was one of the most beloved goodwill ambassadors the city of South Milwaukee - or the state of Wisconsin, for that matter - has ever had.

Shortly before Sullivan and Blomberg locked the doors to the Bucks camps for the very last time, they were kind enough to invite me inside.

If they hadn't politely kicked me out a long time later, I would probably still be there. Their stories were priceless. And when I finally did walk out, I felt like I'd made two new friends for life.

Now that Sullivan has crossed his final bridge, the one to eternal life, I figure he's probably hanging out with some of his coaching buddies - guys like Larry Costello, Tom Hawley and Jack Nagle. I'm guessing they're trading "war stories," engaging in animated chalk talks or looking down on whatever big game happens to be going on.

I'm grateful their Landlord gave me the directions I need to join them someday.

I hope they save me a seat, because I know that wherever Jerry Sullivan is, it will be a crowded area.

"Bucks.com's Truman Reed featured Coach Sullivan last season in a story series entitled, "Keeping the Camp Fires Burning":
Keeping the Camp Fires Burning - Part I
Keeping the Camp Fires Burning - Part II
Keeping the Camp Fires Burning - Part III
Keeping the Camp Fires Burning - Part IV
Keeping the Camp Fires Burning - Part V