Jake Sullivan, once a Minnesota basketball scoring machine, is finding his range
The frosted doors welcoming MSP International passengers slide open every few minutes. A family waiting 20 feet away looks each time, hoping to see someone they have missed dearly appear.
The kids are fidgety, but their dad is calm. He squats to let his 5-year-old climb onto his back, careful not to squish the bouquet of flowers he is holding in his left hand. He'd made a quick stop at a florist on the way here. A moment like this deserves a fresh arrangement.
Jake Sullivan hasn't seen his wife in nearly seven months. She was supposed to be gone only 10 days when she left for Africa to finalize their adoption of an 11-year-old boy with HIV.
The adoption derailed. His wife stayed. Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. Months turned into a family separated by an ocean and uncertainty.
Sullivan woke up every morning not knowing when his wife would be home. He had their six kids to care for, a new home, a new job, a 1-year-old dog and seminary homework. And he had agreed to help coach basketball. And, what else … dinner. Yes, dinner. That's always an adventure.
His wife spent most of the past year in a remote African village. She believed God wanted her there to care for orphans, children who endure a life without hope.
Sullivan, 37, knows that feeling well. He, too, suffered without hope. Mental illness tormented him as a teenager. He was trapped in misery, even as he became one of the most prolific scorers in Minnesota high school basketball history.
Twenty years ago, Sullivan was the shooter with unlimited range who would win a state championship at Tartan and big-man-on-campus status at Iowa State.
Fans packed gyms to watch him play, kids clamoring for his autograph. His high school retired his number.
He had everything going for him. And he was broken.
He suffered anxiety attacks over random things. Seeing a piece of white paper on the ground, for example, could paralyze him for hours. Doctors gave him a diagnosis: obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The mental anguish became so overwhelming that he pulled over his car one night and, for a few minutes, contemplated suicide. He eventually found what had been missing for so many years. Hope.
That powerful emotion, one that comes so easy for some, was unobtainable for so long for Sullivan. Once he discovered it, he dedicated his life to it.
Sullivan shares the Gospel throughout Africa, to youth groups in the Twin Cities and to children and teenagers at Grace Church in Eden Prairie. His faith and hope sustained him this past year while his wife, Janel, lived in Africa without a return date. Sullivan felt like a single parent to their children — three biological, three adopted from Ghana — ranging in age from 5 to 16.
Janel's absence strained her relationship with her family. She tried explaining that personal sacrifice in following God's message can be difficult. That message didn't always connect.
Her passport set to expire, Janel said goodbye to the orphans in the village in early November.
Back at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, her family waits with nervous excitement. The kids pass time by playing on their phones, floss dancing, doing whatever they can to keep their energy from erupting.
The frosted doors slide open. Not her.
Again. Nope, not her.
Finally, at 2:19 p.m., Janel appears in the doorway. Her children charge toward her like the bulls of Pamplona.
She hugs and kisses each one. Sullivan stands back, smiling. Then his turn.
He hands his wife the flowers. They embrace for 10 seconds.
Sullivan is relieved this "season" is finally over. That's how he refers to different stages in life, as seasons. A nod, perhaps, to his life in sports.
This season was especially trying, though the journey that brought him to this moment has been filled with one challenging season after another.
In the driveway of his parents' Oakdale home, the boy in fifth grade launched 1,000 shots a day at a hoop, night and day, hot and cold. Sullivan wore mittens when he shot in the winter, with a second pair warming in the oven. He'd change them out when his fingers went numb.
Tartan coach Mark Klingsporn initially wanted to put Sullivan on the ninth-grade team as a seventh-grader. Too soon, the family said.
Sullivan had watched a Pistol Pete Maravich movie and marveled at how he started on his varsity team as an eighth-grader. Sullivan made that his goal.
His moment came midway through his eighth-grade year. Tartan trailed Henry Sibley by 26 points at halftime. Klingsporn sent Sullivan onto the floor in the second half and he put on a show, scoring 18 points, nearly engineering a comeback win. He started every game the rest of his career.
Sullivan thought earrings were cool, so he begged his dad to let him get his ears pierced if he started on varsity and made all-conference as an eighth-grader. Sullivan loved his diamond studs.
He stood only 6 feet and 180 pounds as a senior in 1999-2000, but all those hours in the driveway had created "the best shooter I've ever seen in Minnesota," says Klingsporn, a coach for 39 years.
Sullivan finished his career with 3,013 points, a state record for big schools that lasted until this season, when Rochester John Marshall's Matthew Hurt eclipsed it.
The pinnacle came in his final game, the Class 4A state championship against Maple Grove. Sullivan scored 28 points, and Tartan won its first state title in any sport.
Sullivan had the ball in his hands as time expired. He heaved it high into the air as Tartan fans stormed the court to celebrate.
"You can't write a better script than this," he said.
Everyone saw his joy that night. Few people knew his secret.
Jake Sullivan through the years
Click or swipe through the timeline.
Sullivan eclipses 3,000 career points in leading Tartan High to the Class 4A state championship, the school’s first team title in any sport.
He finishes his career at Iowa State as the school’s all-time leader in three-pointers made with 270. He starts an AAU basketball program in Ames, Iowa, after graduation.
Sullivan and his wife Janel decide to adopt and start missionary work in Ghana, Africa. The couple has two biological children, 2-year-old JJ and Jayla, who is 4 months old, and lives in Iowa.
The family completes the adoption of 8-year-old Justice from Ghana.
Sullivan’s faith-based nonprofit organization, Acts 2 Collective, continues missionary work in three African countries: Ghana, Sierra Leone and Central African Republic. Later, Sullivan will also travel to Chad to conduct basketball and ministry work.
The family adopts sisters, 4-year-old Jennifer and 1-year-old Jasara, from Ghana.
Jacoby, the couple’s sixth child — third biological — is born.
The family begins adoption process of Julius, an 8-year-old boy with HIV living in Ghana. His birth mother died of AIDs.
The family moves from Iowa to Eden Prairie after Sullivan accepts job as director of student and family ministries at Grace Church. He oversees ministries for ages 0-18. He also serves as assistant boys’ basketball coach at Eden Prairie High.
Sullivan first realized something was wrong when he was 15. He experienced anxiety attacks over random nonevents.
White pieces of paper on the ground and 90-degree angles in an unfamiliar place could paralyze his mind. He often feared that he had run over someone with his car if he felt a bump in the road. Those anxiety triggers could cause an avalanche of irrational thoughts, which fed his obsessions.
I see that white piece of paper over there and if I don't pick it up, something bad will happen and my basketball career will be ruined.
What if that wasn't a pothole and it was actually a person? I need to drive back or basketball will be taken away from me.
He used a counting ritual to cope. He would count to seven and hope he felt better. If not, he would count to 77. If that didn't work, 777. There were days he got to 7,777.
He would find himself stuck in a room, staring at a wall's 90-degree angle, counting in his head. 701, 702, 703, 704 …
"It was exhausting," Sullivan says. "You know it's not normal, but you can't stop."
He felt free on a basketball court, his safe space. He could shoot for hours with an uncluttered mind. Maybe that was a different manifestation of his obsessions, shooting jump shots over and over and over.
Only his family knew the full scope of his OCD. Sullivan kept his secret, learning to engage in conversation while also counting to 77 in his head, fixated on a piece of paper on the floor.
"My mind would go in these obscure places," he says.
He saw a psychiatrist and tried medication. That helped with his depression but didn't get rid of his anxiety. He hid behind the mask of a star athlete. But he had reached his breaking point.
He told himself he didn't want to suffer the rest of his life. One night his senior year, he pulled his car over. He saw large trees lining the dark road. He figured he would rev his engine and drive as fast he could into a tree and everything would be over.
Something stopped him. A voice in his head, he says.
Graduation is in a few months. I have college and basketball to look forward to. Different place, new beginnings. Life will be better.
He put his car in drive and went home.
His first month at Iowa State was perfect. He met new friends, new teammates. Life on his own on campus brought him happiness. Sullivan decided to major in psychology to better understand his own mental illness. And it was in a classroom when the waves of anxiety came crashing down on him again.
A 90-degree angle in a new room reignited his anguish — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 … — and the episodes intensified. The building where he took most of his psychology classes was a 10-minute walk from his dorm. Some days his walk home lasted two hours as he searched for white pieces of paper on the ground.
Sullivan purposely stayed late after practices because he didn't want teammates riding in his car back to their apartment. The short drive often involved making loops back to Hilton Coliseum to make sure he hadn't run over anyone.
Nobody knew his secret.
"It consumed my life," he says.
He was miserable. Without hope.
A girl from the dorm caught his eye. A brunette named Janel. Sullivan went out of his way to make sure their paths crossed after class, in elevators, around campus. A relationship began.
She invited him to a church worship night. Religion wasn't a big part of his life growing up, but he really wanted to date her.
He had just been named Big 12 Freshman of the Year. It seemed everyone on campus knew him. And when he walked into Cornerstone Church that night, he saw people who had something he didn't have.
He wanted that, whatever it was. Well, he wanted to date Janel, but he became curious about faith and God and that depth of devotion. He became a regular at Cornerstone.
He also started to learn about behavioral therapy in his psychology classes. He discovered that extreme stress and lack of sleep left him vulnerable, and he began dealing with his episodes differently.
If he saw a white piece of paper on the ground, he forced himself to ignore it. He studied the Bible, searching for strength and answers, and one verse in particular became a favorite — 2 Timothy 1:7: "For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control."
"That would sustain me through my darkest moments," he says.
He took control of his life by recognizing triggers and relying on his faith. He finally had hope.
Sullivan finished his stellar career at Iowa State in 2004, ranking sixth in points (1,810) in Big 12 history, third in three-pointers (270) and first in free-throw percentage (89.6).
He had opportunities to play professionally overseas, but his body had other ideas. Too many surgeries, too much lingering pain. His career was over.
An acquaintance at Cornerstone connected him with an Iowa businessman who asked Sullivan to coach a youth team. That spun into the creation of the AAU program All-Iowa Attack, soon competing all over the country.
Sullivan earned a nice living running the program. He married Janel, and they had two kids, a boy and a girl. They went to church every Sunday. But Sullivan felt a void.
The competitive rush of playing against Kansas in front of 15,000 screaming fans was gone. His faith had slowly slipped into autopilot.
On Labor Day weekend in 2008, Sullivan visited his parents and went to the State Fair. When they got home, Sullivan found a quiet place in the house to pray. He asked for guidance.
Later that day, he received a text from an elder at Cornerstone, inviting him to join a men's group. Those meetings changed him. Sullivan felt a call to something, like he was being recruited in basketball again.
Around that time, his family sat in church and watched a video about missionary work in Zambia. Janel started to cry.
They collected their son JJ, who was 2, and 4-month-old Jayla and walked to their car after service. Janel told her husband that she heard the Lord speaking to her, telling her the family should adopt.
They had never discussed adoption. Let's do it, Sullivan told her.
Sullivan saw suffering everywhere in Africa. He will never forget the little boy with a bone protruding from his arm. The injury had become infected because the child had no access to proper medical attention.
This is my calling, Sullivan said then.
The Sullivans chose an adoption pilot program in Ghana, and despite the desperate surroundings Sullivan knew he wanted their new child to always know that he or she was Ghanaian.
Sullivan started spending 70 to 80 days each year in Africa, working to improve many aspects of daily life there. Back in Iowa, donations poured into a nonprofit he founded, Acts 2 Collective. The organization's IRS filing for 2015 showed contributions, donations and other revenue totaling $1 million.
Organizations that focus on education, irrigation practices and teaching trade skills joined the cause. Dozens of missionaries joined Sullivan on visits to the village of Asikuma, three hours north of Ghana's capital city, Accra. They helped build a medical clinic, new school classroom and a mission center that houses orphans and volunteers and serves as village hub.
"He has earned their trust by doing what he said he's going to do," says Chris Gardner, an Iowa homebuilder who joined Sullivan on a half-dozen mission trips.
Acts 2 Collective's reach stretched into Sierra Leone and Central African Republic as well. And in 2014, Sullivan joined Athletes in Action in conducting basketball and Christian ministry work in Chad, a nation with a high Muslim population. The region is surrounded by terrorist groups, notably Boko Haram.
"The hardest thing I had ever done in my life," Sullivan says.
Temperatures exceeded 100 degrees most days. No air conditioning in sight, and his translators often couldn't understand his English.
But on the court, Sullivan was right at home. He taught basketball, albeit on an outdoor court with bent rims and no nets. A herd of cows walked across the court one day during drills. One left a pile behind.
Never again, Sullivan said to himself, especially after an awful bout of food poisoning on his last day. He had enough strength left to get to the airport. The local basketball organizer and two players met him there to say goodbye. The players brought him a painting as a gift: a picture of a man holding a yellow glowing ball and a Bible.
I'll see you next year, Sullivan told them.
He did, and the year after that, too.
The missionary work gave the Sullivans purpose. But it was their original reason for going to Africa that gave their family new life.
The boy in the photograph didn't look like a 5-year-old. He was skinny from malnourishment, but the Sullivans could tell he had to be older.
The child named Justice, in fact, was older. He was 8. They would learn that later.
Something else about his picture caught their attention. Sullivan could see a tint of orange hair on the boy's head. Maybe that was a sign — the Sullivans' two biological children had orange hair.
The adoption agency found Justice in the village of Larteh. His mother put him up for adoption because he has albinism, a genetic condition that affects skin, eye and hair color.
In Africa, people with albinism are outcasts. In some countries, they are hunted because they are believed to possess special powers in witchcraft. Their body parts are sold as valuable commodities.
Those practices aren't part of Ghana's culture, but Justice was cast aside because his skin is lighter than other Ghanaians.
Justice's father died when he was young. He doesn't remember him. His mother sells food at a roadside stand. She suffers from diabetes and is often too sick to work.
Justice lived with his mother and younger brother in a one-room structure about the size of a jail cell. They shared one bed, and Justice fetched water every morning from a stream. His ribs protruded from malnourishment.
Justice has only vague memories of his childhood. One stands out. He was sitting underneath a second-story porch when a woman dropped a heavy stone, aiming for his head. She missed by inches.
"I didn't feel very accepted," he says.
The Sullivans saw that when they visited him for the first time. They walked through the village with Justice and his mom. People screamed insults at Justice.
Translation: white man.
"You could just see that if he were to stay in that village, he didn't have a future," Janel says.
His adoption took two years to complete. Finally, in the fall of 2010, Justice left Ghana. He landed in a new world, Iowa, unable to speak English, suddenly the oldest of three kids in a new family. Yet he wasn't frightened.
"It couldn't be worse than what I was doing," Justice says.
He learned English with the help of a tutor and television. He loved cartoons, and he loved to eat, too. The Sullivans started Justice in kindergarten, knowing he was older but unsure of how things would go. His teachers moved him to first grade after half a year, followed by a brief stop in second grade before he settled into third grade. Everyone marveled at his learning acumen and emotional maturity.
Sullivan introduced him to basketball, but this would not be Justice's game. He grew up playing only soccer and couldn't dribble or shoot.
In fourth grade, he tried football. Bingo, a natural.
"I just had to go and chase after someone," he says.
He hit a growth spurt in seventh grade, and by his freshman year he was playing for his high school's varsity team in Iowa.
The family relocated to Eden Prairie in early 2018, and Justice joined the track and field team in the spring, competing in the 100-meter dash, high jump and shot put — a trifecta that displays his athleticism.
Justice started as a sophomore this past fall on Eden Prairie's state runner-up football team. He played defensive end at 6-2 and 215 pounds. He has received recruiting interest from the Gophers and other Big Ten teams. His goal is to play Division I football.
An "A" student with a new driver's license, Justice laughs now at how far he's come.
"In Africa I didn't even know how to ride a bike," he says. "I had never ridden a bike."
Justice communicates with his brother in Ghana almost daily through WhatsApp, and he talks to his mom occasionally, but she doesn't speak much English. The Sullivans returned to Ghana in 2012 so Justice could see his family, and he has been back several times since.
On one visit, a man offered to buy his hair because he believed it has special powers. Justice politely declined.
Villagers swarmed him in the streets. No more jeers. Instead, a hero.
"He was like LeBron James," Sullivan says.
His adoption didn't come without trepidation for his parents. How would Justice acclimate to his new life? How would their two biological children accept their new reality?
Their parents told them that God called them to this life. Sacrifice to help others.
JJ was 4. Suddenly he had an 8-year-old brother who didn't speak English sharing his bedroom. They became best friends. JJ was a shy kid. Justice brought him out of his shell.
The Sullivans cared for many orphans during their visits to Asikuma. Kids trying to survive day to day, without feeling loved. The call to adopt struck again.
This time, two sisters: Jennifer and Jasara, ages 4 and 1.
The emotional part of loving an adopted child came easily for the Sullivans. The financial component nearly bankrupted them. They cashed out an IRA and spent their savings. They missed house payments, nearly had their car repossessed, almost lost everything.
Hope, Sullivan says. Always comes back to that. He had suffered without hope. He wanted to give hope to those kids, at any cost.
It was all worth it for the Sullivans, and by 2015 they had agreed they were done adopting. Janel shared that message in her prayers.
Then they took another trip to Asikuma.
Vida runs a nearby missionary that cares for people suffering from AIDS, deformities or other ailments that cause them to be outcasts. Vida brought her group to Asikuma's mission center while the Sullivans visited.
A mother and son greeted Janel. The mother was dying of AIDS. Her 8-year-old son, Julius, had HIV. The mother was having a hard time selling food because people knew of her condition.
Janel couldn't stop thinking about them after returning to Iowa. She went to her fridge one day and noticed a picture that Jayla had drawn of the family. She included Dad, Mom, baby Jacoby and the five other kids. Jayla used a magnet that she got as a toy inside a fast-food meal to hang it on the door.
The magnet was a cartoon character named Julius.
The kids didn't know about Julius in Ghana. The parents had never mentioned him in front of them. Janel saw it as a sign.
The family received word that Julius' mother had died on Mother's Day weekend in 2015. Janel returned to Ghana that August to start the adoption process.
International adoptions in the U.S. had decreased sharply by 2015. Some estimates put the rate of decline at 75 percent. Reasons include fear of abuse and human trafficking, higher costs, changes in policies and political pressures.
Julius' adoption process was waylaid in the courts. The Sullivans tried to resolve it long distance. They waited for months, then years.
The lights come on at 7 a.m. at the Sullivan house. The garage door opens a minute later and Sully, a 1-year-old German shepherd, bolts into the front yard.
Sullivan makes his way to each bedroom, waking the kids. The older boys share a bedroom. The girls have their room. Five-year-old Jacoby started sleeping in his dad's bed a few months ago. He gets to sleep in.
The six kids alternate in age between adopted and biological. They get along better than anyone could have expected.
At 7:15 a.m., the five oldest gather on a large sectional couch in the living room. They have Bible study every morning before school. The kids pull out their iPhones to follow along on their Bible app.
JJ reads four verses from Galatians. Their dad asks them questions before offering examples from their own lives. The 15-minute session ends with a prayer.
Breakfast comes next. JJ makes himself a breakfast pizza. Jayla pours a bowl of Cap'n Crunch. Jasara throws a biscuit in the microwave. Jennifer and Justice are still getting ready. Dad scarfs down a bowl of yogurt.
It's another school day. They have had to learn how to fend for themselves since Janel left for Ghana months ago.
She handled everything around the house. The cooking, cleaning, their laundry. Now it's their responsibility.
Everyone agrees that Dad is a horrible cook. Except tacos. He makes tacos a lot. Some days, the kids make a request. Please, not tacos again.
Sullivan drops off Justice at high school and makes a pit stop for a 44-ounce diet soda. He stopped drinking pop a few years ago, but life turned hectic. Some mornings he needs a jolt.
Back home by 8, time for Jacoby to get up. Someone can't find a coat. Sullivan strips a bed and throws the sheets into the wash. Two kids head out to catch the school bus while two wait to get a ride with Dad. No one can find Jacoby's shoes. A hunt ensues until the mystery is solved. Everyone piles into the car at 8:20 a.m.
"Looks like we survived another morning," Sullivan says.
This new season began with a job offer last year. Grace Church is one of the largest churches in Minnesota, with 5,000 worshipers. Senior pastor Troy Dobbs met Sullivan five years ago and was impressed with his missionary work with Acts 2 Collective. He took Jake and Janel to dinner in late 2017 and offered him a position as a director of student and family ministries, overseeing ages 18 and under. Sullivan accepted and started a year ago.
He spent months rebranding Grace's youth program, which has seen participation multiply to its highest numbers ever. At a school year kickoff event in September, Sullivan wore his baseball hat backward as he jumped on stage to deliver a passionate sermon to a few hundred high school students. He cited the need to have authentic vulnerability in deepening their faith.
"He has the 'it factor' for sure," Dobbs says. "He is a dynamic communicator."
A dynamic juggler of commitments, too. There's his job at Grace. His job as a liaison for Fellowship of Christian Athletes for high schools in the southwest metro. His job as assistant boys' basketball coach at Eden Prairie High. And his studies as a seminary student.
Sullivan felt a call to seminary after arriving at Grace and seeing the depth of Biblical knowledge of those around him. He felt "inadequate" in his understanding of the Gospel.
He enrolled online and got A's in his first two courses. He needs 94 credits to graduate, which he figures will take him about five years.
"I don't know how he does it," Dobbs says. "Some people have a really high capacity. He has a really high capacity to get work done."
Sullivan never expected this season to last this long. Prayer sustains him, he says. And hope.
Janel left home on April 15. She had grown frustrated with delays in getting Julius' visa exit interview. They never received an appointment date from the embassy.
She flew to Ghana almost on a whim, no appointment. She planned to be gone 10 days and even brought a homecoming outfit for Julius to wear on the plane ride to his new home in Eden Prairie.
She landed and went directly to the embassy, talking her way into the office. An exit interview was scheduled for the end of May.
Janel decided to stay in Asikuma until then. She spent days teaching kids and adult women to read and arranging care for sick orphans. And spending time with Julius, 11 years old now.
She stayed even after the May appointment fell through. Janel anchored down to advocate for Julius and ensure he received the best care possible in managing his HIV.
The physical distance from her family created emotional distance. She missed birthdays, basketball games, the first day of school, bedtime stories. Her kids struggled with the "why."
"To your child, that's like the end of the world that you're not there," Janel says.
She wrestled with her decision constantly, a mother torn between missing her family and being in Ghana to care for 40 orphans. She shared her experiences with her children over the phone, hoping to make better sense of her absence. She told them of the time she threw a party for a neglected 20-year-old woman who had never celebrated a birthday.
Sacrifice, Janel explained to her kids, is not always easy.
"They were sacrificing for me," Janel says. "That's hard. It's not fun. You're giving up something for yourself for someone else."
Her husband struggled for answers when co-workers or new friends from church — or even family members — asked when his wife would be home. Sullivan had no idea.
"The biggest thing is, her heart is right, her intentions are right," he said in late summer 2018. "The situation is desperate."
Sullivan compared it to a seven-month trial, one that he believes will bring "great joy on the other side."
The reunion at MSP is joyous, filled with tears and kisses. Janel is amazed by what she finds at home. The girls do their own laundry now. Jacoby dresses himself. JJ cooks French toast for breakfast.
Her kids better understand her absence, too. They talk openly about it, the sacrifices everyone made. Life slowly returns to normal, in routine and relationships.
A season for the Sullivans has come to an end. But a new one cannot yet begin.
The kids at the Asikuma mission center gathered once a week for a video chat with Janel after she returned home.
In that audience in Asikuma is an 11-year-old boy with HIV watching his adoptive mom on the screen.
Julius is still in Africa. His adoption process has been swallowed by the system. The waiting is now a searing pain.
Julius is sick. HIV has weakened his immune system. The Sullivans get frequent updates and worry that he will die if he's not allowed to leave Ghana. They are fiercely determined to bring him home. They have faith.
"We're just waiting for a miracle," Janel says.
And Sullivan has hope. He fought so many years to find it, his search blanketed by the darkness of a private battle. He holds it tight now. It guides him.
Wherever this next season takes Jake Sullivan and his family, he will get there full of hope.