Jake Sullivan: The power of yes

Former ISU star brings new significance to basketball





Struggling to fight through a crippling case of food poisoning in the remote country of Chad, Africa, Jake Sullivan found himself at a crossroads, a far cry from the cozy confines of Hilton Coliseum. 

But similar to many decisions before and after his illustrious yet injury-plagued basketball career with the Iowa State Cyclones, the now father of seven found a strength to push forward, accepting the challenge God presented him. 

Sullivan’s perseverance and willingness to embrace the uncomfortable has led him on a journey of adoption, missionary work and public speaking.

His life has been littered with risks, sometimes minor moments that led to big rewards, taking chances when all signs pointed toward no. 

Sullivan’s sheer talent and passion for basketball provided him with an education, a platform and opportunities to further his own life. But when it all ended after college, he was left wondering: What’s next?

Sullivan visited the Carroll area late last week, speaking with more than 12 different audiences in a three-day span — including Carroll and Kuemper high schools and at the Carrollton Centre for a St. Anthony Regional Hospital-hosted event — and sharing how he turned something relatively insignificant, in this case, basketball, into a tool that could help others and even save lives.

“What has basketball done to open up doors for the person that I am right now?” Sullivan asked. “I started thinking about the doors that began to open.”

His story began in kindergarten. As a 5-year old, Sullivan discovered his love for basketball.

Thirteen years later, he laced up his shoes for the Iowa State University Cyclones following a challenge to play for his hometown high school, a dismal program that had won just a single game prior to his freshman year. He later led them to two state titles and a top 60 recruiting ranking. 

Sullivan’s path to where he is today, a husband, an entrepreneur and youth pastor, has been anything but straight. After four surgeries in college, including three ankle operations, the founder of Acts 2 Collective, a non-profit, religion based missionary program, yearned to stay close to the game. He thought coaching was the best option.

When another opportunity arose, he abandoned his plans to become a college coach, which later gave way to letting go of a cushy job as an AAU executive for Kingdom Hoops, only to take on the biggest challenge of all, allowing faith to lead him on his journey to heal others. 

Not one of those decisions came easily, especially when Sullivan glances at the salaries of the highest paid college coaches. 

“Sometimes, I want to crawl under a table and cry out ‘What was I doing?’” he said. 

Sullivan embarked on his first mission trip 10 years ago in Ghana, Africa, with the organization the Right to Dream Academy that he discovered through the Iowa Sports Center. Sullivan travelled to Ghana to expand the organization, which promoted soccer, to include basketball as well.

It was adoption that first piqued Sullivan’s curiosity in the missionary world. Sullivan and his wife, Janel recently completed their fourth adoption of an African child, an endeavor that produced their initial trip to Africa. During an elongated stay in Ghana following their first adoption, Sullivan reflected on his past and what basketball had done for him.

“The question I was personally wrestling with the Lord was: ‘Do you use insignificant people with insignificant things to set them before significant people?’” Sullivan asked.

Through his travels to Africa and his connection to his adopted children, Sullivan used basketball as a resource to help kids in poor countries where terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State group, Al-Qaida, Boko Haram had significant influence.

He spent his time in Africa sharing his love for basketball, mingling with government officials and spreading the word of God.

Sullivan’s message to Carroll residents was to take whatever seems insignificant and find a way to make it significant — to make it impact others’ lives.

“What is the that thing that feels insignificant in your life that you’re ready to just disregard?” he asked. “It doesn’t make any difference. It can be a class, it can be a job, it can be a skill, it can be a talent, it can be whatever. Just ask a question like, how can you use this insignificant thing with oftentimes an insignificant person to set me before something that is significant?”

Sullivan was taken aback when the village of Asikuma, Ghana approached him a few years ago. Its residents were in dire need of a medical center and school. Sullivan, at the time, short on funds and raising a young family, took fundraising head on and in no time had generated enough to build the medical center. A few years later, Sullivan helped construct a school that’s now home to 350 students.

“All because of the craziness from saying yes,” he said. “We set out with a vision that made absolutely no sense, but we made it work.”

Sullivan’s most grueling challenge came when he was commissioned to Chad to create a sports-based ministry. Chad is a small African country in the heart of Muslim dictatorship, surrounded by Islamic States. And to top it off, it’s located in the middle of the Saharan Desert, a place Sullivan said “was incredibly hot.”

He immediately balked at bringing his missionary efforts to the third-world country. He conjured up excuses to say anything but yes. 

“I threw everyone under the bus. I said I couldn’t go because my wife didn’t want me to,” Sullivan recounted. “I lied because of fear.”

Eventually, the former shooting guard broke down and bravely trudged his way into Chad. The trip went even more poorly than he had predicted. Electricity was spotty, the translator struggled with Sullivan’s English and food poisoning overtook him on the final night. He pleaded with God to find someone else for the job, though a chance moment changed his mind.

A group of children stopped him mere moments before he stepped on the plane and gifted Sullivan with a painting, thanking him for the time he spent there.

“I was ready to leave and never come back again, but here they were,” Sullivan said.

That gesture of kindness had a lasting impact.

A fairly insignificant moment, a small thank-you, persuaded the man of faith to say yes and accept the challenge. He soon brought Bibles to the entire Chad military, more than 1,500 books. Sullivan later partnered with Athletes in Action to create the sports-based ministry in Chad.

Sullivan and his wife now have seven children, including four adopted from Africa.

“When we say yes, miracles begin to happen,” Sullivan said. “That’s when the world begins to change. I hope this energizes you.

“Whatever period of time you have left, the Lord commands us to say yes.”

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