IT’S MARCH 17, two days before perhaps the most anticipated March Madness tournament in Gonzaga’s 113-year history, and senior Corey Kispert can’t stop gushing about a play his freshman teammate Jalen Suggs made some two months earlier, during a ho-hum 23-point Zags victory over the University of San Francisco.
“There’s a video of him out there throwing a full-court, one-handed pass to [Dominick Harris], and he puts a spin on it too, so it hits the ground and checks up back to [Harris],” Kispert says.
The gush continues. “Super-tough pass. I was kind of running the wing when it happened. I didn’t realize all the hands it had to go through in order to make it. That’s definitely like a QB1 kind of a pass.”
A QB1 kind of pass.
Just a year ago, Suggs, who averaged 14.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG and 4.3 APG for the Bulldogs in his first year in Spokane, became the first athlete in Minnesota state history to win Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball in the same season. He left his high school, Minnehaha Academy, as its all-time leading scorer (2,945 points) and led the team to three state titles. As a quarterback, he led SMB, a collaborative program that combined Minnehaha Academy with two other local schools, to one state title in 2018 before losing in the championship game the following year. In his senior season, in addition to playing defensive back, he threw for 2,213 yards (25 touchdowns) and rushed for 978 yards (12 touchdowns). A five-star basketball recruit, he picked Mark Few’s Gonzaga squad after rejecting football scholarships from Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio State, among others.
Now, after dominant first- and second-round victories over Norfolk State and Oklahoma, the Bulldogs sit four wins away from their first national title and college basketball’s first perfect season in 44 years.
For many, the NCAA tournament has been merely an introduction to Suggs, the Zags’ 6-foot-4, 205-pound star combo guard, projected to be a top-five pick in the 2021 NBA draft. Back home in Minnesota, however, his athletic exploits are as legendary as his family’s name.
The Suggs family has dominated basketball courts and football fields around the Twin Cities for nearly 50 years. Jalen’s cousin Rickey was the runner-up for Mr. Basketball in 1980 before playing Division II basketball at Nebraska-Omaha and competing in the Canadian Football League. His cousin Raena played women’s basketball at Weber State. His father, Larry Suggs, was a former high school standout in basketball and football.
His most famous relative, though, earned the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2011. He has won two Super Bowls. Former NFL star Terrell Suggs, his cousin, is the most successful athlete the family has produced. But a run through the NCAA tournament and a productive career in the NBA could change the family hierarchy.
“When the lights are shining the brightest and more people are watching, I always want to go out and make plays,” Jalen Suggs, 19, said after his team beat BYU in the West Coast Conference championship game.
This is the story of how Jalen Suggs, a Minnesota kid-turned-Gonzaga star, became unstoppable on the court and on the gridiron, told through the eyes of those who played with him and coached him — and the unfortunate souls who were tasked with stopping him.
Larry Suggs, Jalen’s father and his first basketball and football coach: I used to bring him to hockey games. He was 2, 3, 4 years old. He would stick handle. He had a little puck and he had a stick. He would go to his uncle’s high school hockey games. So he’d be at the high school hockey games and he’d be stickhandling all throughout the arena. Just dinking around, you know? He can still shoot a puck to this day. He can’t skate, but s—, man, he can shoot. In terms of football, he played four grades up. He was just that talented. He played cornerback for us and kickoff return and punt return. He was in second grade playing sixth grade football. In his own age group, he’d dominate. But we just never put him in it. His technique [as a defensive back] at that age was flawless.
Chet Holmgren, No. 1 prospect in the 2021 class on ESPN.com and Jalen’s teammate in high school and AAU: I spent a lot of time on the bench in my early years watching him. What he could do from such a young age was crazy. Being able to watch what he could do from such a young age was kind of crazy. We were third-graders playing sixth-grade basketball. And he’s still putting up 25 points on people that are like three, four years older than him. He’s been good since day one.
Santino Franco, Jalen’s fourth-grade football coach: There is this video out there where he hurdles a guy and he goes to score a touchdown. I think he was in seventh grade. He was a quarterback. I wasn’t coaching him at the time, but I was watching the game. He rolled to his right and took off running. There was a kid coming to tackle him and he hurdled him and went over the kid and went on to score. That was something. When he did that, that kind of just said he’s setting the table for something greater than what we’ve seen [in Minnesota] in a long time.
Holmgren: He was in seventh grade playing 17-and-under. Still putting up 25 on people. He started dunking in seventh grade. Some of the dunks he had in seventh, eighth grade were crazy to see out of a middle-schooler.
Larry Suggs: He made the high school varsity soccer team. He was in 10th grade. He went to the tryout. His buddy told him to do it. They called me and said, “Hey, would you be opposed if Jalen plays soccer?” I said, “No, I don’t care if he plays soccer, but it’s going to be kind of hard. He’s a quarterback.” They wanted him to play goalie when he could make it and still play football. It was pretty funny. He’d never played organized soccer. He’d always played in the neighborhood. Went there and he made the soccer team. He said, “On my off days, I’ll just play soccer.”
Ben Linder, head coach of Division III Bethel University’s women’s soccer team and former boys’ soccer coach at Minnehaha Academy: We were having tryouts. He and another guy came out and they had soccer cleats on. They had the whole thing. I knew Jalen a little bit because he’s a basketball player. I went up to him and said, “Is this a joke? What are you doing?” And he said, “I’m either going to play soccer or football.” I said, “OK.” He put his cleats on and he was such a freak athlete. Within a minute, I was like, “You’re on the team and you can basically play wherever you want to play.” He was competing at a different level. Soccer skill-wise, he was raw, but it was one of those, “I don’t care.” I sat there and I think I only watched Jalen the whole time. We were good too. We were ranked in state. We were one of the better teams in the conference. We had guys, they’re playing college soccer right now. He just stood out and it wasn’t close. I remember, I think he jumped in goal for a second. Somebody hit this amazing shot and he saved it. He just was at a totally different level than everybody else.
Nick David, football coach at Mound Westonka High School (Minnetrista, Minnesota), which lost to Jalen’s SMB team 20-3 in 2019 after he scored on a 1-yard touchdown — and intercepted two passes as a defensive back: We basically told our defensive line not to collapse the pocket, so we had to create a corral almost because once he got out of the pocket, once he was in open space, he was so fast you couldn’t do anything. Our middle backer, we didn’t even put in pass coverage. We just had him shadow Jalen. We had a play where I had about three kids who had a perfect angle on him and then by the time they got there, he was about 15 yards ahead of them.
Andy Rostberg, football coach at Hutchinson High School (Hutchinson, Minnesota), which suffered a 22-16 loss to Jalen’s SMB squad after he threw for three touchdowns and intercepted two passes in the 2019 state semifinals: Tied ball game. And we had him on third-and-long. Our secondary was doing a nice job. We had him covered and he ran around and made, like, 13 kids miss. Couldn’t tackle him. And then he finally found somebody in the end zone. Threw a strike for a touchdown. That’s what he can do. He can take a negative play and turn it into [something] spectacular.
Holmgren: That game against Sierra Canyon, I saw him locked in on a level I’ve never seen before. There was nothing breaking his focus. (Jalen scored 23 points in Minnehaha Academy’s 78-58 win over Bronny James’ team last year).
Josh Peltier, boys’ basketball coach at East Ridge High School (Woodbury, Minnesota), which lost to Jalen’s Minnehaha squad 67-56 in 2019: Last year, it was our holiday tournament. We had Ben Carlson. He’s at Wisconsin now. Late in the first half, there is a loose ball around half court and it’s like he had jets behind him. He just exploded and got the ball and went in for a layup with under a minute left in the first half. This guy plays at a whole different speed. And just the impact he makes — playing against Jalen, you can watch him, but until you’re in a game with him, it’s a whole different level.
Larry McKenzie, boys’ basketball coach at Minneapolis North High School and the only coach in state history who has won multiple state titles at two schools; Jalen scored 34 points in a 63-59 win over Minneapolis North in 2019: From an opponent standpoint, Jalen is at the top of the mountain. It was 2019, we’re down 25 at our place. But we make a nice run, and I think Minnehaha is up by one. Jalen shoots the gap. My big kid, 6-foot-7, chases him. He goes up and keeps going and just flushes it, man. The kid talks trash. He plays with confidence. A lot of folks were upset because he’s constantly talking trash and that gets under people’s skin. But I just love the moxie of that kid.
Seth Anderson, boys’ basketball coach at Waseca High School (Waseca, Minnesota), which lost to Jalen’s Minnehaha Academy team 81-46 in 2020 (Jalen scored eight points in the first five minutes of the game): Our gym sold out by about 5:30 p.m. when Minnehaha came down that night. We got ahead, like, 3-2 right out of the gate. We hit a 3-pointer to take the lead and the gym is just going berserk. Then Jalen comes down and he pulls one from about the logo and knocks it down — just kind of a, “Meh, I do this every night, not a big deal.” The home crowd is going crazy and he hits an almost 30-footer as the gym is going crazy. They beat us by 30. As soon as the game was over, all the kids in the gym just surrounded him. They just wanted to feel like they were next to him. He stuck around and took pictures with kids and signed autographs. It had to be close to an hour before his coaches told him they were getting on the bus to go home.