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For Minnehaha Academy's Jalen Suggs, athletic excellence is all relative

By Jim Paulsen, Star Tribune, 02/27/17, 8:26PM CST


Jalen Suggs is an amazing athlete in a family full of them.

Jalen Suggs plays at the game between Minnehaha Academy and Columbia Heights Thursday. Feb, 23. 2017 at Minnehaha Academy Upper School. ] XAVIER WANG • xavier.wang@startribune.com Jalen Suggs, a ninth-grader basketball player who already is one o

With his star rising fast, Jalen Suggs, Minnehaha Academy’s marvelous freshman guard, finds himself in the spotlight often. With nearly every interview, Suggs knows a question will be tossed his way that begins with “Are you related to ...?”

It’s all about the Suggs name, synonymous with St. Paul-area athletic excellence for four decades, back to the 1970s.

“I get asked that a lot,” Jalen said. “I’m proud of it. They’re all part of my family.”

And when talking about the Suggs name, that’s a lot of family.

Family tree

The Suggs history in Minnesota began in St. Paul in the mid-1970s. Former St. Paul Central basketball standout Rickey Suggs, his mother, and 13 brothers and sisters (one brother went off to college) moved there from East St. Louis in search of better opportunities.

By that time, the Suggs children already were dedicated basketball players.

“We had to play,” recalled Rickey, whose daughter Raena is second-leading scorer for Hopkins girls’ basketball team. “My mom made us stay outside, even if it was cold, and play until it was time to eat. We loved sports. Mostly basketball and football. We got hooked.”

Rickey, a 1980 Mr.Basketball finalist, said that was all part of the master plan. Sports was an avenue to education.

“For most people, it’s the other way around. You go to school and then play,” Suggs, 54, said. “For us, we got hooked on basketball and football. Then we found out that if we wanted to keep playing, we had to go to school and get good grades.”

Rickey went on to play at Nebraska-Omaha, had a brief football career with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL — “Wayne Gretzky was my friend,” Suggs said — and was a fixture in local Pro-Am League play for more than a decade after graduation.

As he and the Suggs siblings got older, they spread out. Many remained in the Twin Cities, others settling elsewhere. Brother Donald lived on St. Paul’s East Side and had a son. They remained until that son was in ninth grade, then moved to Arizona. His name? Terrell Suggs, now a Baltimore Ravens defensive end.

“He still comes back, for Christmas and holidays,” Rickey said.

While Terrell Suggs is the most prominent athlete in the family, others made a name for themselves as high school athletes. There’s Larry, who is Jalen’s father and a football and basketball standout at Woodbury in the early 1990s. DeMar Suggs and Dion Suggs-Young were star basketball players at St. Paul Johnson a decade apart. Darren Suggs was an all-metro wide receiver at St. Paul Highland Park in 2004.

It was not just boys, either. Sherri Suggs was a long-limbed 6-3 center for the Highland Park girls’ basketball team that reached the 1986 Class 2A state championship game before falling 62-55 to St. Louis Park.

– have been among the best basketball players in the state. Rickey Jr. graduated from Woodbury in 2012, Renard in 2013, and both are playing college basketball: Rickey Jr. is concluding his career at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. Renard, who played at Washington State last year, is sitting out a transfer year at Nebraska-Omaha.

Both have the family’s athletic prowess and competitive nature.

“Renard, he’s the better shooter. Rickey is the better athlete. But I don’t back down,” dad said. “I can still play.”

Best yet?

For all of the family gifts, perhaps the two best athletes in the tree are currently performing for local high schools.

Raena, a Ferrari-fast 5-7 junior guard, is the second-leading scorer for Hopkins, averaging nearly 18 points for the No. 1 team in Class 4A.

With three basketball-mad men in the house as she was growing up, Raena learned quickly that she had to get tough if she wanted to play.

“Oh, she’s tough,” Rickey said with a laugh. “She’s got that determination. I used to play her a lot in one-on-one. Some people say, ‘She’s your kid, so let her win.’ No. I’m not doing that. She’s got to learn how.”

Not only has Raena picked up the skills, she’s also inherited the fiery confidence.

“I’m the best player in the family,” she says matter-of-factly. “I can shoot, I can play defense. Playing with them made me stronger and my quickness came from the family. It’s in our genes.”

Then there’s Jalen. At 6-3, he’s smooth and athletic, with an exceptional vertical leap and a basketball IQ in the stratosphere.

By age, he’s a freshman. By basketball standards, he’s far more mature. He’s a five-star recruit and listed at No. 7 on the list of top basketball recruits of 2020 by Future 150.com. Another website, Coast to Coast Preps, has Jalen ranked third in his class.

His father, Larry, who coaches the Minnehaha Academy ninth-grade team, has been prepping Jalen since he could walk.

“He’s always been so mature,” Larry said. “Even when he was little, barely 2 years old, you could see that he could shoot. I took all of the tables out of the dining room in our house and put tape marks on the floor. My wife and I would teach him where to go and why.”

For much of Jalen’s early years, Larry eschewed the club basketball route for developing his skills, preferring to take his son on the road to various camps. When Jalen was 7, his father put him on a plane by himself to stay with relatives in Dallas and attend a camp there.

“We wanted to get him exposed to a lot of different people and learn how to do things for himself,” Larry said. “And we wanted him to be comfortable doing it.’’

That poise is evident each time Jalen takes the court. He plays with restrained emotion, just enough for his teammates to feed off of but never out of control. He’s averaging 21.5 points for Minnehaha Academy, ranked No. 1 in Class 2A.

Both Jalen and Raena’s athletic futures are bright. With a full year to go, Raena is receiving interest from North Carolina, Wake Forest, Arizona State, Cincinnati and Wichita State.

Jalen already has confirmed offers from Baylor, Georgia Tech, Iowa State, UNLV and Minnesota. He is expected to be the target of an intense recruiting war before making his decision. He’s shown such promise as a quarterback for the SMB Wolfpack that Iowa State and Minnesota, among others, have recruited him for football as well.

Both Rickey and Larry, who are cousins, acknowledge that the best athletes in the Suggs line are probably playing high school basketball right now.

“They will probably be the best,” Rickey said.

Until, of course, the next Suggs comes along.

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