Highly Unlikely

Sanders, boyhood friend remember first-round pick's humble beginnings

By Truman Reed
06/29/10

Skiles
Larry Sanders had absolutely no grand illusions when he took up basketball. "I just wanted to learn," Sanders said.
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

There might not be a member of the 2010 National Basketball Association Draft class - nor a player on an NBA roster next season - with a greater fascination for the sport than Larry Sanders, whom the Milwaukee Bucks selected with the 15th overall selection.

Maybe that's because Sanders didn't truly discover and embrace the game until he had reached a far more advanced age - 16 - than the vast majority of his contemporaries and the veterans in what has now become his profession.

Sanders didn't play his first organized basketball game until he was a 6-4 sophomore on the junior varsity team at Port St. Lucie (Fla.) High School.

One of the most memorable moments of his introductory season to the sport was one he will probably never live down. At the same time, though, Sanders' coaches, teammates and friends admire the fact that he is not too proud to bring it up.

"It was my first organized game," Sanders recalled. "I didn't know they switched baskets at the half. I went downcourt and I was like, `I'm open!' and I scored on the wrong basket.

"That's a funny story to look back on. We won that game, but my teammates told me that if we had lost that game, they were going to kill me."

Seth Willmot, one of those teammates, accompanied Sanders to Milwaukee for his introduction to the local media the day after the Bucks made Sanders, who had grown into a 6-11, 235-pound power forward and twice been named Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year during three seasons at Virginia Commonwealth University, the 15th pick in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft.

When asked for his account of the story and his recollections of Sanders' introduction to basketball, his boyhood friend didn't sugarcoat anything.

"He was horrible," Willmot said. "And when I say horrible, I'm saying ... there's the story about the JV game where he scored on the wrong bucket because he didn't know they switched at halftime. That's just mentally bad. But physically, he was horrible, too."

Sanders' most embarrassing moment in organized basketball wasn't an exception to the rule, either.

He was brutally honest when asked about the basketball experiences of his early to mid-teen years.

"I didn't really know my body," Sanders said. "I was clumsy. It wasn't a very pretty sight.

"I wasn't good. I was just tall. I was usually that guy who, when I played pickup basketball, I'd get picked first and then I'd never get picked again. That was me. Guys were like, `We're not picking him again.'"

Milwaukee Bucks General Manager John Hammond and his staff did their homework on Sanders and were well aware of his humble beginnings, but they didn't prevent the Bucks from making him their latest first-round draft choice.

On the contrary ...

"To me, that's very refreshing," Hammond said. "I love the fact that a guy who was drafted with the 15th pick in the NBA is saying, `You know what? I didn't really know if I could be here someday.' A lot of guys come through this system - and I have nothing against it; Brandon (Jennings) was one of those guys - they come through the AAU system and were McDonald's All-Americans and everything else, and it's almost like, `I have a rite of passage. It's just going to happen for me. I know I'm going to be an NBA player.'

"Some of them make it and some of them don't. I think it's very refreshing that we've got a guy here who's like, `Man, I didn't know this was going to be here for me.' I love that mentality, and he can only get better with that, too."

Draft night was almost a surreal experience for Sanders. He gathered back home in Richmond, Va., with his family and a few close friends, including former Virginia Commonwealth University teammate Eric Maynor, now of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and his high school teammate, Willmot.

"After the 14th pick, we were sitting there and Eric called it," Sanders said. "He said, `This is you. This is you at 15.' I was like, `Man, be quiet.' But he was like, `This is you. You're not going past 15.' And sure enough, my name was called.

"My friends jumped around. I just put my head down. I dropped my head. I couldn't believe it. I smiled and just walked back into the room with my family and hugged everybody. I had to find my mom. It was great.

"I don't even know that I believed it at first. I had to pinch myself. In my mind, the first thing I thought was, `My dream is here.' I thought back very quickly about the past month or two, all the workouts I did, all the traveling, and I just kept the mind-set of trying to stay positive. And now it all worked out and came together, like a puzzle."

Sanders won't take credit for designing that puzzle, though such a project would have been a much more realistic achievement for him as a teen-ager than the pursuit of a basketball career.

He shared some common ground with former Bucks high-flyer Desmond Mason, but it wasn't the ability to electrify an audience with a spectacular slam dunk.

"I was really into art," Sanders said. "I used to draw all the time. I'd go to the basketball court, but I'd draw while the other guys were playing. I'm really an admirer of art, too."

Sanders, though, eventually reached a crossroads that he followed in the direction of the basketball court. When asked who influenced him to take that turn, he was quick to respond.

"It was my high school coach, Kareem Rodriguez," Sanders said. "He put the basketball in my hand. There were a lot of days when he was working with me that I knew he wanted to give up, but he didn't. He never gave up on me. And he was always patient with me, even when I scored in the wrong basket."

Sanders had absolutely no grand illusions when he took up basketball.

"I just wanted to learn," Sanders said. "I found myself falling in love with the game more and more, the more I practiced. The thing I learned about basketball is it doesn't lie to you. It's proven. When you put the work in, the repetition, and you work hard, you're going to get better.

"I trusted it and fell in love with it, so that's probably the first thing I learned."

Sanders said Willmot, whom he considers his best friend, was another individual who influenced his pursuit of basketball.

"I knew Seth before I started playing basketball," Sanders said. "got to know each other when we were conditioning before trying out. He was really into basketball. I was like, `Why is he into basketball so much? It's just a game.'

"After awhile, I started getting into it like he did, but he was really into it. We wound up being high school teammates. He doesn't really play anymore, but he just loves basketball."

As time went by, Sanders began to apply what he was learning. Both he and his game grew by leaps and bounds.

He grew to 6-6 as a junior and made his way onto Florida's hoops radar by helping lead Port St. Lucie to the Class 5A state semifinals.

He shot up to 6-9 as a senior and averaged 18.9 points and 13 rebounds in leading Port St. Lucie to Florida's District 13-5A championship. He became a first-team all-state selection.

Wilmott credits Rodriguez for launching Sanders' basketball career. He saw it all happen up-close.

"I think at first Larry was pushed into the game," Willmot said. "But our high school coach really allowed him to love it. I think that's what changed everything. Instead of being pushed, he was allowed to get better, and he really started to love the game."

Rodriguez had to appreciate the fact that Sanders didn't consider himself a basketball know-it-all.

Sanders hadn't been told by family and friends from the moment he stepped on the court that he was the greatest thing the game had seen since Fill-In-Your-Superstar-Of-Choice Here.

He didn't believe that the game revolved around him.

He never had an oozing ego and he didn't play basketball with the attitude that he had the world by the tail.

Willmot can attest to all of the above.

"Definitely," Willmot said. "He's very humble. He has no bad habits. He's just been remarkable. To do what he has from 10th grade until now ... I just think about five or six years from now how much better he's going to be.

"And that's just amazing. It's scary." Before you peer five or six years into the future, visit bucks.com again soon for the continued saga of Larry Sanders' unlikely journey from non-basketball player to NBA first-round draft choice.