Sanders, Maynor reach their first NBA crossroads
By Truman Reed
"We never stop talking," Sanders said. "We've been talking since we first met. He's a real good friend of mine."
Sometimes National Basketball Association games can seem like a series of class reunions.
Former college teammates and players who attended the same schools years apart cross paths on the NBA hardwood all the time.
Bucks forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was one of 14 former UCLA players who began the 2010-11 season on an NBA roster.
Milwaukee forward Corey Maggette was one of 13 Duke University products in the league, matching the total of players produced by the University of Kentucky's storied program.
Drew Gooden, another Bucks forward, was among a dozen NBA performers who played collegiately at the University of Kansas. Bucks assistant coach Joe Wolf will intersect with another 12 NBA players who competed for his alma mater, the University of North Carolina.
A much more exclusive reunion took place, though, at the Bradley Center prior to Milwaukee's contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Nov. 20.
After getting up their necessary number of shots before the fans were allowed through the turnstiles, Bucks rookie forward/center Larry Sanders sat down courtside next to OKC second-year guard Eric Maynor, his former teammate at Virginia Commonwealth University, marking their first meeting at the professional level.
Maynor would play an instrumental role in the Thunder's 82-81 victory over the Bucks, matching his season high with 12 points and collecting five rebounds, three assists and a steal over 20 minutes, 34 seconds.
Sanders did not play in the contest, but he still recognized the significance of his reunion with Maynor and said it was something he will always treasure.
He talked about his friendship with Maynor before the game.
"We never stop talking," Sanders said. "We've been talking since we first met. He's a real good friend of mine. We were talking just a few minutes courtside after we got our shots up.
"I'm excited to be in the NBA playing against him."
Maynor carved an unforgettable niche in VCU basketball history as a sophomore during the 2006-07 season.
His last-minute heroics - he scored nine of his 20 points in the last two minutes -- helped the Rams knock off 2006 Final Four participant George Mason in the 2007 Colonial Athletic Association Tournament championship game.
Then he scored 22 points, and hit the winning shot, on March 15, 2007, in VCU's victory over Duke in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. The Rams, who were seeded 11th in the NCAA West Regional, achieved their first NCAA tourney win since 1985 and dealt the Blue Devils their first opening-round exit from the tourney since 1996.
Sanders, a basketball latecomer who was just starting to scratch the surface of his potential as a high school senior at the time, did not expect to become fast friends with the little big man on campus when he arrived at the Richmond, Va. school.
"When Eric hit the jump shot and VCU beat Duke in the NCAA first round, that put them on the map," Sanders said. "Coming in there as a freshman, I figured with him being the starting point guard, he probably wouldn't even want to talk to me. I was a big. He was a point guard. He was good. I wasn't very good.
"But against all the odds, he became my best friend. And he's still the same person."
During their first season together at VCU, Maynor and Sanders helped the Rams win the CAA regular-season title before they fell in the semifinals of the conference tournament to William & Mary. Maynor was selected the CAA Player of the Year. VCU failed to reach the NCAA Tournament and wound up in the NIT, where it lost in the first round to UAB.
The following season, Maynor became VCU's career scoring and assists leader. He and Sanders led their team to a second CAA title, with Maynor scoring 25 points in a 71-50 victory over George Mason in the league tournament. The Rams advanced to the 2009 NCAA tourney, where they lost to UCLA after Maynor missed a potential winning buzzer-beater.
The Rams' NCAA run was an attention-getter for both Maynor and Sanders.
"Larry was a guy who kind of got on the board because of Eric Maynor (the former VCU star guard who was selected by the Utah Jazz in the 2009 NBA Draft and later dealt to the Oklahoma City Thunder)," Bucks General Manager John Hammond said. "In preparation for the draft a year ago, we were watching Eric Maynor and you're seeing this big guy running up and down the floor and blocking shots and doing the things he could do, and you ask, `Who is that guy? He looks like he could be very good.'
"That put him on the map a little bit from a scouting standpoint. We went back and followed up like I'm sure every other team in the NBA did."
Maynor was chosen 20th overall by the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 2009 NBA Draft and signed a two-year contract with the Jazz that summer. On Dec. 22, 2009, the Jazz traded Maynor and Matt Harpring to Oklahoma City for the rights to Peter Fehse.
Sanders, meanwhile, continued his emergence onto pro scouts' radar screen during his junior year at VCU, averaging 26.8 minutes, 14.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks and posted a .534 field-goal percentage. He repeated as CAA Defensive Player of the Year and was a first-team all-CAA choice. Over 180 NBA scouts attended VCU games to check him out that season.
Maynor may have been a thousand miles away geographically at points during that year, but he and Sanders remained close.
"Every year, he tells me about what's ahead of me," Sanders said. "In my last year at VCU, my junior year, he was telling me about his last year in college. Now he's gone through his first year in the league, so he's telling me all about that now that I'm a rookie.
"He's definitely in my circle. He's one of the people I call. When I was making the decision to turn pro, he was one of the first people I called to ask, `What should I do.' It would have carried a lot of power for him to say, `Stay in school.' If he had, I would have stayed."
Last June 24, the day the Bucks made Sanders the 15th pick in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft, Maynor was among a small group of family members and friends who joined him at his home.
"Eric was in the room with me watching the draft when I was drafted - he and (OKC guard) James Harden," Sanders said. "He was the first-ever first-round pick out of VCU and the next year I was the second one. We're the only two to go in the first round. It's crazy."
The only other VCU products besides Maynor and Sanders to compete in the NBA were Jesse Dark, Bernie Harris, Edmund Sherod and former Bucks guard Gerald Henderson. Of the four, Henderson was the only one to play more than one NBA season.
"If you go back in VCU history, me and Eric are probably right up at the top as far as duos playing together," Sanders said. "I remember him feeding me. I didn't feed him much while we were there together.
"I have a lot of memories of us playing together."
No matter how successful Maynor and Sanders become during their NBA careers, Sanders will value their friendship even more than the basketball experiences they have shared.
"Ever since we met, Eric has been the same person," Sanders said. "As good a player as he is, I value even more the kind of guy he is. He's a great human being, and that's how he carries himself. He just happens to be a very good basketball player. "That's what he taught me. That's why I'm the way I am. I just happen to be at a point in my life where I am trying to play basketball. I just try to stay humble, just like Eric."