Is Larry Sanders’ second act going to be a cautionary tale, or this year’s feel-good story?
He is earnest and honest, naïve and trusting, uncertain and confident. He is an artist. He is a basketball player. He is 27.
He missed basketball.
“I miss being on a team, man,” Sanders said on the phone last week. “I miss going to war with my teammates and fighting against another team and giving my all out there and affecting the game. My children are getting older. I have a boy and a girl, and my son talks about it all the time now, he misses me playing. Giving them something to cheer for, and my family. Having my name on my back, our name on my back. There’s a lot of value in that, there’s a lot of strength in that, for my whole family. Me being that person for them brings joy to me.”
Sanders has been working out for and meeting with teams -- individual times with the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, a group workout in Miami earlier this month witnessed by the Cavs and six other squads -- to show them that he’s serious about returning to the NBA, two years after flaming out in Milwaukee, needing and ultimately receiving treatment for depression and anxiety disorder.
Now, he says he’s much better equipped, through the inclusion of new people in his life and the removal of others, along with having been able to tap into the creative world during the past 24 months, to return to the physical and mental rigors of the NBA.
"The action’s going to be everything. If a team’s willing to take that risk on me, I’m also taking that risk on them, that they’re going to be able to support me and be in my corner. We’re going to be able to understand each other."
He knows the questions are all there, first and foremost being: how can any team trust you’ll be able to deal with “the life” again?
“I would say I worked really hard to get to where I was,” Sanders said. “I worked extremely hard. I started playing basketball when I was 17 years old. Things kind of hit me fast. It was hard to manage. I would say I’m more mature. I’m better. I’m at a higher level. I’m a better basketball player. I’ve taken that time to establish those things and get my family in order -- not to say everything’s perfect. I took the time that I needed.
“To convince someone by words, I don’t know what more I can say. The action’s going to be everything. If a team’s willing to take that risk on me, I’m also taking that risk on them, that they’re going to be able to support me and be in my corner. We’re going to be able to understand each other. I believe there’s a team out there that’s like that, that would love a guy like me in their system.”
He has worked out for months, mostly in Miami, with trainer Stan Remy, best known for his work with Phoenix Suns guard Brandon Knight. He has a new agent, Washington-based Joel Bell. He’d like to hook on with a team immediately and start to learn its terminologies and such, but understands that some may need convincing, or may want to wait until the summer.
“I focus on my part of the street,” he said. “My half of the street is getting in the best shape I can, getting stronger, still getting mentally stronger. And that’s it. I see it as, I do my part, and that’s kind of what I’m focusing on.”
Sanders spent the past two years in the creative community of California. He did the almost obligatory video or two (calling himself L8Show; you can YouTube it), wrote a graphic novel, but he spent more time working as a manager, he says, for several artists, allowing them to work out of his Sherman Oaks home.
There was Mo Korched, aka RuKo Photo, who met Sanders in Milwaukee and joined him in Cali to get his photography business up and running. There was Ye Ali, an R&B singer who worked out of the back part of Sanders’ house, which he converted into a studio. The engineer/producer Bizness Boi came through and started laying down his beats with Sanders’ help. A fashion designer working on his first line. A screenwriter. “And they’re all working together; they’re all working together as a team,” Sanders said.
Korched lived with Sanders for almost two years.
“It’s been a cool ride,” Korched said early Monday. “It’s cool to see the growth and the changes he’s made in his life. I think (he has) just a more relaxed demeanor. I think definitely when I first came in, I don’t know if it was me just being new, living with him. But you can definitely tell that he’s a happier person, mentally. You can definitely tell. He’s got his family around, he’s always involved with family. He definitely had a chance to work in the music production, the arts, photography, video, documentary making. So he’s got to explore a lot of things that he wanted to do.”
Scratching that itch was crucial for Sanders to feel comfortable taking another look at basketball.
“I was able to produce my major artist, and to show I could do that at a high level,” he said. “My art, my paintings, I have a fashion designer and a photographer that I manage, and they’re doing great. I see this position only raising them up higher. I pool resources for them. I linked my company with Ron Artest’s company -- Metta (World Peace) -- out here in L.A. And I house them -- well, now, they have their own housing. They’ve taken steps and strides to establish things for themselves. I housed them and connecting some dots for them in the city. It’s just trying to create this self-sustaining energy, where guys can kind of become their own brands.”
Part of Sanders’ coping mechanism is having his two children, Jasiah, 6, and Jynesis, 3, with him (“he takes them to school,” Korched said) as he reconnected with the game.
“I worked myself into a good space,” he said. “I’ve put in a lot of work where I’ve been away from basketball, ironing some things out of my life, spending time with my family, feeling more comfortable with managing my life. I knew when I got to a certain point in my life, when I got comfortable, I would want to revisit the possibility of playing basketball at a high level. And I’ve working toward that point. I feel like now is the prime time for me.”
Sanders and the Bucks worked out a buyout of his four-year, $44 million contract in February, 2015. Milwaukee agreed to make annual $1.9 million payments to Sanders through 2022 -- seven years after he last played for them -- and used the stretch provision to officially waive him. It was a sad turn for a young player who brought a single, devastating talent to a basketball court -- he was a defensive menace, a mobile, shot-blocking terror who wasn’t as tall as Rudy Gobert, but just as effective.
In a league where stretch fours and corner fives were increasingly the norm, Sanders was a Bizarro World NBA Player, a favorite of the then-nascent analytics community with limited offensive skills. But he was a fast big man with amazing timing who could destroy the bread and butter play of almost every NBA offense -- the high screen and roll. In the 2012-13 season, he ranked second in blocks per game and sixth in defensive rating.
But Sanders was in the midst of unraveling. All kinds of pressures were building in him and exploding out of him at the same time. He got in a fight in a Milwaukee nightclub (he told Vice Magazine last year that he was jumped) in which he tore thumb ligaments in December, 2013. He returned after missing several weeks, only to break his orbital bone in February after getting hit by an inadvertent James Harden elbow, and miss the rest of the season. He wasn’t happy being away from his family; he missed the lack of creativity in his life away from basketball. Ironically, the more he succeeded at the game, the more he got paid, and the more he felt like a commodity -- pressed to conform and fit in, not to stand out.
“I’m definitely an artist when I play basketball,” he says. “The way I block shots, my timing, my angles, how I see the game. Definitely. I think when you play at a really high level, you kind of dumb it down a little bit. I think when you do anything at a high level -- you talk to a musician, how they love their art, and then they sign to a label, and then their art gets tainted, and it dies down. I think that comes with any kind of a high-level position, when there’s a lot of money involved.”
And, he smoked a lot of weed.
"Now, being away from marijuana, I’m able to look back on it and understand it and indulge in these other coping mechanisms. ... There’s different things that, chemically, are put in place now, that make me, I feel like a stronger individual, where a crutch doesn’t seem as appealing as it did before."
Sanders says he didn’t start smoking until he got into the NBA, when he was 22. He did it to cope with … well, everything.
“I was young in the league,” he says. “I was using it to handle where I was going. I wasn’t really managing my life at a high level. That was helping me to cope. But in hindsight, while I was coping on a day to day, on a larger scale, it was hindering. Because there were other skills that I needed to learn. Now, being away from marijuana, I’m able to look back on it and understand it and indulge in these other coping mechanisms. I’m older now, too. I feel my brain’s more developed. There’s different things that, chemically, are put in place now, that make me, I feel like a stronger individual, where a crutch doesn’t seem as appealing as it did before. There’s a lot of value in me learning things on my own and dealing with issues head on.”
Sanders failed four drug tests during his five NBA seasons, all believed to be for positive marijuana tests. His issues with the league and its marijuana policy are as philosophical as anything. He says now that he hasn’t smoked in two months, and he won’t when and if he gets with a team.
“I understand that, because I can see now, through hindsight that, it may make me feel better at the moment, (but) it’s only adding,” he said. “Because it’s a banned substance. As long as it’s banned in the league, it’s going to add to the problem. It’s not going to help, ultimately. It’s kind of hard to see when you’re kind of indulged in it … that comes with knowledge and understanding and research. People are seeing, for whatever reason, you put an x on this my whole life, now we’re understanding it more and seeing the benefits of it. And that was a battle that I was in when I was playing.
“I understood the health components of it and I did my research. But it all comes down to, that may all be all fine and dandy, but it’s not federally legal yet. It’s a banned substance. That was always the final answer. It was a battle that, you can fight the battle in different ways.”
After he reached the buyout with the Bucks, he announced his retirement on The Players Tribune, saying “I’m a person, I’m a father, I’m an artist, a writer, painter, I’m a musician … and sometimes I play basketball.” He spent a month at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc
“It’s a lot of youth there, a lot of kids that were younger than me,” Sanders said. “While I came in with my own issues, I was also able to mentor a lot. And I was able to kind of be of help, open my eyes just to a lot of things, where you can really put your importance in life, the values system that we set up. It made me extremely grateful for anything I did and didn’t have. It just opened my eyes to my situation, how big the picture was. It helped me to make my decision. It definitely did.”
Both while at Rogers and afterward, Sanders took stock of what had caused him so much anxiety.
“A lot of guys in the league, we come from different situations,” he said. “The way drama works, it just stores in your body. Certain things, they don’t really go away. You just learn to cope. Things kind of come back when you’re a young man in your early twenties, that you may not have thought about for 10 years. It’s kind of how the mind works. So you have to learn. Understanding is huge. I studied the mind a lot, I studied the nervous system a lot. Through my understanding, it helped me to cope better, to kind of pinpoint what I think I need.”
And here lies the rub, not only with Sanders, but with other players trying to deal with anxieties and other disorders. Substance abuse is frequently a derivative of a larger mental health issue or issues.
We’ve gone down this road before, with World Peace and Royce White and Delonte West and other players who needed extra support and counseling to deal with their unique maladies. The NBA maintains that while there remains no specific mental health policy in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, players have access to mental health professionals and treatment programs as part of their benefits package. And the league continues to maintain that mental health professionals not affiliated with its teams cannot have decision-making authority over the best courses of treatment for players. There are, the league argues, mental health resources available through the team and Players’ Association.
Sanders says he has a support system in place that will be best for him if he returns.
“That’s something that, when I stepped away, I started to establish on my own,” he said. “Those are things that I’m going to bring with me to the NBA. Until the NBA figures that out, I’m going to have my own personal support system, that I’m able to go to, that I didn’t have before. I had one, but it wasn’t very a strong one. And I understood that. You get hit with these different obstacles and you get put in these different positions, and these crises come up, and there’s nothing to do but go play basketball. But you have to handle these different things, and sometimes you can’t do it by yourself.”
His friends in his non-hoops community believe he’ll be able to balance everything. They love him whether he goes back to the pros or not.
“I was always like, ‘I don’t really care, dude,’ ” Korched said. “We’ll play basketball, we’ll play 2K, we’ll play video games and talk about basketball. But I don’t really care if that’s something he wants to do, and being in the community, all of his friends are like that, too. I think being in that space where he actually got to be himself and not have the whole professional athlete type situation, or having to worry about being the celebrity dude walking around, gave him a really good feeling to know that, okay, I can do both, as long as it’s the right people involved.”
“He has a better chance of helping some team and himself with a full summer of training ... He can still blow up pick and roll action and move well laterally.”
Sanders wants to give the league what it needs from him without compromising who he is. But he also believes who he is may be interpreted differently now than it was just a few years ago.
“I think all over the world, they’re understanding, I really don’t have to stay in this lane; I can kind of be who I want to be,” he said. “There’s this sense of judgment that used to be around certain stigmas, because of a lack of knowledge. Whatever the media said and whatever the dictation was, that’s what people went with. Now people are kind of like, well, I have four friends like that, and that’s not true. With that, I think it opens up doors for people like Metta, where they don’t have to be thrown into different lanes because they enjoy different types of art, different types of life. Whereas 10 years ago, to say, I want to rap -- now you’re a thug. You just called into different labels that are changing.”
Sanders’ workouts with Remy were tailored toward today’s NBA offenses, and how Sanders would attack them.
“When I watch the game, I look at it from a defensive standpoint,” Sanders said. “Those are guys that I want to guard. I want to be able to guard that three, that stretch four. I think I’m agile enough and I feel like I’m fast enough and quick enough to guard those guys, and also the rim.
“Offensively, my speed is what opens the game up for other players. My hard dives to the rim, my rim runs. I look at so many ways I can make the game easier, for whatever team … I want to contribute without even touching the ball, and make plays just being fast and being quick, using my speed and athleticism.”
Some of the teams that have seen Sanders work out said that while there’s obviously some rust to work off, Sanders could conceivably come back with a few weeks of serious work with a team.
“He has a better chance of helping some team and himself with a full summer of training,” an official with one team said. “He’s underweight, but in good cardio shape. His game is at one end (of the floor), so there’s not much drop off offensively. He can still blow up pick and roll action and move well laterally.”
Said an official with a second team: “He was moving pretty good. Still mobile and athletic. His conditioning was coming back, had a little ways to go there. He’s lost some weight so he needed 10-15 pounds or so, but overall, he was okay for being out so long.”
Cleveland will wait to see if Andrew Bogut, as expected, signs with the Cavaliers after finishing out the details of his buyout with the Philadelphia 76ers. If Bogut were to go elsewhere, it’s possible the Cavs would consider bringing in Sanders. But that sounds like a longshot at present. The Celtics have made no moves to sign him. But other teams have interest, and Sanders has told teams he’ll play in the NBA D-League if teams want him to go there first.
“He never really gave up basketball,” Korched said. “He was always training. He never lost the love for basketball. He was still doing it. He made time for it. He always made time for it. I don’t think that it’s a matter of if he will. Now it’s just a matter of that’s what he wants to do. Larry’s the type of dude that, if that’s what he wants, that’s what’s going to happen.”
But those in the game worry. No one thinks Sanders is a bad guy or malicious in any way … it’s quite the opposite. The pressure of being a pro athlete is unrelenting. Can Sanders get back on the grind, deal with the expectations that would follow him wherever he goes to go back and be the player he was without falling back into the old routines? (Obviously it won’t be in Milwaukee, but could you imagine Sanders back in the middle alongside forwards Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo?)
Sanders says basketball will become his “high priority” if he can get a job, and the other things will fall under that. But he still hopes to keep a hand in the world that nurtured and sustained him the last two years. He thinks he can do it all and stay clean.
“I understand my purpose,” he says. “I understand why I’m doing it. The money is not a factor. Of course, they’re paying guys to play basketball not like they’re paying artists to make music. I have to understand who I am in it. And stick to that. I established some good things around me and some base, some unshakable stuff that I know is going to help me if I do get to that level again, I won’t have to wither. I won’t have to lower myself and my standards to be in that position.”
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