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Where Are They Now: Mike Sanders

Blue-Collar Forward from One of the Golden Eras of Cavaliers Basketball Looks Back
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

Where Are They Now:
Mike Sanders

Blue-Collar Forward from One of the Golden Eras of Cavaliers Basketball Takes a Look Back

Every successful team has a player like Mike Sanders. And the Cavaliers of the late-80s and early-90s had plenty of success with a player just like Mike Sanders.

After his arrival in 1997 with Larry Nance from Phoenix in a mid-season blockbuster that sent Kevin Johnson, Tyrone Corbin and Mark West to the Suns, the Cavaliers made the Playoffs in each of Sanders’ four seasons with the team.

That era of Cavs basketball had no shortage of star power. Nance, Mark Price and Brad Daugherty made a combined 11 All-Star Game appearances from 1988 to 1994, with Lenny Wilkens coaching them in the midseason classic in 1989.

But behind every star-studded squad, there’s the blue-collar guys who set the screens, clean up the offensive glass, score off put-backs and take on the toughest defensive assignment.

Mike Sanders did all that; and did it well. Over his three-and-a-half seasons with Cleveland, the Louisiana native played in 180 regular season and 35 postseason contests for the Cavaliers. And on a team that featured three All-Stars and Hot Rod Williams, Sanders averaged a solid 8.7ppg – including 12.8ppg during Cleveland’s 1988 postseason run.

Known as being a team of great guys as well as skilled ballplayers, Sanders fits the mold to a tee. One of the league’s true gentlemen, the former UCLA star returned to Cleveland this past year to take place in the franchise’s 50th season celebration. And today he sits down with to talk about one of the golden eras in Cavaliers basketball in this installment of Where Are They Now

Mike Sanders averaged 8.7ppg and reached the postseason in all four years with the Cavaliers from 1987 through 1993.
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Before we start looking back, what are you up to these days?

Mike Sanders: I’m working with St. Charles Parish parks and recreation. I work with the kids’ programs, do some community service work, speaking to kids in the community and things like that. I just finished coaching a kids’ basketball clinic, actually.

It’s a job I really enjoy, and I guess I’ve always had a penchant for it. The years that I was in the league, I was always associated with the Boys and Girls Club and with the YMCA.

I’ve always had a passion to work with kids and I really enjoy what I’m doing down here in Louisiana.

Speaking of kids from Louisiana, what was it like going from a small town like yours to the campus of UCLA?

Sanders: Well, it was a little bit of a culture shock. (laughs)

At UCLA, there’s such tradition and so many people. I’m from a small town – DeRidder, Louisiana – that only had about 10,000 people in it. And there was an article in the paper during my freshman year that said: ‘Mike Sanders plays in front of more people at Pauley Pavilion than live in his entire hometown.’ I got a kick out of that!

But I wanted to keep up the tradition, and there was a certain pressure because I really wanted to win another National Championship. They had 10 before I got there, so I was hoping I could put one up in the rafters as well.

But we came up just short to Louisville in 1980 when they beat us in the National Championship game.

What was your experience like, being coached by Larry Brown at UCLA?

Sanders: I learned a lot from Larry Brown. He came to UCLA in my sophomore year. And It was about re-learning the fundamentals, because Larry Brown is a teacher. Larry Brown will teach you the fundamentals.

And that was one of the things that led me to UCLA in the first place. The history, with John Wooden being a fundamental coach who wanted to teach.

That’s how players became better after going to UCLA, because of the teaching that they had received.

Aside from the culture shock, how did your game change at UCLA?

Sanders: Well, I had to make an adjustment from high school, where I played center.

Being from a small town and being one of the tallest players on the team, I had to play center. Well once I got to UCLA, I looked around and I’m like: ‘OK, this guy’s 6-11, this guy’s 6-10, this guy’s seven feet … ‘

I knew I’m not going to play the post, I’m going to be on the wing. So, I had to make an adjustment, and eventually I started playing small forward.

You were drafted in the second round by the Kansas City Kings but never played a game for them. Where did your career go from there?

Sanders: I got drafted by the Kings, but after about three or four days I got released. So then I went and played in the CBA for George Karl in Montana and then San Antonio picked me up before that season was over with and I stayed in the league from there.

One thing I loved about George – he would just let you play your game. He wanted the ball to be shot quickly, he wanted you to run the floor. If you could do those two things – shoot the ball and run the floor – George was happy with you.

What was the climate like in Phoenix right before the trade to Cleveland?

Sanders: There were some problems there at the time. I guess Walter Davis had some problems. So, at the time the Suns just wanted to make an entire household change and try to get some new faces in and try to build a new culture.

So they made a bunch of trades that year, back in 1987, including myself and Larry Nance to Cleveland.

And what were your thoughts when you heard about the trade?

Sanders: Well, I was a little down, because I was leaving the West. And I wanted to stay out West.

Now, I was going someplace that was cold. Cleveland is the Midwest, but it’s still cold!

And I knew this was going to be another adjustment, getting used to the cold weather, playing in the cold weather. Because I did that for a time in Montana, and I really didn’t like playing in a cold gym.

After practice, you leave practice and go home in the snow. So even getting around was different, driving in the snow.

But the thing I loved about my experience in Cleveland were the players that were there when Larry and I arrived.

We had a great group of guys. Hot Rod, Brad, Mark Price, Phil Hubbard. All those players were also just good guys and they really made us feel comfortable.

On a team so loaded with stars, how did you find your role?

Sanders: I think I had to define what my role would be. And I think that was one of the great things about playing under Coach Lenny Wilkens – he let me define my role.

He knew I could play good defense. And he knew I could score the basketball.

That’s one of the reasons I never had any plays run for me. It’s kind of a luxury going into a game, knowing a player can score without having plays run for him.

My job was being the ultimate role player – support the stars: Larry, Mark, and Brad.

"The thing I loved about my experience in Cleveland were the players that were there when Larry and I arrived. We had a great group of guys. Hot Rod, Brad, Mark Price, Phil Hubbard. All those players were also just good guys and they really made us feel comfortable."

I loved playing with Brad – because Brad was such a great passer. It was like you had a big guy was like a point guard in the post.

I knew he was going to get double-teamed, so I’d say ‘OK, let me get to a spot where I can get open’ and I knew he’d find me. And that’s how I got my shots. I was able to feed off those guys on pick-and-roll.

Or Mark would get doubled and Brad or Larry would roll. And my man was usually the guy who picked the roll up. So I would just say, ‘OK, I’ll just move over here to this spot’ and if and when I got the ball, I’m ready to take a good shot.

I figured out a way to score because I knew what the play’s action was going to be and how the opponent was going to defend each player on our team. So, I would just figure out where to go to get open and get a quality shot.

What were some of the things you liked about playing for Lenny Wilkens?

Sanders: One thing about Coach is he didn’t believe in running you down.

You know how some coaches at the start of training camp, they want you to run miles and miles and suicides and stuff like that? Well, what does that have to do with basketball? You’re getting me in shape, but you’re really not teaching me anything.

Coach Wilkens was the opposite way. He didn’t believe in doing all that running. If you ran, you ran with the basketball. You practiced with the basketball. You got in shape with the basketball. He didn’t pound you.

With Lenny, you came out of training camp in shape, but also you were fresh enough to start the season.

There’s that point in the season where your body is sore and you’re thinking: ‘I gotta get over this hump.’ But Coach Wilkens didn’t put you in that position, where you just wore your body down.

So, being on the front lines for many of the battles at the time, what was your take on ESPN’s “The Last Dance”?

Sanders: Actually, I didn’t watch one episode.

One, I wasn’t interested. But I also felt like I knew enough about Mike (Jordan) without watching it. I think it was more for people who didn’t know what kind of a competitive person Mike was. I got to see it firsthand because he’s the one who hit ‘The Shot’ on us.

So I didn’t want to watch it.

The documentary definitely showed the difference between today’s game and the way it was back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. What was unique about that era?

Sanders: One of the unique things I can tell you – and I guess it’s from coaching kids – the younger players versus the era I played in, I think it’s probably knowledge of the game.

We wanted to be all-around players. In today’s game, you have so many specialists. You’re either going to be a defender or a shooter or something like that.

I think players in my era were more well-rounded. Guys wanted to get theirs on offense, but stop you on the other end as well. Mike would score 40 on you, but he also wanted to hold you to 10 points.

And I think there are certain players today that’ll score their points and let you get your points.

And I also think a big difference is the mid-range game.

In today’s game, you’re either going to shoot threes or you’re going to get layups or dunks. The mid-range game barely exists.

The long two was my shot; if I took a step or two back, my percentage was going to go way down.

Do you still watch the NBA?

Sanders: I still watch every chance I get. I wouldn’t say I have a favorite team, but I do watch the game as a whole.

When I do watch, it’s kind of funny because I’ll be watching with my wife and calling out plays! Like: ‘Watch, this guy’s gonna do this. I knew he was gonna do that!’

You came back to Cleveland this past year to help the team celebrate its 50th season. What was the experience like?

Sanders: Joyous. I was really honored that they’d invite me back.

And have the opportunity to see some of my old teammates – talk, catch up. It was tremendous. I think the Cavs, they just treat their former players first-rate.

And my wife, she really enjoyed it too. She didn’t know the impact that I had being around those guys until she came with me to Cleveland this past year. It was really special.

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