Jamarr Sanders: Climbing Through Adversity

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He remembers a coat hanger. He bent one piece of wire, stretched and shaped it into a circle. He fit the other piece of wire shaped like a hook around a drawer knob and closed his bedroom door.

That was Jamarr Sanders’ first basketball hoop. He played on that crude contraption for hours. He was 7-years-old.

The homemade hoop became a template for the boy, the youngest of three siblings in a Montgomery, Ala. family that would soon split apart. His father would live in Chicago, his mother would leave the house, and the kid, raised by an aunt and a cousin, learned to turn scrap into treasure.

One day, a gift arrived and rendered the coat hanger obsolete.

“I got a basketball goal for Christmas,” says Sanders, a 6-4 shooting guard for the Austin Toros, “I put it in the backyard and wore out the grass.”

Jamarr and his sister, Chakata, “Coco” to family and friends, waged endless games of one-on-one. Coco, seven years older, dominated. She dribbled around Jamarr, scored at will, showed him how it was done.

Basketball drew them close. It had to. The oldest sibling, Marreo, found trouble with the police. “He broke into people’s houses and things like that,” Jamarr says.

He looked up to Coco, a star basketball and volleyball player at school, and recalls that she once averaged 25 points a game. But then Coco quit playing. At 16, she wound up pregnant.

When little brother looked around, he saw a family scattered: Dad out of state, mom out of sight, Marreo in jail. In fifth grade, life took another turn. Jamarr went to live with a cousin, Frances Mitchell, and an aunt, LaToya Pettway.

They became guardians, voices of encouragement and admonition: Don’t let anything keep you from college and following your dream.

“They were real tough on me,” Jamarr says.

Young Jamarr heeded their words. He worked on his game in the backyard, played with friends down the street and avoided the kind of mistakes that end dreams.

In seventh grade, he played organized ball for the first time and then it happened. “That’s when I knew I wanted to play pro ball,” he says. “That was my dream.”

He ran the point for his school team, which won the city championship. Jamarr passed. He attacked the rim. He scored. On the court, life was fun, a sweet diversion from the challenges at home. His cousin and aunt did their best to shield Jamarr from trouble, to encourage him to plan for college.

“They were always on me to keep my grades up,” Jamarr says. “So that’s what I did.”

At Jefferson Davis High School, Jamarr lettered on the varsity as a freshman. As a senior, he led his school to the Class 6A state championship, earning MVP honors at the state tournament. Auburn and Boston College recruited him. So did smaller schools from Alabama. . “I was a three-star recruit,” Jamarr says.

Success in the college game did not come quickly. Jamarr redshirted his first season at Alabama State and came off the bench the next. He transferred to Northwest Florida State College, found his groove, averaged 18.5 points and accepted an offer from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

There, he became a starter, and in his final season, a star, averaging 17.5 points and winning All-Conference USA first-team honors. He anticipated the NBA. No one picked him in the 2011 draft. “It was tough,” Jamarr says.

The Toros claimed him from the player pool in Dec. 2011. Jamarr started 17 games, averaged 7.7 points, shot 41 percent from behind the arc and celebrated a D-League championship. “It was one of the best moments of my career,” he says.

The coat hanger lingers in his memory, a reminder of how his journey began, of how far he has come. Jamarr sends money and notes of encouragement to Marreo. He visits Coco and takes care of her children when he can.

His role in the family has shifted. He’s now a big brother to his older siblings. In a way, that’s how it is with the Toros. The only player left from last year’s team, Jamarr has become the veteran leader, a role model and go-to guy for older teammates. “Skill-wise and leadership-wise, he’s our most consistent player,” coach Taylor Jenkins says.

An NBA call-up would not surprise Jenkins. Neither would a summer invite from an NBA team. The skill, desire and work ethic are there. But there is so much more. There are nephews and nieces back home. There is a brother and sister who need him. There are guardians pulling for him. Back in Montgomery, there is ample motivation to keep climbing, to find himself beneath an NBA rim.

Should he get there, Jamarr will always remember how it all started -- with a twisted coat hanger.