The Larry Sanders Show

larryLarry Sanders, the NBA’s fiery angel, will tell you that he has seen the darkest corners of crazy in this childhood. In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, senior writer Lee Jenkins examines how one of the NBA’s most imposing defensive players has found his happy (if still occasional volatile) place.

Sanders, a 6’11” center for the Milwaukee Bucks, can cover the entire court in six strides and dunks so ferociously that backboards shake for a full 30 seconds. Sanders blocks nearly three shots per game, alters many more and deters countless others. “A lot of the guys drive inside and don’t even look at the basket anymore…they see me there and pass,” says Sanders (PAGE 62).

Growing up in a hostile environment where he would sometimes hear his father abusing his mother, Sanders was constantly moving around with his mother and siblings. “No one really took us in…we lived on the streets,” says Sanders (PAGE 63).

His mother Marilyn wanted to keep her children close at all times. She worked wherever they went to school, whether she was a bus driver or a crossing guard, a cafeteria cook or a substitute teacher. “I don’t believe in hate. I didn’t tell him what Daddy did. I wanted him to love his father. But I had to get him out of there so he wouldn’t see anything,” says Larry’s mother Marilyn Smith (PAGE 63).

As a child, Sanders showed no interest in basketball. Instead, he was either drawing, writing, or getting into trouble at school. Being an artist was Larry’s unique way to escape. Drawing pictures of angles and fantasy characters would help him remain calm in difficult situations.   “Drawing was a way for my mind to take a break from everything I’d seen and focus on the lines…it was a release for me. I could zone out and just be there,” says Sanders (PAGE 63).

Sanders first got introduced to the game of basketball by Kareem Rodriguez, head basketball coach at Port St. Lucie High School.  Basketball didn’t come easy to Larry at first, as he had never run a pick-and-roll or heard of a three-second violation. In his first game with the jayvee team, he scored in the wrong basket. Sanders would up being attracted to defense partly because he didn’t have to follow so many strange instructions. He saw the ball and swatted it.

Jenkins writes that Rodriquez was the father figure in Larry’s life. He taught him everything there was to know about the game.  On and off the court, Sanders viewed his teammates as his brothers. “I’ll show you…I’ll teach you,” Rodriquez told Sanders (PAGE 64).

Sanders committed to VCU, renowned for its chaotic full-court press, after watching one practice. “They were like brothers too,” says Sanders (PAGE 64). At VCU, he majored in sociology and took classes in psychology to learn about domestic violence and why people act in such a cruel way.

Most recently, he became a breakout star at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, when two researchers presented a paper that analyzed spatial data to indentify Sanders as the league’s most effective rim protector. Since moving into the starting lineup in December, he has averaged 9.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.9 blocks, inspiring the Bucks public relations department to send out wooden blocks promoting him for Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player.  He also picked up 14 technical fouls, been ejected a league-high five times and racked up $95,000 in fines last month alone. His problem with authority seems to have followed him wherever he as gone.

However, off the court, Larry still keeps his mom close and looks to help those less fortunate than him. His mother lives with him in Milwaukee, in the same house as his wife and two-year-old son. In addition, Sanders wants to establish a shelter for battered women in Fort Pierce that will offer three meals a day. It’s just one of his many projects for one of the most improved players in the NBA.


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