Posted April 14, 2013

Inside the mind of Larry Sanders

Ben Golliver, Larry Sanders, Milwaukee Bucks
Larry Sanders doing what he does best. (Gary Dineen/Getty Images)

Larry Sanders doing what he does best. (Gary Dineen/Getty Images)

Bucks center Larry Sanders, a candidate for both the Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player awards, most often provokes two questions among NBA observers.

1. How did he block that shot?
2. What is wrong with that guy?

Sanders, now in his third year from Virginia Commonwealth, is second in the NBA with 2.8 blocks per game and tied for the league lead with 14 technical fouls. He’s been fined $50,000 for criticizing the officials. He’s sarcastically flashed thumbs up to the referees after being ejected. He’s been sent home by his (former) coach for a “team conduct issue.” And he’s absolutely lost it during an extended jawing match with the Pacers that got him tossed from a game last April. Video of the sequence (via YouTube user Joe Wallace) is below.

In this week’s Sports Illustrated, senior writer Lee Jenkins goes deep to answer both questions, chatting with Sanders about his craft, his upbringing and his many interests outside basketball, which include drawing, skateboard building and gospel music. (Click here to subscribe to Sports Illustrated.)

Jenkins uncovers a back story so haunting that it makes you re-evaluate any knee-jerk reaction you might have to his on-court disciplinary issues.

The ugly episodes came on weekend nights, when Larry was four and five years old, tucked into bed. “I remember flashes,” he says. “Some of them won’t ever go away. Some of them are really vivid, really terrifying. There were occasions I’d be sleeping and I’d hear my dad come home late. He’d been drinking and gambling, and he’d use my mom as an outlet if he lost. I’d hear a chair crack against the wall or a loud scream. He was so big. She was only 5′ 5″. ” (Sanders Sr. says he has never had a drinking problem.)

Larry’s mother, Marilyn Smith, hid her pain. “I didn’t tell him what happened,” Marilyn says. “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.” Marilyn left home with her six-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, even though they had nowhere to go. “No one really took us in,” Larry says. “We lived on the streets.” They slept in a shelter for battered women, where Larry shared a bed with his mom and his sister, and they shared a room with another family. “I felt like my mom was my lady,” he recalls, “and I had to take care of her.” He rarely left her side. They were kicked out of the shelter for breaking curfew one night and moved in with Marilyn’s mother, who, despite being bedridden with diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, already had 16 family members spread through her living room, garage and trailer. “We felt we had to duck from my dad,” Larry says. “He couldn’t know where we were, or we were afraid he’d come get us.”

They settled in a Section 8 house off a dirt road in Vero Beach, where Larry spent hours at the kitchen table with his notepad and the Indian River Press Journal. “Drawing was a way for my mind to take a break from everything I’d seen and focus on the lines,” he says. “It was a release for me. I could zone out and just be there.” Marilyn bought him a black skateboard, another vehicle that allowed him to escape, up ramps and down driveways with new friends.

Marilyn wanted to keep her children close, so she worked wherever they went to school, whether it was Citrus Elementary or Olive Middle, whether she was a bus driver or a crossing guard, a cafeteria cook or a substitute teacher. But she could not shield Larry from trouble. He was expelled from fourth, fifth and sixth grades. “I didn’t fight a lot, but I had a problem with authority,” he says. “I’d get into it with teachers.”

In an interview with SI.com this week, renowned NBA trainer Tim Grover, whose clients include Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, explained how confidence-building psychology is a large part of what he does, especially for his taller clients.

“We also talk about the ’6-foot-9 rule,’ where if you have a player or an individual over 6-foot-9, they don’t respond very well to that ‘in your face’ kind of thing. It’s more of a positive reinforcement, a good job, a pat on the back.”

Sanders, listed at 6-11, fits that rule to a tee, Jenkins writes, citing Kareem Rodriguez, his high school coach.

Rodriguez discovered what so many others around Sanders have missed: How he reacts depends on how he’s addressed. “If you ask Larry, ‘Can you pull your pants up, please?’ he’ll be like, O.K., no problem,” Rodriguez says. “But if you tell him, ‘Hey, pull your pants up!’ he doesn’t respond well.” Rodriguez handled Sanders with care, and so did his teammates. They ragged on one another but not on him. They knew, after a hard foul or a tough call, to stand with him and speak softly. During a game in his senior year Sanders saw a 5′ 11″ teammate get pushed into the gymnasium wall, and he reacted as if a brother were in danger, picking up his teammate while barking at the culprit. Rodriguez got Sanders to cool down after a stoppage in play. “I think he had four blocks and 15 rebounds in the second half,” Rodriguez recalls.

Basketball replaced art as his outlet, and at the Boys & Girls Club, locals asked Sanders if he was going to play in Division I, II or III. “D-III!” Sanders replied, assuming it was the highest level. He committed to Virginia Commonwealth, renowned for its chaotic full-court press, after watching one practice. “They were like brothers too,” Sanders says. He majored in sociology at VCU and took classes in psychology to learn more about domestic violence. “I wanted to understand, Why do people do this?” Sanders says. “A lot of kids who grow up in that kind of environment start to think it’s O.K. They start accepting it. I was terrified of that happening to me.” Then he’d go to practice and bust teammates’ noses. “Larry is an aggressive soul,” says Alabama assistant coach Tony Pujol, who recruited Sanders to VCU. “He can be a happy-go-lucky guy, but on the court he tries to put three knots in your forehead. I’m not sure that’s a fire you ever want to put out.”

There are layers and layers to this piece. Did you know, for instance, that Sanders wants to open a shelter for battered women? There’s just no way to read this profile without fundamentally changing how you perceive the Bucks’ 24-year-old big man.

For more on Jenkins’ feature, check out this Inside Sports Illustrated preview. This week’s magazine is on newsstands now and you can follow Jenkins on Twitter here.

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