An Artist Trapped in an NBA Body: The Story of Larry Sanders

FRANK CUSHMAN | SPORTS EDITOR

I have found myself in a place I do so very often while at school. It’s as though there are multiple life destinations laid out in front of me: careers, salaries, houses, places to live; many different options. With the choice of destination there comes a path I must follow to get there. This begs the question of the state of being I find most rewarding.  Or rather, what I am looking to maximize in myself in choosing a destination and path.  I believe that I have, after much thought and discussion with trusted friends and family, decided on perhaps the most obvious of things. I would like to be happy. What has proved to be the harder question to answer is what brings that happiness, what factors contribute to that state. As a relatively inexperienced human, having lived only two short decades, I am still working to discover that secret.

We are conditioned from a very young age to believe certain things bring happiness. Mostly we are taught to value stuff. I think this can be explained by our capitalist culture. Our economy and therefore our livelihood works on the principle of getting more people to buy our product. As such we see on tv, the internet, social media and even saturday morning cartoons, a staple in my childhood, a dedication to that purpose. Pokémon episodes are interlaid with commercial after commercial telling me how cool I’d be if I had the latest plastic toy. As I get older the advertising becomes more subliminal, it becomes socially motivated as well. These new clothes will make me look better and that girl will notice me. Drinking that beer will make me fun.  It is as though the world is telling you what makes happiness and would you believe it they have just the thing to make you feel good costing only three easy payments of $19.99.

This attitude is constant and universal. It informs almost everything we do. As we move into secondary and higher education we are asked now to figure out what we’d like to do with our lives. No surprise, it so often hinges on how much money we’ll make. In other words, how much stuff we can buy to make us feel better. As I search for my path, a career and what makes me happy, I see nothing substantial in this goal. I want to feel happiness without it tied to my new purchase. I want meaning beyond how socially accepted I am. It is a struggle to break out of everything we are told, to not follow the model preached to be the answer for our entire lives. Strangely enough this brings me to the story of Larry Sanders.

Two years ago the lengthy defensive juggernaut, Sanders, was coming into his own as a NBA center. Midway through his 5th season his enormous raw talent was starting to materialize as he was becoming one of the most feared paint protectors in the Association. Sanders, built similarly to the Bucks young guard/forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, looks like a NBA exec designed him in a video game. Listed at 6’11’ and 235 pounds, with an mind boggling 7’7” wingspan. He was quick and long, with the ability to guard on the perimeter, shut down the paint and provide 10 rebounds a game. Having played through his rookie contract and beginning to blossom into the player the Bucks had hoped, he signed a $44 million extension in August of 2014. It appeared as though Larry Sanders was in Milwaukee to stay. Hopefully a staple in the most potential laden team in the East, alongside Jabari Parker, Khris Middleton and Antetokounmpo.

Flash forward to December 23rd of 2014. The Bucks grinded to a 108-101 loss against Charlotte at the Bradley Center. Brandon Knight was the leading scorer with 34 points and while Sanders lead the team with 8 rebounds, he struggled on the night going just 1-6 from the field. Shortly after this loss the team placed Sanders on the inactive list, citing personal reasons. He was absent from the team for seven games, returning to the bench in street cloths for a January 7th game against Phoenix. After this appearance rumors started to fly about him leaving the sport. His agent denied any such plans but Sanders remained unavailable for media questions. The situation stayed this way without much more than occasional uninformative sound bites from head coach Jason Kidd, for a month and a half. Then on February 21st, the Bucks announced they would be buying out his contract. Abruptly, Larry Sanders was done with basketball, that late december game being the last we would see him as a Buck.

What could make a young man, seeming to many to be entering his athletic prime, on the verge of making more money than most will ever see, doing a job that I and many others view as a dream, walk away from it all? The answer may be as simple as he didn’t enjoy basketball. If we were being honest he probably never had.

Sanders was a bright, passionate and quirky child. He loved art and skateboarding. He was, like most children, full of hopes and dreams. But those never included, as they do for so many young boys, competing in the upper echelon of sports. Instead he longed to combine his love for art and adventure to become an oceanographer.

The lanky artist never identified as a jock. “Basketball wasn’t ever my therapy”, said Sanders sitting over a cup of tea with ESPN writer Kevin Arnovitz. “It wasn’t there for me as a little kid. It wasn’t my go to — ‘Go shoot some hoops.’ for me it was ‘Go draw a picture. Go create some art’”.

“I got into art at a young age. I started to draw a lot.” This passion became a haven for the young Larry, who was faced with many challenges growing up in south-eastern Florida. “I was in and out of shelters with my mom and my sister. That put me in a place where I needed to understand the world around me. I was thankful for art. Art was my crutch. It never disappeared, it was there throughout my whole life.”

He only began to play basketball as a sophomore in highschool, when he was discovered by the basketball coach at an open house for extracurriculars. His stature immediately identified him as a potential presence in the paint. Starting the year on JV due to his utter lack of basketball experience he began to develop the knack for blocking shots. By the time he began his junior season he was garnering statewide attention, leading his team to a state semi-final appearance. Before the start of his senior season, in September, he committed to Virginia Commonwealth University, accepting a full athletic scholarship just under two years after trying his hand at the sport for the first time.

“I went to VCU because it was like 16th in the country at that time for its art program. Because my schedule was so hectic with basketball I couldn’t participate in the art program.” This was painful for the young man. He had lost his mental sanctuary, his meditation. The rigorous work schedule demanded of a DI college athlete was affecting his ability to pursue his passion and in turn his happiness and mental wellbeing. Yet, amidst this personal turmoil the dedication to the game was paying off. While at VCU he excelled and grew into his role as a mobile big. He was the CAA defensive player of the year in his sophomore and junior seasons, garnering national attention for his performance in the conference and NCAA tournaments. After playing three seasons for the Rams he declared for the draft during his junior year. Salivated over by scouts who saw his frame and athletic ability as an excellent launching point to an All-Defensive team type player; he was picked 15th by the Bucks in 2010 draft. 5 years later he was gone from the game.

On February 25th, days after the announcement of his contract buyout The Players Tribune released a short video on its youtube page, “Larry Sanders – Why I Walked Away From the Game: Players’ POV.” The video begins with a straight shot of Sanders from the chest up, wearing a maroon beanie and looking, frankly, tired. In the five minutes Sanders explains where he was and his reasons for leaving. He entered himself in a program at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc for individuals struggling with anxiety, depression and other mood disorders.

“It taught me a lot about myself. It taught me a lot about what’s important and where I want to devote my time and energy”…”I’ll always be playing basketball but for it to be consuming so much of my life and time right now, that’s…uh… it’s not there for me, it’s not that worth it”

His walking away from the league and a huge amount of money was met with much criticism from both fans and the media. He was called lazy, selfish, stupid and other things not fit for print.

“Everyone wants to compare paths. No. It’s just personal. You have an idea of where it should be, where it should go. My idea wasn’t even for it to go to the NBA. So, how, at this point, can I say I’m off path or I’m going the wrong way”… “It’s very admirable for a person to take that risk, to follow their heart and go after their intuition and passion. I think for me it just seemed crazy or like a higher risk because of my higher paying, higher profile job. I think this is seen to be a desirable, lucrative job and position. So, people say, ‘oh, how could you be unhappy there?’”

Even though Sanders was a professional athlete and it may appear that this would separate it from most of our “ordinary” lives, his struggle is one I find to be remarkably relatable. His story took place under the spotlight of the NBA and as such is a job desired by millions but it remains to me extremely unfair to try and dictate the source of his happiness. How can we try to tell someone that if their everyday life is suffocating, that they must remain because others dream of it?

Instead of a symbol of weakness or laziness like some have tried to paint him, I think that we, especially students who are asked to make decisions with lifelong career implications, can view Larry Sanders as an inspiration. A courageous figure, confident in his true self, unafraid to contradict mainstream thinking. A man unafraid to choose his own sense of happiness. Sanders said it best himself, “You know, happiness isn’t behind a golden gate, it is an internal thing.” Don’t become blinded by a vision of happiness touted by somebody else. Work to discover it in yourself.

Excerpts from interviews with The Players’ Tribune and Vice Sports were used. As well as excerpts from Sanders’ interview in the article, The Battle Within Larry Sanders by Kevin Arnovitz.

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