November 4, 2010
Larry Sanders' unconventional start in the game should serve him well at the top level.
By Eli Horowitz
In the field of human endeavor, perhaps nothing unites us all more than simple incompetence. Haplessness. Borderline failure. We all experience this, and for some it approaches a daily condition.
These repeated brushes with our own limitations teach us humility, resilience, and charity towards others.
A rare group that is sometimes spared this experience is the four hundred or so on-court employees of the National Basketball Association. This elite group has been groomed for basketball stardom for years, some as early as age eleven or twelve. Lured onto AAU squads, seduced by top colleges, tested and selected by one of thirty teams—these lives have often been centered entirely around this one activity, and it is an activity at which they are better than virtually anyone else in the world.
The Bucks’ phenom Brandon Jennings, for example, was the best player on the court in almost every single game he played from age ten thru eighteen; then, after a strange, workmanlike year in Italy, he entered the pros and was quickly one of the best rookies in the league, joining this strange fraternity: The Men Who Have Never Tasted Incompetence. Setbacks, sure; hard work, no doubt—the energy and dedication of these players is exhausting to even contemplate. But few or none have ever had the delicious experience of being bad at basketball.
But that is about to change. The rest of us have sent an ambassador into the pros. A player who was picked last on the playground courts. A player who, in his first high-school game, scored a basket for the opposing team. A man who expected to graduate college with a degree in Fine Arts. That man is Larry Sanders of the Milwaukee Bucks, the fifteenth pick in this year’s pro draft and one of the most intriguing young talents in the league.
Sanders was born and raised on the Atlantic coast of Florida. For most of his childhood, he had little interest in basketball.
“I wasn’t good. I was just tall,” Sanders said in a past interview. “I was usually that guy who, when I played pickup basketball, I’d get picked first and then I’d never get picked again. That was me. Guys were like, ‘We’re not picking him again.’”
Nevertheless, Coach Kareem Rodriguez of Port St. Lucie High School saw something in Sanders, and invited him to come to tryouts his sophomore year. “Girls’ volleyball had the gym, so we went to the court outside,” says Rodriguez. “From the first time I saw him play, I knew he was special.” Nevertheless, the rules of organized basketball were still unfamiliar. In Sanders’ first official game, he wasn’t aware of the halftime side-change and sunk his now-legendary layup for the opposition. Rodriguez had his work cut out for him: “If I had a dollar for every three-second call he got, I could have retired,” he says now.
But Sanders was ready to learn. “The beauty of him being so raw was that he didn’t have any bad habits.” says Rodriguez. “He was a blank slate.” Sanders steadily improved, and in his junior year he caught the eye of coaches at Virginia Commonwealth University. By the end of his senior year he was named first-team all-state, averaging 19 points and 13 rebounds a game. Now 6’11”, he had drawn attention from many larger programs—but VCU had already won his commitment.
At VCU, he teamed with point guard Eric Maynor (now of the Oklahoma City Thunder) to dominate the Colonial Athletic Association, winning the regular-season championships in both of their years together. “He learned faster than anybody I’ve ever seen,” says Shaka Smart, coach of the VCU Rams. Sanders was named to the CAA all-defensive team his freshman year, and then Defensive Player of the year the following year. He claimed the award again his junior year, while also leading the team in scoring and rebounds, and decided to declare for the 2010 draft.
Sanders was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 15th pick. Already impressing the Bucks with his otherworldly wingspan and speed, onlookers are expecting great things from Sanders. “It’s still just the tip of the iceberg,” says Smart. “He’s very savvy, emotionally ready, and mentally ready.” Sanders will pair with Andrew Bogut in an impressive frontcourt, hopefully soon relegating Drew Gooden to the ducktail dustbin of history. His athleticism should allow him to blend nicely with the already-scrappy Milwaukee squad: “Brandon Jennings will be able to create a lot of opportunities, the way Eric Maynor did at VCU,” says Smart.
For many rookies, entrance to the pros can be a shock. For many, it’s their first time not being the best player on their team. For some, it’s even a taste of being (relatively) not very good at basketball. Many of these young players are never able to make the adjustment—never able to reshape their game, find their roles, persevere and fight through failure. For Sanders, it’s simply a return to a familiar challenge. “Having not always been the best, it keeps him humble,” says Rodriguez. “He stays hungry.” Not content to rely on his physical gifts, he’s been developing low-post moves and adding a reliable jumper out to fifteen feet.
“The thing I learned about basketball is it doesn’t lie to you,” said Sanders in an interview this summer. “When you put in the work, the repetition, and you work harder, you’re going to get better.” For Larry Sanders, the work has just begun.
Eli Horowitz edits and designs books for McSweeney’s, and is a correspondent for wizznutzz.com. He once received instruction on free-throw shooting from Wes Unseld.