I’ve watched a lot of basketball this season, and of the handful of plays I keep coming back to from this young season, I have watched and re-watched this clip of a seemingly meaningless one-on-one battle between Marc Gasol and Larry Sanders. On the surface, it’s just opposing centers scratching and clawing for position, something that practically happens on every possession of every basketball game.
But that isn’t why I can’t stop watching it. Keep reloading the video enough times and you begin to see a narrative emerge. With the basketball is Marc Gasol: a defensive player of the year winner; an MVP candidate for a winning basketball team; and a well-heralded international superstar with a chance to win a championship in June and sign a 4- or 5-year max-level contract in July.
Then there is Larry Sanders, written in sentence case.
It was only 16 months ago that Sanders was written out differently. The darling of Zach Lowe and, through osmosis, many other basketball writers. Sanders’ intense style of play and young-KG defensive instincts earned him the all-caps style on his name — LARRY SANDERS! — with the exclamation mark as a miniature representation of his shot-blocking expertise. SANDERS! signed a 4-year, $44 million contract to be the long-term defensive anchor in Milwaukee, a team that had just drafted The Greek Freak in the 2013 Draft and suddenly had a roster full of lengthy defenders; an identity was forming around SANDERS! and the Bucks.
But LARRY SANDERS! hasn’t been around much since inking that fat new deal in 2013. Sanders missed 25 games to begin last season after tearing a ligament in his thumb in a bar fight; Milwaukee stumbled out of the gate and never recovered, maintaining the league’s worst record from start to finish. His teammates were pissed, both that he missed so much time because of an injury suffered in such a indefensible way and because he was a shell of himself upon his return. The bar fight and the uncomfortable disconnect between he and the team — the NBA, the sport — that have followed Sanders in the months since have spoken as loudly as his uneven play.
All the while basketball fans are left wondering where is the LARRY SANDERS! we love to watch play the game?
Some friends of Sanders told me last summer they were concerned Sanders wasn't committed to basketball and wanted to explore other options.
— Gery Woelfel (@GeryWoelfel) January 5, 2015
When you watch the play I linked above, however, you can see the parts of LARRY SANDERS! we grew so fond of in 2012-13. He’s tenacious; he never willingly gives up an inch of space. Even a big man as skilled as Marc Gasol finds his impossibly long arms and legs daunting. Gasol twice has to reorganize himself — tossing the basketball back out to a guard, then picking the ball up off the court after it was poked away from him — so that he can attempt to keep Sanders on his hip. And yet Sanders — or, perhaps, SANDERS! — just won’t stay still.
Finally, toward the end of the play, Gasol does something so Gasol it’s insane: he takes the ball to the three-point lane, drawing SANDERS! out of his comfort zone, pump fakes and attempts a 3-pointer that SANDERS! can’t help but swipe at. Whistle. Foul. Gasol to the line for three free throws.
And SANDERS! — well, likely just “Sanders” — looks absolutely miserable.
This is the part of the play, I believe, that I keep coming back to. Sanders is a man equally humbled by the difficulties of performing at the highest level of his profession and, though I can only assume, by his own flaws as a young man still working everything out. I say that because I have those battles with insecurity all the time; while I am slightly younger than Sanders, I’ve been told by enough reputable sources that everyone struggles with self-worth and “Who am I?” questions in their 20s — it’s a part of the territory.
We all see LeBron James dominate popular culture since the age of 16, or what Jennifer Lawrence and Kendrick Lamar are doing in their mid-20s, and perhaps we think they have it easier than everybody else — like they got this life thing down pat, or they have cheat codes or something. And that is such crap. It’s hard and even harder when you’re on one of the world’s biggest stages, incapable of making a mistake or two without Twitter blowing up or hackers leaking private photographs or people burning your jersey in the streets. I think about Michael Phelps and the picture of him smoking pot and what that did to his reputation. He was 23. Sometimes 23-year olds are going to do things the world doesn’t understand or want them to do, even the ones who break records at the Olympics.
And so now I think about Larry Sanders — not even the basketball player, but the man. We all want him playing center for Jason Kidd’s up-tempo, defense-first, lengthy Bucks team. We want Sanders to be the Ibaka to Giannis and Jabari Parker’s Durant and Westbrook for years to come. We want, we want, we want. But I think Kidd said it best Tuesday when speaking on Sanders’ recent absence from the team. “He’s ours. He’s part of the family.”
Yes, the Bucks pay him to play basketball, but they also have an obligation to him as a man. Is it frustrating that Sanders signed his big contract and almost immediately rejected the responsibility that comes with a contract like that? Absolutely. But Milwaukee fans should not be rooting for Sanders to disappear, retire prematurely, and rid the team of his salary cap figure; Larry Sanders is a person, not a contract on legs.
Instead, Milwaukee should want Sanders to embrace his role in the Bucks organization — the family, as Kidd touchingly refers to it — and should be willing to show patience for their big man. Just like any troubled youth, instilling them with faith and trust and a sense of pride can go a long way to helping them to realize their potential, that they can be part of something bigger than themselves. For Sanders, he might just need somebody to type his name in all-caps again.