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Larry Sanders: The Artist
Art, not basketball, was Bucks big man’s first love. And he'll share it with Milwaukee on Friday.

On Friday night, Bucks forward Larry Sanders will be holding court Downtown. He’ll be totally in his element, showing off the work of his first true love, doing what he always wanted to do after college. 

He’ll be holding court not on the hardwood floor, but on a gallery floor.

Sanders will exhibit his art publicly for the first time at the J. Nikolai Art Studio in the Third Ward. A lifelong drawer who did mostly cartoon and comic book art as a child and was a “huge Walt Disney fan,” Sanders says he’s now more into sci-fi and biblical sketches. The first piece that greets visitors inside the third-floor studio in the Marshall Building is a sort of self portrait of the 6-foot-11, 24-year-old holding a basketball.

But Sanders the basketball player, an energetic defensive menace having a breakout season, will have the night off on Friday. The Bucks don’t play until Sunday, when they meet the powerhouse Miami Heat in the first round of the NBA playoffs. That means Sanders the artist can be himself and embrace the creative outlet that once made him want to be a graphic artist.

Growing up in Fort Pierce, Fla., Sanders had a difficult childhood. Besides a shaky family situation, he had trouble with authority and says he wasn’t very social. He didn’t play basketball until high school, preferring to skateboard and draw instead.

Sanders would sit at the kitchen table and sketch pictures of Disney characters, finding a sense of relief and satisfaction – and an identity. “Being able to get to know myself, spend time with myself – because as a kid growing up I didn’t have a lot of friends – I spent a lot of time drawing and I felt so much release from it,” Sanders says after a Bucks practice at the Archbishop Cousins Center in St. Francis. “Being able to be creative, looking at it when it’s done, this is what you made – I’ve always felt art was what first brought me out of my shell.”

Sanders is unquestionably out of his shell now. An emotional spark for the Bucks, he’s one of the league leaders in blocks and among the candidates for the Defensive Player of the Year award. He says he also finds ways to be expressive in basketball (just ask any referee) and insists smacking an opponent’s shot into the fifth row of the stands can be creative, too. “If you make it your own,” he says.

Sanders is no stranger to the art scene in Milwaukee. He attended the Milwaukee Film Festival last year and says he met and talked to some of the other artists in the city. “That opened my eyes and enlightened me to how much art is here in Milwaukee,” he says. “You already see it, from the structure of the buildings and the feng shui of Downtown. But to see the more personal side of what people have out there, the creative activity in the city, this is a great place to do [the exhibition].”

Sanders has plans to get further involved this summer, after the Bucks season ends. Maybe he’ll try some landscape work. He doesn’t have a particular style. “A lot of detail, a lot of lines, shading,” he says. “It’s whatever appeals to me, what kind of scheme I want to go with, what comes to me at the time. I haven’t really categorized it or put it in a box.”

He insists his style has evolved from the youthful drawings, though he’ll still do Goofy every once in a while.

For their part, the Bucks will have a difficult time getting past the Heat, who own the league’s best record, in the first round of the playoffs. But the team knows it has a keeper in Sanders the basketball player, who’s a fan favorite for his passion, personality and dedication to defense.

And Milwaukee may just have a keeper in Sanders the artist, who says Friday’s exhibition is just the first of many future forays into the city’s art world. “This is just the beginning for me,” he says. “There are so many things that I have in mind, that I plan to try and get accomplished.

“It’s going to be fun.”

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