Photo by Howie Magner
If you didn’t know that he’d just become one of Milwaukee’s richest Bucks, didn’t know that he had three professional seasons under his belt or was lauded as one of the NBA’s best defenders, and if you just listened to the words coming out of his mouth, you’d swear Larry Sanders was but a wide-eyed college basketball player. Maybe even a promising high-school prospect.
Here he was, meeting the press in the wake of a brand-new contract extension that will guarantee 44 million more Bucks bucks through the year 2018. And he was doing it not in an NBA palace with 18,000 seats, or even in a slick NBA practice facility, but in a modest gymnasium that’s normally home to preteen dreamers, where the fanciest thing might be the simple scoreboard that Sanders donated a year ago.
Many of the children who use that Pieper-Hillside Boys & Girls Club court were on it to see Sanders speak Monday. They chanted “Larry! Larry!” when he walked in. They formed an honor guard of a human tunnel that Sanders navigated by way of handshakes and high-fives on his way to the microphones, Bucks GM John Hammond and coach Larry Drew trailing in his wake. Then the kids sat on the court (politely and quietly, by the way) as Sanders talked about memories and making it and work yet to be done. Sixteen lucky children even got a spot in some chairs that flanked either side of the main table.
But beyond the theater and good vibes, something else bloomed from this hybrid of a press conference and celebration of Sanders as a former Boys & Girls Club kid who’d made it big. Because there were also clues to Sanders’ vision of what the Bucks should become, a compass pointing in an unfamiliar direction, an idealism that’s far more prominent in high school and college than the pros.
Answering a question about his goals – posed by, of all people, Bucks owner Herb Kohl – Sanders launched into explaining his next dream. “A big team goal for me is unity. Just undeniable unity,” he said. “The brotherhood that has kind of been missing for a couple years that is a key part of winning.”
Bucks fans are well-versed in the drama that has paralyzed this team’s locker room. And in a league where guys play as much for their next contract as for camaraderie and victories, that brotherhood is an elusive entity. But Sanders has a plan for how to make it happen.
“Constantly being in each other’s rooms, going out to eat, just spending time together away from basketball,” he said. “I feel like knowing each other off the court directly relates to knowing each other on the court. Holding each other accountable, being able to speak to each other. Everyone communicating how they feel about things and being there for each other. I think that support is gonna be awesome.”
It’s a blueprint of how things happen on college campuses and high school teams. It’s also almost unheard of in the pros. But he wasn't done.
“You know, hopefully,” and at this, he paused. “No, I’m not going to say hopefully. We will all get on the same page. We all will push forward as a team. If it starts with me, and I have to do it and drag everyone along, that’s what will have to happen. But I doubt it. I doubt people will drag their feet. I’ll lead by example. And that alone will hold everyone accountable.”
The saying and dreaming, of course, is the easy part. The doing, and convincing others to follow suit, will be far harder. Not every Bucks player may want that collegial atmosphere. Not every teammate may share his idealism. And all the brotherhood in the world won't compensate for pure talent.
All of this, Sanders surely knows. None of it deterred him from his soliloquy.
At one point, I asked Sanders what his younger Boys & Girls Club self would say if he could see how his story had played out. “Wake up.” Sanders said. "Throw some water on my face. It wouldn’t be something I could fathom.”
After hearing what he wants the Bucks to become, cynics and realists may echo the younger Sanders’ sentiments. They will throw cold water on the vision. It’s nothing they can fathom.
But Sanders’ idealism got him from that long-ago Boys & Girls Club to the Pieper-Hillside one. He fathoms just fine.
Will his new brothers join him in the old college try?
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