Almost overnight, Larry Sanders went from being a rising star in the NBA to being someone viewed as a poisonous personality. In his breakout 2012-13 season, he emerged as one of the best defenders in the NBA and signed a four-year, $44 million extension with the Milwaukee Bucks that summer. But the following year, he was sidelined with a thumb injury suffered in a bar fight and clashed with teammates. That contract went from being a bargain to one of the worst in the league.
In an extensive interview with Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated, Sanders opened up about his troubled season.
This is what he had to say about the bar fight:
“I was trying to indulge in the luxury of being able to walk around freely,” Sanders said. “At that point, I didn’t have a bodyguard. I didn’t want my friends to walk around everywhere with me. I wanted to be on my own and talk to people. I was caught off guard.”
In a 2013 profile for Sports Illustrated, Lee Jenkins wrote that Sanders’ father regularly beat his mother when Sanders was a child in Vero Beach, Fla., forcing mom and son to flee and live for a time in a shelter. Sanders was “terrified” that the experiences would desensitize him to violence, to the point that he would accept it in his own life. Feeling “targeted” at Apartment 720, Sanders responded, receiving a taste of that terror in the process.
“If you wait until the point of attack to try to counter, it’s too late,” he said. “You’re not approaching the situation with the right parts of your mind. You feel attacked. You go to your natural, instinctual reactions rather than your cognitive reasoning. I learned that I have to be prepared [to be a target]. Thankfully, I learned that in a way where I didn’t have to go to jail, no one got arrested, no one got seriously injured. It was a very valuable lesson learned.”
Sanders also discussed his shouting match with then-Bucks teammate Gary Neal, which took place in front of reporters:
“[Neal] wasn’t really coming at me; he was coming at the team,” Sanders said. “He just said something out loud generally and I was really sick of it. You can only throw so much negative stuff out there. The negativity was a huge part of us not being successful. A lot of people had negative emotions and negative thoughts. I believe the game rewards those who sacrifice, want to win and stay positive, those who aren’t selfish. You have to be encouraging when someone else on your team is successful.”
The entire interview is worth reading. It gives lots of insight into Sanders’ personality, which is one of the league’s more fascinating and introspective. There is reflection on his past mistakes, and there is optimism that this year will be different (and so far, it is).
The surprising Bucks went from being the worst team in the NBA last year to competing for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference this year, thanks to improvement from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brandon Knight, among others. Sanders isn’t back to his 2012-13 form, when he led the league in blocks and was generally a defensive monster, but he’s staying on the court and out of trouble. Hopefully it continues.