Cavaliers power forward Larry Nance Jr. is having a career year on one of the most surprising teams in the NBA. He leads the league in steals, is shooting well over 40% from behind the three-point line, has already started more games than he did all of last season and has recorded more minutes than all but a tiny handful of other players.
But even more impressive than anything he could ever accomplish on the court has been Nance’s season-long effort to prop up local businesses in his home state that are struggling to make it through this merciless pandemic. One month ago, he tweeted out his plan, asking fans to mail him T-shirts, hats or any other apparel he could wear to a Cavs game.
He then posts a photo of himself in it (alongside information about the business) on social media and also auctions off that night’s game-worn jersey, with 100% of the proceeds going to whichever business was selected. On top of that, all clothing he receives is donated to nearby homeless shelters.
On Thursday, Sports Illustrated caught up with Nance to discuss his thoughtful effort, Cleveland’s hot start, why he loves watching Draymond Green, Sexland (of course) and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
SI: How did you get the idea to do your small business campaign?
LN: It actually came from one of our preseason games. I was in the training room talking to one of our athletic trainers about how the NFL does “My cause, my cleats” and we were talking about the different causes we’d pick. I brought up how it’d be really cool if you could help your local businesses.
Everybody has been out of work, having to shut down. It’s been really tough for a lot of people, and he said, “You should auction off your shoes or you should figure out a way to help them.” And so we talked to our equipment manager, and he suggested maybe ordering jerseys and we could do that. So we just started brainstorming and hatched this idea of representing businesses coming to each game and donating, giving them attention, giving them support, all while giving fans a cool opportunity to wear and own some game-worn apparel.
SI: You’re from Ohio. How do you select the businesses in need? Do you just know about them because of your familiarity with the area or does someone bring to your attention that one business is in particularly dire need and could use support sooner than later?
LN: I mean, we’ve gotten 400, 500 shirts and letters and it’s been awesome. The response has been awesome. But obviously not every business is gonna get to be represented and that’s ... I wish they could, but there’s not enough games in the season. We looked at the COVID restrictions and protocols and what has been shut down first and for the longest. Obviously food establishments have been crazy-hurt by this. Gyms, yoga studios, places like that where there’s heavy breathing, they had to keep paying rent on a space that wasn’t being used. We’ve seen a lot of those come in, and that’s what the letters have kind of told us. Restaurants have been hit extremely hard. The fitness places have been hit hard. But everybody has been affected by it so it’s really kind of a ... we do as much research as we can about each business and try to do our best on picking who might need the support the most.
SI: How’s it going so far?
LN: The response has been awesome. We did a coffee shop one day, and the amount of people who tagged me via Twitter and Instagram, of going to that coffee shop and trying their stuff and supporting them, and buying gift cards from the different places that we’ve represented. All that type of stuff. Cleveland is a really awesome community. There’s some great people here. People want to help.
SI: Has there been a response from other players, teammates or opponents?
LN: Everybody has come up to me at some point or another and said, “Hey man, that’s awesome” or “What’s your business today?” They’ll see my shirt and say, “What do they do? Where is that?” There’s a curiosity. But in terms of it expanding to another market, I haven’t seen that. I would welcome it with open arms if more guys wanted to do something like this in their markets, but as of now it’s staying in Cleveland.
SI: Last year, watching from afar, being on the Cavs seemed pretty rough. There was a coaching change and some chemistry issues between vets and younger players. What’s different this season? No situation is perfect, but you guys look like you’re having more fun together.
LN: That’s very fair. We know what it is right now. We have a lot of injuries. We have guys that are hurt. In the grand scheme of things we shouldn’t have the record that we do and we take pride in that. We take pride in the fact that we’re down four starters and still competing against some very good teams. We take pride in the fact that we have the best defense in the league. We take pride in the fact that we have the rebound leader. We take pride in the fact that we have the steals leader. We take pride in things like that because we have to right now. [Coach J.B. Bickerstaff] has done an unbelievable job shifting our focus to two core values: unselfishness and hustle. That’s really what we preach, and we hold each other accountable to that. This is a group of guys that enjoy playing together and enjoy playing hard as hell.
LN: I think JaVale [McGee] helps. Having Andre [Drummond] for a full year, those rim protectors behind us. Isaac [Okoro] is a terrific defensive player. We’ve got guys that are really bought in. And the schemes are very geared towards our personnel; I can’t say enough positive things about what J.B. has done since he’s gotten here, and we’re very, very, very lucky to have him.
SI: How are the schemes complementary to your roster?
LN: We like to start two smaller guards. Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Both, on a good day—on a good day—might be 6' 2". So we’ve got two little guards, and it’s oftentimes been extremely difficult for them to guard bigger guards, like Malcolm Brogdon or George Hill or someone of that stature. We’ve gotten beat up a little bit by that. But now our defense is geared towards funneling a lot of stuff towards our shot blockers and paint protectors, Andre and JaVale. So J.B. has done a great job scheming that, and those guys have done a great job protecting our paint. They’re a force to be reckoned with if you get down there.
SI: You tweeted something recently about Draymond Green, impacting games without stats and how you try to watch him as much as you can. Your coach has said he wants you to fill a similar role in Cleveland. What’s a specific part of your game that might be overlooked by fans but gets highlighted in a film session?
LN: I would say the biggest thing for me right now is just being vocal on offense and defense. I’ve gotta be the loudest one on the court. Directing. Telling guys where to be, who’s in what position at any given time, where the shooters are [when we’re] on defense. That’s the biggest thing for me and honestly that’s the biggest thing I take away from watching a guy like Draymond, just how he commands everything when he’s on the court. I don’t know what he’s averaging right now, I think it’s five, five and six or something like that, but you take him off that team and they have four less wins. And that’s very much so how I view myself. I’m never gonna be a volume scorer. I’m well aware of that and I’m O.K. with that. I’m very comfortable with that. But if you want to win, that’s where I come into play.
These last couple years have been difficult because we’ve been struggling a little bit and wins have been few and far between, but now that we’re competing and competitive, what I do has really been highlighted in close games and highlighted in the competitiveness and the way we play.
SI: You’re leading the league in steals by a wide margin. Does that surprise you, doing it as someone your size, at your position?
LN: I’m pretty high in steals percentage every year but you know this year, with K-Love going down, expanded minutes for myself means I get to wreak a lot of havoc on the opposing team’s offense. And I love doing it. During shootaround we go over a lot of plays, so they’ll call a play and I’ll know exactly what pass is supposed to be coming. I study that, and I look at that. Going back to Draymond, that’s a lot of the things he does. You have to be a very intelligent basketball player to lead a defense. It’s a lot of anticipation. Mainly, my job in our defense is to mess them up. Get them out of a rhythm. Take a stab at a ball. Go for a loose ball. That’s what I do. That’s who I am. That’s who I’ve always been. But I think with a larger load in minutes we get to see more of it, and hopefully that’s a record I can continue to expand upon, the steals lead.
SI: You’re averaging 35 minutes per game, in part because of Kevin’s injury. Your career average coming into this season was 23.5. How tough has that been during a shortened season, having missed the bubble and not being in a competitive environment for so long? You seem particularly appreciative of rest these days. How is your body feeling?
LN: [Laughs.] Um, it’s making it. It’s getting through. Look, I wouldn’t trade this for the world. I love every minute that I’m on the court. But I’m healthy. And I feel great. It’s more so just exhausting, the schedule thus far has been so jam-packed. We’ve been in every basketball game, every single one of them. But our last game against Utah, we got beat by 30 on our home court and it was the seventh night of a five-in-seven. The second night of a back-to-back. We’re missing seven players, and Utah had been resting for three days in Cleveland. We needed a break and we got two days before this New York game [tonight], so my body feels fine. If they need me to play 40 [minutes] I’ll be ready, and whenever they take me out I’ll be itching to get back in. You’re not gonna catch me complaining about playing ball.
SI: What’s the strangest thing about this season that you didn’t anticipate or still have a difficult time processing?
LN: I think the biggest thing right now is all these postponements, and I didn’t anticipate the injuries, to be honest with you. We knew guys would get COVID, that’s just part of the deal when it comes to the gathering and stuff like that right now, but I think the number of injuries we’re seeing is catching me off guard. It’s unfortunate, to say the least. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, and hopefully we can get most guys through the season without anything too serious.
SI: How much of that is a conversation when you’re just chatting with the training staff?
LN: You can’t prevent a twisted ankle. You can’t prevent a concussion. Things like that, that we have, guys down with basketball plays. But they’ve been awesome in terms of their preparation, in terms of keeping me healthy, keeping guys on the court that can be on the court. We talk about it all the time. They come to me, “Hey, what do you need? How do you feel? How are your knees? How are your ankles? Are you sleeping?” All these different kinds of questions to make sure we are healthy and stay healthy.
SI: Now it’s time for the most important series of questions I’m going to ask in this entire interview: When did you first hear the nickname Sexland? Did you invent it? What is the origin story?
LN: I didn’t invent it. I don’t know who did. I grew up in Cleveland. I’ve been a Cavs fan my entire life. I was a member of Cavs Twitter before I was a member of the Cavs, so I still follow all those people and still pay attention to all the blogs and all that stuff I would read when I was cheering for LeBron and Larry Hughes. I’m sure I saw it across Cavs Twitter. They came up with it. I don’t know one specific person, but I kind of made it viral by putting it on my platform.
SI: Thank you.
LN: The team loves it, but the actual members of Sexland don’t really appreciate it.
SI: That was my next question: Do they approve?
LN: Darius texted me yesterday when I tweeted about the trees and Sexland, and he was like “Dude, you gotta stop it, come on. You gotta stop that. It’s not funny.”
SI: But it is funny.
LN: It’s so funny! So Darius doesn't necessarily appreciate it, but I think Collin is warming up to the idea.
SI: What was your reaction to the trade on Wednesday, adding Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince? And when you hear that the Cavs are involved in a trade, do you immediately brace yourself for the chance that you’re going to be involved?
LN: Every single player, from one to 15, when you hear your team is involved in a trade, you immediately think, “Oh s--t.” At least for half a second. “This has gotta be me. Oh, I know it is. Oh no.” The nerves kick in, for sure. The first thing I did was call Kevin Love, like, “Hey, have you heard anything? What’s going on?” That’s my boy.
So look, I love Dante [Exum]. I loved having him here and I want to see him thrive. He was doing really well for us on the defensive end, and I just want to see him healthy, first and foremost. That’s the biggest thing for him.
I've been a fan of Jarrett Allen since he got in the league. I think he’s criminally underrated. Always have. And so keeping up with our shot-blocking theme, I can’t wait to work with him. I’m looking forward to having him as another anchor for our defense. And I didn’t know he was only 22 years old. Guys are getting younger and younger.
And then Taurean, I’ve been playing against him since he got in the league as well, guarding him and all that type of stuff. I’m a fan of his game. On any given night he can be the best player on the court. I’m really excited about what we did. I’m really excited about what we added. And to be honest with you, I think the rest of the league should be looking very seriously at the Cavs competing for a playoff spot.