WHEN THERE are no more ballhandlers to scare or layups to swat, Larry Sanders drives back to his 90-year-old Tudor mansion on Lake Michigan, with its white bricks and etched ceilings, stained-glass windows and wrought-iron railings. He grabs a black Copic sketch marker, flips open a fresh notepad and draws angels disguised as warriors. The pictures are intended to accompany the book Sanders is writing on his iPad, called Fallen, about a family of angels sent down from heaven to navigate pitfalls of the urban world: violence and alcohol, injury and poverty. It is a fantasy novel, but, if you look closer, it's also a memoir.
This is an article from the April 15, 2013 issue
Sanders lives in a historic waterfront neighborhood that used to be populated by Milwaukee's beer barons and has made room for the NBA's most imposing defensive player, a 6'11" center with a 7'6" wingspan who covers the entire court in six strides and dunks so ferociously that backboards shake for a full 30 seconds. Sanders blocks nearly three shots per game, alters many more and deters countless others. "A lot of guys drive inside and don't even look at the basket anymore," the 24-year-old Sanders says. "They see me there and pass."
He often acts as if he's loitering down low, with one size-18 sneaker just outside the paint, baiting guards into thinking their path to the basket is clear. Only as they elevate does he unfurl one of his boa-constrictor arms and devour the ball in one of his 9¾-inch-long hands. During a bus ride on a recent road trip Bucks teammates Mike Dunleavy and Joel Przybilla tried to come up with another player who has Sanders's length, quickness and devotion to defense. "There's really nobody," the 7'1" Przybilla says. Przybilla compares him to a cat, and Dunleavy to a spider, except human emotion is the most potent part of his game. It's also the most destructive.
Sanders snagged 20 rebounds in December at Boston. He outplayed Lakers center Dwight Howard in Milwaukee last month. He became a breakout star at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, when two researchers presented a paper that analyzed spatial data to identify Sanders as the league's most effective rim protector. He has also picked up 14 technical fouls, been ejected a league-high five times and racked up $95,000 in fines last month alone. "I ain't the guy to tell anybody to calm down," says the Thunder's spirited center, Kendrick Perkins, after a game in which Sanders jostled with Kevin Durant. "But I have to tell Larry to calm down a little bit." Sanders scrawls Bible verses on his palms, which he reads after questionable calls, like smudged mantras. Teammates hold his hand to soothe him. Przybilla reminds him to take deep breaths. Rage either consumes him or feeds his next rejection.
On Jan. 15 at Staples Center, Kobe Bryant made a furious spin move to the baseline and saw nothing but hardwood between himself and the hoop. As Bryant rose for what appeared to be an uncontested dunk, something resembling a first baseman's mitt appeared over the top his head. In one predatory motion the wild-eyed Sanders's right hand pried the ball from Bryant's grip, pinned it against the glass and snatched it out of the air. "Hell of a block," Bryant told Sanders at the next stop in play. "I couldn't see you. Where did you come from?" Given his sudden emergence, Sanders is confronted with that question almost every night. He gave Kobe the short answer—"left elbow"—but there is a much longer one.
Sanders opens a manila folder on his living-room sofa and thumbs through a raft of loose pages. Before he began drawing angels, he copied comics from the newspaper, and he examines the subjects chosen by his eight-year-old self: Goofy, Garfield and a Japanese anime character called Dragon Ball Z. Sanders didn't play or watch sports, so he never drew athletes, except one. The first sketch in the folder is of Julius Erving.
LARRY SANDERS SR. was a 6'7" shot blocker at Gifford High in Vero Beach, Fla., who idolized Wilt Chamberlain and Dr. J. But Sanders Sr. spent more time picking fruit than playing ball. He worked in the orange groves after school, and in the summer he left home with his six brothers and six sisters to pick potatoes and cabbage across the Eastern Seaboard. He was a migrant worker from the day he turned eight to the day he was drafted into the Army at 20.
After completing his service, Sanders Sr. started a family 15 miles south of Vero Beach in Fort Pierce, where he became the most recognizable mailman in town because of his massive frame and baritone voice. "You the mailman's son?" neighbors yelled at little Larry, and he nodded proudly. He showed no interest in basketball, and his dad didn't push it. They watched The Larry Sanders Show on HBO, as if it had been created just for them. "We had beautiful times," Sanders Sr. says.
The ugly episodes came on weekend nights, when Larry was four and five years old, tucked into bed. "I remember flashes," he says. "Some of them won't ever go away. Some of them are really vivid, really terrifying. There were occasions I'd be sleeping and I'd hear my dad come home late. He'd been drinking and gambling, and he'd use my mom as an outlet if he lost. I'd hear a chair crack against the wall or a loud scream. He was so big. She was only 5'5"." (Sanders Sr. says he has never had a drinking problem.)
Larry's mother, Marilyn Smith, hid her pain. "I didn't tell him what happened," Marilyn says. "I don't believe in hate. I didn't tell him what Daddy did. I wanted him to love his father. But I had to get him out of there so he wouldn't see anything." Marilyn left home with her six-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, even though they had nowhere to go. "No one really took us in," Larry says. "We lived on the streets." They slept in a shelter for battered women, where Larry shared a bed with his mom and his sister, and they shared a room with another family. "I felt like my mom was my lady," he recalls, "and I had to take care of her." He rarely left her side. They were kicked out of the shelter for breaking curfew one night and moved in with Marilyn's mother, who, despite being bedridden with diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, already had 16 family members spread through her living room, garage and trailer. "We felt we had to duck from my dad," Larry says. "He couldn't know where we were, or we were afraid he'd come get us."
They settled in a Section 8 house off a dirt road in Vero Beach, where Larry spent hours at the kitchen table with his notepad and the Indian River Press Journal. "Drawing was a way for my mind to take a break from everything I'd seen and focus on the lines," he says. "It was a release for me. I could zone out and just be there." Marilyn bought him a black skateboard, another vehicle that allowed him to escape, up ramps and down driveways with new friends.
Marilyn wanted to keep her children close, so she worked wherever they went to school, whether it was Citrus Elementary or Olive Middle, whether she was a bus driver or a crossing guard, a cafeteria cook or a substitute teacher. But she could not shield Larry from trouble. He was expelled from fourth, fifth and sixth grades. "I didn't fight a lot, but I had a problem with authority," he says. "I'd get into it with teachers."
Marilyn sent him to a new Baptist school, Kilpatrick Christian Academy, where he was one of three students in his class. The school did not offer sports, which was fine with Larry, because he cared only for the arts. Kilpatrick was in Fort Pierce, so the family moved back there. Marilyn allowed the kids to see their father, who had mellowed and been weakened by years of severe stomach ulcers, again on weekends. Larry occasionally skateboarded over to the basketball court at the Boys & Girls Club on 23rd Street, and because of his height, he would immediately get picked first. "Then my team would lose," he says, "and I'd never get picked again." Peers ridiculed him for everything from his fashion sense (skinny jeans, Chuck Taylors) to his musical tastes (Coldplay, John Mayer), and he sought refuge at a Bahamian church, where friends were members and services lasted from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
"I had to process what I'd been through," Sanders says. "I had to make sense of it, or it would have overwhelmed me. There's no fantasy out there, no utopia. Between our birth and our due date, we all have to accomplish something, even though a lot of stuff will try to distract us." Sanders enrolled at Port St. Lucie High in 10th grade with a plan for his future. He was going to be an animator or a computer designer.
BEFORE THE beginning of the fall semester, Port St. Lucie High has an open house at which sports teams and academic clubs set up booths in the gym to lure new students. "I was standing in the back, and someone ran up to me and said, 'There's a kid here who's 6'4",' " recalls Port St. Lucie basketball coach Kareem Rodriguez. "A half hour later someone ran up and said, 'There's a kid who's 6'8".' A half hour after that he was 7'2"."
Sanders was 6'6" and still couldn't care less about basketball, but he appreciated the idea of a team as a brotherhood, a coach as a father figure. "I haven't been on a team before," he told Rodriguez. "I don't know anything about this."
"I'll show you," Rodriguez said. "I'll teach you." Sanders had never run a pick-and-roll. He had never heard of a three-second violation. In his first game with the jayvee, he scored in the wrong basket. He was attracted to defense partly because he didn't have to follow so many strange instructions. He saw the ball and swatted it. It would be fun to win 2--0, he thought. Sanders inherited length and coordination from his father, but also his temper. One time an opposing player was banging him in the post, and finally he pushed back. Sanders was outraged when the official called him for the technical. Rodriguez yanked him. "You pushed the guy," Rodriguez said, and to demonstrate, he put two hands on Sanders's shoulders. A shouting match ensued. "Larry has a clear definition of right and wrong, and when he feels he's been wronged, he'll tell you," Rodriguez says. "It shook me up, and it shook him up too."
Rodriguez discovered what so many others around Sanders have missed: How he reacts depends on how he's addressed. "If you ask Larry, 'Can you pull your pants up, please?' he'll be like, O.K., no problem," Rodriguez says. "But if you tell him, 'Hey, pull your pants up!' he doesn't respond well." Rodriguez handled Sanders with care, and so did his teammates. They ragged on one another but not on him. They knew, after a hard foul or a tough call, to stand with him and speak softly. During a game in his senior year Sanders saw a 5'11" teammate get pushed into the gymnasium wall, and he reacted as if a brother were in danger, picking up his teammate while barking at the culprit. Rodriguez got Sanders to cool down after a stoppage in play. "I think he had four blocks and 15 rebounds in the second half," Rodriguez recalls.
Basketball replaced art as his outlet, and at the Boys & Girls Club, locals asked Sanders if he was going to play in Division I, II or III. "D-III!" Sanders replied, assuming it was the highest level. He committed to Virginia Commonwealth, renowned for its chaotic full-court press, after watching one practice. "They were like brothers too," Sanders says. He majored in sociology at VCU and took classes in psychology to learn more about domestic violence. "I wanted to understand, Why do people do this?" Sanders says. "A lot of kids who grow up in that kind of environment start to think it's O.K. They start accepting it. I was terrified of that happening to me." Then he'd go to practice and bust teammates' noses. "Larry is an aggressive soul," says Alabama assistant coach Tony Pujol, who recruited Sanders to VCU. "He can be a happy-go-lucky guy, but on the court he tries to put three knots in your forehead. I'm not sure that's a fire you ever want to put out."
The Bucks sent two scouts to VCU in the spring of 2009 to evaluate a fearless point guard and consensus first-round choice named Eric Maynor. When they returned they raved about Maynor (who's now with the Trail Blazers), but they also mentioned a hyperactive jack-in-the-box with no advanced post moves and few discernible skills other than the ability to block a shot every 10 minutes. Sanders averaged just 4.9 points and 5.2 rebounds as a freshman, but after his junior season he was up to 14.4 and 9.1. In June 2010 the Bucks chose him 15th overall, and he rejoiced at a party in Richmond. "I was standing inside the Siegel Center, where VCU plays, and I felt this hand on my shoulder," Rodriguez says. "I turned around, and it was Larry's dad." Rodriguez had only spoken with him once. "He shook my hand and told me, 'Thank you. If it wasn't for you, Larry wouldn't be in this position.' "
Sanders Sr. still lives in Fort Pierce, in a house notable for its two kitchens, which come in handy when he is making his famous banana pudding for the neighbors. He is uncomfortable discussing some of his son's memories but does so in broad terms. "We've done a lot of talking, a lot of talking," Sanders Sr. says. "I'm a man, and I make mistakes, and I apologize for my mistakes. We all go through something, and I was going through a lot of stuff. You seek forgiveness and you move on.... You know, I've grown up too. I'm blessed to wake up again. I thank God for my family. I love my son, and I love his mother. I appreciate everything they've done."
Larry Jr. still keeps his mom close. She lives with him in Milwaukee, in the same house as his wife and two-year-old son. "He's still very protective, just like when he was little," Marilyn says. For Christmas, Sanders flew in 10 family members. His father did most of the cooking. He made his banana pudding. Everyone gathered around the tree in the front window and watched basketball. "Best Christmas I ever had," Sanders Sr. says. His son goes further. "Maybe the best moment I ever had," he says. "Yesterday is gone. You have to pray people learn from their mistakes. My dad has suffered in a lot of ways from what he's done. I couldn't leave him. I have my demons too, and you know what's interesting? He's given me some of the best advice in dealing with them."
LAST SEASON Sanders averaged 3.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, another anonymous project swaddled in sweats at the end of a bench. "You had to think twice before throwing him the ball," says Dunleavy. "He couldn't catch anything." Sanders did lead the league in one category—fouls per 48 minutes—and despite his limited playing time he found a way to draw seven technicals, once chasing Pacers forward Danny Granger around the court. The Bucks never started him. They couldn't afford the risk.
"I feel myself getting mad, and I displace it and say, 'I'm O.K., I'm not mad,' " Sanders explains. "But then something else happens, and it's just me and the referee in the gym, and no one can talk to me or hold me back. It's like I have tunnel vision. I look at it later and think, 'What's going on here? I'm arguing with the ref, but he's not the enemy. Sometimes he makes good calls, sometimes he makes bad calls, but he never overturns his calls. So what am I doing?' "
Sanders needed only six years to become a first-round pick and one summer to become a budding force. "It was an overnight transformation," says Milwaukee forward Luc Mbah a Moute. Sanders overhauled his offensive repertoire over the summer at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he focused on diving to the rim instead of popping to the elbow. Since moving into the starting lineup in December, he has averaged 9.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.9 blocks, inspiring the Bucks' p.r. department to send out wooden blocks promoting him for Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player. The Larry Sanders Show references never cease. "All I can do is apologize," says Garry Shandling, who cocreated the HBO comedy in 1992 and played the title character. "His name could have been Roseanne, and then it would have been worse."
The Larry Sanders Show, which won three Emmy Awards in its six-year run, was about a fictional late-night talk-show host. It was hilarious but also poignant, exploring the personal burdens that performers carry with them on stage. Shandling challenged his staff before every season to "uncover the truth of human emotion." Larry Sanders would have made a great guest. Shandling is well aware of Sanders, thanks to Bucks fans who mistakenly tweet him, "Really enjoyed watching you tonight. Good luck the rest of the season." Shandling is flattered. "Then I remember the show isn't on anymore," he says. Shandling does still host a pickup basketball game every Sunday at his house in Los Angeles, 20 years running, and three weeks ago a friend brought him a number 8 Sanders jersey. "There's a stark similarity in the way we play," says Shandling, who is 5'11" and estimates his vertical leap at three inches. "You can see why there's a lot of confusion."
Advanced stats are not available for Shandling's pickup games, but through Sunday the Bucks were giving up 98.6 points per 100 possessions with Sanders on the floor, which would have ranked third in the NBA, and 106.3 without him, which would have ranked 25th. "You just don't go down the middle on Milwaukee anymore," says Nets forward Reggie Evans. When Sanders is not smothering pick-and-rolls, he is running them for dunks. "He catches everything now," says Dunleavy. It's far easier, though, to change a style than a psyche.
Sanders has dramatically pared down his fouls per 48 minutes, from 9.9 to 5.8, but he also earned six technicals and three ejections over 10 days in March. During that stretch, which included his mocking double thumbs-up to referees in Washington, Sanders met with Milwaukee general manager John Hammond. Sanders braced for a scolding, but Hammond knows him too well. "I'm you," Hammond said. "We're the same. The only difference is I'm up in a suite and you're down on a court with thousands of people watching." Sanders thinks about those people, especially the kids, when he feels the anger welling up. Before games, while teammates fire up with hip-hop and heavy metal, he mellows out with gospel and classical. He reads the Bible and The Shack, a 2007 religious novel. "Emotion is like light," Sanders says. "You can't let it go out every window. You have to keep it contained." His Twitter name is Nappy Gilmore. "We have the same temper sometimes," he jokes.
From the Bulls' Joakim Noah to the Celtics' Kevin Garnett, the Grizzlies' Tony Allen to the Knicks' Tyson Chandler, the Nets' Evans to the Thunder's Perkins, the playoff picture is full of defensive specialists who body up to the brink of combustion. "It hurts to guard LeBron James and Kevin Durant," says Lakers' forward Metta World Peace. "It takes a certain type of personality to accept that pain. It takes somebody with emotion and intensity that is sometimes going to spill over." World Peace has spent a lifetime trying to curb his own fury, but if he were successful, he would probably no longer be employed. The volatility separates the breed. "If you want to contend for a championship," says Perkins, "you need that one person who is going to bring the edge." Usually, you don't need any more than one.
The Bucks are almost assured of the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, which means Sanders will be in a familiar position, the ultimate long shot, facing James and the Heat in the opening round. Crowds will be loud. Tensions will be high. Millions will be watching. Says Sanders, "This is what my dad told me that helped a lot: 'You become who you think you are. If you think you're some hothead, then you'll react like some hothead. But you don't have to be the man you were yesterday. You can be a new man today.' "
Sanders wants to establish a shelter for battered women in Fort Pierce that will offer three free meals a day. It's one of his many projects. He also builds skateboards that he isn't allowed to ride—per his standard rookie contract—and he buys the parts in different cities: grip tape in Milwaukee, a deck in Toronto, trucks in L.A. He wants to design boards that look like Persian rugs. "I don't get along with guys whose lives revolve totally around basketball," Sanders says. "Someday that rubber ball will stop bouncing, and if you've built your whole identity around it, who will you be?"
Before Sanders can save the women of Fort Pierce, he must first protect himself. It is a Thursday night at Milwaukee's BMO Harris Bradley Center, the Lakers are in town, and a call has gone against him. Sanders stares blankly at the referee and hands over the ball. Then another call goes against him, and he hands over the ball again. Progress, thinks Bucks coach Jim Boylan. Midway through the second quarter Sanders still hasn't scored a point, and he seems uncharacteristically aloof. In the next 13½ minutes he unleashes six stanchion-rattling dunks, and the fans chant his name. He finishes with 21 points, 13 rebounds, two blocks and a win. As the seconds tick away, Sanders strides across the court and puts that colossal wingspan on full display. The NBA's fiery angel waves his arms up and down.