MILWAUKEE — It wasn’t the usual entrance to a press conference, but Larry Sanders was greeted with chants of “Larry! Larry! Larry!” as he came into the gym Monday morning.
The venue Sanders chose to host the press conference announcing his four-year, $44 million contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks wasn’t the usual setting.
Instead of hosting the gathering at the arena or the practice facility, Sanders picked the gym at the Pieper-Hillside Boys and Girls Club in Milwaukee where over 100 kids were in attendance to watch.
Why the Boys and Girls Club? The place is near and dear to Sanders’ heart because he grew up in the club in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
“As soon as this news was brought to me and I got the opportunity to be in this position, I wanted to come here first,” Sanders said. “This is where I came when I first got to Milwaukee, because I felt the community embraced me so much. Milwaukee adopted me as a young child trying to find his way in the league and has showed me nothing but love and support.
“It’s only right for me to be here with these kids, trying to express to them where I am now and how I got there with the hard work I put in, but also that I’m just a human just like they are. If I can get here, they can. It’s an amazing feeling being here now, reminiscing about being here as a child.”
Sanders purchased 500 backpacks filled with schools supplies to distribute to kids at Pieper-Hillside and other Boys and Girls Club’s throughout the Milwaukee area.
“Larry has not forgotten all the good things that happened to him at the Boys and Girls Club,” Vincent Lyles, president and CEO of Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee said. “When he got to Milwaukee one of the first things he did was connect with us.”
For Sanders, Monday was a look into his past but also a realization of how far he’s come in his life and with the Bucks. At this time a year ago, Sanders was a player with a cloudy future. Now he’s signing a big extension and accepting the role as team leader.
Coming off a rough stint in summer league, Sanders came to training camp with no guaranteed role and a legitimate chance to find himself looking for a new team in the near future.
“I didn’t get discouraged,” Sanders said. “I knew I had to keep pushing forward. Nobody was going to push forward for me. Nobody was going to pat me on the back or wipe the tear out of my eye. I just had to keep working. I didn’t give up on myself. I just kind of understood that no one else had to feel that way for me. It’s about how I feel about myself, despite what anyone said. A lot of people were doubting me saying that I was soon to be out of the league or I would have to go back to the D-League.”
It didn’t take long after the season started to see things had clicked for Sanders. He had become more than just an athlete on the basketball court and quickly blossomed into one of the league’s top shot blockers and defensive centers.
He averaged 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and finished second in the NBA in blocked shots at 2.8 per game. Sanders is now an indispensable part of the Bucks, not to mention the team’s most popular player because of the passion he plays with.
“A lot of things slowed down for me on and off the court,” Sanders said. “I developed a lot of pro habits. I was able to find confidence within myself away from the gym, getting things done I needed to do, keeping my body in shape, eating right. Just things I had to develop over time. Off the court, my family being around me, surrounding myself with positive people to keep my mind in the right direction. The recipe has changed up a bit, but it just developed. Now it’s going to be the same.”
Keeping his perspective the same may be Sanders’ biggest challenge now that he has his big contract. Though he’ll play out the final year of his rookie contract before the four-year extension starts for the 2014-15 season, Sanders has his money.
But he’s also tasked with being the team’s leader on and off the court. Though he’s embraced his role in the community from the day he came to town, Sanders still has to make a significant jump on and off the court.
The Bucks could have picked Brandon Jennings or Monta Ellis, but they chose to commit to Sanders.
“It’s about Larry Sanders the player, but it’s also about Larry Sanders the person,” Bucks general manager John Hammond said. “With what we’ve just done here, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. Larry and I have talked about that a lot. He wants to embrace that, he welcomes that and he’s looking forward to taking on that challenge.”
While the sudden ascension may come as a surprise to some, Sanders isn’t the least bit surprised. The Bucks are taking a risk on a player who has performed for just one season, but Sanders is determined to reward the team’s faith in him as a person, leader and player.
“It’s the player I want to be and the man I want to be,” Sanders said. “Since I got here, the organization has done nothing but push me and help me in that direction. So this isn’t a spontaneous thing. I think we’ve been working in this direction for a long time.
“It’s awesome, but it comes with a lot of responsibility. I embrace that and I’m ready for it. I think I’ve made my mistakes, I’ve had my ups and downs, but all in all, I keep pushing in a forward direction. That’s the same direction I want to point this team. We all need to point the same way. Everyone needs to have the same goal in my mind.”
The Bucks have certainly had their chemistry issues and have lacked a true leader over the past few seasons. The locker room crumbled down the stretch last season and it showed on the court as Milwaukee struggled at the end of the year.
“A big team goal for me is unity, just undeniable unity,” Sanders said. “The brotherhood that has kind of been missing for a couple of years that is a key part of winning. Constantly being in each other’s room, going out to eat, just spending time with each other away from basketball. I feel like knowing each other off the court directly relates to on the court.
“I have a lot of ideas, a lot of direction, but it starts with me. I have to be that guy. I embrace that responsibility and I’m excited about that. We will all get on the same page and we will all push forward as a team. It starts with me, and if I have to drag everyone along, that’s what will have to happen. But I doubt that people will drag their feet.”
Sanders learned the importance of positive leadership in a locker room from watching the impact the lack of leadership had on last year’s team.
“It taught me a lot because the leaders that you look to in tough situations, the leaders can’t be the guys who go off into the corner when adversity hits because everyone has nobody to follow,” Sanders said. “The leader has to be the glue piece. I’ve learned that throughout the years.”
Just because his salary will eventually jump to $11 million a year doesn’t mean Sanders doesn’t have things to work on. His offensive game is far from developed and he needs to learn how to stay on the floor by staying out of foul trouble.
The area where Sanders must improve the most is in controlling his emotions. A very passionate person with an extreme desire to perform well and win, Sanders often times channeled his emotion in the wrong way. He’d argue with officials on a regular basis, a few times to the point of ejection.
“He recognizes that as something he has to get better at,” Bucks coach Larry Drew said. “That’s something that I expect him to get better at. You talk about accountability, to me it’s one of my pet peeves. You talk about transition defense, and when you are squabbling with the official, the other team is running and you are putting your team at a disadvantage. That’s not acceptable.”
Another challenge Sanders will face is avoiding the trap athletes often fall into when they get their money. Too many talented athletes perform at a high level to get paid and then let their work slip and performance falls right with it.
How does the new face of Milwaukee’s franchise plan to avoid falling into the trap?
“Just keep the recipe the same and don’t forget how I got here,” Sanders said. “Don’t forget the work I put in and don’t forget what’s going to push me forward. The work doesn’t stop now, the work begins. This is just the beginning. The 44 (million dollars) is what I’m projected to be worth, now I have to earn it. Now I have to show that I’m worth that and more.
“I want to be the most teachable player, I want to be the hardest working player. I’m still working toward that. I’m not there yet.”