Bucks’ Sanders says he’s learned lessons from lost season
ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Children filled the Pieper-Hillside Boys and Girls Club in downtown Milwaukee last August, as they formed a tunnel for one of their favorite Milwaukee Bucks players to enter through on one of his biggest days of his life.
Larry Sanders opted to have the press conference announcing his four-year, $44 million contract extension with the Bucks at the Boys and Girls Club, showing his embracement for becoming a leader in the community.
"This organization has put so much trust in me as a person, as a player, as a worker, as a leader," Sanders said at the 2013 press conference. "That’s definitely the role I want to take.
"It’s not a spontaneous thing. We’ve been working in this direction for a long time. Now, them investing this faith in me is awesome. But it comes with a lot of responsibility and I embrace that."
Little did Sanders know just how unprepared he was to handle the spotlight that came with a breakout season and a new contract.
Because of a torn thumb ligament suffered in a nightclub fight just hours after Milwaukee’s home opener and a fractured orbital bone from a James Harden elbow in February, Sanders was limited to just 23 games in 2013-14.
Sanders didn’t just lose a year on the court, but the 25-year-old’s image took a severe hit in Milwaukee with the nightclub incident, a locker room altercation with a teammate and a late-season suspension for marijuana use.
"I wouldn’t say rebuild," Sanders said about his reputation. "I’d say more just pushing through and learning from things that have happened. You learn from different situations on the court and off the court, and it’s all about growth.
"Nothing grows without pain; nothing grows without struggle. You just have to pick apart the lessons within the struggle."
Although no criminal charges were filed in the nightclub incident, Sanders tore a thumb ligament in the altercation. The Bucks initially said Sanders was injured during the home opener but later revealed the injury was suffered off the court.
Milwaukee sorely missed its best defender, shot blocker and rim protector, as the Bucks went 5-20 in the eight weeks that Sanders missed following thumb surgery.
One of the franchise’s leaders watched helplessly as the Bucks won just 15 games.
"It was tough just sitting there and not playing while my team was struggling," Sanders said. "If we are going to struggle, we need to struggle together. I need to feel like I’m a part of that struggle."
Sanders seemed to finally be back into a rhythm when he caught an inadvertent elbow from Harden early in Milwaukee’s 101-95 loss to the Houston Rockets on Feb. 8. The blow fractured Sanders’ right orbital bone, an injury that ended his season.
Because a plate needed to be inserted near his eye, Sanders will wear protective goggles to prevent further injury.
"Just to protect the eye," Sanders said. "Anything around the fracture could cause bleeding or different things to happen. Because there’s something in my face now, I’m definitely going to wear goggles for the rest of my career."
What to do with Larry Sanders became a popular topic on sports talk stations throughout town, as there seemed a split right down the middle with some fans wanting the beleaguered center traded for anything and others still believing in the talent.
All that mattered was that the Bucks felt strongly enough about Sanders to still include him in their future plans.
"He’s done everything we’ve asked of him this summer," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. "There’s no perfect person, no perfect player. When you go through something, you learn from it. We’ve all been in a position where we made mistakes, we learned from them and we pushed forward."
Not only will the pressure be there for Sanders to prove his breakout season in 2012-13 — he averaged 9.8 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game — wasn’t a fluke, but also the contract extension signed last August kicks in this year. Sanders is owed $11 million per year through 2017-18.
"It’s a substantial contract, and when you sign someone to a contract like that you hope you get productivity with that," Bucks general manager John Hammond said. "I don’t want to make it sound like it’s easy, but I think to a certain extent, just because of the gifts that he was given with his athleticism, his length, his speed, his quickness and the timing that he has to block shots, if he’s on the floor, good things are going to happen. He’s just got to find a way to get himself on that floor."
It would be easy to label Sanders as a player looking for redemption. But he views things differently and didn’t bite on the cliche. Instead, Sanders wants to take the lessons he learned from a trying season and use them to improve his future.
One of those lessons was realizing he could no longer fly under the radar while out in public.
Nothing grows without pain; nothing grows without struggle. You just have to pick apart the lessons within the struggle.
"I learned a lot about preparation, preparing myself for certain situations," Sanders said. "I am mindful of who I am now and the position that I carry on and off the court. Planning ahead, that was kind of my weakness. I never really planned ahead. That’s something that’s very valuable that I see a lot of guys that are successful do. They prepare for whatever situation they’re going into and they’re mindful about it. So when things happen, they’re able to react or respond rather.
"With those lessons, you learn how to deal with situations like that. If you are going out, you have to be mindful of what situation you are going into and who is there and who is with you. Me personally, I choose not to go (out). That’s what I’ve learned from it."
Between the scrutiny he faced from his off the court issues and being unable to play basketball, Sanders was at a low point during last season. He credited his family, his faith and the Bucks organization for helping through his persona struggles.
"When you’re in a dark spot you feel alone until the hands start trying to pull you out," Sanders said. "I was thankful I had people in my corner who wanted the best for me and wanted to help me out of those situations."
To top off his trying season, Sanders was suspended five games for violating the league’s anti-drug policy. He later revealed the ban was for marijuana use, which meant he had failed at least three drug tests.
Despite being injured at the time of the suspension, Sanders was able to serve the five games at the end of last season to prevent him from missing time at the beginning of the upcoming year.
"I wouldn’t take back anything, to be honest with you," Sanders said. "I’m not a believer in mistakes. I believe in purpose. Everything has purpose and meaning. To say one thing is a mistake is to say the whole system is flawed, and I don’t believe that. I think everything is going to result in good, but everything has a recipe. You just have to pick apart the lessons within the struggle."
So far, Sanders has looked good in his return to the court. Kidd has called him "the anchor of the defense," recognizing how important Sanders is to Milwaukee’s defense.
In three preseason games, Sanders is averaging 10.7 points and 10.0 rebounds and has been active when on the floor.
"It is about basketball at this point," Sanders said. "All the little things that you are caught up in, they don’t matter anymore. You just want to touch that basketball again. I’ll be as hungry as I’ve ever been.
"I don’t really think too much about outside expectations. I know what I expect of myself. I expect to be a leader. I expect to teach as much as I can and learn as much as I can. And I expect to continue to grow."
But even if things go well for Sanders this season, he won’t completely forget about his past troubles.
"The past is always a good reference point," Sanders said. "It will always be there. You can’t really dismiss the past. It will be a memory forever. I’ll learn from it constantly."
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