WASHINGTON, D.C. – Larry Sanders looks like hell.
Not normally, of course. It’s just that tonight he’s fighting the flu, and currently, the flu is winning.
“Are you going to throw up?” I say sarcastically, as the lanky, amply tattooed Milwaukee Bucks center rises from his locker stool and aims to summon a Willis Reed-esque performance for our interview.
“I don’t know, maybe,” Sanders replies. He’s absolutely not kidding.
Later, the box score would show Sanders as a “DNP-Coaches Decision”, but the only decision Bucks’ Coach Scott Skiles needed to make was whether or not he wanted his center bolting from the court mid-play to track down the nearest trash can. It was an easy call, I imagine.
But even Sanders’ balky stomach couldn’t dampen his outlook on this night. A former star for the VCU men’s basketball team from 2007-09, Sanders is in his second season with Milwaukee, which entered Wednesday’s contest with the Washington Wizards trailing the Philadelphia 76ers by a game and a half for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
He’s enjoying the NBA life, which began when the Bucks made him the 15th overall pick in the NBA Draft after his junior year at VCU. Even with his innards doing their own personal lambada, Sanders smiles through our session. It’s always been his M.O.
He is, after all, the same guy the Bucks entrusted with a video camera during training camp this season to conduct interviews for “The Larry Sanders Show”, an intentional nod to the former HBO faux talk show starring Garry Shandling.
There are other examples of Sanders random acts of fun-ness (it’s a word now). When a newspaper photographer, looking for a bold image to support a feature on the then-VCU freshman, unwisely suggested Sanders climb atop a basket at Franklin Street Gym, the precocious freshman delightfully scaled a rickety, makeshift platform – risking his well-being, not to mention the job of the stupid, irresponsible sports information director who failed to stop it.
It’s how Sanders approaches basketball and life, as far as I can tell, with a smile on his face and a certain unfettered curiosity. It’s served him well during the rigors of the NBA.
On the basketball court this season, he’s averaging 3.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in just under 12 minutes per game. While his points (4.3) and minutes (14.5) are down slightly from his rookie year averages, Sanders has actually been better this year than last. His shooting percentage (.463), rebounds, blocks, assists and steals per game are all up from 2010-11 despite the drop in minutes.
“I’d say this season I’m a lot more comfortable,” Sanders, 23, said
Experience has always been an area of need for Sanders. When Sanders was a sophomore in high school he showed more interest in art than organized basketball, until a coach spotted the soon-to-be 6-foot-10 Sanders and his 91-inch wingspan and convinced him to give hoops a shot.
What Sanders lacked in polish, he could make up for in talent. Both VCU and the Milwaukee Bucks targeted him based on that premise. While there have been plenty of growing pains over the years, a few ill-advised 3-point tries at VCU come to mind, Sanders’ experience is beginning to draw closer to the level of his inherent abilities.
Milwaukee’s trade of Andrew Bogut on March 13 helped open up minutes for the Fort Pierce, Fla. native, and he’s responded. In eight April contests, Sanders is averaging 5.4 points, 4.5 blocks and 1.8 blocks, while shooting 67 percent (20-of-30) from the field. On April 7 against Portland, he provided 14 points (on 7-of-8 shooting), seven rebounds and two blocks in 17 minutes.
“Probably just playing more,” Sanders said of his improvement this season. “Being able to be out there and just learn from experience and learn from actual situations rather than in practice. It makes the game easier out there because there’s no real simulation to the NBA game, besides being out there playing.”
And while playing is the thing that will make Sanders the happiest, there’s not much that seems to dim his bright perspective. Even if he hadn’t made it to the NBA, Sanders probably would’ve done just fine at VCU. Sanders has, on many occasions, expressed his affection for campus life, VCU and the city of Richmond.
“If it wasn’t for that money, man,” Sanders joked in an interview during his rookie season about his decision to leave VCU with a season of eligibility remaining.
This fall, while Commissioner David Stern, the Players Association and the owners quibbled over how to divvy up the NBA’s millions during the league’s lockout, Sanders returned to campus to take two classes. He says he’ll be back this summer to work out – a regular practice for former Rams like Eric Maynor, Jesse Pellot-Rosa, B.A. Walker, Jamal Shuler and Joey Rodriguez – but also to continue working towards his bachelor’s degree in sociology.
“I’ll be right there in Richmond. I like being around the atmosphere that got me to this point,” Sanders said. “Trying to finish that degree is still very important for me. It’s like home.”
With that, Sanders smiled, and I wished him well. The flu may be winning tonight, but Sanders is coming out ahead more often than not, and that’s worth a healthy grin.