- Editor's note: Watch "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" on Tuesday, Nov. 30 at 5:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area.
Once among the best defensive big men in the NBA, Larry Sanders is out of the league now. He turned 33 this month and might have seen the last opportunity to revive his chance at basketball glory. He has another goal these days, and it is a priority.
But Sanders has not given up on the NBA. Longing for another opportunity, he continues to work on his skills. Sitting before the camera discussing his complicated journey, his desire is imparted by his attire: a T-shirt and basketball shorts.
“I want to be the best me,” Sanders says from his home in Florida. “I want to get myself mentally and physically in the best shape possible, better than I’ve ever been. I’m working on that now.
“I’ve been in the gym. I was in the gym this morning, and I’ll be back in there this afternoon. Just making sure that I’m the best that I can be. And if a position presents itself, I’ll be ready. And that’s all that matters. That’s all that matters.”
Though rumors of a return to the NBA occasionally make the rounds – the Warriors made inquiries in 2016 – NBC Sports Bay Area reached out to Sanders to discuss mental health in the Black community and in general for an episode of “Race in America: A Candid Conversation.” The show can be seen Tuesday afternoon at 5:30 or anytime on the YouTube channel dedicated to NBC Sports Bay Area & California.
Sanders will pocket about $1.87 million in the final year of the buyout settlement reached with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2015 after four violations of the NBA’s drug policy at a time when the league tested for marijuana. There were multiple suspensions for failed drug tests.
There was his involvement in a November 2013 fight – three months after signing a $44 million rookie extension – at a Milwaukee bar that resulted in a thumb injury that sidelined him for two months. He apologized.
But it wasn’t until 2017 that Sanders, who drew comparisons to Hall of Famer Ben Wallace (except Larry is three inches taller) faced the demon at the root of the issues that derailed his career. The man who led the NBA in block percentage in 2012-13, while finishing seventh in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, was waived by the Cavaliers in a comeback attempt that followed a brief foray into hip-hop music and lasted only five games.
Sanders was caught in a cycle of mental health crises. The issue was there before he entered the league as a first-round pick in 2010 and it remained so as he struggled to accept it and address it. Sanders was in no condition to keep his life on balance, much less be a productive member of a basketball team.
“I knew I needed to step back,” he says. “I knew I needed to put myself in a place to attack some of these things that I knew I would deal with for the rest of my life. And it couldn’t be put on hold.”
He tried for as long he could, stalling the idea of treatment because the money was so good. He found reasons to procrastinate, including the sense that he would have little or no support for such a complex condition.
“The NBA didn’t have much respect for mental health days,” he says. “Didn’t have much respect for mental health in general. If they couldn’t see the injury and put ice on it, it wasn’t real to them.”
Then there was this: Those facing mental health challenges can feel isolated and stigmatized – particularly in the Black community. Some consider seeking treatment a sign of weakness.
“For sure. For sure,” he says. “It’s a sad truth because there is a lot of mental health issues in the Black community. I see people dealing with it every day. They mask it with alcohol or drugs.”
Sanders entered the NBA with a platter of personal issues gnawing at his gut for as long as he can remember. There was the abusive father, Larry Sanders Sr. The addicted mother, Marilyn Smith. Spells of homelessness after his mother left his dad, taking Larry and his sister Cheyenne just about any place away from Larry Sr. The formative years in Florida were a straight line to the anxiety and depression that metastasized in the NBA.
But Sanders reached the point when the money didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what others thought. Didn’t matter if there were sideways glances; he always was a different kid, nerdy, more drawn to art and nature than to basketball. The last four to five years have been quite the exploration.
And yet, the allure of the game still tugs at Sanders. Thus, the dedication to maintaining peace of mind by any means available as well as diving into two-a-days at the gym. A man that has traveled his road has to have hope.
“I’ll just get myself ready,” he says. “I know what I can do. I know how I can affect winning at a high level. If preparation meets opportunity, all you can do is wish for the best. By I’ll do my part. I just get myself prepared.”
The man whose relationship with the NBA devolved into love-hate status is open to loving it once again. He asks only to be sure that if another chance should come his way, he is free of the illness that disrupted his life.