Larry Sanders swats his way into Milwaukee's heart


Larry Sanders swats his way into Milwaukee's heart

Before he became a shot-blocking demon, before he became a fan favorite in Milwaukee, before he even started playing basketball seriously, Larry Sanders was into skateboards.

The artist in him was drawn to the colorful skating culture and he still enjoys designing board covers and assembling boards to this day. He has always done his sketches in pen, not pencil, an approach that instilled a heightened sense of patience that would serve him well once he arrived in the NBA.

The 6-foot-11 Sanders was able to keep his head up through two frustratingly lackluster seasons, through a lockout that had him about a week away from taking a job in Europe and through the acquisition of two higher profile players who play his position. Now in year three, Sanders has asserted himself as one of the building blocks for a young team and the leading shot blocker in the NBA.

``I draw with a pen. If I mess up I have to throw the paper away,'' Sanders said. ``There's no eraser for me. I can't get frustrated with that. I couldn't get too angry and upset. I just had to keep working at it. Maybe that did create a sense of patience in me that transferred to the game.''

Sanders was drafted 15th overall out of Virginia Commonwealth in 2010, with the Bucks taking a chance on a raw big man with considerable athletic gifts. He struggled to acclimate to the NBA in his first two years, averaging under 15 minutes per game in both seasons while dealing with foul trouble on most nights. He averaged 3.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in his second season, giving the team little confidence that he was headed in the right direction.

``My first year I felt OK. My second year was really rocky for me, especially after coming off the summer where we were locked out,'' Sanders said. ``A lot of issues. I didn't know where I was going to live, there were a lot of things that came up that were so unusual. I didn't have my pro habits established. I didn't know really how much it took and what I had to prepare for.''

The Bucks brought in veteran center Sam Dalembert and drafted 6-foot-11 John Henson out of North Carolina to be the primary big men this season, a clear message to Sanders that he better pick it up, and fast. And Sanders did just that. He spent time in the summer working on his hands and his quickness going to the basket from his low-post position, then showed he was a different player right from the start this year.

He averaged 12.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in the first five games, establishing himself as an important piece to a young roster.

``That was huge for me to have a good start, especially with the roster the set up,'' Sanders said. ``I didn't want to get buried. I put in a lot of work and it was good to see it coming back.''

Sanders is averaging 3.2 blocks per game, well ahead of Serge Ibaka (2.8) for the league lead. He had a triple-double - including 10 blocks - against the Timberwolves on Nov. 30, had 17 points and 20 rebounds against the Celtics on Dec. 21 and had an incredible stretch of 25 blocks in a five-game stretch earlier this month.

``He had to learn he couldn't reach as much, how to block a shot, when to follow through,'' Bucks assistant Joe Wolf said. ``Those are things only experience can teach you.''

With long arms, knobby elbows and an elongated gate, Sanders still looks at times like a young Buck trying to find his legs while he gallops through the paint in pursuit of the next block. But his defensive positioning, timing ability to avoid foul trouble all have improved dramatically, which has helped Milwaukee (22-18) weather coach Scott Skiles' departure and remain in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

``He always worked hard and you could tell he was going to be a good player,'' point guard Brandon Jennings said. ``It's been fun to watch him take a big step this year and become a key part of our team and of our success.''

In doing so, Sanders has endeared himself to a blue-collar town that embraces the underdog.

``It's a hard-working city, underdog in a sense,'' Sanders said. ``Great place. Tough place. Tough people here. You have to be. I was walking out the door today and looked at my phone and it was minus-2 outside.''

And Sanders has found a way to get his creativity off the court to translate to his game, viewing shot-blocking as an art form in its own right.

``I like to think of angles and meeting the opponent at the backboard,'' Sanders said. ``It feels like an art, the way engineers connect the dots in a sense.''


Freelance writer Mark Kass in Milwaukee contributed to this story.

Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter:http://twitter.com/APKrawczynski

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Baltimore Ravens Roundup: Justin Tucker kept the game ball from his first missed extra point

Baltimore Ravens Roundup: Justin Tucker kept the game ball from his first missed extra point

It's Draft Day, baby!

Before the 2019 NFL Draft gets underway Thursday night in Nashville, Tn, here's the latest Baltimore Ravens news.

Player/Team Notes:

1. The Ravens made a VERY smart move Wednesday by signing kicker Justin Tucker to a four-year extension that will keep him in Baltimore through the 2023 season. In seven seasons, Tucker has experienced the highest of highs, and just last year, the low of his first missed extra point Week 7 against the Saints. Memorable as it is something we rarely see from Tucker, the 29-year-old has that game ball on display as a reminder of the ups and downs of his career.

“That’s a part of my story, and I want to be able to look at that and realize that was a learning moment,” Tucker said. “It was, perhaps, a pivotal moment for me as a professional.”

“I think it’s incredibly important for any football player, any athlete, anybody, to learn form both your successes and your failures,” Tucker said.

2. The Ravens are making one very special fans' dream come true this weekend during the NFL Draft. Mo Gaba, a 13-year-old superfan who's been blind since he was nine months old and is battling cancer for the fourth time, will announce the team's fourth-round pick from the Ravens' Draft Fest at the Inner Harbor Saturday. Gaba will be the first person ever to announce an NFL draft pick in Braille. 

3. General manager Eric DeCosta will lead his first-ever war room Thursday night, but he won't be kicking former GM Ozzie Newsome out of his usual seat at the head of the table. 

“I’ve been in that seat for a long time,” DeCosta said via the Ravens' website.

“The other reason is Ozzie doesn’t like change a lot,” DeCosta said. “He still gets his hair cut on Friday, he’s on a treadmill three times a day. He only started using an iPhone about six months ago. No, that’s not actually true

“But he definitely doesn’t like change, and I just feel like if we moved his seat, he’d be really flustered.”

4. The Ravens are showing increased interest in Alabama running back Josh Jacobs, according to ESPN's Jamison Hensley. John Harbaugh did mention earlier in the offseason that the team could add another playmaker in the Ravens' backfield.

5. Free agent pass rusher Ezekiel Ansah reportedly visited the Ravens Wednesday. Drafted fifth overall in the 2013 NFL Draft by the Lions, the Ravens could use Ansah after losing Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith in free agency.

Looking Ahead:

April 25-27: 2019 NFL Draft in Nashville, Tn.

May 3-6 or May 10-13: Potential three-day rookie mini camp

July 15: 4 p.m. deadline to get long-term deal done with designated franchise tag player

The 2019 NFL schedule is set!  See the Baltimore Ravens defend the AFC North at M&T Bank Stadium this season. Get your tickets now at www.BaltimoreRavens.com/tickets.


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The Capitals’ reign as Stanley Cup champions is now officially over

The Capitals’ reign as Stanley Cup champions is now officially over

WASHINGTON – This was not the way it was supposed to end.

The feeling after the Capitals’ Game 7 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday was one of shock. There is always an element of that when a team gets eliminated from the playoffs in overtime, but it wasn’t how they lost that made it so stunning. It was when.

“Everything can happen in a seven-game series,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “We all seen that. But right now it's just disappointing. We would've liked a better outcome. ... It's tough to swallow"

“We fight through 82 games and in Game 7, they score one goal and it’s a kind of situation where you’re disappointed, you’re frustrated, especially after last year,” Alex Ovechkin said.

After winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 and returning with largely the same core intact, returning as the defending champs to win the Metropolitan Division for a fourth consecutive year, no one envisioned Washington’s defense of the Cup and its quest to repeat to end in the first round. That was especially true when the Caps drew Carolina as their first-round opponent, a plucky team with a first-year head coach that made it to the playoffs for the first time in a decade.

It looked like a favorable matchup for Washington. It wasn’t.

“All series long it was a game of mistakes,” Brooks Orpik said.

The Caps took a 2-0 lead in the series, Carolina battled back to tie it 2-2. Washington won the all-important Game 5 to push the Hurricanes to the brink, Carolina responded by winning Game 6 to force the all-or-nothing Game 7. The Caps even jumped out to a 2-0 lead in Game 7 and yet the Hurricanes just kept coming.

In the end, the overtime loss was shocking, but not surprising. Carolina had taken control in the second period and never looked back. They fired the first nine shots on goal in overtime and were controlling the play over a Washington team that just looked gassed. The Caps needed to get a favorable bounce, otherwise it was only a matter of time before Carolina would finish them off and that was exactly what happened as Brock McGinn deflected in a shot for the overtime winner.

There are many reasons Washington ultimately lost this series, but it was for none of the typical reasons we see in most upsets.

This was not a case of a goalie standing on his head to completely shut down Washington’s offense. Petr Mrazek made some key saves at times, but ultimately finished the series with a .899 save percentage. Take away the six-goal blowout of Game 5 and Mrazek’s save percentage rises to .919. That’s better, but still would rank only sixth among goalie with at least four starts this postseason.

This was not a case of a superstar forward putting the team on his back and carrying them to the improbable upset. Sebastian Aho tallied five points in seven games, Teuvo Taravainen had four. Both had fewer points that Jaccob Slavin who had nine assists and Warren Foegele who scored an improbable four goals and two assists.

This was not a case of Washington’s best players not showing up. Alex Ovechkin scored four goals and five assists to lead the team with nine points. Right behind him was Nicklas Backstrom with five goals and three assists. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored only one goal in seven games, but his one goal came in Game 7 to restore Washington’s two-goal lead in the second period.

Washington finished with a 25-percent power play and an 88-percent penalty kill, bot respectable numbers.

The Caps lost Michal Kempny and T.J. Oshie – both significant injuries – but Carolina had a number of significant injuries as well.

Really, the biggest reason the Caps felt they lost is because they were out-played, out-hustled and out-worked.

“I think we were all guilty of some mistakes at different times that were maybe a little uncharacteristic of us,” Orpik said. “Two two-goal leads at home within the same game is kind of a tough one to swallow. I don’t know if unacceptable is the right word but you have to be able to maintain those leads, especially on home ice and this time of the year. We made mistakes but they played great all series so it wasn’t just us. Eventually you have to give them credit at some point.”

Now instead of preparing for the quick turnaround of playing and starting a second-round series against the New York Islanders on Friday, the season is over and the Caps are left to wonder what could have been.

Already eliminated in the first round were the Tampa Bay Lightning, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets and the Nashville Predators, all thought to be Cup contenders. Heck, even archrival Pittsburgh was out. Alex Ovechkin was playing at the top of his game as he claimed his eight Rocket Richard Trophy after leading the league in goals yet again. That performance carried over to the postseason and he was brilliant in Wednesday’s game.

But despite how favorable the road in front of them looked for another Cup run, despite the unreal performance the team’s top stars were delivering, none of it ultimately mattered.

The only thing harder than winning a Stanley Cup is winning it twice. Perhaps to expect a second championship was unrealistic. But a first round exit felt too soon. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end for a team that had finally learned how to win.

The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs were already turning into the year of the upset. The Caps became the latest victim of that on Wednesday. And finally, a party that had begun in June 2018, came to an end officially meaning a new champion will be crowned.

“Every opportunity missed is devastating, really,” John Carlson said. “You only get to do this for so long and I've been fortunate to be on great teams. When you don't do well, it's more than we were up in a series or a game. It's everything. It hurts.”