Milwaukee Bucks: Revisiting the Larry Sanders Saga

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 2: Official Danny Crawford listens to Larry Sanders #8 of the Milwaukee Bucks complain after he was called for a technical foul during the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on December 2, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Bucks 111-108. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 2: Official Danny Crawford listens to Larry Sanders #8 of the Milwaukee Bucks complain after he was called for a technical foul during the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on December 2, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Bucks 111-108. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

Larry Sanders was a rising defensive star with the Milwaukee Bucks and signed a big contract in 2013, but then things went downhill quickly.

Larry Sanders’ time in Milwaukee was characterized by loads of ups and downs. At times he seemed like he would be a big part of the Milwaukee Bucks’ rebuild and be in their future plans. Other times his off-court issues got the best of him and were his ultimate downfall.

Sanders’ story starts in 2007 in college at Virginia Commonwealth University, better known as VCU. In his freshman year, he didn’t have much of a role on offense but averaged three blocks per game on a team that finished the regular season atop the CAA.

As a sophomore, he was their second-leading scorer on another CAA championship team, and this time they finished the job and won the conference tournament, earning an 11 seed in the NCAA tournament.

During his junior year, he established himself as the team’s leading scorer and even made four three-pointers. They went to the CBI, largely viewed as the postseason tournament under the NIT, and won it. With that, he decided to forgo his senior year and enter the draft. All in all, he averaged a stifling 2.74 blocks per game with VCU and was one of the best rim protectors in college basketball.

While he was finishing his junior year, the Milwaukee Bucks made a trade at the deadline to acquire an extra first-round pick from the Chicago Bulls along with John Salmons in February of 2010. Four months later, they used that pick to draft Larry Sanders 15th overall. What ensued was a few fairly uneventful years followed by a crazy storm of events.

His first two years in the league weren’t much to behold. In his rookie year, he even spent two games in the then D-League with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, which the Bucks shared with multiple other teams.

He wasn’t playing big minutes, only averaging 14.5 and 12.4 minutes per game, respectively, in his first two years in the NBA. Even so, he was a great rim protector in his limited time. Over his rookie year, he averaged 3.0 blocks per 36 minutes, and in his second season, it was an absurd 4.3 blocks per 36.

In his third season, he made an offensive jump similar to college and found more playing time. He played in 71 games, starting 55, and averaged 9.8 points and 9.5 rebounds per game on 50.6 percent shooting from the field after 43.3 and 45.7 percent in his first two years. He also was second in the league in blocks per game at 2.8 and led the NBA in block percentage at 7.6 percent.

Sanders breakout season was highlighted by an unorthodox triple-double with 10 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 blocks. He was only nine assists short of the ultra-rare quadruple-double.

In the offseason following this, he was rewarded with a 4-year, $44 million deal. There are two things to remember when looking back at a deal like that. The first is that the salary cap was much lower at that time at $58,679,000 compared to $109,140,000 now.

This means Sanders’ average salary of $11 million was about 18.7 percent of the total cap, which would be equivalent to an average salary of about $20.5 million with the current cap.

The other thing to remember is that the 2013 NBA was a very different league. Analytics had not yet taken over, so while now it seems insane to give a center, especially one who can’t shoot, that much money it wasn’t unheard of and Nikola Pekovic, a similar caliber player, inked a 5-year, $60 million contract just six days prior to Sanders.

The following season was when things went awry for Sanders’ career. First of all, he had shown himself to be a bit of a hothead in 2013, garnering three fines and a two-game suspension for various on-court altercations, but it snowballed into a much bigger issue in the next two seasons.

Between the next two seasons, he had a total of 12 fines, mostly for technical fouls, one for shoving Nick Batum that also gave him a one-game suspension, and one ejection for an elbow to Steven Adams. To top it all off, he got a 10-game suspension, which caused him to forfeit $1,000,000 of his salary in 2015 for a drug violation.

That drug violation leads to another one of the issues that plagued him off the court, marijuana use. Sanders has spoken multiple times about using marijuana for medicinal purposes and the stigma that it has around it. As he struggled with the stress of the NBA, which led to anxiety and depression, he claimed that it had better effects on him than anything else in this interview with CBS Chicago.

"“I could feel the effects it [marijuana] was having on my body, on my sleep and pain in comparison to the pills I was given” said Sanders in an interview with CBS Local’s DJ Sixsmith. “As a scientist, I knew what helped and what worked. It always came down to legalities."

Now, his credentials as a scientist are questionable as he started college as a Religious Studies major and then switched to Sociology. However, no one can know how his body was feeling, and there is definitely the possibility that it was better for him than prescribed drugs. Either way, he has advocated for its legalization. When he got a suspension in April of 2014, he talked to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and had this to say:

"“I study it and I know the benefits it has. In a lot of ways we’ve been deprived. You can’t really label it with so many other drugs that people can be addicted to and have so many negative effects on your body and your family and your relationships and impairment. This is not the same thing.“The stigma is that it’s illegal. I hate that. Once this becomes legal, this all will go away. But I understand for my work it’s a banned substance. I will deal with the consequences and I apologize again to my fans for that.”"

He clearly understood the consequences and that the league had listed it as a banned substance. However, he was only really apologetic about breaking the rules of his job and continued to argue that medicinal marijuana could not be compared to other drugs that can have more negative effects.

Sanders’ issues with marijuana kept him out of games, and with the stigma around them that he mentioned, it’s something that’s remembered widely about him. However, he had bigger issues than that. One of which was his inability to stay healthy after signing the big contract. He had two major injuries in the 2013-14 season. One wasn’t his fault, but the other very clearly was.

The first one happened just three games into the Milwaukee Bucks’ futile season in which they went 15-67. On that fateful November night in 2013, Sanders got into a fight in a club and tore a ligament in his thumb, an injury that required surgery which sidelined him for 25 games.

This was a deflating blow to Bucks fans at the time as the team’s closest thing to a star threw away almost a third of the season by fighting, which was becoming a growing concern. It was only a couple weeks later that a story broke in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Sanders being cited for animal cruelty for leaving his dogs out in the cold that January. An officer found his dogs outside with no shelter, food, or water in a temperature of only 17 degrees Fahrenheit after one of his neighbors had told the police that he was neglecting his dogs in the cold.

He came back to play on December 27th and was playing alright, but not great. He averaged 7.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game for the season. Then, when he was just starting to look like he was getting into a rhythm, his season was over.

On February 5th, he had a career-high 25 points and added 15 rebounds. The next game, three days later, on February 8th against the Houston Rockets, Sanders took an elbow to the eye from James Harden, and that was it for his season.

The box score from that game is pretty wild. John Henson played 40 minutes with Sanders out, Nate Wolters played 38, and Giannis went 0-8 from the field and scored one point. Those were the dark times of Milwaukee Bucks’ basketball, and the Sanders injury plunged them even further into the depths. In total, Sanders played in 23 games that year and started 20 of them.

The 2014-15 season was Sanders’ last in a Milwaukee Bucks uniform, and I think this clip of Lance Stephenson dunking all over Sanders sums it up pretty well. He played in 27 of the Bucks’ first 29 games and then seemingly fell off the face of the earth, taking a very abrupt leave of absence. He left the Milwaukee Bucks organization because of mental health issues that he decided were too great to go on.

You can watch him discuss this more in a sit down he had with Players Tribune, where he discusses being admitted to a mental hospital and focusing on other things that matter to him like writing, painting, and making music.

Sanders played in his last game for the Milwaukee Bucks on December 23, 2014 and was waived by the team on February 21, 2015. He made a brief return to the NBA as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017, but only totaled four points, four rebounds, and one block in five games.

Sanders’ buyout agreement with the Bucks has the team paying him $1,865,547 every season for seven years. That means that after this season, he will still be on the Milwaukee Bucks payroll for two more years.

So Larry Sanders is getting almost $2 million dollars every year – what’s he doing with that money? Well, just about a month and a half ago, he joined Click, a California cannabis mouth spray company, as an investor and strategic advisor. This allows him to keep advocating for marijuana and use his money in a business venture.

Sanders has been thinking about making another return to basketball and joined the Big 3 league as the third overall pick in their 2019 draft. He has also talked as recently as this June about making a comeback to the NBA.

At 31 years old, he is probably still physically capable of playing in this league, and his 6’11” stature certainly doesn’t hurt. If he did make a comeback, I would support him and be happy that he found the mental stability to be able to do that and watch to see if he could still swat a shot into the fifth row.

The Larry Sanders’ experience was a short-lived wild roller coaster that I think probably left a lot of us shaking our heads and wondering just what happened. From a nobody to a big contract to out of the league all in about three years and it went so fast. Sanders’ case certainly shows us that NBA players are people too and have a lot more going on than what we see on the court. They have lives and emotions, just like anyone else.

Still, it’s tough not to think of what could’ve been. Could he have continued his upward trajectory and been a walking double and defensive player of the year candidate? We’ll never know, and he continues to haunt the Milwaukee Bucks through his cap hit each and every year and will haunt them for two more years.

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Larry Sanders was a crazy story from the blocks to the injuries to the altercations, no one ever knew what to expect next from him, and he kept us on our toes back in the times when we didn’t have a championship contender to cheer for. Before we had chants of “MVP” filling Fiserv Forum for Giannis Antetokounmpo, we had chants of “LARRY! LARRY! LARRY!” filling the Bradley Center.