The Continuing Education of Larry Sanders

It's been a year and a half since the 27-year-old left the Milwaukee Bucks. The idea of Larry Sanders again playing in the NBA lingers—but if it happens, it will be on his terms.

by Mike Piellucci
Aug 30 2016, 4:03pm

RuKo Photo

Larry Sanders leaned on the kitchen island in his house in Sherman Oaks, California, on a Friday afternoon. He had just eaten spaghetti with red sauce and he was explaining to me how, and why, he did not need the NBA—unless, that is, he got the NBA on precisely his terms. If playing again meant things being like they were before, when he was miserable and far removed from being the person he wanted to be, then he would be out for good.

"I won't put myself in that situation again," he said. "Honestly, there will never be the urgency to do it. I don't care if I'm dead broke on the beach somewhere, because I understand—I truly believe in my heart—there's too many things to do in this world."

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This was June. A month later, reports that Sanders was contemplating un-retirement would send the basketball world into convulsions.

It's been a year and a half since the 27-year-old left the Milwaukee Bucks, and 20 months since he last played in an actual NBA game. The sport has moved on without him: DeAndre Jordan realized Sanders' destiny of becoming the game's premier defensive center, while the 2015 draft class of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, and Myles Turner brought the league a fresh crop of young pivots to dream upon. After waiving Sanders under the NBA's stretch provision, the Bucks signed Greg Monroe and later drafted Thon Maker to replace him on the interior.

Still, the idea of Larry Sanders again playing in the NBA lingers. He was a first-round pick at the age of 21 and a certifiable force by 24; at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, he was championed as the most dominant interior defender of the 2012-13 NBA season. That breakout performance precipitated an eight-figure extension and a rep as Milwaukee's franchise player. Superstardom beckoned.

"He's not DeAndre Jordan, but he's not too far off," a league source told VICE Sports. "As a pure defensive specialist center, top five. Top eight. And the thing is, the list isn't that long. It's not a top 30. There's not a top 12. They're unicorns in that way."

It's entirely plausible that Sanders is currently the best basketball player in the world not currently playing in the NBA. At the very least, he is the most tantalizing. And his talent is made all the more alluring by the fact that Sanders, mostly of his own volition, chooses not to use it.

The circumstances of his departure were, if not spectacular, then unusual. First there was the fourth violation of the NBA's substance-abuse policy for marijuana use. (Sanders has publicly advocated for marijuana and generally refused to apologize for using it.) Then there was the rescission of his contract, the terms of which will still pay him about $1.9 million annually through 2022. Most significantly, there was Sanders voluntarily checking himself into a hospital in order to treat depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. All these things took place within a month.

Sanders will not return to the NBA until he feels mentally healthy enough to do so. He may not return at all. "If the time comes and the stars align, then yeah," he said. "If I feel like I'm ready to play this summer, I'll probably be on a team next year."

This summer provided the first murmurs that, finally, he might be ready. On July 9th, he tweeted a picture of the cast from the movie The Warriors. An hour later, he followed up with an oil painting of a cavalier. He trended on Twitter that night, with the basketball media wondering aloud whether this was Sanders' cryptic way of hinting last year's NBA finalists were pursuing his services. At some point this summer, they were; multiple sources confirmed to VICE Sports that those two teams expressed serious interest in signing him. Two weeks later, Sanders dropped any pretense of subtlety, polling anyone with an opinion on "which team do [they] believe will utilize [his] skills the best?"

But with only a month before training camps open, Sanders remains on the basketball fringes. His camp insists that the door is open for him to return. Perhaps his exit Milwaukee poisoned the well too thoroughly for that to happen. Or maybe there is an offer on the table and he isn't in the right frame of mind to take it. The same league source, expressing a widely held concern within NBA circles, wonders whether Sanders even loves basketball in the first place.

Maybe there really are too many other things for him to do, after all.

* * *

Two days before the conversation in his kitchen, Sanders, some friends, and a skeleton production crew were in the bowels of the Crocker Club, a turn-of-the-century bank now repurposed as a downtown Los Angeles nightclub. It was mid-day on a Wednesday and, aside from a janitor lacquering the floors with cleaning solution, Sanders and his crew were alone in the building. It was the first of a three-day shoot for Sanders' debut rap single, "Black Mercedes," the biggest statement of intent yet in his fledgling music career, which itself is the most prominent development of Sanders' post-NBA life.

He looked like a different man, more distinctive. The shrub of facial hair on his chin has been redistributed as a thin goatee and, until he sheared them off a few weeks ago, his once bushy black hair was twisted into short dreadlocks, streaked with blond. A one-of-a-kind gold earring, fashioned in the shape of a woman's silhouette, dangles from his left earlobe; he calls it his Tinker Bell and jokes that it wards off evil spirits. His web of tattoos has spread to envelop his arms, chest, stomach, neck, parts of his face and legs. Even he isn't sure how many there are. "I stopped counting at like 46 or 47," he said.

He has a new stage name, too: L8Show, a play on his old Milwaukee jersey number. He does not believe any of this to be a reinvention. "It's all just entertaining [people]," he said.

L8Show the musician is wading down a familiar track, one littered with the reputations of other athletes who have tried—and failed—to be hip-hop artists.

"There's a horrible stigma about the NBA rapper," said PhillyFlyBoy, the video's director. "So we really have to present this in an efficient manner, because we already have people voting against us. We don't have neutral voters. We have voters voting against us that we have to sway and then come over to vote for us."

PhillyFlyBoy, who works with artists like T.I., Kendrick Lamar, and Lil Wayne, believes that Sanders is different from Allen Iverson or Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal before him. He writes his own beats and does his own post-production. Other artists are taking notice: he most recently produced a track for PARTYNEXTDOOR's new album, which debuted last week at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 Rap and R&B charts.

"If there's no NBA behind this guy—100 percent you didn't know who Larry Sanders was and this was his career—I think that people would take him seriously based off of what we are doing right now," PhillyFlyBoy said. "You would like it. And you would say, 'OK, this guy is legit, he's an artist. He actually brings something to the table.'"

At his best, Sanders' playing style was marked by a sort of coiled hyperkinesis. It was the willingness—and dexterity—to bound down court faster than other bigs, the fearlessness to snatch rebounds in any sort of scrum, the capability to spring back in the air nearly as soon as his feet touched down on the floor. He made a living by refusing to stay inert.

Now, his friend and fellow rapper Ray Nitti said, "it's almost like he still has that 'no plays off' mentality with everything."

"Everything" means more than just music. Music isn't the whole picture so much as one tile in a mosaic.

Sanders' first love was art. Growing up, he passed the days by huddling over his sketchbook in the family room, drawing Garfield, Peanuts, and other favorites from the Sunday comics. He picked up skateboarding around the same time, and has dabbled with designing his own boards. He's writing a graphic novel, too. He formed an artist's collective called Citizens of Matter, or COM for short, and, together with Nitti, organizes nonprofit work under the same umbrella. He designed his own clothing line, also using the COM name. When the company needed a website, he taught himself how to build one and constructed it within a week.

His iPhone contains books on subjects like cognitive behavioral theory and intuitive thinking; he's big on Wayne Dyer, the self-help guru. When I asked him about religion—he has a Star of David inked under his left eye and often wears a diamond-studded cross around his neck—he reminded me that religious studies was his first major at Virginia Commonwealth University. (He later changed it to sociology.) "Segment geometry really attracts me," he said, before explaining how the Star of David is a map of the alignment in the human face and that the cross is "a molecule that's actually in our body."

"To make a mark in one thing and to be justified for one thing, it wouldn't—couldn't—justify anybody," Sanders said. "I don't care if you're Prince and can be known as a singer and go out as a singer. To him, that's not fulfilling. I don't care what anybody says. You can say, 'Oh my God, you were the best singer in the world.' But it's not fulfilling for him. I promise you it's not. Because he's not just only that one thing, even though that was what we ultimately admire him for."

Some of this could read as dilettantish. There's no way one person can be totally and equally devoted to delving into this many passions, even a guy like Sanders who chides that "sleep is for the weak." He's certainly isn't above being esoteric, either. When I asked him to explain the meaning behind the name Citizens of Matter, here was his reply:

"I felt we all attach ourselves to different things. So we'd be citizens of a certain state or certain body of land or even the world. The fact that we can be born on a spaceship on Mars means that we're really not citizens of any earthly things. Just matter. I'm subject to matter. Matter goes through me; I die. I am matter. Citizens of Matter, that's what I attach myself to. It feels real."

Regardless of what it touches, Sanders' interest seems genuine, and that in and of itself is refreshing. He radiates an enthusiasm and a curiosity that borders on childlike.

"As a little kid, he always wanted to know everything," said Sanders' mother, Marilyn Smith. "Always asked a lot of questions and always wanted to know why.... He wasn't like a normal kid. He would not let things go by. He saw something, he'd get right into it."

Take the ocean, something that even today might rank as Sanders' purest passion. The week before shooting began, Sanders was in Hawaii with his mother, sister, and nephew. He saw beaches and volcanoes, but the highlight was visiting the oceanography program at the University of Hawaii. He talked of going back to take classes, a way of reconnecting with his childhood dream job.

As a ten-year-old growing up in Fort Pierce, Florida, Sanders learned about how the local manatee population was being ravaged by boaters and why overcrowded marinas only exacerbated the problem. So he stood by himself in front of the local library, clutching a homemade sign and chirping about boat relocation and alternative habitats. He was, by his own admission, "not really a sorted kid when it came to academics." But studying the ocean ignited something in Sanders in a way that other subjects couldn't. Eventually, a teacher noticed, and arranged for him attend a summer camp on scholarship at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University. He learned about submarines there, too.

It was a formative moment for a kid with a near total problem with authority. Sanders' home life was in constant upheaval, with he, his mother, and his older sister ping-ponging between different living arrangements. Sanders' father, Larry Sanders Sr., was abusive to Sanders' mother. When Larry was six and his sister Cheyenne was seven, Marilyn took the kids and left without warning or destination in mind. One stretch involved sharing a room with another family. For a while, they were homeless. The only constant? "Just the three of us."

He said this as we leaned against his car, an immaculate white BMW i8 just four days off the lot. Day 2 of shooting had come and gone, a four-plus-hour boil in Los Angeles summer heat. The car was parked behind a recording studio near the downtown fashion district. His circle of companions has multiplied even from the day before. Sanders claims to be a "crab when it comes to my space," but it's obvious he prefers things this way. As excited as he is about ideas, nothing fascinates him more than people, especially people who, like him, skew toward multiple, divergent interests.

There's Nitti, who shuttles between Milwaukee and Los Angeles, and music and COM's nonprofit work. Mo Korched, working under the name Ruko Photo, shoots photos and is branching into video editing. A small-school point guard named Elijah Wilson, known for as long as anyone can remember as Penny, does music production and helps Larry cook up new beats. PhillyFlyBoy, in addition to his video work, consulted with FX for the upcoming series Atlanta. A former track runner named Taron Wade popped in for half an hour; he now works in fashion design and is planning to shoot a documentary while he rides his bike across America.

There are more: friends of friends, and friends of theirs in turn, ebbing in and out of the parking lot. Gradually the numbers thin out, until a core of about eight remain. Are they an entourage? The word feels hollow. They aren't necessarily collaborators, either—that would imply they're all on equal footing, and there's only one thing that brought them together.

"I see his vision and I believe in the vision that he's bringing," Nitti said, sounding like an acolyte. "I know that eventually everyone else will see it, too. And they'll be like, 'OK, I get it.'"

To Sanders, the best word might be "teammates." It took years for his skill to match his size on the basketball court, but he persisted because of the camaraderie he found there. He savored sharing the sense of achievement and, even more than that, the structure and community that had proved so elusive to a latchkey kid always on the move. It's an age-old basketball story. Many players spend the rest of their lives hunting for something to replace the locker room when their careers are over. But Sanders says he long ago distilled the lessons of basketball and learned to replicate them elsewhere.

"It's a life recipe. It's not just basketball," he said. "So I fell in love with the recipe—with the fact that I can put my energy into something, watch myself get better, and as a team we can work toward a common goal and change things."

That's why he says he's in no rush to go back to the NBA. It offers nothing he needs. For him, the league has never been the source. It's merely a delivery mechanism.

Sanders now lives in Los Angeles, recording music under the name L8Show. Photo by RuKo Photo

Still, basketball tugs at him. Sanders missed the game so much that he purchased Lakers season tickets about 14 rows off the floor. "I had to watch Kobe this year," he grinned.

Sanders refers to himself as retired from the NBA, but there's no concealing the mirth in his voice whenever the sport—the activity of playing basketball—enters the conversation. And when that happens, retired or not, he speaks in the present tense. If Sanders truly does not love basketball, like some skeptics suggest—well, then, he puts on a very convincing illusion.

"You want to see me create? Watch me play defense," he said. "Because I'm thrilled by it. I love playing defense, I love watching how guys move and who's on the cut. I love anticipating blocks. I love contesting shots, altering shots. I love it. I love guarding somebody. I hate if someone scores on me—I hate that! I'm driven by it, man. It fuels me."

Sanders has been bad at the sport longer than he's been good. It took years to sand down his rough edges. He picked the game up in middle school at Kilpatrick Christian Academy, where he was one of three kids in his class. P.E. was run by the basketball coach, and so every single day the students would play pickup hoops. Sanders' first attempt at organized ball didn't come until his sophomore year of high school, when he transferred to Port St. Lucie High School. At six-foot-six, he was the tallest kid in school, yet his rudimentary skills moored him to the JV team. He quickly announced himself as a shot-blocker but, he conceded, "it was not like I was soaring."

Sanders' coach, Kareem Rodriguez, chastised him for having tough hands, so Larry carried a tennis ball with him everywhere he went, bouncing it on the sidewalk and tossing it high into the air. "I got used to a tennis ball, so a basketball became kind of easy," he said. "Sometimes, ridicule is good."

He progressed rapidly but as late as his junior season, the idea of being recruited by four-year colleges was still fanciful. "I remember sitting on my couch thinking, 'I hope the community college coach at IRSC [Indian River State College, the local school] comes to the game so I can get a scholarship,'" he said. It took until his senior season to get an invite to play AAU ball; by the end of the year, he had multiple scholarship offers from four-year colleges.

He chose VCU, a program that was already on the upswing after future NBA point guard Eric Maynor upset Duke on a buzzer beater in the previous year's NCAA tournament. Sanders was fairly nonplussed about the program's trajectory and Maynor's pro prospects, though. It would be another two years before he'd even conceive of his own NBA potential. All he wanted was to attend art school for free.

His college years were the best of his basketball life. Sanders was the bridge connecting Anthony Grant, the coach who resuscitated the Rams' program, to Shaka Smart, who elevated it to an empire. When he references his life recipe—working together, achieving goals, changing things—he's talking about his life at VCU.

He turned pro following his junior season, after he finally wrapped his mind around the places his body could take him. He was excited; the NBA felt like something he should want. Four years earlier, he was a nobody who had never left the state of Florida. Now the clumsy kid who couldn't catch a basketball amazed himself during pre-draft workouts by intuiting the game better than his more accomplished rivals. "I just knew I was better than way more than half of the guys there," he said, recalling his realization at the time. "I get it in ways that guys don't, that are supposed to be at a higher level, that have been playing longer."

Milwaukee selected Sanders 15th overall in the 2010 draft, earlier than anticipated. By his third season in the league, in 2012-13, he averaged ten rebounds a game, shot 50 percent from the field, and finished second league-wide in blocked shots. The Bucks signed him to a $44 million extension. USA Basketball expressed interest.

They were milestones to be proud of, and Sanders fed off that sense of progress. "I fell in love with getting better," he said.

Gradually, though, the costs of playing the sport at the NBA level chipped away at his happiness.

First came the anxiety. "He went into this almost celebrity-type world and he would worry about the future," Marilyn said. "How was he going to handle things? How was he going to handle his money? How was he going to manage his life? ... Who to trust? Who to be around? Who's around you?"

Then, it was social isolation, which was at least partly his own doing. According to a league source who had conversations with multiple former teammates of Sanders, "he was his own guy and if you didn't fit in with him, he didn't want to know you."

Sanders believes it was more a matter of him not fitting in. It was the natural endpoint of a feeling that washed over him during his lone season of AAU ball. The majority of elite players he encountered came of age inside the sport, prioritizing the endless grind of school, club, and travel ball. Sanders, on the other hand, grew up a skate punk who drew alone in his bedroom and nerded out over aquatic life. He did not understand their tunnel vision, their determination to pour everything into succeeding at this one pursuit. Nor, from his vantage point, could he grasp how they never saw—or, worse, tacitly accepted—the ways that the AAU system rewarded corruption, with players as human currency.

"It was never normal for me to be handled in that way," he said. "I was always uncomfortable and I always saw the signs and it never sat well with me. Certain agent situations and whatnot. It's just not right."

Those feelings temporarily abated at VCU. But they soon returned in the NBA, where the cream of the AAU crop reigned. I asked him to list the teammates who he felt he could relate to. Immediately, he named Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokoumpo, the other two components of a frontcourt that was supposed to grow old together. Then, a long silence. He clicked his tongue softly while trying to come up with more.

"It's tough, man," he said, finally. "Because you get fed a certain way of life through certain aspects—AAU, college, some guys go high majors and they get ranked early ... I feel like I wasn't really conditioned."

Except, by the end of his NBA tenure, he was. His frustration culminated in an infamous November 2013 fight at a nightclub called Apartment 720. Sanders threw a champagne video and ended up on TMZ. He tore a thumb ligament in the brawl, and the resulting surgery kept him out eight weeks. Only now, more than two years after the fact, will he share his version of events: He was jumped. He was speaking with a female friend underneath the club's DJ booth when, from above, a group of men began to pour alcohol onto them.

"Like pouring alcohol directly on us, like where it was splashing," he said. "I wanted to confront them, like, 'Hey, what are you guys doing?' It turned into a very physical bout. They grabbed me. 'What are you doing up here?' Guys started swinging. It got really physical."

The security footage seems to bear that out. Sanders' first appearance in the frame, beginning around the twenty-second mark, shows him stumbling down a ramp and then into a couch, with as many as three men pummeling him from behind.

Irrespective of the truth of his account, the real insight comes from why he chose to say nothing. Sanders is not a person who is afraid to speak his mind. While his career was still ongoing, he denounced the single-mindedness of other basketball players, goaded referees into ejecting him, and openly defended his marijuana use. Yet here, vilified for a skirmish in which he was cited by police but never charged, he couldn't bring himself to elaborate on what really happened. He had to focus on basketball.

"I was the franchise player: I felt a responsibility to get back on the court and not respond," he said. "That was all I was thinking about. Get back on the court so I can play basketball. I should defend myself in this situation but, you know, I kind of just let it go.

"I got to the point where I kind of relinquished control."

Sanders hasn't rule out playing basketball again, but insists it must come on his terms. Photo by RuKo Photo

By his fourth year in the league, Sanders was overwhelmed.

His world was receding. He barely slept, and would retreat to his Milwaukee apartment as soon as the day's practice or game ended. Once at home, he'd lock himself in the top-floor art studio for hours on end. Some days, he sketched. Others, he recorded. Usually, he painted—landscapes mostly, sweeping and expansive vistas he imagined.

He considered his predicament. He enjoyed the satisfaction of playing but the higher he climbed in basketball, the more basketball demanded of him. Art school never happened at VCU; it would have required night classes, and night classes conflicted with games. Now, as an emerging face of the Bucks franchise, he felt the walls contracting further. His creative projects had mostly stalled; the sessions in his studio were cathartic but not especially productive. Some of this, he knew, came with the job description. What he questioned—and began to resent—was why it had to be that way.

"You should be able to be your own person and also perform your job, but it just collides so much," he said. "You're not influenced to do more. You're influenced to go into the gym and put some shots up, because you're not meeting your quota."

He says the breaking point came when he considered how life on the road sapped time from being around his two children, his son Jasiah, now five years old, and daughter Gynesis, now three. He long ago had resolved to be a different father than his own—gentle and, most of all, attentive. He felt he was failing.

"I couldn't live with the idea of passing away the next day and knowing this is all I gave my family," Sanders said.

Marilyn Smith noticed her son changing, too. He never outright told her he was unhappy but she knew that it wasn't like Larry, so cheerful and vibrant, to pull so far inward. She watched him play with near-constant irritation on the court, racking up technical fouls and ejections.

"If you feel like this and it's bothering you, change it up," Marilyn told him. Do something else. Do something different. "I've done it myself, making changes [to things] that I needed changed," she said. That was, after all, how she, Larry, and Cheyenne left an abusive home in the first place. "I raised him that way."

But Sanders didn't know how, not yet, and so he turned to marijuana to cope. At first he smoked to ward off the encroaching waves of anxiety. Then, three months after the nightclub fight, he fractured his orbital bone in a February 2014 game against the Houston Rockets. He chose not to take his doctor-prescribed painkillers, worrying that the pills could be addictive. Sanders is hardly the only athlete to endorse that line of thought, but the impetus had as much to do with his surroundings as his own research. He knew, after the brawl and the resulting injury, that the Bucks were scrutinizing their investment more than ever. Sanders believed they were more concerned with his being on the floor to justify his new contract than his overall well-being. He still believes he may have been concussed, but the team never tested him.

"They kind of let me go to sleep on the training table and sent me home and didn't really think anything was wrong," he said. "And then, the next day, I find out I blew out the orbital in my face. That kind of went into the box of why I had to get out of here, just for your health. I didn't really feel safe with them—the league or Milwaukee—after that point."

It would be another year before Milwaukee would buy him out of his contract, but his Bucks career fundamentally ended that night, when James Harden's elbow crashed into his right eye. Sanders lived for those contested rebounds but after the injury he grew tentative.

"I felt that, if something did happen again, I wouldn't be properly taken care of," he said. "I wouldn't be properly tested. Maybe it would be ignored and I would be pressured to go back and all these things, when they haven't even addressed the issue yet."

The fourth, and final, failed drug test came in January 2015. Sanders was suspended for ten games, and faced another stint in a league-mandated drug treatment program. He knew he needed treatment, but he chafed at what kind. Quitting marijuana would place him on more stable footing with the team and the league, at the cost of uprooting the problems he was working so hard to bury. It certainly wouldn't solve them. He felt he needed to address his mental health, no matter the damage to his basketball career.

The Bucks, who repeatedly declined to comment for this story, likely have their own version of events. Here was a player who repeatedly violated league rules. They prescribed him painkillers because, in addition to it being standard medical practice, there was no way they could endorse a marijuana alternative as an organization, even if they wanted to. Whether or not they overtly pushed him to play, they probably were perturbed when, after extending their star player just the previous offseason, he missed two months because of an off-court incident. No one ever confirmed one way or the other if he did, in fact, suffer a concussion that night in February.

Even around the league, no one outside of Sanders and the Bucks knows the whole story. HIPPA laws make it unlikely for anyone else to learn, either.

Eventually, Sanders checked into a month-long inpatient program at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, designed to treat depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. He smiles when he discusses his time there. He was more alone than he truly ever had been in the NBA, yet somehow he felt a peace among fifteen strangers in the hospital that had eluded him since college. Most were younger than him and he remembers their stories. He befriended a manic depressive with a genius IQ and a young girl who wrote poetry. Somehow, he said, no one recognized him until the last week. They had no idea about the NBA or his wealth or his fame. He was just the same as them, unraveled and trying to stitch himself back together. Finally, he felt understood.

"Talking to everyone there, they just saw me as so much more," he said. "No one knew who I was. But they would know who I was."

He checked out of the program five days early to negotiate the buyout of his contract. The episode, regardless of how effectively it was handled by the Bucks, remains emblematic of Sanders' standing with NBA teams. And it offers a window into how a team might view mental health.

"Are you claiming this depression because you got in trouble, or were you in trouble because of this depression?" the NBA insider wondered aloud to VICE Sports. "It's not for anyone to judge. It's just an unknown.... There's so many factors that go into that and it's really difficult to point a finger at anyone, because the premise of everything—in terms of mental health and depression—it's still such an unknown that Larry could have been asking for the help. He could have been saying 'Things aren't right' and the team maybe didn't deliver in a way they should have. Conversely, maybe he didn't feel compelled to tell them and didn't seek out help."

Either way, Sanders hasn't played professional basketball since.

Sanders is prepared to stay out of the NBA for good. Photo by RuKo Photo

The third and final day of shooting for "Black Mercedes" concluded at dinnertime on a Friday night, at the Calabasas High School gym.

That night, Sanders was a basketball player again, if only for pretend. Aside from him and his crew, there were no spectators besides a handful of a handful of maintenance workers tearing down the bleachers. The soundtrack was squeaking shoes interspersed with banging hammers. The springy bounce of the leather basketball, occasionally interrupted by the thud of pried-up wood panels slamming onto the hardwood. It was as far removed from the NBA and its floodlights as basketball can be.

Sanders has grown comfortable away from them. Marilyn Smith believes that his time at Rogers gave her son new tools to subdue his anxiety and the depression that could stem from it. "If he's having feelings towards something, he knows how to handle it and change habits," she said.

Nitti, whom Sanders grew closer to as he was leaving the league, has noticed a renewed hunger. "There's not partying or anything like that," he said. "He's really putting so much time and passion into energy into all of these things. That's the growth I'm proud of."

Sanders' kids and ex-wife have moved out to Los Angeles, and he's excited for his children to be able to play outside year-round instead of weathering the harsh Milwaukee winters indoors. He's signed his son up for Boy Scouts. "He probably can teach me how to make a fire," Sanders mused.

Playing again means jeopardizing that newfound balance. It also risks derailing the momentum he's built in his creative pursuits. That isn't worth trading for basketball, which is why Sanders doesn't intend to barter one for the other. He has a clear paradigm for what it would take for him to return: all or nothing.

"What any team would have to accept from me, if they want me, is everything that comes with me," he said. "All of my projects and everything I want to do. If that's something they're willing to not just deal with but understand that it's part of me and this is what he brings to the table. It's not just this dreaming kid who wants to do all of these things. He's actually doing it. He's not just our basketball player. He's really good at basketball, but he's not just our basketball player. He's a human who has things that he wants to do."

That likely will not fly. While the same league source admits that Sanders is a "unique case study" in how teams will regard a potential return, he believes that, ultimately, a Larry Sanders comeback could be undone for rather expected reasons. Among them: marijuana, questionable fit in the locker room, and the great unknown of mental health. But the first explanation he offered for why an estimated two-thirds of NBA teams, including his own, won't touch Sanders is the same one Sanders himself offered: that basketball cannot be the only thing on his mind.

"We're not alone in this way. A lot of teams have a culture where basketball has to be top priority," he said. "Careers are so short that, if it's not made a primary focus, you can't really extract the most out of yourself or your opportunity. And Larry is certainly not in that category. Whether it's music, art, lifestyle, et al.—basketball is not his top passion."

That leaves a sliver of potential employers, and who knows which of those would make for a snug fit. The personnel man believes that the only feasible solution is a contending team with an established veteran presence, the sort that Golden State and Cleveland have. A developing team, on the other hand, makes far less sense.

"There is not a team with a front office in their right frame of mind that would send an offer to Larry Sanders knowing that they're in some sort of rebuilding, 'we're all working together to move forward' mode," he said. "I think that's a recipe for disaster."

All of this leaves Sanders and the league at an impasse. The NBA wants Larry Sanders, but only if he's the man he was in 2012-13. Larry Sanders wants the NBA, but only if he can return as an entirely different person. Perhaps the idea of a comeback has already dissipated once and for all.

Until one side budges, he'll be in Los Angeles, making music and designing clothes and reading books and going camping with his kids. The last night of the video shoot was a reminder that not everything has changed, though. Sanders wore white tube socks with Snoopy on the sides. PhillyFlyBoy zoomed in on him dribbling a basketball and then bouncing a tennis ball. Sanders threw down a lethal tomahawk dunk.

But watching him play, there was a new lightness to his game, and not just because he's nine pounds under his old playing weight. Here, among friends, he could make basketball into whatever he wanted it to be. He shot 18-footers and he took people off the dribble. He lofted floaters and used jump steps.

On one play, he cut through traffic and elevated for an up-and-under layup. He soared through the air now, and you'd never guess that he was once a center, carrying the burden of a defense and a franchise on his shoulders. He looked weightless. He looked free.

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Larry Sanders
Milwaukee Bucks