This is the part of the season where we run out of things to talk about. There are some seeding and lottery positioning issues to be sorted out and a few teams in each conference are vying for the opportunity to get whooped in the first round of the playoffs, but if we’re being honest, we are making chatter that’s noticeably more idle than it is in other months. You notice it even during broadcasts. It seems every national game over the past two weeks has featured some stilted, time-killing segment wherein Reggie Miller (or whoever) debates himself about the MVP race before landing on a name while admitting that, hey, the other guys have had great seasons too. There’s an excess of NBA regular season, which is obliquely the point of it—it’s there when you need it and eminently ignorable when you don’t—but at this point in the calendar it’s essential to nobody. Let’s throw some names in a bracket and get on with it.
So perhaps this is the late-year boredom talking, a table-flat landscape making a hill seem larger than it is, but: Larry Sanders signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers is something like a big deal. As with every minor post-trade deadline move, it probably doesn’t have playoff implications. At best, Sanders can give the Cavs some rim protection and rebounding off the bench, and realistically, he’s unlikely to see the floor at all in a potential Finals threepeat against the Warriors. LeBron James put the chances of Sanders helping out succinctly: you don’t know how much you can get out of a guy that’s been out so long, but I’ve love to see it. Why not? He doesn’t seem to be holding out hope.
The reason Sanders’s return matters has more to do with the person he is than what he has left to contribute as a basketball player. There’s this prideful tone hoop journos take when they talk about NBA players as the most interesting athletes around. So expressive! So honest! You’d think they were interviewing a bunch of high-flying Orson Welleses. But the reality is that the necessarily strictly structured nature of professional sports tends to beat the interestingness out of its participants and we live in an era where P.R. flacks quash most of the rest. The NBA certainly has a healthy sense of humor and its players are more likely than their NFL or MLB counterparts to speak their minds, but the NBA is not exactly accepting of oddballs and headcases. DeMarcus Cousins is one of the most talented players alive and there are, if we’re to believe the whispers that have circulated over the years, general managers who wouldn’t touch him because of his attitude. Josh Smith stopped having a place in the league shortly after his skills deteriorated because coaches didn’t want to deal with his flightiness. Royce White’s promising NBA career lasted three literal minutes.
Sanders, in a unique move, ran himself out of the league at 26. He struggled with anxiety and depression during his five years with the Bucks, where he developed into one of the best shot-blockers around and earned himself a four-year, $44 million contract in the summer of 2013, but where he also felt profoundly uncomfortable. He only played one season on that handsome deal, then he Dave Chapelle’d it out of town, skipping out on a team-mandated mental health sabbatical and telling his agent to negotiate a buyout. It wasn’t clear at the time what was going on with Sanders. He was a somewhat erratic on-court presence, but then that didn’t make him the game’s first hotheaded big man, and he had run afoul of the league’s substance abuse policy a few times, but you could have chalked that up to him not caring about a rule he thought was dumb, or simple knuckleheadedness. There was a lunatic bravery to his exit. You figure a guy walks out on that much cash, he must have his reasons.
As it turns out, the long and the short of it was that Sanders just didn’t particularly like basketball. Building his life around it was hurting him. Like a lot of tall, springy dudes, he was recruited into the sport because of his natural gifts, not because he spent his adolescence dreaming of becoming David Robinson. He had spent his childhood suffering through bouts of homelessness. As his old high school coach has said, you knew he’d seen some things, even if he didn’t talk about them. The sport was a way out of his predicament. He’s not unique among NBA players in that regard, but where many of his peers have flourished within the league’s regimented environment, it simply stressed Sanders out. So he left.
That he’s back might not be proof that he’s as well as he needs to be, but it’s at least a statement of intent, an indication that he feels ready to be a basketball player again. It’s him choosing the game rather than the inverse. In the two-plus years since he’s been gone, he’s gone bohemian, futzing with his own brand of mumbly trap music and brushing up on alluringly crackpot metaphysics. Dilettantish rich guy stuff, but at least it’s what Sanders wants to do. And now it’s not nothing that what he wants to do is what he’s best at, even if he sort of regrets how much he excels at this thing he doesn’t love. That he’s going to try to do it on such a bright stage speaks to his confidence in his ability to handle it. That’s really the beginning and the end of the significance of Larry Sanders’s decision. If he has an outstanding playoff moment or two, that’s swell, but there is already a lot to feel good about here. It’s a comeback, on his own terms.