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I Don't Know Anything About Larry Sanders: A Personal Reflection on Depression and Basketball

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Larry Sanders and I have something in common but reflecting on my own experience with depression and basketball was more a reminder of how little we actually know about the players we follow.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The smell of sweaty socks fills my nose

as my sneakers squeak below me

The echo of the ball off the hardwood

travels through the rafters

Peace

I was 11 years old when I wrote that, sitting in the back row of my fifth grade classroom at Lauren Middle School. I’m sure I had written a poem before but that’s the first one I remember. It was supposed to be descriptive and I can still see Mrs. Green challenging me to use all five senses, noting I had omitted the odor of the gym. She suggested sweaty socks off-hand but I couldn’t think of anything else. I thought it ruined my poem.

It was entitled "Sanctuary".

I tell that story for two reasons. The first is it’s almost embarrassingly absurd that I entitled anything as "sanctuary". Sanctuary from what? I was blessed to live in the same house my entire childhood. My two loving parents let me choose what I thought was important before I could touch the net. Throw in the best big sister and role model alive and it’s tough to imagine a more sheltered and supportive environment.

Second, is that brains are really, really weird. That’s one of the most inconsequential moments of my life, yet some neuron buried in my gray matter decided it was precious. I can recall that conversation with my teacher in greater detail than my high school graduation or my first kiss. The question of why my memories would be shaped that way remains a mystery and it seems the more we learn about our own brains the less we understand. Instead of finding answers, more things get called into question.

Looking back, I had few reasons to be depressed in high school. The question of why was just as baffling and irrelevant then. For me, that made the experience of depression something I’ve never been able to describe. You’ll see commercials for antidepressants using the metaphor of a dark cloud following someone around but it never felt that external. There wasn’t an outside tormentor or situation I needed to escape from. For me, it was an entirely internal affectation, almost divorced from external stimuli rather than caused by it. That was part of why it was so difficult. There was nothing explicit to fight against.

This is an especially difficult concept for athletes and coaches to grasp. I grew up playing every sport imaginable. At each step along the way, coaches emphasized hard work and improvement, attacking weaknesses until they become strengths. This approach is part of why playing sports helps build character but it’s counter productive when dealing with mental illness. Or at least it was for me.

I can remember all of the people that would make suggestions for how I could "snap out of it" any time I expressed a sliver of my dissatisfaction. "Well, have you tried this" or "Have you thought about that". I know none of them meant it this way but it all got processed through my chemically confused brain as "If you were stronger this wouldn’t be happening to you". For me, trying to get out of depression was like fighting a Chinese finger trap. The more I tried to get away, the tighter its grip became. Say what you want about sports, but learning to be ok with your own weaknesses is antithetical to its very foundations.

That perspective extended beyond the court and into social interactions as well. We have a picture of sports teams as brotherhoods, warriors brought together by a common struggle. This is certainly true of some but in my world they were also keyed by conflict. Weaknesses and faults were something to be picked at and attacked. You had chubby guys, scrawny guys, stupid guys. Guys who got the wrong ladies, guys who got no ladies. Everyone had something they were razzed for and were expected to give it right back. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it mixes with depression about as well as oil and water.

My experience came through high school basketball, and not a very big program at that. There were no paychecks involved. Few hyper-competitive teammates. No handlers, agents or other actors with perverse incentives trying to manipulate the situation. No media speculation about my play or mental state. No one asking for an interview after a bad game. Yet, even in that context, it was exceedingly difficult to focus on the game and play my best.

In a strange way, the games themselves were always a release. You just let yourself go and get swept up in the competition. All the frustration and anger could be taken out against the opponent. The problem was, the preparation became less fulfilling.

"It’s not whether you have the desire to win, it’s whether you have the desire to prepare to win"

That slogan was printed across the back of our warm-ups and it really is true. Most guys play hard during games. Very few people bring it every day in practice. The classic image of someone going through depression is lying in bed all day trying to get up, not running stairs and shooting hundreds of one-handed jumpers, perfecting their form.

All of this created a downward spiral. I didn’t prepare well and, as a result, began to struggle on the court. This increased the external pressure and fed the internal doubts making it even harder to go to they gym. And so on and so forth. Basketball is one of my greatest passions, but I know better than most that there are times you have to step away.

Reading about Larry Sanders the past few weeks, I had two, completely contradictory emotions. First, I felt a sense of connection, sensing a fair amount of similarity with my own story. I felt like I understood a little of what Sanders was going through. That’s part of the reason I wanted to write this article. Maybe I could play a small role in helping people grasp how difficult his situation really was.

Second, was the realization that thinking I understood Larry Sanders was incredibly absurd. By all accounts, Sanders had a difficult childhood. In a recent interview with Kevin Arnovitz, he talked about growing up in a single parent home, moving from shelter to shelter. His struggle with basketball (and with himself) happened on the biggest stage possible, as media shmucks like me wrote ‘hot takes’ and talked about him being mentally soft. To compare our situations in the slightest is egregiously unfair to him.

Basketball is a unique sport because of how important individuals are. I remember listening to Zach Lowe’s podcast, talking with Lee Jenkins about why his favorite league to cover was the NBA. Essentially, he liked it because it was still a personality-driven league. One guy could swing the fortunes of an organization for the next ten years and fans still drooled at the prospect of getting to know players’ personal stories. Compare that to football, where many of the players on a roster are anonymous and running backs have an average career of less than three years. This gives players a power they don’t have in the NFL.

It also enriches my experience as a fan. I like rooting for Wesley Matthews (ugh, I’m still so upset) knowing that he struggled to get out of his dad’s shadow, knowing that his mom used to challenge him on the basketball court, knowing he made it after going undrafted. It’s an inspiring story. 

But we need to be careful.

Larry Sanders has done a lot for this league. Mental illness has become an issue. His struggles remind us that these players are human. But he also showed us that, regardless of the interviews and feature pieces, we can’t really know these guys or their stories. That's true about positive and negative narratives alike.

Portland fans all know Damian Lillard made it out of Oakland. That he was around gang bangers and drug dealers. That he shot hoops into a carton and then over a tree branch after the carton broke. But I cringe looking back at some of the statements I’ve made in passing, without thinking.

"Oh he’s tough. He won’t back down from anybody. He’s from Oakland".

Like I know anything about what growing up in Oakland does to person. Or like it does the same thing to everyone, a thing that can be reduced to a trite phrase.

Again, we need to be careful.

I’m tempted to end with a statement about the bravery and strength of Larry Sanders. In many ways, I feel I should. But the truth is, I don’t know a damn thing about Larry Sanders. Or Wesley. Or Dame. Or LaMarcus. Or any of these men we idolize. The one thing I do know:  I am grateful for their willingness to share a part of their stories and I wish Larry Sanders as much luck as I had.

In an ironic twist, that growth spurt I had always wanted as a young basketball player finally came but it brought with it a side of knee pain. By the end of my growing summer, I could barely jump. I don’t think I ever would have left the sport on my own but that injury made it clear I had no reason left to stay. I switched schools and started over.

This wasn’t a quick fix. There’s no silver bullet to snap out of depression. But it gave me the space and lack of expectations I needed to explore who I wanted to be. My journey took time, my own time, and it went places I never would have guessed. No one knows where Larry Sanders will end up next and that's exactly the point. But if he's lucky like I was, he'll reignite his passions and find what makes him happy.

A year after I switched, one of my new best friends told me about this guy named Brandon Roy. It took another year on top of that until I really started playing ball again. Off at college and eager to make new friends, I took my dorm room neighbor up on his offer to play pick up. Slowly but surely, I made my way back to the game I wrote about as an eleven year old.

Here’s hoping Sanders makes it back to his own sanctuary, wherever that may be.

- Willy