Usually, athletes fortunate enough to play professional sports and earn millions are almost forced to retire, the lure of collecting another fat paycheck too tempting to pass up. Most stay too long, beyond their productive years, to acquire another year or two of income.
That makes what Larry Sanders did more than surprising. Indeed, it was commendable that the former Milwaukee Bucks forward, at 26, walked away from his NBA career, giving up $21 million in the process.
It was commendable because Sanders is being true to himself and not succumbing to the desires of others. It helps that the 6-foot-11 former VCU star already had made $31 million. But to leave the kind of money behind. . . well, most players wouldn’t do it. Hardly any player would walk.
For Sanders to do so speaks to a different character trait, one unique to most people in general and athletes in particular. He had played just five years in the league and had three left on a $44-million contract.
It also illuminates a point that hardly ever gets made: that athletes, especially Black men, are many times far more than athletes, that they have aspirations beyond the game, that they are thinkers and, while athletically talented, are often filled with multiple gifts and interests. Rest assured that Sanders is not alone among pro athletes who feel trapped by the money and the game.
Often sports are a way to financially support Black families. But Sanders is just one example of a player taking the bold step and moving away from it at the height of his career to pursue those burning interests he believes need his attention now.
In December Sanders left the team to be treated in a hospital for a mood disorder, anxiety and depression. Clearly, he was not happy. Now he’s doing something about it.
He said in a video message on playerstribute.com that, essentially, basketball was not enough for him.
“I think this is seen to be a desirable, lucrative job or position. People say, ‘How could you be unhappy there? How could that be a place you don’t want to be?’ The values and the relationships of the people I love around me are my real riches. That’s my lasting wealth.”
Sanders told the Milwaukee Journal that he wanted to major in art in college, but playing basketball would not allow him to the time to give the discipline its proper attention.
He opens his statement about his decision saying: “I’m Larry Sanders. I’m a person. I’m a father. I’m an artist. I’m a writer. I’m a painter. I’m a musician. And sometimes I play basketball.”
Sanders also indicated the money was not all good.
“Coming into the league, you get dropped this large amount of money out of nowhere. People automatically change around you. That just happens. You become an ATM to some people. You have to be correct in your statements. You have to state things in a certain way. You give up your freedom of speech. You can’t really say how you feel. There’s no one really trying to teach you what you should do and what you shouldn’t do. You get lost, get your money stolen. You come from not having anything to money having to add up to possession.”
Sanders said success for him was not measured in how much he makes and that he has not dismissed the idea of returning to the NBA in the future.
“Everyone’s come up with their own theories about why I’ve been absent since leaving the Bucks. I knew people would speculate, but the crazy thing to me is that people are making it about the money. As a person who grew up with nothing, I know money is important. I’m incredibly grateful to have had the chance to play in the NBA. But at the same time, that’s not what fuels me. I’ve never chased money. It’s never been how I define success. Happiness isn’t behind a golden gate.
“Everyone has to make a living. I’m no different from the person whose 9-to-5 isn’t their dream job. It’s a scary thing to walk away from security but I’m more afraid of living with the ‘what if.’
“I love basketball, and if I get to a point where I feel I’m capable of playing basketball again, I will. I’ve had to make the difficult decision to follow my intuition, and allow myself the space and time to explore my true purpose in life.”
Good for him.