The only reason Larry Sanders was even in uniform was because he didn’t have a suit jacket.
He wasn’t supposed to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday. After the Cavs signed him on Monday, Sanders was slated for Canton on a D-League assignment with the Charge. In the meantime, he’d sit on the end of the bench against the Detroit Pistons to get an up-close look at his new team.
Then, LeBron James dropped a triple-double (16 points, 12 assists, 11 rebounds), Kyrie added 26 points, Cleveland went up 30, and Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue figured — since Sanders was sporting a No. 9 jersey in lieu of a sports coat — why not introduce him to the Quicken Loans Arena crowd?
But first Lue had to confirm Sanders could play, so he sent a ballboy over to Cavs general manager David Griffin, who signed off on playing the 28-year-old big man for the first time since Dec. 23, 2014.
“I wanted to start him, but Griff said I couldn’t,” joked Lue, via Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon. “So, yeah, he said two minutes. I had to get permission. I sent the ballboy up there to talk to Griff. Two minutes.”
Sure enough, Lue inserted Sanders for Channing Frye with 1:58 remaining in an eventual 128-96 win.
“I really just wanted to introduce him to the crowd and have him get in, give him a chance to have a standing ovation,” said Lue. “I thought it was good for him. When you go through what he’s went through, and you have a chance to get back in the NBA on a pretty good team, I thought it was cool.”
Sanders has been through quite a bit. He walked away from the game of basketball in 2014 and checked himself into a program for anxiety, depression and mood disorders after four violations of the NBA’s marijuana policy. More than two years later, he made his return, announcing, “I feel that I can simultaneously handle basketball and my personal life,” and Cleveland gave him his ovation.
The first thought that went through Sanders’ mind, per Cleveland.com, was, “I really want a block,” but his two minutes came and went with a miss on his only field goal attempt and a pair of personal fouls. It wasn’t about the stats for Sanders, though; the chance to get back to basketball was all he needed.
Upon signing in Cleveland, Sanders credited LeBron for “giving me this chance,” and it was James who addressed the entire team about their newest teammate’s comeback in a postgame speech.
“We’re here to protect him, we’re here to be part of his comeback, to be a part of something he’s been wanting to do for quite a while now,” said James, via Cleveland.com. “We’re happy he chose us and it’s up to us to make sure this is everything he wanted and more. We’re happy to have him.”
Added Sanders: “LeBron’s reiterated again that they’re behind me, they’re supportive. He thanked me for my decision. It was all love. It was a great moment.”
Sanders has been paid handsomely for his journey back to the NBA. Just 27 games into a four-year, $44 million extension with the Bucks, he negotiated a buyout that will net him nearly half the deal and has him on Milwaukee’s books annually for $1.9 million through 2022. Meanwhile, he will earn $207,722 from the Cavaliers this season, and Cleveland owns a $1.8 million team option on him for 2017-18.
But anxiety, depression and mood disorders aren’t cured by NBA paychecks, and it has to feel good for someone who’s battled those issues to be warmly welcomed back by coaches, players and fans alike.
The next morning, Sanders was assigned to Canton, where he practiced Wednesday and is scheduled to play for the Cavs’ D-League affiliate on Saturday. That’s the next step on his road back to a career that seemed so promising when he finished seventh in the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year race.
Sanders is scheduled to be on the end of Cleveland’s bench again on Thursday night, when the Cavaliers host the Utah Jazz, so maybe he should forget to bring a blazer and wear his uniform again. [/restrict]