Larry Sanders Walked Away From the NBA and $27 Million, and He’s Never Felt Better

We caught up with the former Milwaukee Buck on his life after professional basketball and how the league failed him.

Photography By Nathan Perkel

“Too many people are unhappy with life,” says Larry Sanders, the former Milwaukee Bucks center who, instead of commiserating with his old teammates about the recent end of their brief playoff run, is sitting in a Complex conference room overlooking midtown Manhattan. His hands are about a foot apart, palms facing each other. An audience that includes his wife, two publicists, a team of photographers, and me focuses on him. He looks at the space between his hands: “You pan out—I start talking and rambling—you pan out, you pan out and you look at life and, like, man, this timeline, these certain elements, how we lived for this certain time, and then, all of sudden—boom.”

There’s a story unfolding in Sanders’ head that he’s trying to put into words. “Automobiles,” “electricity,” a three-century era of technological progress that, for him, feels like too much, too soon: “We just exploded in time, and now we’re in this point where we’ve been living this way for, what, 300 years almost, not even that,” he says. “People have displaced emotions, anxieties; they need to create. That’s what we come from. We’d lived that way for 15 million years. Now, it’s this 300-year span, and everyone’s working, unfortunately.”

It’s funny to hear from someone who is just 26 years old and technically retired. On February 26, after playing just 27 games of the 2014–15 season, Sanders left the NBA. He had recently entered himself into the Rogers Memorial Hospital in Milwaukee to receive treatment for a mood disorder, anxiety, and depression—issues which, in the past, he has tied to his turbulent upbringing. Many congratulated Sanders for making the tough and unconventional decision to walk away, even at the steep financial cost attached to his choice. Others criticized him for the money left on the table—$27 million, to be exact—along with who knows how much in potential future contracts and endorsement deals. A handful of cynics readied us for the slow, post-spotlight decline, the stories of bankruptcy and drug-related arrests to come.

However, a few months after his exit from the Association, life is still far from over for Sanders. He appears calm and happy, speaking passionately, listening intently, looking closely. He’s traded his basketball goggles for a pair of gold Guess frames, and in place of his signature Converse shoes, he wears black and gold Jordan 1s, size 18. An olive green Supreme Fugazi hat hangs from one of the belt loops of his jeans.

On his right ring finger, he wears a silver and gold ring in the shape of a mask. On one side is the face of comedy—on the other, tragedy. It’s only one piece of jewelry among the many that Sanders is wearing, but it has a notable, albeit brief, history with him: The night before, he says, he entered into a long conversation with a city jeweler who, so inspired by Sanders’ journey of self-discovery, gave him the piece for free. “It’s, like, a $10,000 ring,” he says, but what its ownership implies is something more powerful than its market value: His story is one worth hearing.

It begins with meditation. Sanders was in the midst of his decision-making process to leave the NBA when he entered himself into a four-day course with an unidentified woman who played the role of his spiritual advisor. “She gave me words that only me and her shared, went through this ritual ceremony, and she just taught me about it,” he says. “It was really helpful.” So helpful, in fact, that it ended up inspiring the decision that stopped one side of his life and started another. “It was funny,” he recalls. “She was, like, ‘Y’know, a lot of people do this and the next day they want to quit their job, or they want to get a divorce.’ Because they say it’s like, y’know, opening up waterholes that haven’t been opened in 20 years. What’s going to come out first? Gunk, worms, crap, and then you get flowing water. You get fresh water. That’s how I felt it. I felt an explosion of emotion.”

When the dust settled, Sanders entered the Rogers Memorial Hospital, a choice he made “to protect myself from myself and, y’know, some other people.” He felt the need to get away from the distractions of the league, an environment characterized by its excesses and misguided self-medication: gambling, drinking, consumer therapy, and the like. Compounded with the everyday demands of a professional athlete—the physical exertion, the regular invasions of privacy, the endless media obligations—Sanders, who focuses on writing, painting, music, and other artistic pursuits in his spare time, felt that he was creatively drained.

“I couldn’t be around my family; I couldn’t be around anybody else. I was creating from a place of anxiety and fear, suffering."
—Larry sanders

“I couldn’t function outside of the gym and my studio,” he says. “I couldn’t be around my family; I couldn’t be around anybody else. I was creating from a place of anxiety and fear, suffering. I wasn’t creating from a place of joy or happiness or freedom. Everything I did was pure avoidance.”

Sanders’ decision hasn’t made him an outcast among his former colleagues. He keeps up with current players like Drew Gooden, Brandon Knight, DeAndre Jordan, and his former Bucks teammates. He’s even attended a few playoff games.

His visit to the Complex office happens to coincide with the first day of Milwaukee’s offseason. The previous night, after stealing two games in a row from the Chicago Bulls, the Bucks seemed poised to tie the series in Game 6 in front of their home crowd. Instead, they were unceremoniously dismissed from the playoffs, suffering a nearly record-breaking defeat in the process. Final score: 120-66. They weren’t able to score more than 20 points in a single quarter, and the Greek Freak, forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, earned an ejection before halftime for laying his shoulder into Mike Dunleavy, full-sprint, while the Bucks were down by 30—or 33 if you count the basket that Dunleavy made during the play.

Sanders watched some of the game, but he hasn’t talked to any of the Bucks about the loss. Not yet, anyway: “I’m going to give them time—let them go home, see their families. Nobody’s going to pick up their phone anyway.”

Despite taking the L, the Bucks are a young and promising franchise to watch in the seasons to come. Even without Sanders and injured star rookie forward Jabari Parker, the team still managed to make the playoffs under the guidance of head coach Jason Kidd. With the return of Paul George to the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee will be playing in a stacked division next season alongside the Pacers, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Chicago Bulls. Still, a failure to return to the playoffs would be surprising.

Regardless, Sanders is happy to be away from pro ball. He misses his teammates, the chance to see multiple cities in the span of a week, and occasionally the game itself, but the freedom to live his own life is more important.

“When I was playing basketball, you’d get put on that pedestal,” he says. “I saw it, and I rebelled against it so much. People thinking that you’re more than a human, that you have some sort of secret emotion or some power that—” he stops and laughs. “No, no, not at all.”

It’s an idolization that Sanders feels many players aren’t truly prepared for when they first enter the NBA. This is the crux of Sanders’ frustrations with the league. The stresses and responsibilities of stardom weigh heavy on the shoulders of young men who are barely out of—or are still in—their teens. He believes that the NBA could have better programs in place to help athletes struggling with issues of mental health. More important, he believes that the league’s approach is reactionary and, too often, punitive. He advocates for a more holistic approach to problems like drug use (for which he has received suspensions in the past), tactics to understand the how and the why of an offense, as opposed to the what. To him, the league is more interested in punishing a player than providing a solution. And when punishments are brought to light, they begin to morph how the player is perceived.

“I hated the way that they displayed me,” he says. “For 20 minutes a day, I’m now this angry man, getting all these technical fouls. No one knows my life from that point on, no one knows my day. Some people go through things, y’know? But that’s who you are, y’know? You’re just a basketball player, you’re just a performer.”

Image via USA Today / Jeff Hanisch
Image via USA Today / Jeff Hanisch

Sanders doesn’t sound bitter while he speaks, only matter-of-fact. His relationship with the media was often contentious, particularly during the 2013–14 season, a controversy-ridden year for Sanders. In December 2013, a video emerged which showed him in the middle of a full-scale brawl at the Apartment 720 nightclub in Milwaukee, throwing punches and slipping on the slickened floors like a baby giraffe on ice. No criminal charges were ever filed; he was let off with citations for disorderly conduct and assault and battery. But the incident, in conjunction with the four-year, $44 million contract extension that Sanders had signed in the previous offseason, quickly made him a target of criticism. In response, Sanders, in a since-deleted series of Instagram posts, wrote: “I blame no one for my mistakes...I take full responsibility for my actions, this is something I’ve dealt with my whole life...from being the black male being followed around the store to being the black male helped around the store..I’ve seen the American society from both ends...ppl are hypnotized by the media to feel and base certain judgment toward certain groups of ppl and they don’t even know it...born into a system put in place before our existence.”

He also added, “guess it's my turn, we ‘thugs’ aka black men in America built this country and now we are the primary source of entertainment..guess we’re still building..slavery never stopped, it just went from physical to mental.”

Deadspin clowned Sanders for the post, saying he went “full-on Nation of Islam.” Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale later called Sanders an “an irresponsible miscreant, unworthy of the money he’s being handed.”

The factory-like nature of professional sports is no longer a secret to anyone. The stories of broke and broken-down players are too many to name. A player is valued for their intelligence during the game—the ability to make rapid-fire decisions, or to react in the clutch. But a lesser premium is placed on their mental health outside of it. To that end, the dollars that players are paid are expected to take care of their anxieties. “We don’t do a very good job with mental health,” an NBA team executive told espn.com’s Kevin Arnovitz in a story about Sanders published in February. “We don’t have any answers, and we’re not doing a good job looking for them.”

“It’s a business,” Sanders says. “Damaged product. I’m taking a desk or chairs: If the chair has a rip in it, or the chair has a faulty wheel, then I don’t want that chair. Give me another chair. That’s ’cause there’s a million of them out there. That’s the business. I don’t have the time to repair this chair; I have the time to go out and buy 10 more, though.”

This reality, Sanders believes, is why he’s still close with many players who continue to work for the league.

“They understand what I did,” he says. “They understand. Because everyone knows that there’s a life after. There’s so much more.”

“They want to relax and not think about it. But they know, with each year, each injury.”

“I want to work to set up a system for guys, just so they can be happy with themselves after basketball,” Sanders says. “Because no one’s going to be there. You don’t get a call. You don’t get a text. You don’t get a ‘How you doing? How’s your family?’”

“I want to work to set up a system for guys, just so they can be happy with themselves after basketball. Because no one’s going to be there.”
—larry sanders

The NBA isn’t the only league coming up short, either. Consider the case of Dallas Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory, a former Nebraska star who was slated as a first-round selection during much of this year’s pre-Draft chatter. Gregory is fast and lengthy, if unpolished as a defensive end; he racked up 10.5 sacks and 17 tackles for a loss for the Cornhuskers last season. In March, nfl.com’s Bucky Brooks projected him as the No. 13 pick in the Draft. Then, it was learned that he had failed a drug test at the NFL Combine for his use of marijuana as a means to treat his anxiety. In an attempt to be as forthright as possible, Gregory had spoken to NFL teams about his drug use during his pre-Draft interviews. Still, in April, football analyst Charles Davies expected the Bengals to select Gregory with the 21st selection. By the end of the month, Gregory had either fallen to the bottom of the first round, or out of it altogether, a slide punctuated by a report from nfl.com’s Ian Rapoport and Albert Breer, which described the “concerns” teams had about Gregory’s ability to handle “pro football’s mental rigors.”

The failed test offered every team plausible deniability for their decision to pass on him, but there was something more troubling in the subtext of Rapoport and Breer’s report: As a result of his use of marijuana for its potential medicinal benefits, Gregory was being labeled as a problem, as someone who would take off at a moment’s notice—another Ricky Williams. He was being passed over for being too honest. When the news of the failed test initially broke in March, Gregory was committed to taking control of his own narrative, lest he be written off as another bust waiting to happen: a Todd Marinovich, a JaMarcus Russell, et. al. In a story written by Kimberly Jones on his test results, Gregory couldn't say enough about how he refuses to be defined by the incident:

  • “I don't wake up every day saying, I’d really love to go smoke,” he said. “It’s not a struggle for me every day (now), it really isn’t. In the past, hell yeah, it’s been a struggle. It really has been. Now, I’m focused on my dream."
  • “Obviously this is new news—that I failed the test at the combine—but the fact that I’ve smoked in the past isn’t a mystery,” Gregory said. “I’ve had conversations with (NFL) coaches. I believe we all have an understanding of why I did it. But I feel like I’m improving. I know I am.”
  • “I don't want my career to be defined by the fact that I had failed a drug test or anything of that sort,” Gregory said. “I want people to remember me as that top-10, top-five (draft pick) that had a 10-year career, a number of championships. I want to be known as that guy. I don’t want to be known as a bust or that guy who came in (to the league) with a drug habit.”
  • “I want people to understand I’m not some dumb jock pothead. I’m not,” he added. “I’m intelligent. I love the people who help me, I love my family, I love my support group. I love football. I love winning. And I don’t want to be labeled as some bust that couldn’t make it because he smoked. And I won’t be labeled as that.”

Regardless, Gregory fell to the second round—at pick No. 60, he was a steal. If the difference between two rounds sounds negligible, consider that Andrus Peat, the offensive tackle who was selected with the 13th pick, earned a four-year, $11 million deal with a $6 million signing bonus, per Spotrac. Gregory, on the other hand, will earn just $3.8 million total from his rookie deal. In the face of such a steep discount, to say that NFL teams regarded Gregory as damaged product isn’t unfair.

Back in midtown, after everyone has settled into their seats, one of the first things that Sanders says is this: “There’s a message here. I’m under the umbrella of awareness; I want to bring awareness to kids, I want to bring awareness to people, that there’s more to it. There’s more to life, there’s more to strive for. To be truly blessed is to bless someone. To give what you receive is the ultimate goal of life.”

Sanders, mind you, doesn’t subscribe to any religious denomination in particular. He carries a collection of texts which range in subject matter and spiritual belief: Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace (“This is a quantum physics book. When I say ‘pan out’—and look at 15 million to 300—that’s what I hear when I read stuff like this.”); Lao Tzu’s fundamental text Tao Te Ching; Skyguide: A Field Guide to the Heavens, originally published by Golden Books in 1982; and The Shift, by self-help author Wayne Dyer. Sanders’ philosophy is loose, open-ended, and exploratory. He believes in universal energy and the connectedness of all things. He’s a walking, talking book of proverbs and parables, Jaden Smith-esque.

As such, Sanders can be seen as an easy target for skeptics. There are times when you’re unsure about what exactly he’s doing these days. What does he want to talk to us about? He mentions a pair of goggles that he’s focused on designed: “They’re really dope, Mad Max-feel, skateboarding, all-purpose goggles.” He briefly describes a project that he has in the works: He wants to pair eight different artists to design eight different skateboards to be auctioned off to eight different charities. He loves to skate, a passion which takes us to Pier 62 Skatepark in Chelsea where, on a borrowed board, Sanders cruises around in the concrete bowls, the sun shining overhead.

"I can’t say who I am. I’m still figuring it out. I’m still coming to me.”
—Larry sanders

For the most part, though, Sanders is focused on himself, figuring out exactly who that is, and communicating the importance of this process for everyone. He knows that this freedom—to be something one day and another thing the next—is rare, but he has also emphasized in the past that his desire for it is hardly uncommon.

“I’m no different from the person whose 9-to-5 isn’t their dream job,” Sanders wrote in the Players’ Tribune in February. There is, of course, an obvious disparity between Sanders and the average working person: Per the buyout that he arranged with the Milwaukee Bucks, he’ll earn $1.9 million per year for the next seven years.

However, despite his clear financial advantages, he believes that happiness is within reach for those who are willing to take a risk for it: “If you make time for yourself and you’re led by your intuition, you’ll be taken care of. It’s a leap of faith,” says Sanders. “Life is here and gone. Not a dollar is going to add a day, or mend a relationship. [My money] can be seen as financial security, but like I said earlier, guys lost $150 million in a year.”

So, even if Sanders no longer inspires the kid who one day wants to play in the NBA, he can still provide an example for the working people in America who go to work every morning and ask themselves, “Why?” As you learn more about him, it’s evident that this question has been on his mind for years.

“I don’t get along with guys whose lives revolve totally around basketball,” Sanders told Sport Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins in 2013. “Someday that rubber ball will stop bouncing, and if you’ve built your whole identity around it, who will you be?”

When Sanders announced his retirement on the Players’ Tribune, he provided a sort of answer to this question. In a brief video, he described who he is, how he sees himself: “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.” Today, the refrain is familiar, but with a notable twist.

“I’m a father, that’s the first thing,” he says. “And I would like to think of myself as a vessel. I’m a man. I’m still a man.” He pauses. There’s a strong wind blowing off the water and onto Chelsea Piers. There are people walking by, enjoying one of the first warm days of spring, some of whom stare at Sanders, maybe because they know him from television, maybe because they just wonder why he’s being photographed. Earlier, in the lobby of the Time-Life Building, as we were passing through the turnstiles from the elevator bank, one man shouted his name. “Larry Sanders!” he said. Nothing else. Sanders was friendly and courteous to him; it was something that he had surely grown accustomed to. But, for a moment, I found it so fascinating. It was the most childlike thing to do, to simply say someone’s name, to recognize them like a baby recognizes a ball.

That’s just what Sanders is to some people: The man who once wore the uniform, the letters pressed onto the back. But to himself? It’s less certain, less clear. Maybe it always will be. And maybe that’s the way he prefers it.

“Y’know, the timeline of your life, playing it out, no one is ever anyone until they’re not here anymore,” he says. “So, y’know, I can’t say who I am. I’m still figuring it out. I’m still coming to me.”

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