Sanders Walks Away from Game: Cool or Drool?

Dan Bisno and Henry Weissberg

Welcome to this week’s edition of “Cool or Drool?” We are your one-stop shop for biased opinions on off-the-field sports stories.

It’s been an eventful season for the Milwaukee Bucks. Losing the second overall draft pick, Jabari Parker, to a torn ACL devastated fans who had high hopes for the young prospect. Players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brandon Knight stepped up for the Bucks and put up great numbers before the All-Star break. Then, in a move that surprised almost everyone, the Bucks dealt away Knight in a three-way trade, in which they acquired Michael Carter- Williams from the Philadelphia 76ers and Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee from the Phoenix Suns. The move, while promising, adds elements of uncertainty and anxiety to a young and inexperienced team.

After all these bumps in the Bucks’ 2015 campaign, the NBA world was turned on its head on Feb. 25 when Larry Sanders announced his unexpected retirement from the league. In an eventful season, this news takes the cake. The emotional video posted by The Players’ Tribune shows Sanders discussing his struggles with streaks of depression and anxiety.

Much to the surprise of the NBA world, he said, “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.”

This is something that is easy for us fans to forget. We sit on our La-Z-Boys and enjoy the game we love, but lose sight of the fact that the performers we watch on TV every night are humans too. They are more than objects of perfection for our enjoyment — they are people.

Sanders said that he understands why some fans disagree with his decision to give up the game.

“People really like labels,” he said. “I think this is seen to be a desirable or lucrative position, so people say, ‘How could you be unhappy there?’”

Sanders described checking himself into a local mental health treatment program at Rogers Memorial Hospital to combat his depression.

“It taught me a lot about myself,” he said. “It taught me a lot about what is important, where I would want to devote my time and energy.”

While some fans were supportive of Sanders’ struggles, showing him sympathy and affection, others were harsh and hurtful in their feedback. The public frequently fails to understand the circumstances surrounding players’ personal lives and the demanding mental environment that the NBA fosters.

In a tweet addressed to the “haters,” Sanders said, “Please, spit your poison out. … Judge me instead of looking in the mirror.”

That metaphorical mirror acts as a sign that that the judgmental fan is failing to see their own biases and suggests that Sanders might be behind the mirror, staring back at the viewer. Sadly, of his 28,300 followers, only 41 retweeted. It seems more fans have gathered to ridicule Sanders than to aid him.

While Sanders’ recent mental health treatment resulted in his decision to leave the NBA, his mental health was not an afterthought for the Bucks. Nearly a year ago, the Bucks hired a team psychologist named Ramel Smith, whose job involves traveling with the team and observing atypical behavior. Smith helped Sanders tackle his issues by focusing on meditation.

Before leaving the league, Sanders was offered the opportunity to stay on the Bucks’ payroll without playing in games. He would go to practices, attend team meetings, and follow through with his regular drug testing and mental health treatment. Sanders decided to decline this generous offer, leaving behind the four-year, $44 million contract extension he signed last offseason. Many of us can’t imagine walking away from an eight-figure payday, but Sanders simply didn’t believe his mental health would improve if he didn’t leave the NBA behind.

Sanders’ story reminds us of the reality we love to romanticize. We prefer to see our heroes in front of the flashing lights, in the high-flying ads and as cold-blooded champions or respected failures. We become blind to their personal aspirations and problems. Watching Sanders reveal his struggles in front of the camera is hard for us. It is saddening, harmful, and worst of all, it never crossed our minds. As fans, it is our duty to support him as much as we can, although we yearn to see his face on the hardwood again. Sanders’ bravery and honesty teaches us a valuable lesson, and for that, he is 100 percent cool.