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WHEN THERE are no more ballhandlers to scare or layups to swat, Larry Sanders drives back to his 90-year-old Tudor mansion on Lake Michigan, with its white bricks and etched ceilings, stained-glass windows and wrought-iron railings. He grabs a black Copic sketch marker, flips open a fresh notepad and draws angels disguised as warriors. The pictures are intended to accompany the book Sanders is writing on his iPad, called Fallen, about a family of angels sent down from heaven to navigate pitfalls of the urban world: violence and alcohol, injury and poverty. It is a fantasy novel, but, if you look closer, it's also a memoir.
Sanders lives in a historic waterfront neighborhood that used to be populated by Milwaukee's beer barons and has made room for the NBA's most imposing defensive player, a 6'11" center with a 7'6" wingspan who covers the entire court in six strides and dunks so ferociously that backboards shake for a full 30 seconds. Sanders blocks nearly three shots per game, alters many more and deters countless others. "A lot of guys drive inside and don't even look at the basket anymore," the 24-year-old Sanders says. "They see me there and pass."
He often acts as if he's loitering down low, with one size-18 sneaker just outside the paint, baiting guards into thinking their path to the basket is clear. Only as they elevate does he unfurl one of his boa-constrictor arms and devour the ball in one of his 9¾-inch-long hands. During a bus ride on a recent road trip Bucks teammates Mike Dunleavy and Joel Przybilla tried to come up with another player who has Sanders's length, quickness and devotion to defense. "There's really nobody," the 7'1" Przybilla says. Przybilla compares him to a cat, and Dunleavy to a spider, except human emotion is the most potent part of his game. It's also the most destructive.
Sanders snagged 20 rebounds in December at Boston. He outplayed Lakers center Dwight Howard in Milwaukee last month. He became a breakout star at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, when two researchers presented a paper that analyzed spatial data to identify Sanders as the league's most effective rim protector. He has also picked up 14 technical fouls, been ejected a league-high five times and racked up $95,000 in fines last month alone. "I ain't the guy to tell anybody to calm down," says the Thunder's spirited center, Kendrick Perkins, after a game in which Sanders jostled with Kevin Durant. "But I have to tell Larry to calm down a little bit." Sanders scrawls Bible verses on his palms, which he reads after questionable calls, like smudged mantras. Teammates hold his hand to soothe him. Przybilla reminds him to take deep breaths. Rage either consumes him or feeds his next rejection.
On Jan. 15 at Staples Center, Kobe Bryant made a furious spin move to the baseline and saw nothing but hardwood between himself and the hoop. As Bryant rose for what appeared to be an uncontested dunk, something resembling a first baseman's mitt appeared over the top his head. In one predatory motion the wild-eyed Sanders's right hand pried the ball from Bryant's grip, pinned it against the glass and snatched it out of the air. "Hell of a block," Bryant told Sanders at the next stop in play. "I couldn't see you. Where did you come from?" Given his sudden emergence, Sanders is confronted with that question almost every night. He gave Kobe the short answer—"left elbow"—but there is a much longer one.
Sanders opens a manila folder on his living-room sofa and thumbs through a raft of loose pages. Before he began drawing angels, he copied comics from the newspaper, and he examines the subjects chosen by his eight-year-old self: Goofy, Garfield and a Japanese anime character called Dragon Ball Z. Sanders didn't play or watch sports, so he never drew athletes, except one. The first sketch in the folder is of Julius Erving.
LARRY SANDERS SR. was a 6'7" shot blocker at Gifford High in Vero Beach, Fla., who idolized Wilt Chamberlain and Dr. J. But Sanders Sr. spent more time picking fruit than playing ball. He worked in the orange groves after school, and in the summer he left home with his six brothers and six sisters to pick potatoes and cabbage across the Eastern Seaboard. He was a migrant worker from the day he turned eight to the day he was drafted into the Army at 20.
After completing his service, Sanders Sr. started a family 15 miles south of Vero Beach in Fort Pierce, where he became the most recognizable mailman in town because of his massive frame and baritone voice. "You the mailman's son?" neighbors yelled at little Larry, and he nodded proudly. He showed no interest in basketball, and his dad didn't push it. They watched The Larry Sanders Show on HBO, as if it had been created just for them. "We had beautiful times," Sanders Sr. says.
The ugly episodes came on weekend nights, when Larry was four and five years old, tucked into bed. "I remember flashes," he says. "Some of them won't ever go away. Some of them are really vivid, really terrifying. There were occasions I'd be sleeping and I'd hear my dad come home late. He'd been drinking and gambling, and he'd use my mom as an outlet if he lost. I'd hear a chair crack against the wall or a loud scream. He was so big. She was only 5'5"." (Sanders Sr. says he has never had a drinking problem.)
Larry's mother, Marilyn Smith, hid her pain. "I didn't tell him what happened," Marilyn says. "I don't believe in hate. I didn't tell him what Daddy did. I wanted him to love his father. But I had to get him out of there so he wouldn't see anything." Marilyn left home with her six-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, even though they had nowhere to go. "No one really took us in," Larry says. "We lived on the streets." They slept in a shelter for battered women, where Larry shared a bed with his mom and his sister, and they shared a room with another family. "I felt like my mom was my lady," he recalls, "and I had to take care of her." He rarely left her side. They were kicked out of the shelter for breaking curfew one night and moved in with Marilyn's mother, who, despite being bedridden with diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, already had 16 family members spread through her living room, garage and trailer. "We felt we had to duck from my dad," Larry says. "He couldn't know where we were, or we were afraid he'd come get us."