Sanders Sr. still lives in Fort Pierce, in a house notable for its two kitchens, which come in handy when he is making his famous banana pudding for the neighbors. He is uncomfortable discussing some of his son's memories but does so in broad terms. "We've done a lot of talking, a lot of talking," Sanders Sr. says. "I'm a man, and I make mistakes, and I apologize for my mistakes. We all go through something, and I was going through a lot of stuff. You seek forgiveness and you move on.... You know, I've grown up too. I'm blessed to wake up again. I thank God for my family. I love my son, and I love his mother. I appreciate everything they've done."
Larry Jr. still keeps his mom close. She lives with him in Milwaukee, in the same house as his wife and two-year-old son. "He's still very protective, just like when he was little," Marilyn says. For Christmas, Sanders flew in 10 family members. His father did most of the cooking. He made his banana pudding. Everyone gathered around the tree in the front window and watched basketball. "Best Christmas I ever had," Sanders Sr. says. His son goes further. "Maybe the best moment I ever had," he says. "Yesterday is gone. You have to pray people learn from their mistakes. My dad has suffered in a lot of ways from what he's done. I couldn't leave him. I have my demons too, and you know what's interesting? He's given me some of the best advice in dealing with them."
LAST SEASON Sanders averaged 3.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, another anonymous project swaddled in sweats at the end of a bench. "You had to think twice before throwing him the ball," says Dunleavy. "He couldn't catch anything." Sanders did lead the league in one category—fouls per 48 minutes—and despite his limited playing time he found a way to draw seven technicals, once chasing Pacers forward Danny Granger around the court. The Bucks never started him. They couldn't afford the risk.
"I feel myself getting mad, and I displace it and say, 'I'm O.K., I'm not mad,' " Sanders explains. "But then something else happens, and it's just me and the referee in the gym, and no one can talk to me or hold me back. It's like I have tunnel vision. I look at it later and think, 'What's going on here? I'm arguing with the ref, but he's not the enemy. Sometimes he makes good calls, sometimes he makes bad calls, but he never overturns his calls. So what am I doing?' "
Sanders needed only six years to become a first-round pick and one summer to become a budding force. "It was an overnight transformation," says Milwaukee forward Luc Mbah a Moute. Sanders overhauled his offensive repertoire over the summer at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he focused on diving to the rim instead of popping to the elbow. Since moving into the starting lineup in December, he has averaged 9.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.9 blocks, inspiring the Bucks' p.r. department to send out wooden blocks promoting him for Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player. The Larry Sanders Show references never cease. "All I can do is apologize," says Garry Shandling, who cocreated the HBO comedy in 1992 and played the title character. "His name could have been Roseanne, and then it would have been worse."
The Larry Sanders Show, which won three Emmy Awards in its six-year run, was about a fictional late-night talk-show host. It was hilarious but also poignant, exploring the personal burdens that performers carry with them on stage. Shandling challenged his staff before every season to "uncover the truth of human emotion." Larry Sanders would have made a great guest. Shandling is well aware of Sanders, thanks to Bucks fans who mistakenly tweet him, "Really enjoyed watching you tonight. Good luck the rest of the season." Shandling is flattered. "Then I remember the show isn't on anymore," he says. Shandling does still host a pickup basketball game every Sunday at his house in Los Angeles, 20 years running, and three weeks ago a friend brought him a number 8 Sanders jersey. "There's a stark similarity in the way we play," says Shandling, who is 5'11" and estimates his vertical leap at three inches. "You can see why there's a lot of confusion."
Advanced stats are not available for Shandling's pickup games, but through Sunday the Bucks were giving up 98.6 points per 100 possessions with Sanders on the floor, which would have ranked third in the NBA, and 106.3 without him, which would have ranked 25th. "You just don't go down the middle on Milwaukee anymore," says Nets forward Reggie Evans. When Sanders is not smothering pick-and-rolls, he is running them for dunks. "He catches everything now," says Dunleavy. It's far easier, though, to change a style than a psyche.
Sanders has dramatically pared down his fouls per 48 minutes, from 9.9 to 5.8, but he also earned six technicals and three ejections over 10 days in March. During that stretch, which included his mocking double thumbs-up to referees in Washington, Sanders met with Milwaukee general manager John Hammond. Sanders braced for a scolding, but Hammond knows him too well. "I'm you," Hammond said. "We're the same. The only difference is I'm up in a suite and you're down on a court with thousands of people watching." Sanders thinks about those people, especially the kids, when he feels the anger welling up. Before games, while teammates fire up with hip-hop and heavy metal, he mellows out with gospel and classical. He reads the Bible and The Shack, a 2007 religious novel. "Emotion is like light," Sanders says. "You can't let it go out every window. You have to keep it contained." His Twitter name is Nappy Gilmore. "We have the same temper sometimes," he jokes.
From the Bulls' Joakim Noah to the Celtics' Kevin Garnett, the Grizzlies' Tony Allen to the Knicks' Tyson Chandler, the Nets' Evans to the Thunder's Perkins, the playoff picture is full of defensive specialists who body up to the brink of combustion. "It hurts to guard LeBron James and Kevin Durant," says Lakers' forward Metta World Peace. "It takes a certain type of personality to accept that pain. It takes somebody with emotion and intensity that is sometimes going to spill over." World Peace has spent a lifetime trying to curb his own fury, but if he were successful, he would probably no longer be employed. The volatility separates the breed. "If you want to contend for a championship," says Perkins, "you need that one person who is going to bring the edge." Usually, you don't need any more than one.
The Bucks are almost assured of the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, which means Sanders will be in a familiar position, the ultimate long shot, facing James and the Heat in the opening round. Crowds will be loud. Tensions will be high. Millions will be watching. Says Sanders, "This is what my dad told me that helped a lot: 'You become who you think you are. If you think you're some hothead, then you'll react like some hothead. But you don't have to be the man you were yesterday. You can be a new man today.' "