For some reason, Larry Sanders’ name has recently been linked to Brewers’ outfielder Ryan Braun.
If such a comparison had occurred last spring, the reasoning would have been much different. Sanders was finishing up a breakout season in his third year in the NBA, and looked to be joining Braun as another face of Milwaukee sports.
Now, the nature of the comparison has changed drastically. Braun, of course, finally admitted last summer to using steroids after repeatedly denying his involvement and deceiving fans. Meanwhile, Sanders drew controversy after he hurt his thumb in a nightclub brawl and missed 25 games.
Upon returning, Sanders found himself at the heart of another fiasco last week when he and reserve guard Gary Neal got into a heated shouting match. As reporters entered the locker room following a road loss to Phoenix, Neal could be heard telling Sanders to earn his money.
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently ran a poll in its sports page that asked readers whether Braun or Sanders was the bigger public relations nightmare. By doing this, the Journal-Sentinel brought the comparison from Internet forums to mainstream journalism.
While Sanders certainly did himself no favors with his nightclub fight, linking him to Braun is unjustifiable. Braun committed the ultimate sports sin by using performance-enhancing drugs, and his behavior throughout the controversy was the worst part.
He infamously stood at a podium at spring training 2012 after being exonerated from a first positive test, demanding fans to stick by his side as he tried to restore his good reputation.
What fools we Brewers fans were.
In the case of Sanders, Milwaukee fell in love with him last season as he transitioned from former project to starter and team leader. He posted solid numbers of 9.8 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, and his 2.8 blocks per game were second in the league.
His defensive prowess made him, according to one study, the best interior defender in the league. Playing for the latest in a long line of mediocre Bucks teams, Sanders managed to finish seventh in voting for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, behind only a handful of more recognizable players on better teams.
With each of his emphatic blocks, fans chanted “Lar-ry! Lar-ry!” and displayed a true sense of gratitude for Sanders. Last April, Sanders was also the subject of a Sports Illustrated article. Local appreciation and national attention had not followed the same Bucks player since perhaps Ray Allen a decade earlier.
Milwaukee rejoiced when the young center signed a four-year, $44 million contract extension last August. For a franchise that has always had a difficult time attracting young talent, Sanders decided to call Milwaukee home.
Funny how quickly all the positives are forgotten. Sports fans are a fickle bunch, and suddenly those that had applauded Sanders’ contract extension are the same ones bemoaning it. They dig up the old negatives and demand Sanders be traded.
But the problem with this is that the old negatives associated with Sanders were precisely what endeared him to Milwaukee. Sanders had 14 technical fouls and five ejections last season. That used to be evidence for how he was a fiery, energetic player that the Bucks desperately needed. Now it’s used as evidence for how he will never learn to control himself.
The Neal altercation isn’t even a story. When you’re the league’s worst team, frustrations are going to boil over. They should boil over because no player should be content with such an awful season. Last season after a Game 3 loss to Miami, Sanders was involved in a similar situation with Monta Ellis. For that, Sanders was commended for being a locker room leader, but now he’s suddenly a toxic presence.
Finally, we’ll probably never know the details of how that nightclub fight started. While Sanders should not have put himself in that position, he has the right to fight back if the other party instigated it. It is also important to remember that Milwaukee police simply issued two citations and did not pursue criminal charges. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to use this incident to condemn his character.
Sanders is finally back in the lineup and playing consistent minutes. His production has dipped from last year, but he has only played in nine games so far. As he makes his way back from his thumb injury, he should be expected to make the same impact on the defensive end, as well as provide leadership to one of the youngest teams in the NBA.
If anyone insists on linking Larry Sanders to Ryan Braun, they shouldn’t be asking which one is the bigger nightmare. They should be asking which one is still a legitimate face of Milwaukee sports.
The answer to that question is clear.
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