Sunk into a couch in the player’s lounge at the Cousins Center, a grey sweatsuit hanging off his lean frame, Larry Sanders smiled that smile, one that helped endear him to Milwaukee as much as any blocked shot into the fourth row or transition dunk.
It’s Christmastime, after all.
"Throughout time, as a boy to now, I’ve really searched for what Christmas really means," he said softly. "It’s a spirited time of the year, but it’s not because of what you receive."
That spirit was ingrained in him, sometimes painfully, at a young age. There were things he wanted, but that his mother, Marilyn Smith, couldn’t always get. But, lessons were learned, and the spirit of the season was more than apparent.
As a child, he would benefit from the generosity of others, who allowed him to have a nice Christmas through outreach programs, the Salvation Army and Goodwill, and he carries that gratitude with him today.
"We would always open a present, one present, the night before Christmas," he said. "Luckily … I would always try to find – I would peek – I would always try to find like the race car, because I knew it had to charge up…"
A giggle escaped between breaths.
"I knew if I opened the race car, I could charge it all night and then in the morning it’d be ready to go right away."
He tried to finish the thought, but he couldn’t hold back the laughter.
"My mom would look at me like, yeah, OK."
He caught his breath.
"It made our Christmases nice."
Sanders would also watch his father, Larry, Sr., cook for the people in the neighborhood.
"He’d cook for everybody," Sanders said with a laugh. "That was his way of giving back to the whole world."
Such memories not only remained vivid, but the meaning behind them deepened. Sanders came to understand giving – anything – from the heart, mattered far more than any "thing" that came back to him.
"As the years went by, I really understood the fulfillment was in giving – what I get to give for Christmas," he said. "I would always find something to give my mom, a girl I liked in school, a teacher, and that would make me the happiest. That’s kind of been my focal point for a really long time, is really how much can I give and not receive. Sometimes people – my mom, ‘what do you want?’ – get something for my kids and I’m happy. So, I really took on the role of really making sure to give something that fulfills love during Christmas."
Now, as a father and a professional athlete, Sanders can teach – and act on – those lessons in greater ways.
"I definitely can," he said. "The great thing about being in the position I’m in is that my presence around kids and certain people can be a gift, so I really try to put myself around people, give them my full attention, give them a part of myself. And, also, receive – you don’t know how much I get from them.
"I think the (Bucks) organization does a great job of putting us in the community and putting us around people because they also understand the power we have to positively affect people around us. That’s the biggest gift you can give, is that positive energy."
At home, his son Jasiah is taught to pick out gifts for others – his 1-year-old sister, his parents, for children in need.
"My son’s four now, so he’s of the age where he can really understand," Sanders said.
"I have to show him the power of it, of what we have. Not being able to give us a bunch of stuff, but it can make other people’s lives easier. That’s really what I want to start with him."
And, as a Florida native where Christmas would be spent in the sun and warmth – running around without shoes, he laughs – Sanders has begun to build more "traditional" Christmas traditions here Milwaukee, even if his work schedule sometimes conflicts with traditional holiday hours.
"As NBA players, you don’t look at ‘days,’" he said. "You can’t look at anything in the day form. You have to look at by hours. So, you know, I’ll be able to spend the morning, Christmas morning, with my family, wake up, open gifts, eat and then I have to fly out (for Atlanta). So, that’s how I see it. You just split it in half. You split your day in half. You don’t say one event constitutes your whole day. You can’t."
But, since Bucks haven’t played on Christmas Day since 1977, Christmas Eve has allowed for Sanders and his family to take drives through the city’s parks and neighborhoods to see the lights and decorations.
These seem like simple things – time together, time spent with others. Sanders knows he’s in a situation now where his children, his family, doesn’t have to want for anything at his time of year. His contract status can be Googled, his bank account can, to some degree, measured by anyone.
But Christmas isn’t about that now, because it never was.
"I don’t want to do that," he said. "That’s easy. I’d rather make something."
It’s why his favorite gift to his mom is an original painting he created. It’s why he’s devoted that time to paint others, for others.
"That goes so much further. It’s like, oh, man, you coulda bought me anything you wanted but you made me something?"
He smiled that smile.
"I really value those gifts."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.