PROVIDENCE — His primary outlet and source of pure enjoyment having been taken away, the question was then posed as to how Nyheem Sanders planned on incorporating competitive basketball back into his life.
It was a college career squarely on the bubble, and that’s where the story of this Pawtucket native begins.
No one wants to hear the message that Sanders was told in fall of 2011, when Bob Walsh, the men’s basketball head coach at Rhode Island College, informed Sanders that he didn’t figure into the Anchormen’s plans for the upcoming season.
Encountering adversity in a basketball setting had never darkened Sanders’ door prior to last year. After all, we’re talking about a player who shares the same gene pool as older brother Rakim Sanders, the former Boston College and Fairfield standout who nowadays plays professionally in Israel. The same Nyheem Sanders who parlayed a solid high school career at Barrington’s St. Andrew’s into a scholarship at Post (Conn.) University.
Basketball always came naturally to Nyheem Sanders. To have Walsh tell him that there would be no jump shots to hoist in 2011-12 rocked the youngster to the core.
“I told Nyheem that he was going to have to earn his uniform,” Walsh stated about the frank conversation he conducted with Sanders. “Essentially he didn’t do that.”
The time for feeling sorry didn’t last long, as Sanders was determined not to go out with a whimper. He equated the tough pill he received from Walsh to a stern wakeup call, a sort of reality check he needed at that stage in his life.
Saying that you want something and actually putting in the requisite work in order to achieve the desired results are two completely different beasts. Sanders understood that the long road back to college basketball would test his mettle in ways that he hoped would lead him back to what he yearned most.
He could have been just another gifted basketball player whose final two years of collegiate eligibility remained on the table. Instead, Sanders used the 12 months leading up to the tip-off of the 2012-13 campaign as a last chance to work his way into Walsh’s good graces.
Through concessions and understandings on his part – not to mention Walsh giving him a second chance – Sanders has now found himself part of a team setting once again. The six-foot, 195-pound swingman has started all 10 of RIC’s games to date and ranks second in scoring with a 10.7 points-per-game average. Stats, however, only begin to scratch the surface at what Sanders needed to do before sliding on an Anchormen jersey.
“A lot,” Sanders quickly responds when asked how much he missed basketball. “Being able to play this season was my goal. In order to reach that goal, I had to work on the things in order to be here.”
It’s last Friday afternoon and Sanders is sitting in a room inside Craig-Lee Hall, a building located a half-mile or so from the Murray Center, where the Anchormen play their home games. He’s shown an article which appeared in the Pawtucket Times on Nov. 21, 2005 entitled “Following big brother.” Accompanying the story is a picture of Nyheem standing alongside Rakim during a St. Andrew’s practice.
Looking it over, Nyheem Sanders’ eyes brightened as he breaks into a smile. At the time he was a gangly 5-foot-11 freshman with a whole world waiting to be tamed. He may have been Rakim’s younger brother, but in the eyes of those who saw and interacted with Nyheem, he was his own person.
“Any time you have an older brother who’s excelling ahead of you, it could be tricky,” cited St. Andrew’s head coach Mike Hart. “I think Nyheem wanted people to think of him the same way (as Rakim). At the same time, I knew Nyheem could go on to play in college and possibly play afterwards.”
Known as a defensive stalwart at St. Andrew’s, Nyheem Sanders graduated in 2009 after spending five years on the quaint Barrington campus (he enrolled there as an eighth grader). Next was Post University, a Division II school located in Waterbury, Conn. He lasted just one season with the Eagles before moving on to Southern Connecticut State University in New London.
The impetus behind Sanders transferring was Mike Donnelly, the head coach who recruited him to Post in the first place. Donnelly accepted the coaching post at Southern Connecticut in May 2010 with Sanders arriving on campus not soon after.
“That was a good move on Nyheem’s part,” noted Hart about Sanders opting to switch from one Nutmeg State-based school to another.
At Southern Connecticut, Sanders appeared in just seven games with no appearances coming after a 13-point outing against Southern New Hampshire on Dec. 11, 2010. All told, Sanders racked up 18 straight DNPs games to close out the Owls’ season.
“The whole vibe was good, but things just didn’t work out,” spoke Sanders about his tenure at his second school in as many years.
Sanders was on the move again, this time seeking a school closer to his Pawtucket address. On paper, Rhode Island College made the most sense. It would prove to take awhile before everything fit just right.
Bob Walsh goes back a long ways with former Pawtucket mayor James E. Doyle and his wife, Joan. In his earliest years as an assistant coach at Providence College, Walsh had lived in their son’s Pawtucket house with whom he was friendly.
The Doyles were instrumental in getting Rakim and Nyheem Sanders to St. Andrew’s. When PC recruited Rakim Sanders, it meant Walsh would be interacting with a familiar face in Joan Doyle.
Regarding Nyheem Sanders, Walsh has seen him play a couple of times, but nothing to the extent that the coach could offer a concrete scouting report.
Following Nyheem’s departure from Southern Connecticut in the spring of 2011, Joan Doyle phoned Walsh and asked to arrange a meeting that all three would sit in on.
“Mrs. Doyle basically said, ‘Look, we’re trying to help Nyheem get back on his feet,’” recalled Walsh. “We had several long conversations and I said to Nyheem that I’ve got to get to know more about you.”
The background check Walsh conducted on Sanders’ behalf included phoning Hart and his longtime assistant at St. Andrew’s, John O’Shea. Inquiries were also placed to basketball personnel in Connecticut as well as the folks Walsh knew in Pawtucket.
“I did a lot of research and basically said to Nyheem that he could come (to RIC), but I couldn’t promise anything,” Walsh said. “It wasn’t a matter of talent. It’s a matter of whether he was going to fit in, be accountable and handle everything that we ask of our guys.”
There was no issue regarding Sanders’ academic portfolio. He was going to Rhode Island College – albeit with basketball plans that were far from certain.
What concerned Walsh the most was what he told his returning players to be on the lookout for during fall workouts. During pickup games, there was uneasy vibe regarding Sanders and how he would respond if fouled hard. If the player had a difficult time keeping his emotions in check in an informal setting with his peers, what’s not to stop him from letting loose during games?
Sanders remained with the team up until tryouts. “I didn’t think it was going to be easy. I just thought I would be on the team.”
This time, talent could not guarantee Sanders a roster spot. Walsh made sure he was honest and straightforward on the day Sanders’ basketball universe was turned upside down. Upon exiting Walsh’s office, Sanders took a look in the mirror and realized that a self-checkup needed to happen and fast.
“It was bad, terrible,” reflected Sanders about the day basketball in the form he had always known had been removed from the picture. “Right when coach told me, I knew I had to work hard to be on the team this year.”
Without him knowing at the time, Walsh was offering Sanders a litmus test to see if he willing to take personal rejection and turn all of the free time he suddenly had at his disposal into a positive. Sanders remained in school and was a regular at RIC’s home games – yet another painful reminder as to what could have been.
As much as Sanders probably wanted to feel sorry for himself, he didn’t. He set out and accomplished several items on the to-do list Walsh mapped out, ones that made it possible for basketball to become a focal point once again.
“Definitely my last chance,” responded Nyheem as whether he felt the sands were slipping through the hourglass for playing college hoops again. “Knowing that, I had to put everything aside and stay on the right path.
“I had to check up on myself a lot and go about things a little differently,” Sanders delved further. “Usually I just act on things, but now I’ve got to think through things and actually be a lot more patient than I was in the past so I don’t make the same mistakes as before.”
Even though he wasn’t counting on Sanders from a hoops standpoint, Walsh wanted to help. He sought to connect Sanders with people would prove most helpful and get across to him.
In Dana Smith, a former hoopster at Shea High and current boys’ assistant coach at St. Raphael Academy, Walsh believed he found the guy who Sanders could approach and feel at ease around. In facilitating this arrangement between two Pawtucket native sons, Walsh conversed former Rhode Island attorney general and SRA alum Patrick Lynch, who in turn asked Smith if he wouldn’t mind sitting down with Sanders.
Understanding that Smith and Sanders came from similar upbringings, Walsh kept hounding Sanders to reach out. Smith and Sanders ended up meeting a handful of times last summer.
“We talked about where I came from and how it’s almost the same background from where Nyheem came from. I came from [the section in Pawtucket known as] Prospect Heights while he came from Galego Court,” summarized Smith. “I explained about the people who helped me in my life. We talked and he always thanked me. He still calls me on a weekly basis.”
Said Sanders about finding a sounding board in Smith: “He was a good dude to talk to, offering little words of advice here and there.”
A quiet sort, Nyheem Sanders also sought counsel from big brother Rakim along with several Anchormen players. Going through a trying time alone was something that wasn’t going to ease Sanders’ burden, but communicating with those he felt comfortable certainly helped lighten the load.
“All of them gave me encouraging words and said things that helped me,” said Sanders. “It was good to talk to them.”
Hart could sense things were starting to click for Sanders when the two ran into each other at Rakim’s Senior Day at Fairfield last Feb. 15. The 2011-12 season was drawing to a close, which meant it was time for the Nyheem Sanders’ redemption tour to kick into high gear.
“I got the sense that Nyheem was ready to play ball again,” Hart felt. “He was in a good place where he could handle college and basketball at the same time.”
Armed with a newfound persona, Sanders showed up a different person during this past fall’s preseason sessions. When Walsh would summon veterans Randy Casey, Tom DeCiantis and Tahrike Carter for a status report, all three players were in unison in how they saw a different level in maturity in Sanders.
The next step was for Sanders to buy into the team-first concept Walsh preaches, which went hand-in-hand in earning the trust of his RIC teammates.
“He had to realize that he was part of the program, not bigger than it,” said Walsh. “Nyheem is starting to earn trust. He’s a likeable kid, which makes it easy.”
This time around, Walsh believed that Sanders could serve as a major asset. His remade approach was genuine, hence why a spot was reserved for a player who was chomping at the bit to return to the court following a two-year hiatus.
“I had to show that I’m a leader, that’s one,” said Sanders about the circumstances surrounding the specific criteria he needed to fulfill. “Also trusting your teammates and giving it your all on every possession and not taking a single one off.”
Walsh isn’t about to say Sanders is a polished product, yet, if you listen to the mentor cite several examples of what went right during the 2012 portion of the schedule, then it’s hard not to feel that Sanders is poised to continue in taking another step forward in 2013.
Walsh brought up an intense instance during RIC’s first game of the season at Lasell College. Sanders and an opposing player were going after a loose ball when a collision ensued. The player in the Lasell jersey got right in Sanders’ face upon getting on his feet. Sanders responded by smiling and walking away from the fray. The Lasell player was saddled with a technical foul.
“He’s been good as far as effort and controlling himself,” proclaimed Walsh.
In Rhode Island College’s home opener on Nov. 17, Sanders was assigned to Brandeis guard Gabe Moton, formally of Boston College. Sanders rose to the occasion of checking a former Division I athlete by holding Moton to 2-of-8 shooting and seven turnovers.
“Nyheem loves a challenge,” Walsh said. “He undressed (Moton) quite honestly.”
There were times when Walsh was less than satisfied with Sanders’ output during practice to the point that he considered making a switch in the starting lineup. Despite some bouts of inconsistency, Sanders has continued to give every ounce he has defensively. Once final exams were through, Sanders began practicing at more a more consistent level, as Walsh counted several solid showings leading to last Wednesday’s intra-city game against Johnson & Wales.
Quietly efficient is perhaps the best way to sum up Sanders’ performance against the Wildcats. He netted a game-high 20 points on 7-of-15 shooting while collecting six rebounds and five steals in 33 flawless minutes. Sanders also held J&W leading scorer and fellow St. Andrew’s graduate Tommy Garrick Jr. to 12 points on 5-of-12 from the field – three points below his season average.
Speaking about his well-rounded execution, Sanders remarked, “Outings like that give me a lot of confidence. It also ensures that if I keep working hard, good things like this can happen all the time.”
Added Walsh, “He’s a playmaker who can make plays for himself and can make other people better, which is really valuable.”
The underlying lesson Sanders – a communications major – has learned? Take nothing for granted and understand that the rug can be pulled from underneath him at a moment’s notice. Call such awareness as the biggest takeaway from the season he spent on the sidelines.
“At any moment, something can happen,” said Sanders about his steadfast refusal to become content. “Everything feels good right now, but I’m not going to let it stop here. I’ve got to keep pushing until I finally finish.”
In short, he’s a come a long way in a year’s time.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03