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Unbreakable bond: Prison time didn’t shatter Sanderses’ strong relationship

MOSCOW, Idaho – Victor Sanders has listened to other basketball players tell stories of growing up poverty-stricken or in the same house as a parent addicted to crack, and he knows his upbringing wasn’t as rough.

The Idaho point guard lived in a secure home. He was well taken care of and had a solid support system.

It just so happens that his father was in prison for 10 years.

LaWan Sanders entered the Oregon State Penitentiary after being convicted of assault and kidnapping when Victor was 7. He was released when his son was a junior and elite scorer at Jefferson High School in Portland.

Victor’s mother had left when he was a baby. So LaWan, 16 when his son was born, had raised him as a single parent. When LaWan started serving his sentence, Victor’s grandparents stepped in and became in effect his mom and dad.

“I never would count them as anything less,” Victor said.

Sanders tells his family story through tears and long pauses. He sits on the Kibbie Dome’s yellow bleachers, staring at the long, dark curtains that block off Cowan Spectrum and Idaho’s basketball court from the rest of the dome.

Not many people know of his dad’s imprisonment, he said. That’s OK with him, and not because he’s trying to hide anything.

The skinny 6-foot-5 junior with blond-tinged hair is enjoying the finest year of his college career, averaging 21.2 points and 3.2 assists per game for Idaho, which is fighting for a top-four finish in the Big Sky Conference.

And the best part? He’s doing it with his dad in the stands almost every night.

Sanders was fatherless for 10 years, sure. But no one played a bigger role in instilling in him a love for basketball than his dad – while in and out of prison.

“A lot of people don’t know the real Victor Sanders,” he said. “And that’s cool because I’m not a person to boast and brag about everything. You know, I’m just business, man. Handle your business. I’ve got a lot of fire and a lot of hunger for this.”

Support from stands

It’s early February, and Sanders had just rung up 31 points in the Vandals’ win over Sacramento State. Two nights before, against his hometown Portland State, he scored a career-high 40.

Both games at Cowan Spectrum were played with Sanders’ father – wearing gold sneakers and backward ballcap, his usual game attire – a few feet from the court in sideline seats.

The elder Sanders has attended all but three UI games this season, home and away. Maybe it’s nervous energy, maybe it’s his personality, but he’s almost always talking or moving or doing something that draws attention during his son’s games.

At the Sacramento State game, LaWan vaulted out of his seat to high-five and chest-bump different Vandals after big plays. He endlessly teased opposing players and questioned officials. He said a quick, quiet word to his son who was inbounding the ball inches away from him.

“It’s good to have support, you know,” Victor said after the game when asked about his father. “A good energy guy. Keeps me on my toes.”

What he didn’t say then was how much joy it brings him to have his father at his games after a decade of not playing in front of him. Or that his father’s intensity often bubbles up inside him on the court.

When LaWan was in the state penitentiary in Salem, Oregon, Victor would visit him every Saturday that he didn’t have a basketball game.

He would often come wearing his basketball uniform, ready to hang on every word his dad said about crossover dribbles and handling pressure and a million other things.

LaWan would see his son walk through the door and would almost have to look away.

“It would break me down, man,” he said. “It would crush me.”

Victor sobbed every time he had to leave. Dang, man. My dad is still there, he’d think to himself as he drove away from the penitentiary with his grandparents or a family friend.

But still …

“It’s not like I didn’t have him,” Victor said. “It’s just I didn’t have him all the time.”

Strong bond

They shared a father-son bond over basketball from Victor’s earliest days. By the time LaWan started his short-lived basketball career at Portland Community College, Victor was a fast-dribbling toddler who more than once interrupted games by letting his ball trickle onto the court.

“He was like, ‘Dad, get the ball,’” LaWan recalls.

Victor followed his dad to community parks and open gyms across Portland, at first being too small to play and then wowing older men with his skills.

After spending his first two years of high school at Madison High, he transferred to Jefferson, a perennial power that has produced NBA players Terrence Jones and Terrence Ross, not to mention former Idaho standouts Phil and Mac Hopson and Stephen Madison.

Sanders thrived with a score-first mentality his junior year on Pat Strickland’s young team. He averaged 27 points per game, but knew he needed to involve his teammates more as a senior to help Jefferson secure a state championship, one of the central reasons why he had transferred from Madison in the first place.

His scoring average dipped to 24 points his final year at Jefferson, and teammate Silas Melson, now at Gonzaga, took on a bigger role. But he didn’t mind getting less attention: Jefferson won the 5A state championship in 2013 and his coach and others could see that Victor had the talent to play in the Pac-12 or another major conference.

“We’ve had a lot of success at Jeff, a lot of great players come out of Jeff,” Strickland said. “And I would rank Victor in the top five.”

LaWan said USC was interested for a while, and Victor talked to Washington State shortly after Ernie Kent took the job. But he got more interest from Drake, Portland State and San Jose State (and Idaho) than elite schools.

There was one obvious reason: Victor’s grades were subpar. His biggest nemesis was the SAT, a test he estimates that he took at least 10 times.

Amid this academic uncertainty, Idaho coach Don Verlin and assistant Kirk Earlywine were a consistent presence in Sanders’ recruitment. He visited Moscow his senior year and liked what he saw. He especially liked that Verlin and Earlywine offered him guidance on what he needed to do with his coursework to become academically eligible.

On his Idaho visit, he took part in an open gym. A few plays into the pickup game, he went up for a layup and crashed to the court. When he tried to stand up, he knew he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

The Vandals still presented scholarship papers that weekend to Victor at a team dinner at Verlin’s house. But he was only beginning to process the extent of his injury and didn’t feel ready to sign.

Sanders instead went to prep school in the Los Angeles area to rehab and, with good fortune, stay in the crosshairs of college coaches. Although he never suited up for Future Prep in Carson, California, he gained the confidence he needed.

Three months into his recovery, he began practicing alone, unbeknownst to everyone. He soon started playing for an AAU team.

UTEP, coached by Tim Floyd, heard about Sanders and offered him a scholarship. Sanders was thrilled at the possibilities: Floyd, a former NBA coach, had pro connections. When he flew to El Paso for on-campus visit, he considered it a formality.

“My whole thing was to go see the campus, see the academics, get a feel for it, sign and get out of there,” Sanders said.

But he was put off by UTEP asking him to play a game of 4-on-4 that included his dad, his brother and three of UTEP’s team managers. Out of shape after a family reunion, Sanders struggled. UTEP’s coaches, in his words, told him that they didn’t see him in their playing rotation.

His response: “‘Fine, I’m out of here,’ he said. “Why would I even? … If you told me it was a tryout, I wouldn’t even play.”

Through all of this, Sanders kept talking to Verlin and Earlywine. He was struck by how genuine they were. And finally, after enrolling in a weekend SAT prep course, he improved his score by 100 points and earned the grades he needed in summer courses to qualify days before his first fall semester began.

Early struggles

Sanders struggled more than he would have imagined as a freshman with the Vandals. He played only 12 minutes per game and his highest scoring output was 10 points. Earlywine put tight restrictions on him in practice, limiting him to three dribbles before he had to pass or shoot and forcing him to run a 10-second sprint every time he tried a fade-away jumper.

It was the most humbling experience of his life.

“And I think that season fueled me for where I am now, from where I came,” Sanders said.

About six weeks into this year, after Perrion Callandret went down for the season with a knee injury, Sanders assumed full-time point guard duties after play two-guard or wing his whole career. Teammate and former roommate Pat Ingram said that Sanders is better suited with the ball in his hands, and his numbers (and the Vandals’ improved offense after a slow start) attest to that.

Sanders is adamant that he doesn’t care what position he plays.

“I said this last year: ‘If you all want me to be the water boy, I’ll be the water boy.’”

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