Body, mind, soul: Sanders has it all
By SCOTT PURKS
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 1998
AMPA -- The body.
So many people talk about Casey Sanders' body.
The body that came into the world at Tampa General Hospital on Oct. 23, 1979, at 7 pounds, 8 ounces and 22 inches long -- not far from the norm. Then he started growing like a beanstalk. All arms, legs and elbows, skinny and uncoordinated.
His body stood 6 feet in the sixth grade, the size of a man with a kid inside.
Tag and hide-and-seek, those were the games he liked to play, even though he made for an easy target.
He said he really didn't like his height, that he didn't want to grow any more. But he just kept growing: 6-4 by the seventh grade, 6-8 by the eighth, the first year he decided to play organized basketball.
He said he didn't play the game before then, except with his brother Corey at the playground, because "I was just never really interested in doing it. But kids kept telling me, "You're tall, you should play.' So I decided to try it."
He started out with the AAU's Spirit of Tampa Bay. Tampa Prep coach Joe Fenlon caught one game.
"What did I see?" Fenlon said. "I saw a 6-foot-8 kid who was really skinny and could flat run up and down the floor but who had no idea what to do. When the ball was thrown to him, he was like a baby deer. His eyes got real big, and his knees buckled. It wasn't impressive, but you could see the potential."
"I came because it's a good school, because my parents believed it would prepare me the best for college," Sanders said. "It turned out to be the perfect place for me. Every kid here has something going for him, and you have freedom here. But with that freedom comes more responsibility."
And basketball? Well, basketball, as fate would have it, would control his college future.
By the fall of 1997, Sanders had grown into a 6-11, 205-pound prospect everybody wanted. More than 80 schools sent him mail or called. Head coaches from Duke (with which he signed), Kentucky, Kansas, Syracuse, Florida, South Florida and many more made appearances at Tampa Prep.
All the national hoopla basically derived from the July 1997 Nike All-American Camp in Indianapolis. Maybe more accurately, it derived from one seven-minute scrimmage. "When he went up there, he was nervous," Fenlon said. "Me? I was scared to death. In just a few minutes at these camps, players can be made or broken. I was nervous for him, but I'll tell you what, in that second, seven-minute scrimmage, he really turned it up."
In one sequence, Sanders chased down an opponent's fastbreak and blocked a layup -- with his chest. He then ran the court and dunked on an alley-oop pass, followed that with another block, this time after leaping over a dribbling guard.
All of the sudden, at Fenlon's side was Southern California coach Henry Bibby, who said, "He can sign with us tomorrow if he likes."
What did Bibby see? He saw the body. How could he miss it?
But there is much more to Casey Sanders.
* * *
In many ways, Sanders remains a mystery.
There is his family, which is so private, Sanders protects them from interviews. And there is his religion, which he prefers not to discuss.
"My family," Sanders explained, "is more uncomfortable about (interviews) than I am."
This is some of what is known: Sanders' parents, Alice and Jesse Jackson, gave Casey the last name of "Sanders" to carry on his mother's maiden name; and Jesse, a jazz bass guitarist, never has seen Sanders play a game.
"My father simply wants basketball to be my thing," Sanders said. "He doesn't want to have any influence when it comes to basketball. He is totally supportive of it, but he just doesn't get involved, which is fine. I have never seen him play bass guitar, either, because that's his thing. It's really as simple as that."
Alice never has missed a home game. She walks in through the gym's back door and sits in the front-row seat near the door. As soon as the game ends, she leaves.
"But I never miss one," she said. "Never, ever."
And that's about all you get from Alice, who is shy and has Sanders' soft eyes and gentleness.
Sanders' friends and teammates, meantime, could talk forever about their tallest friend.
"I remember when we came into freshman orientation and he walked in," senior guard Brian Reaves said. "He sat in the corner by himself, real quiet. Then kids kept going up to him and asking how tall he was. He was so shy."
Guard Andrew Kouwe: "I remember when we would travel for road games and we'd stop for dinner, and Casey would just stay on the bus because he didn't want people coming up to him and asking how tall he was. We would have to bring his dinner back to him, and he would eat it on the bus."
"But," Sanders said, "that has changed. I'm totally comfortable with my height now. I know now that it has given me advantages."
When Sanders went to the St. Louis Shootout last week, for instance, he towered and took over, scoring 21 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking 9 shots. And though Tampa Prep lost 61-52 in its one-game appearance, Sanders was a show, getting interviewed by ESPN and signing hundreds of autographs, mostly for pre-teenage kids.
"I think I signed them all," he said the next day in Fenlon's office. "I sure tried to sign all of them."
This is nothing new, either.
"You should see him when the yearbooks come out," Kouwe said. "Everybody, and I mean everybody, gets him to sign theirs. And he does."
* * *
Now that Sanders has ascended his hill of hoopla, he has developed an attitude that might surprise. "I want to give something back," he said. "If it's at all possible, if I can become a success in any way, I want to give something back. I'm not sure what that is right now, but it will be something."
He talked near the patio at Tampa Prep, with the University of Tampa's minarets, the Hillsborough River, the city's skyline and the blue sky in the background. Friends were walking around. His coach, Fenlon, said hello as he passed. Sanders waved to teammate Winston Davis.
He paused and said, "The first thing I want to do is win the state championship. We've come so close (state semifinalist and finalist the past two years).
"This year is my last chance, and this year, right now, is as important as going on to (Duke). This is my chance to prove that my school is a large part of the reason I'm where I'm at, that my school can produce a good player. I have gotten so much support from my teammates and everybody. Everyone around wants to see me succeed, and I want to succeed for them.
"Does winning the state at Tampa Prep mean a lot to me? Yes, of course it does, it means a lot because I love this place."