Larry Sanders: The cultural superstar of Milwaukee

Boy, things are sure..looking up...for Sanders now, eh?? - USA TODAY Sports

Larry Sanders' popularity is ever-growing. Is he a premiere level NBA superstar? No, but he may be just as valuable.

When Larry Sanders penned his signature on his new four-year extension, the mood surely must have changed for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Gone (for now) was the propensity for short-sighted ‘’hey, how can we barely make the playoffs this year?" moves that not only kept Milwaukee on the perpetual treadmill of mediocrity, but also further chained them to it. In came a thinking that hitching the wagon to Sanders and a young supporting cast was now the necessary move towards building something greater than the half-baked end results of the Monta Ellis/Brandon Jennings era.

Yet while it was a good day for Milwaukee when Sanders signed, it doesn’t come without its reservations. There are concerns about whether Sanders can improve enough to be consistently useful on offense or become mature enough to not get kicked out of multiple games in a week if things went sour for a while. He would be the first to admit he's a work in progress, both on and off the court. In spite of all of this, spirits still remain high regarding the deal.

So why are spirits so high? Well maybe it’s because the Bucks have come across a rare commodity in today’s NBA, a little something we’ll call the "cultural superstar."

A cultural superstar? You mean a superstar? No. No, I do not mean that. Had I meant that, I would have called it that.

A look into the basketball thesaurus would reveal that a cultural superstar is most synonymous with the ‘’heart and soul’’ of a team, the engine, the glue that holds everything together. Though that is a fair comparison, the cultural superstar is more encompassing than just an above-average role player. While they share the traits of improving morale as the third or fourth options providing only one real identifiable elite skill, the cultural superstar differs in that they are the backbone to the identity of the ball club. They might not be relied on to hit the game winning shot, but when you think of "[insert team name] basketball, the identity you conjure up is a direct reflection of this player. Think along the lines of Ben Wallace/Chauncey Billups on the Detoit Pistons of old or Joakim Noah on the current Chicago Bulls.

These are players that are undeniably gifted and bring certain skills to the table. But on top of their talent, they also embody the identity of their teams' success. Outside of "leading by example" on the court in an effort to form a cohesive unit, the cultural star excels as both a locker room and community presence. They are eager to put themselves out there as a vanguard for the perception of the team. They do this not because they know it will reflect well to the public, but because they believe in what they’re supporting. Just as fans are to believe in the on-court product, the cultural star spearheads the movement to believe in what they are out there to represent.

It’s no secret how this fits in: the Bucks absolutely believe they have this in Larry Sanders. Bursting onto the scene only last season, Sanders has already acknowledged that he wants to embrace a broader leadership role and is starting to show it as well. He spent time with the team's summer league squad in Vegas in July, has worked out with John Henson in Milwaukee at various points during the summer, and offered pointers to rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo when he arrived for his first workouts in Milwaukee. Speaking at the Pieper-Hillside Boys & Girls Club in Milwaukee yesterday to announce his extension, he basically guaranteed that the team will be unified on the court, and that it starts with becoming a unit off the court. Via Andrew Gruman at Fox Sports Wisconsin:

"A big team goal for me is unity, just undeniable unity," Sanders said. "The brotherhood that has kind of been missing for a couple of years that is a key part of winning. Constantly being in each other's room, going out to eat, just spending time with each other away from basketball. I feel like knowing each other off the court directly relates to on the court.

"I have a lot of ideas, a lot of direction, but it starts with me. I have to be that guy. I embrace that responsibility and I'm excited about that. We will all get on the same page and we will all push forward as a team. It starts with me, and if I have to drag everyone along, that's what will have to happen. But I doubt that people will drag their feet."

Sanders is teeing off on any required bit of due diligence to be the rare cultural star of Milwaukee, and it’s invigorating to see him take hold of what had become an undeniably rocky situation. His run-in with Monta Ellis back in April suggests he hasn't figured out all the nuances of leading a locker room, but it's also tough to fault him for calling out the team's deteriorating situation last spring. And with Ellis and Brandon Jennings mercifully out of the picture, he's embracing the pressure to help guide the team in a new direction.

So, why is having a cultural superstar like Sanders so important when it’s already been made evident that you aren’t going to win a championship without some sort of superstar talent? Well for starters, coming across elite players is really, really, really, really hard. Secondly (and very important to markets like Milwaukee), you aren’t going to lure or retain supremely talented players if you have nothing built around them. That model has gotten close before, but has ultimately failed (think LeBron James in Cleveland, Dwight Howard in Orlando).

Having someone in Sanders who is focused on establishing a more unified locker room in Milwaukee will forever help the cause in future attempts to lure in a big time star, should one not emerge from the current crop of guys. And while it's easier to make promises in August than deliver on them in November, Sanders seems up for the challenge.

Teams stuck in the middle ground like Milwaukee aren’t going to be able to run if they are not first able to walk, and why walk if you have nowhere to go? The Bucks still are miles away from arriving at the road that leads them down the championship path, but at least Sanders gives them a direction for a change. And hell, if you're going to wander around in the NBA wilderness, it's much better to do so with a compass.

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