FAIRFIELD, Ct. â Through all the ups and downs, the good times and the hardships, the smile still comes naturally.
The widespread grin of Rakim Sanders has come to embody his innocence and easygoing temperament. Scratch beneath the surface and youâll find a compassionate young man, someone who possesses the necessary zeal and resolve which made sure he didnât become symbolic of the Pawtucket housing project of his youth.
âIâm grateful for the bad and the good because I wouldnât be who I am right now,â affirms Sanders, now a 22-year-old fifth-year senior at Fairfield University, yet another in a string of reminders designed to demonstrate to everyone that heâs no longer some wide-eyed adolescent trying to make sense of the hand dealt to him.
This complex story that contains a lot of moving parts, namely the death of Sandersâ mother prior to becoming a teenager, which was complicated by the fact his father was seldom around. Attending St. Andrewâs School in Barrington, a quaint and tranquil place was the salvation he needed in order escape his troubled surroundings.
Before he realized what hit him, Sanders, the gifted basketball player, had piqued the interest of college coaches from around the country, finding himself caught in the crosshairs of a recruiting process that at times was part blessing and part curse.
There was also the decision to leave Boston College with one year of playing eligibility remaining, a move that raised more than a few eyebrows and prompted well-respected Boston Globe columnist and school alum Bob Ryan to quip, âtransfers always bother me.â
âYou take it all in, but the smile is always going to be present,â Sanders states with a sincere grin.
After spending the 2010-11 season in basketballâs version of the purgatory, his penance for transferring to Fairfield, Sanders is back on the court. Last Friday marked his first official game in a Stags uniform. His final totals in a 72-60 win against Quinnipiac offered a snapshot of what MAAC teams can expect this season â16 points on 6-of-9 shooting including 2-of-3 from 3-point range. Thereâs also the rust factor to take into account â Sanders turned the ball over four times in 25 minutes before fouling out.
Sitting out last year presented a host challenges, Sanders admits, the kind which stems from sitting helplessly on the bench as the action developed. âAt times it was tough watching when we would lose, wanting to be out there.â
Now that he is liberated, Sanders speaks with reverence about patiently waiting his turn to play. âI learned a lot. Looking back, it just may have been for the best.â
Translation: Sanders needed to take a step back in order to reassess his standing before taking a step forward.
Go back to April 2010 when Steve Donahue replaced the fired Al Skinner as BCâs head coach. Sanders was coming off his junior campaign that saw him suspended for two games and was bogged down by a high ankle sprain which robbed of him of his explosiveness and was a factor in falling out of shape. All of his major stats where down from his sophomore season, when Sanders played a key role in helping the Eagles reach the NCAA Tournament.
There were whispers that Sanders was kicked out of Boston College rather than his leaving under his own volition. Sitting in a room not too far from the Stagsâ practice court in the Walsh Athletic Center, Sanders quickly debunks this so-called rumor. In his mind, it was time for a fresh start.
âThat was all me,â said Sanders, once again smiling as if to suggest his exit from Boston College was unfairly painted something that it wasnât. âI have no regrets about my time at BC.â
Said Ed Cooley, the new Providence head coach whose presence at Fairfield was instrumental in landing Sanders, âI think Rakim wanted a different environment. I donât think he felt appreciated (at Boston College) and I think Fairfield has allowed him to do is find out who he is as a person.
âA lot of people donât know the real Rakim,â Cooley went on. âRakim is a passionate, lovely individual. Obviously heâs gone through some difficult times in his life, but Rakim is not one to complain about his past. From my understanding, heâs more concerned about his present and his future.â
Transferring to Providence College or URI were considerations, but in the end Sanders settled on Fairfield because of the magnetic presence of Cooley, the head coach in place at the time.
âI met Rakim when he was a young man (at St. Andrewâs), he from Rhode Island just like me. I started the recruiting process along with (former URI standout and Woonsocket High head coach) Preston Murphy, who at the time had a relationship with the family,â said Cooley, recalling a time when he served on Skinnerâs staff at BC. âWhen he was leaving Boston College we received permission to contact him and it was a done deal right on eye sight.â
In Cooley, Sanders had someone who he could trust and open up with.
âWe got to know each other on a personal level,â says Sanders, mentioning that remains in contact with Cooley via text message. âHe always talked about how he would grow up and how I grew up. He would say, âIf youâre a strong person, youâre strong on the court and everywhere.ââ
When Cooley accepted the job at Providence last March, there was concern how Sanders would react. He came to Fairfield to play for Cooley, not for some other coach. To Sandersâ credit, he quickly took to what new Stags head man Sydney Johnson was preaching. The feeling was mutual, as Johnson notes that Sanders possesses a âhigh basketball IQ.â
âWhat I mean is that he plays the game almost like a coach would in terms of how heâs trying to put all the pieces together. Heâs consciously aware of the bigger picture on offense and defense,â Johnson says. âSomething like that doesnât happen overnight. Maybe heâs more mature and a little bit more sure of himself.â
Cooley wishes Sanders well this season â except tonight when he brings PC to Bridgeportâs Webster Bank Arena to face a Fairfield squad he was instrumental in building.
âIt will be an emotional day when I go down there to face Rakim and my former team,â Cooley said. âIâm happy for him and hope he has an incredible run.â
Lurking beneath the smile is a hunger to thrive on the court. In order to become as Cooley states, âthe best player in the MAAC,â Sanders knows he has to put in the requisite work. That means showing up early to practice and hoist up as many jumpers as possible and return to the gym in the early evening for another roundball session.
Thereâs another side. As an appointed team captain, Sanders is aware that his actions, both on and away from the hardwood, are under surveillance by the less experienced players.
âJust run the floor hard on every single possession,â said Sanders when asked whatâs the one piece of advice heâs given to his Fairfield teammates who no doubt were familiar with his skill set prior to setting foot on campus.
The sage side of the soft-spoken Sanders came out when mentioning that heâs now in a position to give back. In keeping true to the âfollow my leadâ mantra that goes with being a team captain, Sanders says, âTo show one kid where Iâm from (in Sandersâ hometown of Pawtucket) that you can do something positive and to touch people is something Iâm looking to do.â
For Sanders, the journey has been anything but smooth. Here he is, however, a senior on a Fairfield team that could very well represent its conference at NCAA Tournament time. Helping the Stags reach their potential is his immediate concern as is graduating in May with a sociology degree, which Sanders stands just two classes away from fulfilling.
âBe happy, happy, happy,â he says repeatedly, reaffirming what he believes is the key to handling whatever life throws at you because âthatâs the bottom line.â