FAIRFIELD, Ct. – 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 you’ll find a compassionate young man, someone who possesses the necessary zeal and resolve which made sure he didn’t become symbolic of the Pawtucket housing project of his youth.
“I’m grateful for the bad and the good because I wouldn’t be who I am right now,” 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 he’s 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 Sanders’ mother prior to becoming a teenager, which was complicated by the fact his father was seldom around. Attending St. Andrew’s 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, “transfers always bother me.”
“You take it all in, but the smile is always going to be present,” Sanders states with a sincere grin.
After spending the 2010-11 season in basketball’s 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 –16 points on 6-of-9 shooting including 2-of-3 from 3-point range. There’s also the rust factor to take into account – 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. “At times it was tough watching when we would lose, wanting to be out there.”
Now that he is liberated, Sanders speaks with reverence about patiently waiting his turn to play. “I learned a lot. Looking back, it just may have been for the best.”
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 BC’s 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 Stags’ practice court in the Walsh Athletic Center, Sanders quickly debunks this so-called rumor. In his mind, it was time for a fresh start.
“That was all me,” said Sanders, once again smiling as if to suggest his exit from Boston College was unfairly painted something that it wasn’t. “I have no regrets about my time at BC.”
Said Ed Cooley, the new Providence head coach whose presence at Fairfield was instrumental in landing Sanders, “I think Rakim wanted a different environment. I don’t 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.
“A lot of people don’t know the real Rakim,” Cooley went on. “Rakim is a passionate, lovely individual. Obviously he’s gone through some difficult times in his life, but Rakim is not one to complain about his past. From my understanding, he’s more concerned about his present and his future.”
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.
“I met Rakim when he was a young man (at St. Andrew’s), 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,” said Cooley, recalling a time when he served on Skinner’s staff at BC. “When he was leaving Boston College we received permission to contact him and it was a done deal right on eye sight.”
In Cooley, Sanders had someone who he could trust and open up with.
“We got to know each other on a personal level,” says Sanders, mentioning that remains in contact with Cooley via text message. “He always talked about how he would grow up and how I grew up. He would say, ‘If you’re a strong person, you’re strong on the court and everywhere.’”
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 Sanders’ 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 “high basketball IQ.”
“What I mean is that he plays the game almost like a coach would in terms of how he’s trying to put all the pieces together. He’s consciously aware of the bigger picture on offense and defense,” Johnson says. “Something like that doesn’t happen overnight. Maybe he’s more mature and a little bit more sure of himself.”
Cooley wishes Sanders well this season – except tonight when he brings PC to Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena to face a Fairfield squad he was instrumental in building.
“It will be an emotional day when I go down there to face Rakim and my former team,” Cooley said. “I’m happy for him and hope he has an incredible run.”
Lurking beneath the smile is a hunger to thrive on the court. In order to become as Cooley states, “the best player in the MAAC,” 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.
There’s 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.
“Just run the floor hard on every single possession,” said Sanders when asked what’s the one piece of advice he’s 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 he’s now in a position to give back. In keeping true to the “follow my lead” mantra that goes with being a team captain, Sanders says, “To show one kid where I’m from (in Sanders’ hometown of Pawtucket) that you can do something positive and to touch people is something I’m looking to do.”
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.
“Be happy, happy, happy,” he says repeatedly, reaffirming what he believes is the key to handling whatever life throws at you because “that’s the bottom line.”