The Mystery of Greg Sanders
By Vinny Pezzimenti
Greg Sanders is a mystery.
Those closest to him during his years at St. Bonaventure don’t know Greg Sanders of today. They don’t even know how to contact him. No phone number. No email. No Facebook page.
Glenn Hagan, his good friend and classmate, hasn’t seen him since 1983. Jim Satalin, his coach, not since 1988. Nick Urzetta, Sanders’ freshman roommate, lost touch after college.
It is all possible that Jim Engelhardt, a former student manager with the basketball team and a floor mate of Sanders’, is the last person with ties to St. Bonaventure to encounter the former Bonnies star.
Engelhardt had tried to connect with Sanders for years until he spotted him outside Washington D.C.’s Verizon Center before a concert 15 years ago. Sanders, a professional photographer, was snapping pictures.
“I got his attention briefly, but he did not recognize me,” Engelhardt recalls. “Previously, he always lit up when I’d say, ‘Mr. G, the MVP of the NIT.’ He loved that moniker. Maybe because he gave it to himself.”
Engelhardt re-introduced himself to Sanders and mentioned St. Bonaventure.
“There was momentary recognition at best,” Engelhardt says. “He was really busy. I moved on.”
Sanders came to St. Bonaventure the same way he left. Quietly. If he is a mystery now, he certainly was then.
The Bonnies, for one, didn’t know who he was.
“I sent St. Bonaventure a brochure about my high school career just to make sure they knew I was alive,” Sanders told reporters after his NIT MVP performance against Houston in 1977.
Sanders played for John Thompson at St. Anthony’s in Washington, D.C. When Thompson left to coach Georgetown, he recruited many of his former prep stars. Sanders wasn’t one of them.
Mail adorning Sanders’ return address continued to find its way to St. Bonaventure’s basketball office.
Satalin and assistant Bill Kalbaugh decided to the give the kid a look at an all-star game following Sanders’ senior season. They liked his game enough to offer a scholarship.
“We took him and he ended up being the easiest recruit we’ve ever had that turned out to be a great player,” Satalin says.
Sanders settled on St. Bonaventure because he “wanted to be a big fish in a small pond.”
He certainly was that. The 6-foot-6 forward successfully launched jump shots from deep. He used his body to slither into the lane and his strength to score inside. He amassed 2,238 career points – most in school history.
“If Sanders had 3-pointers,” Hagan marvels, “he might have scored 4,000 points.”
Sanders went for 40 and hit a 25-foot jumper – two of the most famous points in school history – in the final minute for the go-ahead points in the NIT title game in ’77.
Before the next season, his photograph appeared in Sports Illustrated, which cited the St. Bonaventure senior as one of the nation’s most dangerous shooters. He led the Bonnies to the NCAA tournament that year.
Satalin says Sanders wasn’t a very good defensive player, and Hagan adds: “He couldn’t jump.” But, boy, could he score.
“I don’t think there was ever a better shooter in Bona history,” Urzetta says. “His scoring ability was uncanny. His numbers were staggering.”
Sanders supposedly thought long and hard about leaving St. Bonaventure for the NBA after his junior year and the NIT championship.
The Knicks, Hagan says, told Sanders they would make him their first pick. Other NBA teams also reportedly pursued Sanders intently.
“Guess why he came back to school?” Hagan says. “His stepfather said he would have more bargaining power if he broke (Bob) Lanier’s scoring record, which they knew he would.”
There was another incentive. Sanders’ stepfather promised him a tricked-out customized van to take with him back to campus for senior year.
“It had everything you could put in there, from a tape deck, running water, beds, stereo system,” Hagan says. “Everything you could want was in that van.”
The van held up. Sanders did not.
He injured his leg during a practice while the Bonnies were in Yugoslavia for a series of exhibition games in the fall. Sanders didn’t play at all during the trip and didn’t recover until the second half of the regular season, Satalin says.
It showed. Sanders averaged a career-best 22.1 points, but he only shot 49.1 percent – down from 58.5 the previous year.
“I think that probably hurt him in the pros,” Satalin says. “He was thinking about it after his junior year about going. He thought he’d be better off because he would have great senior year, which he would have. It didn’t quite work out that way.”
Sanders was selected in the eighth-round by the Knicks. He didn’t make the team and never played in the NBA.
Sanders was inducted into the St. Bonaventure athletics hall of fame 28 years ago. That was the last time Satalin saw him. It is likely that Sanders hasn’t returned to campus since.
No evidence exists to even suggest that Sanders has had any kind of real contact with anybody from St. Bonaventure – former teammates, coaches, athletics officials, administration – since that day.
Urzetta and Chris Allan, a former team manager and Sanders’ classmate, asked me if I knew how to reach Sanders. I asked others, including Satalin, who pointed me to Hagan, who had no idea.
I also asked: Joe Flanagan, Director of Alumni Services, Steve Mest, Associate Athletic Director for External Relations, and Matt Pappano, Director of Operations for the men’s basketball team.
I dug up a phone number for Sanders using the online alumni directory and an online phone book. I called several times. I left multiple messages.
Flanagan says the phone number he has for Sanders was disconnected in 2010. He doesn’t have an email address on file.
Pappano, who has been with the team for all but one season since 2003, says the basketball program hasn’t had any contact with Sanders in that time. Mest, an athletic department employee since 1998, says the same.
I even tried to reach out to Sanders’ daughter Gia with a Facebook message.
“He never came back and never spoke to anybody after he left,” Hagan says.
“I’ve reach out a couple times and never heard back, to be honest with you,” Satalin says.
“It’s a huge mystery,” Mest says.
The comment Sanders made after the NIT championship about sending Satalin brochures to make sure St. Bonaventure knew he was alive is fraught with irony today.
If Sanders is alive, no one knows for sure.
These days, Sanders may very well be a shell of the man he once was. No one has heard from him in years, but they heard he has had health problems.
“I believe he suffered a stroke many years ago, and it may have life-long effects,” Engelhardt says.
That may be why Sanders didn’t recognize Engelhardt that night outside the Verizon Center 15 years ago.
“Just my guess, but he wasn’t the same old Greg,” Engelhardt says.
Hagan, Satalin and Urzetta heard about Sanders’ condition, too. Hagan believes the stroke occurred in the early 2000s.
“His whole right side had gotten paralyzed,” Hagan says.
Urzetta “heard he fell on hard times.”
Sanders’ daughter Gia played basketball at the University of Albany in the mid-2000s. Her online player biography indicates that she is the daughter of Gregory Sanders and Lisa Bennett and has for siblings: Gregory, Brandon, Keniyah and Gino.
A Washington Post article from August 1997 about Sanders’ guardian, Melvin Roberts, revealed that Sanders had moved back to D.C. and built a brick home for his family. He owned a photography business and dabbled in real estate.
The article describes Sanders playing a game of H-O-R-S-E. He doesn’t miss. “I’m getting flashbacks,” he says while draining shot after shot.
In another Post article from 2004 about D.C. street photography, Sanders is lauded as the city’s best known cameraman of the 1980s. The piece makes no mention of Sanders’ basketball past, but refers to Sanders as “Mr. G” – his nickname on the D.C. club circuit.
As Satalin says: “He kind of did his own thing in D.C.”
Sanders, unfortunately, is known almost as much for his department store theft in March 1978 as for his winning shot and 40 points against Houston.
Sanders stole a pair of pants from a downtown Rochester store while the Bonnies were in town for the ECAC tournament. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct and was placed on a year’s probation. He appeared in court hours before the Bonnies beat VCU for the ECAC championship and automatic NCAA berth.
This is no mystery.
“I was with him,” Hagan says matter-of-factly. “He stole a pair of pants.”
Hagan says an alarm went off when the two teammates left the store. They were apprehended by a store associate.
“When he stole the pants, you know what he told the guy?” Hagan says. “He told him he was Dale Shackleford.”
Hagan laughs. “I don’t sugarcoat nothing.”
Shackleford was a similarly built 6-foot-6 forward for Syracuse at the time, and the Orange were also in Rochester for the ECAC tournament. The Bonnies beat Syracuse 70-69 on March 1, but Sanders couldn’t convince the store employee of his sudden alternate identity.
I asked Hagan if there were other incidents involving Sanders.
“Did you ever hear about anything else?” he says. “If you ask me about something I’ll tell you.”
I told him I heard about a time when Sanders (and teammates possibly) stole window drapes and towels from a hotel. When the coaches found out, the story goes, the team bus backtracked to the hotel to return the stolen goods.
“That’s just a hotel,” Hagan says. “Everybody does that. Everybody did that.”
The conversation about theft ends there.
Even though he hasn’t returned in years and all ties to his alma mater have disintegrated, Greg Sanders’ presence is still felt in the Reilly Center.
A plaque honoring him hangs in the hall of fame at the south end of the arena. A photo of him hoisting the NIT championship trophy sits in a case in a hallway. On game days, a team record book with a photo on the cover of Sanders and other former St. Bonaventure stars circulates across press row.
But something is missing. Sanders’ No. 53 doesn’t hang high above the playing floor with the rest of the legends of St. Bonaventure basketball.
This is a mystery.
It would seem Sanders belongs. He’s the all-time leading scorer, MVP of the program’s only national championship and centerpiece of the 1978 NCAA team.
Even two of Sanders’ former teammates – Essie Hollis and Earl Belcher – had their No. 25 raised to the rafters in 2008. Hollis was a senior on the NIT title team. Belcher was a freshman during Sanders’ senior year.
Sanders “outscored Essie,” Hagan says. “Why isn’t his number retired?”
While Hagan acknowledges that Belcher is one of St. Boaventure’s all-time scorers and the Atlantic 10 player of the year in 1981, he says: “they didn’t win shit.”
Interestingly – or coincidently – only one player, the long-since-forgotten Robert Smith in 1991-92, has worn No. 53 for the Bonnies since Sanders.
Does Sanders deserve a jersey retirement?
“I can’t see why not,” Hagan says.
That is a popular refrain among Sanders’ former teammates and coaches.
“He certainly would deserve consideration based on everything that he’s done,” Satalin says. “He was a major cog in how good that team was the three or four years he was there.”
Says Urzetta: “I would without hesitation think his number should be retired.”
Speculation runs rampant as to why Sanders’ jersey hasn’t been retired. Perhaps Engelhardt’s explanation is most reasonable and logical.
Engelhardt, a former sports information director at SBU and member of the athletics hall of fame committee, says: “I’m afraid if that Greg’s number were retired it would be near impossible to get him on site, which would seriously detract from the event in my opinion.”
Bob Sassone, a longtime assistant coach, says politics have hurt Sanders’ candidacy.
“There’s no one pushing him,” Sassone says. “He’s never come back.”
“Let me put it this way,” he adds. “He was accepted by his teammates for what he was, but he wasn’t one of the guys.”
I ask Hagan if Sanders fit in with his teammates.
“He fit in with me,” he says. “We came in together. We were good friends.”
Urzetta says he also was close with Sanders. They were roommates freshman year and “were good friends for that period of time.”
“He made me a much better player,” Urzetta says. “We would go to Butler Gym and play full court one-on-one for hours late at night. He had a great sense of humor. He worked very hard on his game.”
Urzetta adds that Sanders was “a good teammate, loyal to his friends. We had many great times. He came to stay at my house and my parents really took to him.”
Satalin remembers Sanders as “a good kid. I think he wanted to be a pro, but he did a good enough job in school that he was able to get his degree in four years. That’s kind of unheard of these days.”
The St. Bonaventure Athletics Facebook account often shares “This Day in History” posts. On Feb. 2 a photo of Sanders accompanied a post detailing the Bonnies upset of Providence College in 1978.
One of the comments includes a glowing remembrance of Sanders: “Greg Sanders was our student teacher in Mrs. Speroni’s class at North Hill Elementary. He was always so good to us. He took our class to a Bonnies’ game.”
Allan, the former team manager, says bluntly that Sanders has been “blackballed” by St. Bonaventure’s “old guard.”
“And,” he adds, “it has been carried through (Steve) Watson’s term.”
While Watson was athletic director, the numbers of Hollis, Belcher and Andrew Nicholson were retired.
Allan played golf with Mark Schmidt this past summer. He asked the coach why Sanders’ number hasn’t been retired. Schmidt said he and current AD Tim Kenney were of the understanding that Sanders didn’t graduate.
“I know for a fact he did,” Allan contends.
Satalin also confirmed that Sanders earned a degree from St. Bonaventure, and the school’s online alumni directory lists him as a class of 1978 graduate.
I ask Hagan again about the incident in Rochester. Does he think it is held against Sanders?
“What does that have to do with playing basketball?” Hagan asks rhetorically. “Your number gets retired for what you did on the court – not what you did off the court. That’s simple math.”
Mest says there is no athletic department policy in place – per se – that is followed for jersey retirements. In the past, the decision has been left up to the athletic director.
Kenney has plans to change that. Mest says the AD has designs on convening the athletics hall of fame committee to discuss and approve jersey retirements for all sports.
There are no plans yet, Mest says, to discuss Sanders or any other player with the committee.
Mest asserts that Sanders’ connection to the university – or lack thereof – would not preclude him from jersey retirement.
“We would reach out to him in good faith,” Mest says.
But would Sanders come back? That, of course, is a mystery.
There may be any number of reasons why Sanders chose to distance himself from St. Bonaventure.
Maybe he is disheartened by the memories of his senior year, and how coming back to school may have excluded him from a lucrative NBA career.
Maybe he is ashamed and embarrassed of the incident in Rochester.
Maybe, like Allan says, he feels blackballed by his alma mater.
Maybe he has been so burdened by the stroke to recall his days at St. Bonaventure.
Maybe he simply moved on to the next phase of his life.
“Maybe Jimmy Engelhardt is right in a sense,” Satalin says. “Maybe he wouldn’t come back or that he hasn’t been back in a long time.”
Before hanging up with Satalin, he tells me he is hopeful St. Bonaventure and Sanders reconnect. He says honoring Sanders – not necessarily a jersey retirement – would be a perfect occasion for a reunion.
Lo and behid, next season marks the 40th anniversary of his 40-point game in the NIT championship – and, perhaps, an ideal opportunity to solve the mystery of Greg Sanders.