In sixth grade Casey Sanders enjoyed playing hide-and-seek, though his six-foot body was hard to hide. By the beginning of his eighth grade year, Casey was 6’8” and, though he wasn’t interested in basketball, everyone told him he’d be a star with his height. He finally began playing organized basketball in eighth grade but the team only played six games.
It wasn’t too long before he was convinced to play on an AAU team, Spirit of Tampa Bay. That’s where Tampa Prep coach Joe Fenlon saw him play a game. The kid was raw as a young stallion. When he got the ball, sometimes he’d glance around wildly, wondering what to do with it, but Fenlon saw a huge up side.
Sanders said that he attended Tampa Prep because it would give him a great education, but it also allowed him to blossom athletically. He grew to 6’11” and began developing some nice moves. He also became a fearsome shot blocker and rebounder. He covered a lot of ground fast for a big man, and would sometimes simply wear out the opposing center.
In July of 1997 he was invited to the Nike All-American camp, and in one particular seven minute scrimmage, he chased down an opponent’s fast break and blocked the layup, ran the court and dunked on an alley-oop pass, then made another towering block. At times he dominated games. By the fall of 1997 Sanders was named Mr. Florida Basketball and was a McDonald’s All American. Many major NCAA programs were hot on his heels, including Duke.
You have to understand. Casey was a quiet, private guy who was gentle by nature. He did not grow up thinking basketball—compared to most he started extremely late. He did not even like basketball for some time. While his teammates were watching college and NBA games to learn their plays and their moves, Casey was watching the Iron Chef and the History Channel. His parents encouraged him to play basketball, not because they liked sports, but because they saw that he was becoming good at it, and they wanted him to succeed in anything he did. His mother, a shy woman, attended all his high school games, but slipped out early when the games ended. His father was a bass guitarist for a band and played at night, so he never went to games.
Sanders eventually selected Duke out of the myriad offers. He happened to begin playing for the Blue Devils at a time when Duke was stacked with amazingly talented guys. During this period Duke won the ACC every year, finished first in the national polls three times, and claimed a national championship. If he had been able to play big minutes from the start, he undoubtedly would have sharpened his skills and moves immeasurably. As it was, though he played in 124 games at Duke he only started in 34, averaging 11 mpg.
As a sophomore, during a period when Carlos Boozer broke a foot, Sanders came up big, starting the final ten games and exhibiting flashes of brilliance. Sanders was a starter in the national championship game in which Duke defeated Arizona 82-72.
Boozer was back in 2002 and Sanders didn’t play as much, but as a senior, he started 21 times, averaging 4.6 points and 5.2 rebounds. During his college career he swatted the ball away from opposing shooters 120 times.
Possibly Sander’s most memorable game came at Georgia Tech during his final season. His mother hadn’t been able to attend any of his Duke games because of failing health, but his musician dad hadn’t either. However, because Georgia Tech was only 100 miles away, dad decided to attend. Casey was so pumped to play in front of kin, that he chalked up two early over-eager fouls and went to the bench. When he was reinserted into the game he was as fired up as any of his teammates had ever seen him. He stole the ball and heaved it cross-court to Dahntay Jones for a score. After a Williams steal Casey rebounded a Jones miss and posted up his man for a score.
Georgia stayed with the Blue Devils for a while but then Duke began to pull away. In the second half Casey had several dunks and a surprise 18-foot jumper. In spite of having to guard Tech’s powerful Bosh, he only picked up one foul in the second half. In the end he racked up 8 points in 17 minutes, hauled down 3 rebounds, had 1 assist, 1 block, and 1 steal. When the final buzzer sounded, Casey searched the crowd for another glimpse of his dad. That slow smile from the bass guitar player meant more than words to a son in his last season as a Blue Devil.