Elizabeth Sanders is an incredible woman, a former newspaper editor who inspired me and encouraged me and motivated me to become a better writer when I first set foot on the campus of Central Michigan University.
So it was no surprise, years later, when I heard she had married an incredible man – Grand Rapids native Mike Sanders.
They had quite a journey together.
Unfortunately, that journey took a difficult turn when Mike was diagnosed with cancer in 2014. After a courageous battle, he passed away in 2016.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Elizabeth, along with family and friends, decided Mike’s legacy had to be honored. Preserved. Remembered.
So they chose Wilcox Park, in Grand Rapids’ Eastown neighborhood.
Mike grew up playing basketball there, but the park’s court is in disrepair.
Not for long.
In partnership with the Eastown Community Association, the city of Grand Rapids, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Elizabeth set up a fundraising page on Patronicity with the goal of raising $12,500 by Nov. 10.
They raised it in three days.
Now that Mike Sanders Memorial Court is totally happening, I had to find out exactly how incredible Mike was. Elizabeth was more than happy to explain why.
1. Talk about what Mike was like on and off the basketball court. He seems like a guy people can’t stop talking about. Why was he so special?
I rarely played one-on-one with Mike because he was too highly skilled for me. We played a lot of HORSE and PIG just for fun and he taught me a lot about shooting and how to control the ball. I was not very good and at times during our marriage I was reluctant to play because I hated getting beat over and over, but he could always charm me into playing with him and we did have a lot of fun and silliness with our games. As for on the court – from the stories that our friends tell over and over again, he was highly competitive, did not like to lose, and was a good teammate and hard opponent. We have countless stories from friends that played with him and he had many friends that played with him since high school.
“Offense is where he shined. He had a high release on his shot… so that it was almost unblockable and he could shoot off the dribble,” said Owen Curry, a childhood friend. “… He straight up got buckets! He didn’t need the offense to run through him but he bailed many a team out. If your offense wasn’t going well you could give it to Mike… he could always get a shot off and he was pretty consistent.”
They remained friends, so that has to tell you something, but he was a tough player. He played ball several times a week depending on his schedule, from private leagues to pick-up games and lunchtime at the local YMCA. For a while when we lived in Wisconsin, he was a youth coach and that was one of the most fulfilling and happiest times of his life. That WAS who he was. He was a coach – on the court and off. He had a broad view, was very intelligent and had a lot of great vision for the people he loved. He was able to see goals and how to achieve them. It was difficult for him when people did not agree with his vision and that sometimes caused conflict.
He was big in personality and big in stature. He was a weight-lifter and an athlete, and people often thought he was taller or bigger than he was in real life, because he left that impression. He had a huge smile and big hands and would often shake hands with the opposite hand clasping your shoulder with a big grin. He inspired warmth and enthusiasm and made people believe they were capable of great things. He was great at mentoring and helping people to see their potential. He could also be infuriating because he loved to play devil’s advocate to make a point. He was well-read and could discuss and debate many subjects.
It is hard to encompass all that he was – like anyone else, he had many layers — but if I had to sum it up, I would say he was loyal, complex, enthusiastic and dedicated – he was the best kind of over-the-top, because he meant every word of his bold statements – even if he changed his mind – when he was in the moment he was dedicated to his truth and his belief. These things made him an incredible human being, husband and friend. He liked getting his own way, but he was generous and loving and always wanted the best for the people he loved and helped them get it if he could.
2. How was the journey for you once Mike was diagnosed with cancer?
I would love to say that I was always loving and giving and patient and the best caregiver a person could have – and I will say I was close, but the truth is that when someone is diagnosed with cancer, then terminal cancer, you are still a couple with the same highs and lows – they just mean so much more. You have your same strengths, you have your same faults. You have your same fights – but everything had a heightened significance.
My anxiety sky-rocketed and though I was able to continue to care for him — but it was sometimes a challenge. I did my best to do what he needed and provide the best life possible for him. I made my life about him, about his schedule and his needs – diet, medication, doctors, surgeries, treatments – but still sometimes it was difficult and my impatience could get the best of me. He handled what he could when he could, but his abilities ebbed and flowed with his health. There were several hospitalizations and times that I was responsible for much of our life and there were times when he worked and socialized and handled his illness himself. That part varied greatly, but we always supported one another.
At first, we planned to move out of state, to follow a promotion he had just earned. I sold my business and began driving him across four states every week or two to help him with his job. He continued working through his surgery that removed two of his quad muscles and his first of three rounds of chemo, he even finished his master’s degree while on chemo.
When we found out he was terminal but we did not know how long he had, he wanted stability for me so I started working again. When work was too overwhelming with my anxiety, I went on short-term disability and then FMLA to care for myself and then for him. He helped me handle my anxiety and I started seeing a counselor regularly. It was a very difficult time, but we made the best of it. We saw friends and family, we had times together. We worked out and walked our dog as much as possible. He stayed active as long as he possibly could, exceeding many people’s expectations. I followed his lead and tried to care for myself as well, continuing to run with friends and by myself for self-preservation.
He was an inspiration in the way he tried to take care of himself and I tried my best to do the same. We were a team and our goal was to take care of one-another. We did it the best we possibly could. Now that it has been more than a year since he died, I can see much more clearly the sacrifices we made for each other, and just how much we put each other first in so many ways.
It was a significant time in my life because we got to be each other’s whole world and every thing we did was for each other. I did all I could to keep him alive and as healthy and happy as possible, he did everything he could to shield me from his pain and prepare me for the time I would be without him.
It was a difficult but also beautiful and sacred time. We loved each other deeply and said all the things that needed to be said. We left few stones unturned in our lives and our relationship and we were extremely close and intertwined for the majority of the time that he was sick. Right before he was diagnosed, we renewed our vows for our 10th anniversary and it has been a source of pride to me that we stuck to those vows – for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.
We had always been close, but his illness made us closer, and I know for certain that we loved each other deeply and did our best to do the best for each other even in the worst times. Despite the pain his illness and loss caused, that is something I would never give up. This is one of the reasons this project is significant. I could not save his life, but I can ensure to the best of my abilities that he is remembered and that he is remembered in a big way – a way fitting to the things that he held dear – health, competition, community and the friends and family that loved him and made so many memories with him on that court and beyond.
3. Describe where this idea for the memorial came from. Were you nervous to even attempt it?
His friend Will Braaksma suggested it and he and his wife Michelle started doing research into it, but then had their son – William Michael, named for Mike — and I took over the project. I had wanted to find something to do in his honor, and this seemed perfect. A basketball court he had spent many years playing on in a park that was significant to us both. I worked with the City of Grand Rapids to connect with Patronicity and the Eastown Community Association (ECA) and it came together.
Though I had moments of doubt once the campaign started, I never had doubts while I was working up to it. Mike was an amazing person and a highly motivational person and I never doubted this was a project worthy of him and would be successful. The only doubts I had was when the campaign launched I was worried that it would fail or not take off and that I would have to face the painful idea that he was not as highly regarded as I had believed – but as you can see this was not accurate. It is a wonderful feeling to know that he was as loved as I believed and his legacy is still held in such high esteem, because I definitely believe he has had an impact on many and I am glad he will continue to impact people through this project.
4. Now that friends and family crushed it, what’s next? Other improvements to the park?
We had great support from our friends and family when he was alive, so this is not shocking to have great support in his memory, but I am surprised and thrilled that we may be able to do so much more!! The campaign will continue until November 10. Once we know the amount of surplus (right now it is about $1,600), I will work with the ECA and the City to expand the scope of the project. I am working with them now to consider our options so we can announce a clear goal. Some suggestions have been upgrading materials, installing lights and improving nearby restrooms. I hope to have more information in the next few weeks based on cost of various items and how the campaign progresses!
To donate to the project, click here.