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?
“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.”
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.
2. How was the journey for you once Mike was diagnosed with cancer?
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.
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.
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?
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.