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‘It gives me a fire’: Tragedy shaped Nakye Sanders’ life, but hasn’t broken Towson basketball player’s spirit

Nakye Sanders of Towson celebrates in the Tigers' victory over James Madison.
Nakye Sanders of Towson celebrates in the Tigers' victory over James Madison. (Cory Royster / HANDOUT)

Maureen Lundy said her middle son has always put her welfare before his own.

At 15, Towson redshirt senior center Nakye Sanders lost his father, Corey Sanders, to a motorcycle accident on Staten Island on June 8, 2015. Shortly after, older brother Nakeem took part in an altercation involving a gun at a park, was arrested, and sentenced to prison.

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Sanders’ best friend, Ramello Jordan Colon, was killed in a car crash June 7, 2019, after reportedly being involved in an apparent armed robbery in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. And Sanders’ paternal grandfather, Elton Lundy, died because of complications from cancer on Nov. 24, 2019, the same day that Sanders had four points, six rebounds and two assists in the Towson’s 76-64 victory over St. Joseph’s.

“He was more concerned with me,” Maureen Lundy, who has a third son, Donta, 17, said of Nakye’s mindset after his father’s death. “He was like, ‘Ma, are you all right?’ I said, ‘Of course,’ but I was just being strong for the boys. He was concerned for me, and I was concerned for him, and we kind of fed off of each other’s energy.”

Elton Lundy’s death was especially difficult for Sanders, who said his Florida-based grandfather had watched him play on television for the first time in the Tigers’ games against Xavier and Buffalo just days before he died.

“I knew it was getting a little more serious, but my mom didn’t tell me much because I’m in the season and she wanted me to stay focused,” Sanders said as his voice thickened with emotion and his eyes watered. “But she knows how much I care about my family, and I think about him all the time.”

Sanders’ smile and laugh tend to disguise the heavy heart he carries. After transferring to Towson from Duquesne after the 2016-17 season, he easily acquainted himself with his teammates.

“He’s a great guy on and off the court,” redshirt senior forward Dennis Tunstall said of Sanders. “He brings the energy. Everybody wants to follow him.”

James Madison Dukes guard Darius Banks (5) stands as Towson Tigers forward Nakye Sanders (20) pulls up to hit a short jumper during a CAA matchup in the Tigers' 69-61 win Sat., Jan. 18, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
James Madison Dukes guard Darius Banks (5) stands as Towson Tigers forward Nakye Sanders (20) pulls up to hit a short jumper during a CAA matchup in the Tigers' 69-61 win Sat., Jan. 18, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

This season, as the Tigers (10-9, 4-3 Colonial Athletic Association) try to extend their winning streak to five games at Elon (5-15, 1-6) on Thursday at 7 p.m., Sanders ranks third on the team in scoring at 9.2 points per game. He leads Towson in rebounding (6.8) and double doubles (two this season and five in his career) and ranks second in total steals (15) and fourth in total assists (29).

“He is a key cog for us,” said coach Pat Skerry, who offered similar praise after Sanders finished with 15 points and seven rebounds in Saturday’s 69-61 win against James Madison. “I’m not saying he would get a mixed cocktail, but he’s the straw that stirs all of that stuff. It’s not always normal to have that from a frontcourt guy because they don’t get the ball as much. But when his energy is high — and that’s not easy to do every day because you through stuff in life or you’re banged up — or he gets after guys, I think it just elevates us.”

Sanders grew up idolizing Amar’e Stoudemire and Kobe Bryant. But Skerry thinks he could be more like Antonio Gates.

Though Sanders has emerged as one of the top post players in the CAA, Skerry said the center’s 6-foot-8, 240-pound frame suggests he could be suited for scoring touchdowns instead of buckets.

“He could play somewhere next year in basketball, and he’ll have options,” Skerry said. “But I’m not sure that he can’t be a potential NFL guy. I don’t know much about the sport other than being a fan. But I look at the way he moves, his hands, his toughness, and I see that there have been some basketball guys that have done that like Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham.”

Sanders, 22, said his first sport was football, which he began playing in Staten Island, New York, at the age of 6. But after suffering an ankle injury and growing to 6 feet 3 at 13 years old, Sanders was recruited to play basketball. However, he said that returning to football isn’t a stretch.

“I definitely think about that,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t mind playing tight end. “There’s a lot of guys who transferred over to play football, and that seems like a fun position.”

For now though, Sanders is concentrating on adding to Towson’s early success on the hardwood. And he’s always thinking about his family.

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Sanders said his older brother, who is 25 and scheduled to be released in a couple years, assumed the role of a father figure after their father’s death.

“Growing up in New York, there’s a lot of ways to go wrong — left and right — and we both had a lot of built-up anger, a lot of stuff,” he said, adding that he and his brother talk on the phone daily. “I felt like we weren’t coping right at the time because of my father’s passing. He was lashing out in school and trying to find his way, but one thing he knew with me was sports and how good I was. So whenever he saw me outside, he would say, ‘Nah, go to the basketball court.’ And whenever trouble came my way, he never let me get involved. He would make sure that I kept my path straight and narrow.”

Towson Tigers forward Nakye Sanders maintains control as James Madison Dukes forward Zach Jacobs presses near the foul line during a CAA matchup in the Tigers' 69-61 win Sat., Jan. 18, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Towson Tigers forward Nakye Sanders maintains control as James Madison Dukes forward Zach Jacobs presses near the foul line during a CAA matchup in the Tigers' 69-61 win Sat., Jan. 18, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

After never missing one of her son’s high school games and only a few of his games at Towson last season, Maureen Lundy said she has not been to as many games this winter after her father’s death.

“It gets heavy, and I tell Nakye every day with his father passing and his brother’s situation and his grandfather, ‘You got up. This starts another day, and it gets easier each day. The pain will subside,’” she said.

Skerry credited Lundy with remaining determined to ensure her son — who has already earned his bachelor’s degree in communications — got a college education.

“Nakye’s the kind of guy that’s going to have a chance to be successful in life and that you really root for because he’s seen more than he should,” Skerry said. “It’s not always fair. There aren’t too many guys who have met him and coached him that don’t think the world of him. Nakye is one of these guys that 15 or 20 years from now, we’re going to say this kid fought through a lot of stuff, got his degree, has been successful. I get emotional thinking about it because he’s one of the better guys to be around.”

Sanders said that there are times when he wonders why he has had to absorb so many tragedies. But then he remembers an oft-repeated saying from his mother: “God gives the toughest battles to His toughest soldiers.”

“It’s made me more humble than ever,” he said of his upbringing. “It made me understand why I go out there because you never know if this is going to be your last time. It gives me a fire. When I’m out there, I’m in a different zone. I know I’m playing for more than just myself.”

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