For Converse, Sanders Sets Standard
A quick Google search for “Converse men’s basketball,” shows the first result as a sale for Converse basketball sneakers.
Do some extra digging and Converse men’s basketball pops. That is because Converse University, formerly Converse College, admitted male undergraduate students for the first time in the fall 2021 semester and men’s basketball is in its first season as a program (D2).
One of the results — listed just below a pair of $110 high tops — is the Converse roster, featuring Jimmie Sanders III. Last year, Sanders was one of two men on Converse’s campus as he prepared for one of the most interesting challenges of his life.
An Interesting Journey
The redshirt junior, did not start his basketball road in Spartanburg, S.C. He played high school ball in North Carolina at the Neuse Charter school, where he scored 1,500 points in three seasons for the Cougars.
With the support of his coaches after three successful seasons, Sanders decided to reclassify and transfer to Wayne Country Day, a private school 30 minutes southeast of his old school.
At Wayne, Sanders reached the 2,000-point threshold, competed against future NBA player Coby White and other Division I players, and started garnering recruitment attention.
“With my height and weight,” Sanders said, recalling discussions with recruiters, “people were interested but never took a chance on me.”
Adding to the challenge of being recruited to play college basketball as a 5-foot-6 guard, Sanders’ family moved to Dallas.
Sanders continued to ball at Oak Ridge School and finally found a school to continue his basketball career. Shawn Postiglione, the head men’s basketball coach at Bridgewater College at the time, flew to Dallas several times to recruit Sanders.
“He made me feel wanted,” Sanders remembered.
So Sanders made another move to D-III Bridgewater, just off I-81 south of Harrisonburg, Va. to begin his collegiate career.
In his first game, Sanders dropped 11 points against D-I James Madison, proving he could play at the highest level of college basketball. Sanders started 25 games for the Eagles, averaging 9.1 points per game and was second on the team with 72 assists, but he was not satisfied.
“I still felt like I could be at a higher level,” Sanders said. “I wanted to be surrounded by people who loved the sport just as much as I do and wanted to put the same amount of work in.”
He recognized there is a lot of talent at the D-III level, but Bridgewater was just not the right fit for him.
On the Move
Sanders put his name in the transfer portal after the 2018-19 season and connected with Ryan Saunders for the first time. Saunders, now the head coach at Converse, was an assistant for D-II Belmont Abbey at the time, but could not convince his head coach to take on Sanders because of his size.
Sanders ended up enrolling at Marion Military Institute, a junior college in Alabama. He averaged 13 points in 26 starts as he balanced basketball and military marches, rappel towers and shooting courses.
But just as he got into a groove and his recruitment picked up, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
That summer Sanders was scrolling through Twitter when he saw Ryan Saunders was named coach at Converse. He texted a mutual friend, Steve Rhodes, who put Sanders in touch with Saunders and momentum picked up.
Sanders then had virtual meeting with Saunders. They discussed ideas for starting a new program and how Sanders would fit in with it all. A few days later, Saunders called with the message he wanted to hear: The call to the higher level.
“We’re going to build this thing together,” Saunders said.
Sanders faced more challenges than just starting a new basketball team. He was going to be the new face for men on a previously all-women campus. He knew he had an important role to serve as the poster boy for men in a place where they may not be initially welcomed.
As Fall 2020 began, Sanders was one of two men on Converse’s campus for a men’s basketball program that still did not officially exist and were not scheduled to play until the 2021-22 season.
“Regardless of what is going on in the world,” Sanders said, “I wanted to make sure the campus knew they were going to have respectable men on campus.”
He knew that some people wanted to keep Converse the way it had been since the 1880s and only allow women to enroll.
“I want to change the culture in a good way without stepping on any toes and keep the history and heritage the campus had but make sure Converse is still growing as an institution,” Sanders said.
Overall, he wanted the community to know “when my guys come to campus [next year], you can come to me if there are problems, but there aren’t going to be any problems.”
Still, when November of 2020 rolled around and there were no basketball games to be played or practices to attend, he was thrown off.
“It was one of the most awkward years of my life because I have always had a direction with sports,” Sanders said.
He used the time to stay on top of his grades and work on his game, dedicating himself to being in the gym in order to get better on the court. He also improved himself off the court.
Sanders is the president of the Black Student Union at Converse, the presidential ambassador in the admission’s office, and the social media chair for Converse’s Student Athletic Advisory council and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion group. Sanders is comfortable in leadership positions, which is good because he still had a lot of work to do for the basketball team.
Sanders says Saunders does “way more of the heavy lifting,” but Sanders considers himself a bit of a player-coach. During the 2020-21 academic year, Sanders gave recruits tours, talked to their parents, and tried to make them all feel comfortable about being at Converse.
Once the 2021-22 school year rolled around, Sanders went from representing 50% of the male population at Converse to representing roughly .7%. During the fall season, Sanders saw the campus community warm to having men on campus. The turnout at men’s soccer games was great and the men returned the favor, supporting all the women’s programs.
Finally, in mid-October, Sanders had a return to normalcy. Converse men’s basketball held the first practices in the program’s history. Sanders quickly realized “we have a great group of guys that genuinely care about each other. I could give a shoutout to everyone on our team. I’m really proud of every single guy. I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t want to commit.”
After a relatively normal preseason, Sanders and the Valkyries suited up for one of the most memorable games and seasons of their lives. On Nov. 12, Converse hosted Mars Hill in the Tom and Tracy Hannah Gymnasium.
“I don’t think I have ever played in an atmosphere like that,” Sanders said. “It felt amazing.”
Sanders even compared the game to an NBA setting with enormous support from the community. The moment was extra special for Sanders who had not played in front of friends or family in two seasons.
The game finally tipped off and Converse redshirt sophomore Sigurd Lorange scored the first points in program history 42 seconds into the game. Sanders assisted on the play and ended the game with 19 points with six assists as the Valkyries beat the Lions, 93-82.
After the win, Sanders felt proud as a leader of the team, but was even happier for his teammates. He told the guys, “we’re going to remember that forever.”
Sanders also knew they had to mentally prepare for their next game in less than 24 hours. The next day, Sanders dropped 28 points, setting a career-best, as the Valkyries lost to Wingate by 16.
“That isn’t going to be our last loss,” Sanders told the team, “but we haven’t won for the last time either.”
Sanders was right, as the Valkyries have gone 3-4 since that historic opening weekend, including a dramatic OT road win over North Greenville University. Through six games, Sanders is averaging better than 16 points per game.
Sanders has already proven he is a leader on and off the court and that he can play at a high level. He spent his entire basketball career pushing himself and others, always wanting more out of himself and his surroundings.
Now he’s helped build a team and culture around him that emulates his goals.
Sanders and the Valkyries have a long season ahead of them with many more “firsts” to celebrate. Sanders is proud to be at the center of it.
But be certain, we can expect even more from Sanders down the road.
And that is just the way he wants it.
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