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He may not be the household name of LeBron James or Steph Curry, but Melvin Sanders had the talent and work ethic to earn a spot among the world’s greatest basketball players in the NBA. Sanders made his biggest splash as a San Antonio Spur, but he also had a successful run playing basketball in Europe. Overall, the talented baller played a total of 11 years as a pro, and went up against some of the biggest stars in the league.
After retiring from the game, Sanders continued to stay active and engage in his passion for fitness, ultimately getting certified as a personal trainer (C.S.C.S.) and becoming the strength and conditioning coach for the Spurs’ summer league team. Today, he owns Sanders Fit Performance Center in Dallas, TX, where he uses his extensive athletic experience, strong motivational skills, and passion for fitness to train and mentor NBA, NFL, college, and European athletes year-round, as well as regular folks just looking to get in great shape.
We recently caught up with Sanders to get his take on playing pro ball, working out, and eating healthy to achieve an optimal level of fitness.
Muscle & Fitness: Tell us about your road to getting to the NBA.
MS: My road to the NBA definitely was not a walk in the park. There I was about to graduate from Oklahoma State, as the Big 12 All-Defensive Player of the Year, but I was still on a road of uncertainty. Undrafted, without any promising looks from the NBA, I earned a spot in training camp with the Houston Rockets and made it through a whole week before being released. From there I moved on to North Dakota to play in the CBA with current NBA coach Dave Joerger of the Sacramento Kings. Soon after my season in the CBA, I finished the year playing ball in Italy. Always with an eye on playing in the NBA, I played in the summer league with the Denver Nuggets and was invited to training camp where I was again released the final week of training camp. Giving up was never an option. The following year I traveled the same path with the CBA and finished up my year playing in Spain. Through hard work and determination, I finally landed a spot in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs the following year. All the sweat and grit had finally gotten me to the place I had spent so many years working to achieve.
Overall, what was your NBA experience like?
My NBA experience was a dream come true. Playing with the San Antonio Spurs was simply amazing. I played with and against a number of future Hall of Famers. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker, and Robert Horry to name a few. And of course playing for Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich, who, in my opinion, is the best coach ever, was an incredible experience. Learning from those guys taught me how to be a winner on and off the court. I enjoyed every second of it.
What’s the most challenging thing about being a pro basketball player?
I didn’t find much that I considered a challenge. It’s a surreal world in the NBA, and I knew it was an amazing experience that most basketball players never get to enjoy. The only true challenge I faced was the pressure to always win, but to me this was one of the best parts of playing sports. Pro athletes are treated very well by their fans and the world. To complain about any aspect of this world is simply ungrateful and honestly a waste of energy that is better spent focusing on how to push yourself to be better, and of course win.
What helped you to perform at such a high level?
The hunger to always be the best and never lose helped me preform at a high level. I never liked the feeling of losing or knowing that someone may be working harder than me. So I always pushed myself to be the best.
How important is strength training for a pro hoops player?
Strength training plays a vital role for all athletes. Being bigger, faster, and stronger through strength training gives athletes an edge over the competition. It also helps to minimize injuries and keep players off the sidelines. In addition, strength training is essential for enhancing skills and building confidence.
What are some of the best exercises to help your on-court performance?
Plyometrics and speed development are essential for optimal on-court performance. Exercises such as depth jumps, one-leg box jumps, high knees, high-knee skips, jump rope, 12-inch mini hurdle jumps, agility ladders, lateral shuffles, and sled pushes are all outstanding for improving athletic performance.
As for weightlifting, I prefer squats, lunges, cleans, trap bar deadlifts, high pulls, bench press, overhead presses, Bulgarian split squats, wide-grip pullups, and seated rows. Resistance training with kettlebells, medicine balls, bands, and chains are also important to improve on-court performance.
What role does diet play in your training?
Nutrition plays an intricate part in training. Being hydrated properly and fueled with the right food makes a big difference in how you perform in the weight room and on the court or field. Not being hydrated during the day and close to training is the main reason for lack of performance increases. Proper nutrition increases energy levels, helps aid in getting rest, decreases body fat, and increases athletic performance. Recovery nutrition is also very important as well because it helps to build and repair muscles.
Many guys who stop playing pro sports often gain a lot of weight. What advice would you give retiring athletes to say lean and fit?
Most guys when they stop playing pro sports don’t have the discipline or desire to stay in shape simply because they are burnt out. My advice for retired athletes would be to hire a trainer and workout with them at least 3-4 times a week. That way they have someone to hold them accountable. Athletes lived somewhat of a pampered life and always had someone there to make sure they were staying in shape, so it’s a shock once they retire and no one is there to make sure they are working out.
Since retiring what have you been up to?
I retired early at 32. I still had about five good playing years left. I was tired of being in Europe for 10 months a year, so I decided to get certified as a personal trainer and C.S.C.S. From there I started my own personal training business. Now I train between 15 and 20 clients a day from 4:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.. Within the next two months I will be opening my own 6,500-square-foot athletic performance center in downtown Dallas.
Who are some of the athletes you currently train, and what’s your approach when working with them?
Some pro athletes that I train: Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys, former NBA player Kenyon Martin, several European basketball pros, and Joshua Allen of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I also was a strength coach for the San Antonio Spurs’ summer league team last year. Prior to last summer, I worked with Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, and the rest of the Spurs team.