North Carolina is the native and adopted home of many of basketball’s most legendary players: Michael Jordan, James Worthy, David Thompson, Grant Hill, Tim Duncan, the list goes on. Any such list of North Carolina basketball legends, however, ought to include Raleigh’s own James “Twiggy” Sanders.
Sanders has officially been named a “legend” by the winningest and most popular basketball team in the world, the Harlem Globetrotters. On March 23, 2007, the team honored Sanders in his hometown before a Globetrotters game at the RBC Center (now PNC Arena), naming him the 27th “Globetrotters Legend” in the more than 90-year-old organization’s history.
Nicknamed “Twiggy” for his rail-thin physique, Sanders spent 17 years with the Globetrotters, touring with the club from 1974 to 1991. Sanders was part of the classic era of Globetrotters basketball, when the club was featured in a Saturday morning cartoon and was a fixture on Saturday and Sunday afternoon network television. He played alongside the likes of Meadowlark Lemon, Billy Ray Hobley, and Greensboro’s Fred “Curly” Neal.
Before he brought his skills and his showmanship to the world, James Sanders was a kid from Raleigh. Sanders shot up to 6’8 early in his adolescence at Ligon Junior-Senior High School.
“Coach didn’t know my name,” the 69-year-old Sanders said. “He just called me the first thing that came to mind. Twiggy. The next day, it was all over the school.”
It took some time for his coordination to catch up with his height, but the always svelte forward emerged in the latter half of his high school career as the top player in Wake County. Sanders led a Ligon Little Blues team that lost just four total games during his junior and senior years. The 6’9 forward earned All-State honors and was named the Wake County Player of the Year for 1970. “Twiggy” brought his talents to Charlotte, where he became an out-of-the-box sensation at Johnson C. Smith University, which offered him and three of his Ligon teammates basketball scholarships. Sanders was one of the leading scorers and rebounders in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), a conference that consists primarily of HBCUs. In 1973 and 1974, Sanders earned All-CIAA honors.
“He was such an offensive talent,” his college teammate Steve Joyner said. “He did a lot with the ball and had amazing passing ability with the ball for a man his size.”
For the past quarter-century, Joyner has served as the head men’s basketball coach at Johnson C. Smith, where he has helped the Bulls maintain their reputation as a CIAA power. Joyner also remembers the profound role that Sanders played as a team leader for Johnson C. Smith.
“He was an outstanding leader who really embraced the team concept,” he said. “In the locker room, he wanted to do his part in elevating the team.”
Following Sanders’ graduation with a bachelor’s degree in physical education, NBA Scouts were hesitant to sign the long-and-lean forward, unconvinced that the 175-pounder could withstand the grind of an NBA season. As wrong as NBA Scouts were about him, scouts for the Harlem Globetrotters were right.
“I was 6’8, 175 pounds soaking wet,” Sanders said. “I didn’t have a great post-up game. I had learned how to handle the ball out on the wings. I could handle the ball, I could shoot from the perimeter. And I could run and never get tired. And that fit with the Globetrotters team really well.”
Sanders earned a tryout with the Globetrotters and won a spot on the team in 1974. He spent the next two decades proving his durability, playing hundreds of games each year around the world—far more work than any NBA player saw each season.
Quickly, Sanders turned himself into one of the premier attractions on the Globetrotters, combining his masterful skills as a shooter, dunker, passer, and ball-handler with his natural abilities as a contortionist and a showman. Sanders could palm a basketball with two fingers and snatch the ball out of mid-air with one-hand.
“I’d catch the ball, pretend like I’m going to pass it, snatch it, pull it back, and pass it to another guy,” Sanders said.
“He was a funny guy, one of the funniest showmen out there,” longtime Washington Generals player Bill Campion said. “He had basketball skills as well.”
A major college basketball star in his own right at Manhattan College, Campion remembers Sanders for his improvisational skills, namely his ability to come up with unique antics and feats night-in and night-out to keep the crowd entertained. Sanders frequently brought fans into his pranks, pulling people out of the audience to help the Globetrotters put one over on the Generals.
“His nickname, Twiggy, fit because he was very skinny and could do a lot with it,” Campion said. “He had one skit where he would be on the floor and put his legs behind his head and it was really funny. He was an all-around great showman.”
“I remember I had two young sons and the Globetrotters came to Charlotte,” Joyner said. “And Twiggy invited us and we had really great seats. He called my son Brian down and had him spinning the ball on his finger and gave him the ball. On the way home, I looked behind me in the mirror and there he was, spinning the ball on his finger.”
For Sanders, moments like that are the ones he remembers most fondly — when he could forge relationships with the fans.
“The connections that we made with people from around the world, the joy that we brought to people, no matter what was going in that region of the world. Time stood still and everybody took a break to see the Harlem Globetrotters,” Sanders said.
After visiting 100 countries and traveling to all corners of the earth, Sanders hung up his gym sneakers in 1991 and got into coaching. He served as an assistant at the college level with Raleigh’s Shaw University and Atlanta’s Morris Brown University. Sanders has also brought his knowledge and mentorship to the professional level, leading the revived American Basketball Association’s Maryland Nighthawks and coaching his hometown Raleigh Cougars of the United States Basketball League. Sanders also coached prep basketball at Raleigh’s Bonner Academy.
Like many of his fellow Globetrotters, Sanders, who still resides in the Raleigh area, has a strong commitment to community service. In addition to his mentorship of young basketball players, Sanders has held court at clinics around the country and around the world, both showing off his fancy ball-handling tricks and encouraging young people to pursue an education. He has been a longtime supporter of adult literacy and childhood nutrition programs as well as Special Olympics. Now retired as a player and a coach, Sanders has proven himself to be a legend both on and off the court.