LAS VEGAS – New Orleans Pelicans summer league forward Sanjay Lumpkin was too young at the time to remember any moments from his father’s playing career as a defensive back for the New Orleans Saints. But as a 15-year-old on Feb. 7, 2010, Sanjay distinctly recalls how proud Sean Lumpkin was to see his old NFL team reach the pinnacle of the sport. Father and son watched as the Saints made history, defeating Indianapolis 31-17 for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title.
“My dad was really excited,” said a smiling Sanjay, who is now 23. “He was super excited and happy for New Orleans. He had his Saints T-shirt on.”
In a pure coincidence, like his father, Sanjay’s first opportunity as a professional athlete has come with a Crescent City team. The former two-sport athlete – he stopped playing football in eighth grade, opting to focus on basketball – is a hard-nosed, 6-foot-6, 220-pound reserve who’s averaged 9.0 minutes in two games for the summer Pelicans.
Although he ultimately chose to pursue a career in a different sport than his father (Sean was a strong safety for the Jim Mora-led Saints for five seasons, from 1992-96), Sanjay credits football for influencing his mindset on the hardwood.
“I’ve always been physical,” he said. “Even at a young age, I was never afraid of contact. Especially in college and even now, I play hard and physical. I’m not afraid to take a charge, dive for a loose ball. I’ve never shied away from contact in any sport I’ve played.”
After Sean retired from football in ’96, having played his entire NFL career for the Saints, the Lumpkin family moved back to Sean’s native Minnesota. Sanjay was only 3 years old at the time, so he has no recollections of living in Louisiana. When he arrived in New Orleans this month in advance of summer league practices, it was the first time he’d returned to the Pelican State.
“I’ve heard a lot about the food and the culture, and that it’s a different lifestyle, living in New Orleans,” he said. “But I don’t know much in-depth. I heard about the weather and obviously that the football games were huge and very popular. I wish I could remember my dad playing, but I was so young.”
Sanjay’s unique connections to pro sports continued after his parents divorced; his stepfather is Jim Petersen, a former NBA player and now a widely-respected TV analyst for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Petersen’s role gave Sanjay an up-close look at the league. On some road trips as a youngster, Sanjay even served as a Minnesota ballboy, getting to know many T-Wolves players, such as Kevin Garnett, Trenton Hassell, Mark Madsen and Chauncey Billups.
“It was an experience that not a lot of kids get,” a grateful Sanjay said. “I was able to go to shootarounds growing up and the players would always stop and say hi to me. I was able to be around NBA players, being able to see what they do to be successful. It was an awesome experience and I was really lucky.”
Ultimately, Sanjay credits both his father and stepfather for influencing him in a variety of positive ways. One of Sanjay’s biggest highlights as an athlete came this spring, when Northwestern made history of its own by appearing in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for the first time ever.
“My dad gave me the mindset of knowing that whatever you’re doing, someone else is doing that or even more,” Sanjay said of the work ethic it requires to be a top athlete. “Always be prepared, always be in shape, always be professional.
“The same thing for Jim. To have two mentors who played professionally, I was extremely fortunate to have them in my life. People who actually did it at the professional level and know exactly what it takes.”