Kenny Anderson: Eye Spy, 1995

[To watch Kenny Anderson ply the open court on the dribble, his darting eyes envisioning and editing emerging possibilities on the millisecond, is what the game is all about: creativity. At least for me. Unfortunately, that wasn’t everyone’s opinion. As a rookie with the New Jersey Nets (selected second overall in the 1991 NBA Draft behind Larry Johnson), Anderson ran head first into the into the mental brick wall called Bill Fitch, his coach in New Jersey and one of his louder critics. Fitch had lobbied his Nets bosses not to draft Anderson, whom he considered too undersized to prosper in the NBA. The bosses didn’t listen, and Fitch took it out on Anderson, casting aspirations and tarnishing his otherwise beautiful game, his defensive prowess excluded. Anderson spent the rest of his NBA years trying to remove the tarnish that never should have pocked his world-class skills. 

In this article, published in Street & Smith’s Pro Basketball, 1994-95 Yearbook, the fantastic Fran Blinebury features Anderson as a point guard on the NBA rise entering his fourth season with the struggling Nets. Here’s the story.]

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It’s all in the eyes. You look at Kenny Anderson, and you see them darting, searching, picking up everything that is unfolding on the basketball court. If you’re on the court with him and you blink, you’re likely to catch one of his thread-and-needle passes on the side of your head. To those eyes, no cracks in the defense are too small for him to wriggle through on his way to the hoop. No collection of arms and legs can block his path when he is trying to find a teammate with a pass that will set up an open shot. 

Three years into his NBA career, Anderson’s eyes have seen some troubled times. But now, they are the eyes that the long-suffering New Jersey Nets believe can someday lead them to success in the NBA playoffs.

Last season, Anderson finished as the league’s highest-scoring point guard at 18.8 points per game and also dished out an average of 9.6 assists. There were nights when he was simply awesome. With teammate Derrick Coleman out of the lineup with the flu, Anderson poured in 42 points to defeat the Washington Bullets. With Coleman shackled to the bench by a bad ankle, Anderson sizzled with a career-high 45 points, including a dozen in overtime, to beat the Detroit Pistons. 

It would seem unlikely that a player of his small stature (6-foot-1) could have such a big effect on the outcome of the game. But it is the grand vision that tends to make him larger than life. “As Kenny’s career goes on, he has a chance to become one of the great passers the game has ever seen,” said Hall of Famer and former Nets coach Chuck Daly. “He knows all the angles.”

Anderson can beat you with the jump shot, and he can beat you with his laser passes. But mostly he beats you with his dribble, which is the first skill that he learned on the streets of New York and enabled him to lead Archbishop Molloy High School to a city championship as a skinny ninth-grader. He can dribble through the forest of tall trees that clog the middle of NBA defenses, and he always stays low to the ground, making it difficult to strip the ball away.

“He reminds me of Tiny Archibald,” said Nets veteran Rick Mahorn. “He’s left-handed, he wears that little No. 7 on his back and uses people on the pick-and-roll. To me, he just looks like the second coming of Tiny.”

That is high-and-gratifying praise for a player who had a rough rookie season trying to fit into the league and then missed 55 games in his second year in the NBA due to a broken left wrist. There were times in those years when he felt removed from his teammates, when he felt like he didn’t belong, when he even wished that he could be traded in order to get a fresh start.

The worst time was that first pro season when then-coach Bill Fitch simply refused to play Anderson because he was a rookie. Fitch never wanted the Nets to draft him in the first place, preferring Billy Owens of Syracuse, and he didn’t think Anderson was physically ready for the grind of the NBA.

“I didn’t like how he treated me,” Anderson said of Fitch. “He didn’t treat me with respect. Not like a man. After all that happened in my rookie year, I became very nervous. I wasn’t sure how it was all going to turn out.”

But on the whole, this kid with the can’t-miss label coming out of high school, who dazzled the scouts in college at Georgia Tech, has been able to survive the experience without too many emotional scars. “This is the happiest time of my life,” he said.

Anderson has delivered. Before retiring, Daly, who won a couple of championships with a pair of guards named Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, said,”Kenny is a significant player. He can be as good as or better than anybody.”

“He’s one of the great young players in our league,” said Indiana coach Larry Brown, a former New York point guard himself. “He makes the other players better. That is the way I judge talent in our league. There are a lot of guys who are terrific players, but the best ones are those who make other people better. He does that with his presence on the court.”

He does that by cutting and weaving through traffic with the innate sense of a mine-sniffing dog. Anderson always seems to know exactly where he is going. His passes not only have flair, but a sense of purpose. When a defense does manage to clamp down on a play, he has the ability to improvise and do something that will leave proponents and spectators shaking their heads and wondering how he pulled it off. 

There are times, Anderson admits, when even he isn’t sure how he does it. “It’s like something that’s just supposed to happen,” he said. “It’s just things that I’ve practiced and things that I’ve dreamed about. No matter what the situation is, it seems like I can always see a way out.”

With Kenny Anderson, the eyes have it. 

[The eyes had it. Anderson finished the 1994-95 season with mostly positive numbers per game: 17.6 points, though shooting only 40 percent from the field (33 percent from three-point land); 9.4 assists; 3.1 turnovers. The consensus was Anderson would be the Nets’ playmaker for the foreseeable future.

Not so fast. Anderson suddenly couldn’t imagine himself remaining indefinitely in East Rutherford. His surgically repaired broken left wrist ached. Badly. He complained publicly about the cast of characters in the Nets organization. He complained about all of the distractions, the chaos, in Nets-land. Anderson admitted that he was just in a rut and feeling depressed about it all, which helped to explain why his shooting percentage continued to dip, now below 40 percent.

Well, if money healed all complaints and forms of mental exhaustion, that wasn’t the case here. Anderson’s initial five-year NBA contract needed to be reupped, and the Nets offered him a healthy six-year, $42 million deal to remain one of its marquee talents. Anderson declined the generosity. “I don’t have nothing to prove,” he said. “I know what I can do on this level. People know, too.” 

His playing hard-to-get furrowed brows in East Rutherford and reopened the eye-of-the-beholder assessments of Anderson’s game and whether it really translated into wins. The naysayers insisted that he was expendable, and Anderson’s growing apathy—and the Nets’ losing record—gave that assessment a life of its own. Mike Vaccaro, of the Middletown (NY) Times Herald captured the moment well in this story from January 5, 1996.]

Anderson sidelined a few years earlier with a broken wrist

Perhaps we are deluded by what he once promised us that he could be, by our fuzzy vision of what he might still become. Maybe the sublime magic that seized Kenny Anderson during a storied basketball adolescence ruins our perspective now, as we watch the sad, confusing decline of the kid who was so good so young. It was only natural to expect him to flower into greatness and to get there in a hurry.

Given the transient state of Anderson’s career with the New Jersey Nets, now well into its fifth season, what was supposed to be a splendid magic carpet ride along the superhighway of basketball fame, the truth is that Kenny Anderson, on many nights, isn’t even the best point guard in the metropolitan [New York] area, let alone the NBA.

“You have to take the bitter with the sweet,” he said philosophically Thursday night, rocking his head back and forth, mining for answers in the foothills of his frustration. “Right now, I’m trying to bite the bullet and find out where I fit in on this team. There’s lots of things that are different around here now. You learn that every day.”

There have been too many bitter nights lately, and Thursday at Madison Square Garden was the most-rancid lemon of the bunch so far. In 34 dreadful minutes during the Nets’ 105-93 loss to the Knicks, Anderson took nine shots and made just one, scoring five points and looking positively helpless against Derek Harper and Gary Grant, the Knicks’ point-guard tandem. So many have clamored that this aging twosome should be phased out, the better to lure Anderson across the Hudson River to engineer the Knicks’ offense clear into the next century.

Thursday night made sure wonder—about a lot of things.

“Everywhere I go now, it’s a real pain in the ass, to tell you the truth, because of the cloud over my head,” he said. “I just wish everything would work out so I can get on with things. I’m not blaming anybody, but . . .”

He shook his head and smiled the smile of a beaten, vanquished foot soldier, one who looks as if he has too many miles on him already at the advanced age of 24. Anderson has brought much of this on himself, rejecting a six-year, $40 million contract offer from the Nets, switching agents, choosing to force the Nets to trade him or lose him at season’s end to free agency.

This all would work much better if Anderson were playing better. But instead, his game has regressed seriously, to the point where Nets coach Butch Beard often goes with journeyman Chris Childs in the teeth of fourth quarters. Beard has little choice, really. On Thursday night, Anderson failed to score a field goal until 7:58 remained in the game.

But then, as has happened so puzzlingly often this year, Anderson returned to a maddening cocoon of indifference—and it hurt. Hurt bad. Grant blew past him for an easy layup, then promptly picked Anderson of the ball, finding Hubert Davis for a wide-open three-pointer that extended the Knicks’ lead to 89-80 and effectively ended the night’s activities for the Nets. To mark the occasion, Beard sent in Childs, and Anderson left to a symphony of hoots and catcalls and mean-spirited laughter.

“Certain spots, I don’t know if I’m going to play or not. I don’t know where I fit in the rotation . . . I don’t know about a lot,” he said. “I have to stay headstrong.”

Actually, being headstrong has never been much of a problem for Anderson, who learned well the lessons of Derrick Coleman and sometimes seems destined to replace him as the NBA’s problem-child cover boy.

That is a shame. For all of his problems, all of this limitations, all the times he is shelved because of injury or entombed in brain-battering slumps, he still carries with him the promise of better days, better times. Even when he plays horribly, as he did Thursday, he can collect eight assists and a couple of steals. He can register 18 points and 15 assists, as he did Friday night in a victory over Dallas.

He can still look like the prodigy who so electrified us when he was a teenager, blessed with charisma and talent that can be as breathtaking as blinding. Kenny Anderson, at the peak of his powers, can energize a night, a team, an entire arena, the way few others can. Stripped of those gifts, he can look less than bad: He can look ordinary.

And Kenny Anderson, with a basketball in his hands, was never meant to be ordinary, whether he was playing for the Nets or for Georgia Tech or for Archbishop Molloy High School, all the way back to the playgrounds of the New York neighborhood where he grew up.

Maybe he can’t get well in East Rutherford. He shouldn’t be given the option in Manhattan, not with these Knicks, as speculation has had it, not this year. Somewhere else, far away from his past, Kenny Anderson must find his star. Find it, and get it back. He’ll be able to afford it.”

[Two weeks later, Anderson was gone from Jersey. The Nets shipped him and Gerald Glass to Charlotte for forward Kendall Gill and guard Khalid Reeves. The best way to characterize this trade is to quote from some of the reactions to it, starting with Nets’ GM Willis Reed and his assessment that “something” had to be done. “We didn’t want to end up at the last hour just having to do something. We wanted to be comfortable doing something that would help the team.” 

“What ails the Nets is something that always seems to be just beyond the team’s grasp,” wrote the New York Times’ William Rhoden. “The trade was another instance of the Nets’ eternal puzzle being solved in reverse—addition by subtraction—getting rid of ill-fitting pieces. Anderson was the final member of a triangle that included Drazen Petrovic and Derrick Coleman.”

“Whattaya know, turns out ol’ Bill Fitch was right after all. First Derrick Coleman, now Kenny Anderson,” pondered Bill Handleman of the Asbury Park (NJ) Press.

“So, excuse me if I’m not overjoyed that five and six years after the Nets had two of the highest lottery picks you can have, they do not have a single player in uniform that you’d leave your house and pay $54.5—the price of a Nets lower level seat—to watch perform,” fumed Bill Pennington of the Hackensack (NJ) Record. “They are the most faceless basketball team this side of the Washington Generals.”

Anderson finished the season as a Hornet. In July 1996, now officially a free agent, he signed for a reported $46.7 million over seven years with Portland, where joined Isiah Rider, Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis, and the start of infamous Jail Blazers. He didn’t last long there, due to his large contract, not his game. But while Anderson was in Portland, he and his magical eyes sure had some fine moments on the floor:

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