- Tony Anderson did something remarkable after averaging 5.0 points as a reserve freshman for Southeast Missouri State: He declared for the NBA draft. Why? God told him to.
It was during his fourth hour of sermonizing on Aug. 11, inside the one-room building with corrugated metal siding, in the vast backyard of a residence-slash-Bible college on the eastern outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, that the preacher-slash-trainer addressed the fourth of what he calls the five most important questions in life.
“Most people,” he says, “do not go after their desires, their passions, their dreams, because of this question.”
He calls it a question of potential—“what you’re capable of doing, that’s within you, but we have not seen yet.”
The question is, “What can I do?”
The preacher-slash-trainer is Anthony Rhodman, a former point guard at Louisburg (junior) College, Louisiana-Lafayette and NAIA Urbana University, from which he graduated in 2007. He founded this ministry-slash-training business, In God’s Image, on what he describes as direct instruction from God, to help players have the preparation that Rhodman believes he lacked in his own, unsuccessful quest to reach the NBA. Rhodman had spoken with God this morning, too—praying from 3 a.m. until 6 a.m., just as he does most mornings—and this five-part sermon is an extension of that conversation. He preaches, authoritatively, from behind a wooden lectern, in front of a wall painted pale green, wearing a gray, striped suit with a purple dress shirt underneath, open at the neck. The sermon began at 8:55 a.m., and it would last until 3:56 p.m., interrupted only by three bathroom breaks.
In a room with enough tables and chairs to hold 30, there are three seated listeners, all of them Columbus-bred basketball players. This spiritual training is part of their daily regimen, but they’re committing heavier-than-normal hours to it during a one-week rest period from physical training. Traevon Jackson, who appeared in two Final Fours as a point guard for Wisconsin, went undrafted in 2015 and played last season in the NBA Development League, is serving as the digital producer, recording (and live-streaming, via YouTube) the sermons with a phone that’s mounted to the back of a metal chair, and running an Epson projector displaying scripture on the wall to Rhodman’s left. Damarkeo Lyshe, a guard at Bowling Green from 2011–15 and now one of Rhodman’s trainers, is taking notes on a MacBook.
The youngest and tallest person in the room is 19-year-old, 6’9” Tony Anderson II. He began training with In God’s Image five years ago, averaged 5.0 points and 2.1 rebounds this past season as a freshman at Southeast Missouri State, and is now engaging in a test of his own potential and faith that is bold to everyone in his circle yet seems irrational, if not asinine, to nearly everyone outside it..
Anderson has a bit of scruff on his chin and a pensive oldness about him; his father, Tony Anderson Sr., a former college football player who’s a maintenance worker for the City of Columbus and a Pentecostal minister, says Tony II has always been “peculiar” in this way: He quit playing with toys and video games at an earlier age than most kids, he no longer watches television, he gives his father and mother spiritual books, and he spends time at home studying the Bible. “When he buys into something, that’s what he goes for,” Anderson Sr. says. “He has that strong faith. That out-of-this-world faith.”
Anderson II spends most of the sermons hunched over a spiral-bound, college-ruled notebook, taking notes in neat, blue pen. He likes keeping things orderly—he had a 3.6 GPA in his first college semester—and writing helps him meditate on Rhodman’s messages, so, as Anderson would explain later, “I write down every little thing, even if it takes forever.” He is on his way to filling 13 single-spaced notebook pages today.
Rhodman continues. “So many people are asking the question, What can I do? The problem with this, because most people don’t know their identity, they get their concept of what I can do from another created being.”
Our identity, according to Rhodman—based on his direct revelations from God and personal interpretations of scripture—is that we have the potential and the power to do even “greater works” than Jesus, because God created us in his image as gods and kings, with dominion over the natural realm. Our purpose, according to Rhodman, is to establish God’s governance on the natural realm, in order to bring about heaven on earth—not to wait for it in death. And in order to do that, we must first “subdue” the seven mountains of influence that are running our world: religion, business and economy, politics and government, media, entertainment (including sports) and arts, education and the family—and put them under God’s “footstool.” God, according to Rhodman, can speak directly to us and give us a calling, and through that calling we can move these mountains of influence.
“For me to know what I’m capable of doing,” Rhodman says, “I must know who I am. For me to know who I am, I must know the source that created me. And the source that created me, that told me my identity, the source must also tell me what I’m capable of doing.”
Five months ago, Tony Anderson II did something that made him the most peculiar story of this college basketball offseason. He did something that, he believes, God told him to do.
On Feb. 28, 2016, the morning after Anderson’s final game as a freshman at Southeast Missouri State, in which he scored five points off the bench in a loss to Austin Peay, he texted his coach, Rick Ray, and asked if they could meet. Ray speculated that it might be to discuss transferring. Anderson had started just three games for a team that went 5–24, and he and SEMO’s coaches had differing visions about his role. Anderson viewed himself as a Carmelo Anthony-type wing who could make plays in isolation, whereas the staff considered him too turnover-prone in those situations and better-suited as a stretch power forward with a green light for catch-and-shoot threes.
When they met that night in Ray’s office, Anderson got directly to the point. “Thank you for the opportunity, and I appreciate what you’ve done for me,” he told Ray, “but I’m planning to declare for the NBA draft.”
Ray was taken aback: How could Tony Anderson, after averaging 5.0 points on the last-place team in the Ohio Valley Conference, decide to go one-and-done? “This is something,” Anderson explained, “that God called me to do.” (In an interview, Anderson elaborated on that calling by saying, “My passion is basketball, and God turned basketball into an assignment for him and his kingdom. He’s calling me to something greater than myself, as far as getting to the NBA level to reach people for him. That’s what it came down to, and I accepted it.”)
Their conversations on the topic, which took place over the following week, never became contentious, but Ray stated unequivocally that he didn’t think Anderson was ready and advised him to take a cautious approach to entering the draft. The first step, even before declaring, would be for Anderson to submit his name to the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee, so he could get honest feedback on his draft stock—or lack thereof. Most NBA executives didn’t know who he was, his name didn’t appear in any mock drafts, and he had a near-zero chance of securing one of the approximately 70 invites to the NBA’s pre-draft combine in Chicago.
The second part would be for Anderson to avoid hiring an agent right away, remain enrolled at Southeast Missouri State, and do initial pre-draft training there—thus maintaining his amateur status and college eligibility, and keeping the school’s APR score in good standing. Ray, whose last head-coaching job was in the SEC at Mississippi State, told Anderson that even Kentucky’s one-and-done players did this; he offered to put Anderson on the phone with John Calipari, to hear it straight from the source.
Anderson declined on all counts. To hedge, he felt, would be to show a lack of faith. His plan was to drop out of college—despite a 3.6 GPA—and return to Columbus to resume working out with Rhodman, who in 2013 had prepared one of his previous trainees, Michigan point guard and future Jazz lottery pick Trey Burke, for the draft. (It was after reading a story about Burke’s development, in 2011, that Anderson Sr. had first sent his son to work out with Rhodman.)
Ray made another plea to Anderson and his parents, to see if professors would allow him to continue coursework long-distance—”Because Tony was a good, conscientious student who would have earned not just a degree, but a meaningful degree,” Ray says—but that option was also declined.
In one of their last discussions on the matter, Anderson asked Ray about his own faith. Anderson wanted to know why his coach didn’t have the same degree of faith that God could direct Anderson on a one-and-done route to the NBA.
“I’m not going to profess to have the faith in God that you have,” Ray recalls saying. “I believe in God, but a pastor told me something a long time ago that made a lot of sense. He said that any time people start talking about God being involved in something that humans can do, he stops them right then and there. . . . He says, ‘God only gets in involved in things that humans can’t do. Like, Lazarus was dead for three days; there was no human that could revive him, so then God got involved. But God getting involved in day-to-day actions of humans, like paying their bills or helping them win a basketball game? No.’
“I’m not saying you have to believe this, Tony. I’m not saying it’s right, but it made sense to me, and I feel like it’s important to pass along.”
Anderson, who believes the opposite—that “God can flip any situation to his purpose”—thanked Ray for his thoughts, and then left Southeast Missouri State for good on March 5. A few weeks later, Anderson Tweeted a screengrab of the Southeast Missourian headline about his one-and-done departure, and captioned it with the message, “Have Your Way Lord!!!” believed then that he would be a first-round pick, even though an NBA exec was quoted in an ESPN.com story saying Anderson “doesn’t have a chance.” At home in Columbus, he told his father, “This process is going to be different from every other person that ever got drafted before.”
While Anderson worked out like a standard pre-draft prospect—he trained intensely with Rhodman for six-plus hours each day, focusing on remaking himself into an NBA-type wing, which he did not get to showcase himself as in college—the rest of his experience differed greatly from those of his peers who declared for the draft because NBA personnel, and not God, indicated they were capable of reaching the league.
Lacking any serious interest from agents, Anderson decided early on in the process to represent himself. He filled out his own early-entry paperwork and mailed it to NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s office in April. In an attempt to drum up interest, Anderson Tweeted a series of short videos of his workouts and mentioned the official accounts of the Knicks, Nets, Pistons, Pelicans, Magic, Wizards, Sixers and Pacers. But he did not receive an invite to the NBA’s combine in May, nor did he receive a single, pre-draft workout invitation from an NBA team in the weeks that followed.
In late May and early June, Anderson began cold-calling teams. He says he succeeded in having conversations (although not in booking workouts) with persons involved in scouting for the Spurs, Wizards and Pacers. Mostly, he was routed by automated menus or operators into voicemail dead-ends.
“One team in particular I was trying to get a workout with was the Sixers,” Anderson says, due to the fact the Philadelphia franchise was rebuilding and had three first-round picks. “But they don’t give you anybody’s number from the front office on their website. The only thing I found was the lost-and-found number of the Sixers’ arena. So I was like, I might as well call the lost and found. I called them and had them connect me to the front office, and I left another voicemail.”
(Multiple NBA teams tell SI they did their due diligence on Anderson once his name was on the final early-entry list, but quickly dismissed him as a non-prospect. “He needed to stay in school, even if God told him otherwise,” says one front-office member, who first needed to be reminded where Anderson went to school. “We make our decisions on the basis of reality.” Another NBA scout says, “What I remember about [Anderson] is that I was annoyed that we had to take time out of our process of scouting actual, possible draft picks to figure out who he was.”)
By June 23, the night of the draft, Anderson had accepted that he was unlikely to be selected. He watched it at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Columbus, with a group that included Rhodman, Jackson and Lyshe. There were 16 Division I one-and-dones eligible to be picked. Ten went in the first round, four went in the second, and by the end of the night, another one, UNLV’s Derrick Jones, had agreed to a partially guaranteed deal with the Sacramento Kings that included a spot on their Las Vegas Summer League team and an invite to training camp.
Anderson—the 16th one-and-done in the 2016 draft pool—was not picked. He did not receive any calls from NBA teams to negotiate free-agent contracts or invitations to play in summer league or come to training camp. But when Rhodman said to him, that night, “Don’t quit,” Anderson replied, “I have no thought of quitting.” He says that a “supernatural peace” came over him as he watched the draft. He believed it was God comforting him—telling him that hearing his name called on draft night was not the plan, and that he would still reach the NBA this season. It would just happen some other way.
Anderson is standing up in the front of the room, getting a perspective change during the break between sermons on question No. 4 (What can I do?) and No. 5 (Where am I going?). His long arms, inside a black, H&M bomber jacket that says SAN FRAN on the front, are extended as he grips either side of the lectern. He’s looking down at Rhodman’s limited source material, in awe that so many hours of knowledge could be delivered without more of a script. “There’s literally no notes up here. Just scriptures. Like, no notes, period.”
“You’ll get there one day, Tone,” says Jackson, who has been getting more energized as the day goes on, giving Rhodman flying shoulder-bumps after they hit stop on the recording of each sermon. Hearing all this truth, Jackson says, is a powerful thing.
Rhodman, who’s sitting down at a table, says he gets the knowledge straight from God. “I ask the Lord to give it to me, and he gives it to me. It’s so real.”
These sermons are just a sliver of Rhodman’s oeuvre, which amounts to more than 100 hours on his YouTube channel—almost all of it filmed in this room on the small grounds of the New Life Bible College and Seminary, where his mother lives in the main house. On the website for In God’s Image, Rhodman has a series of videos called God’s Mindset, which are audio recordings of Rhodman preaching, combined with motivational clip art and images. The first one is about how planning, based on messages received from God, is the “highest expression of faith.”
“When God’s word says it, it gives us assurance that we know it’s going to happen, even though we do not see it,” Rhodman says in the video. “If God told you that you would be prosperous and successful, you should plan for it. If he said there’s nothing impossible for you, you should plan for it. . . . If you don’t believe it, you won’t plan for it.”
A few hours later, around 4:15 p.m.—after the fifth and final sermon is complete, and Anderson has stowed his notebook in his red Nike backpack with his laminated, Southeast Missouri State nametag, shut off the lights in the room, put a padlock on its big, sliding door and walked over to the patio at the main house, he explains the aspect of his one-and-done declaration that no one on the outside seems to understand. It was not some hasty decision; it was his boldest expression of faith in a path that had been revealed to him many years earlier.
Anderson says that the Lord speaks to him in different ways: “Sometimes it’s in a clear voice, sometimes he puts something on my heart, sometimes an idea pops up, or it happens in a dream.” It was in a clear voice, he says, that the Lord first spoke to him about going one-and-done to the NBA. This happened after Anderson’s freshman year at Columbus’ Marion-Franklin High, when he was generating actual recruiting buzz; Hoop Scoop ranked him the No. 4 rising sophomore in the state of Ohio, and he was receiving mail from West Virginia, UCLA and Ohio State, among others.
But Anderson did not stay on the trajectory of a typical one-and-done. A torn meniscus kept him from thriving on the AAU scene during his post-sophomore-year summer, and what at first seemed like a big opportunity—landing a junior-year scholarship to Virginia’s prestigious Oak Hill Academy, the prep powerhouse that counts Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo as alums—turned out to be a bust, as Anderson couldn’t crack Oak Hill’s starting lineup. Scholarship offers from elite programs never materialized, and the biggest offer Anderson had, from West Virginia, evaporated after he slow-played it and the Mountaineers signed another recruit at his same position.
Anderson found himself in what he called a “broken place” at the beginning of his senior year of high school. Nothing in his basketball career seemed to be working. He had lost faith in himself and in the notion of him going to the NBA, and he was not spiritually committed. “I had nowhere to turn but to God,” says Anderson, who spoke with the Lord again that year. “He let me know that I could redeem the time that I had lost. [He said that] everything I promised you before, you can still receive if you get back on the path.”
Two games into his senior season, he left Oak Hill and returned to Columbus, re-immersed himself in the In God’s Image ministry, starred for his new high school, Groveport Madison, and fell back in love with basketball. In May 2015, Anderson accepted a scholarship offer from Southeast Missouri State, and although he didn’t inform SEMO’s coaches that God had called him to go one-and-done, he ramped up his plans to do so.
Anderson got Ray to acquiesce, reluctantly, to letting him stay home for the summer rather than enroll early in school, so he could get in extra months of training with Rhodman. Anderson joined Southeast Missouri State’s team in August 2015, months later than its other newcomers, and when his freshman season didn’t start as well as he had envisioned—or anywhere near well enough to draw the attention of NBA scouts—he briefly questioned his path.
Is this still real? Anderson wondered as he languished on SEMO’s bench and his faith dwindled. But a dream he had, in December, in which he says God showed him playing in the NBA, empowered him. “I knew that dream was to encourage me,” he says. ‘[It was] God saying, ‘Remember what I said. I don’t care what it looks like, just keep going.’“ He had a stretch of four straight double-digit scoring games in January, and subsequent dreams, including one in early February, as well as conversations with his parents and Rhodman, led Anderson to conclude that he should not change course and remain in school, but rather, develop a more concrete blueprint for how he would attack the pre-draft training process. How it looked from outside—the 5.0 points and 2.1 rebounds, the 40.8 field goal percentage, the absence from draft boards—did not matter. He had received a message from God, and if you believe it, you plan for it.
(No one in his circle was about to tell him otherwise. Anderson Sr. says that when his son told him about the God-sent dreams this year, “I did not question God. I told Tony that if God revealed it to me some other kind of way, I wasn’t going to be in agreement. But God never came back and told me anything different. This process has been scary, but I’m standing by my son, because that’s my son, I know the way I raised him, and I know his track record. He’s always been a phenomenal kid. . . . All my son has to do is continue to worship God and seek God’s anointing and his faith every day, and God will take care of the rest. God has done miraculous things; he’s changed the minds of kings, so why can’t he change the minds of NBA people?”)
Jackson, sitting out on the Bible-college patio with Anderson after the sermons, says he views what Anderson did as courageous. Although Jackson stayed four years at Wisconsin, he says that he, too, was called by God to turn pro early, before anyone in the scouting world considered him a prospect. “But I didn’t have the faith yet that Tone did,” Jackson says—meaning faith in the fact that God could take him to the NBA. He has since become a believer.
“Even now, there’s no way I can go to the league on my own strength,” says Jackson, who’s the son of 1992 Mavericks lottery pick Jim Jackson. “In the world system, I’m already behind. There’s already a measure that needs to be attained for me to get there. . . . I didn’t come out an All-American, I had a good career [in college] but you’ve gotta have a certain résumé to get where you need to go. The only résumé I have is the seal of God, so he’s gotta open up a supernatural door for me. Which is what he did throughout history: He chose the least people, so he can show that it’s not them, it’s me.”
Asked if this is the way Anderson, too, expects to get to the NBA this season, he answers, “Yeah. By the spiritual realm overriding the natural realm.”
“That’s the only way I want to go now,” Jackson says, “knowing what I know.”
What’s important in the present, Anderson says, is having the faith to stay prepared. When that door opens, he wants to be ready for the opportunity. And time is running out: At this very same hour in New Jersey, at least 80 players with NBA training-camp invites are finishing up the league’s Rookie Transition Program. Anderson, obviously, is not there. He has yet to be contacted by an NBA team. Yet he is not looking for a plan B.
Tomorrow morning, he, Jackson and Lyshe will return to the building in the backyard of the Bible-college campus. They will hit record on the phone mounted to the back of the metal chair. They will ready themselves to listen and take notes on the day’s four sermons. During one, Rhodman will stand before them and he will say, “These are the ways that God releases miracles.
“If you’re looking for miracles and you want to manifest them, this is what you need to do.”