The retired players gave a false impression of leisure in their oversized chairs in the plush film room of the New Jersey Nets' practice facility. They were starting over. They were rookies without guarantees. "Kenny, you have head-coaching experience,'' they heard Rick Carlisle say. "So I'm going to have you come up first.''
The experience was minimal: Kenny Anderson had coached the Atlanta Krunk to a record of 10-41, the worst in the CBA this season. But Anderson did have a genius for basketball. He had been the No. 2 pick in the 1991 NBA draft, a freshman point guard who led Georgia Tech to the 1990 Final Four, the best high school player from New York City since Lew Alcindor. From the age of 14, when he was named to the all-city team as a freshman at Archbishop Molloy High School, Anderson had a prodigious feel for the game that he was never able to explain, an ability to see and seize opportunities based on a matrix of intuition, body language and court geometry.
Now he was going to have to find the words. The NBA had invited him to a clinic for retired players hoping to begin new careers as assistant coaches in the league. Kenny Anderson, 37 years old and no longer the nascent point guard of his generation, was going to have a harder time describing the game than he had playing it.
"What they're looking for is the ability to draw up a drill,'' explained Carlisle, the 2002 NBA Coach of the Year who joined fellow former head coaches Dwane Casey, Bob Hill and Terry Stotts as instructors for the camp. "Show us what you've got for a shooting drill for bigs.''
It was a simple request. How many times had he seen coaches diagram plays on chalkboards, on paper napkins, in the margins of newspaper sports sections? Anderson picked up a red marker and drew in faint pink curves the skeleton of a basketball court.
"Basically, shots for big men,'' he said nervously in his bassoon Noo Yawk accent while scattering the numbers 1 through 5 across the court, circling some and extending others with the squiggled or dotted lines that are the universal cipher of basketball. "Basically, the big man's going to get, basically, on the low block. The 1 brings the ball down and the 5 is coming in in transition ...'' In 90 seconds, he was finished.
"Just a couple things,'' Carlisle said as he approached the board. "First of all ... when you're going to draw a court, a good way to do it is to start by drawing a baseline, OK? It's simple, it gets you into a flow. I've seen guys draw it like this ...''
The criticism was delivered gently but plainly. First of all, Anderson didn't know how to draw a proper rectangle. As a left-hander, he had been blocking the view of his audience by standing on the wrong side of the board. The pen he was using was too faint. Shouldn't his drill account for the other players? Shouldn't the coaches be feeding passes to the shooters? His delivery had been complicated and unfocused. He needed to be simple and concise.
For 10 humbling minutes, Anderson would listen and nod and listen, erase everything and try again. And then again. At last he was excused and replaced at the board by his former NBA teammate Doug Overton, whose fingers were trembling as he diagrammed a series of his own. Anderson returned to his theater chair as if benched after a sequence of three turnovers. But he wasn't playing in a noisy gym anymore, and everyone could hear the exhale of regret as he plopped himself down.
What makes a successful NBA coach? Of the league's 30 head coaches, more than half received training as point guards professionally or in college. Several more were power forwards.
"Most power forwards are defensive stoppers and rebounders, so a lot of the focus isn't about them,'' explained former Knicks guard Rory Sparrow, now a VP of NBA player development, who was running the clinic with basketball operations director Brandon Williams. "They've got to worry about being in the right place, about doing the right things, because they're not going to get so many touches. Their opportunities have to come within the context of the team.''
Another trend has to do with the quality of their play: The less talented the player, the better the coach. There are only five former NBA All-Stars who are head coaches today, and they are outnumbered by the eight head coaches who never played in the league. Rudy Tomjanovich is the only former All-Star to coach a championship team in the last 22 years.
"They've had to work hard their whole life,'' Sparrow said of winners like Phil Jackson, who averaged 6.7 points over his 12-year career as an NBA power forward, or Gregg Popovich, who produced 96 points as a point guard at Air Force. "You did a lot of listening to the different coaching staffs, and you probably had limited talent, so you had to overachieve -- you had to really study plays to make sure that you took advantage of every situation when you got a chance to play. So those are good breeding grounds for coaches.''
Anderson was not that type of point guard. He was the only high draft pick of the 16 retired players invited to participate in the NBA Assistant Coaches Clinic from March 10-11.
"You make mistakes, and that I did,'' Anderson would say during an emotional interview in his hotel room at the end of the camp. "And eventually your lifestyle gets to you, and you just start lingering as far as your work ethic. Mine leaned a little bit. And I'm going to tell you something: It gets [to be] too much. It gets too much trying to live up to Superman ... you got all these high expectations. When I retired, I felt so good because I didn't have to live up to Kenny the basketball player no more.''
He played in one All-Star Game, in his third NBA season, when he averaged 18.8 points and 9.6 assists for the Nets. The 6-foot-1 Anderson would finish with averages of 12.6 points and 6.1 assists while passing through nine franchises in 14 years. He had been retired for three years when he paid his own way from his apartment in Pembroke Pines, Fla., to the NBA coaches clinic.
Over an intensive 24 hours, Anderson (and each of his peers) would be asked to present and execute a play on the court as coach; break down film of an NBA game overnight in order to contribute to a chalk-talk the next morning; and participate in a simulated job interview that would be videotaped and edited at the nearby NBA Entertainment studios, providing him with a DVD of his performance to be networked among NBA teams in hope of jump-starting his coaching career.
Anderson stopped playing after his mother, Joan, who raised him as a single parent, died of a heart attack in 2005. He filed for bankruptcy in that year after going through more than $60 million in NBA salaries, and news reports in 2006 accused Anderson of not providing child support for at least five of his seven children.
"My lawyer's fighting her lawyer,'' he said of Tami Roman, the former MTV Real World star who was the first of Anderson's three wives and the mother of two of his seven children. He argued that "she just wanted to put me out there'' by complaining to the tabloids.
The obvious question was whether he was trying to coach for nothing more than the money. Anderson said it wasn't so. "I can eat, I got a nice home in Florida, I'm comfortable,'' he said. "I love the game, I'm passionate. The money will come. My thing is work. I want to work. I never worked in my life.''
Dean Garrett, 41, had tried running several businesses in Minneapolis -- a restaurant, a nightclub, a phone retailer -- following his 14-year career as a 6-11 center in Europe and the NBA. He was focusing entirely now on a career in coaching. "I got involved in businesses with friends of mine, guys I've known my whole life,'' he said. "And now if we saw each other, we'd probably pass by on the street without saying hello. I said enough with that.''
Bo Outlaw, 36, had become a community ambassador in the front office of the Orlando Magic, with whom he spent half of his 14-year career in the NBA as a hyperactive 6-8 forward. "If I decide to do this later,'' he said of pursuing a job in coaching, "I'll have this experience under my belt. As a player, you don't realize how hard it is to be a coach. There's a lot that goes into it that players don't really understand.''
Acie Earl, 37, had played four years as a 6-10 center with the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks from 1993 to '97 before continuing his career overseas. "I played in Kosovo,'' he said. "They move me into an apartment, and the infrastructure is still so messed up because of the [Balkan] war that the power goes out at least once a day. Here I am in Kosovo, the power goes out about 5 p.m. and I'm just sitting there in a dark apartment, and I ask myself, 'What am I doing? I'm 33 years old.' That next week, I went and got my résumé together.'' After four years of coaching in the minors, he is now the freshman basketball coach at Solon (Iowa) High School.
Overton, 38, appeared to be an ideal coaching candidate. As a 6-3 point guard at LaSalle, he was aiming to be a late first-round pick in the 1991 draft until he suffered a severe ankle sprain midway through his senior year. He dropped to the second round (38 picks behind Anderson, who had turned pro as a sophomore), was cut by the Detroit Pistons and played his first pro season in Australia before trying out and signing with the Washington Bullets the following year. He would play for eight NBA teams over 11 seasons. Since retiring in 2004, he had served as a player development director for the Philadelphia 76ers before becoming an assistant coach for St. Joseph's last season.
"I look back and it was a blessing,'' he said of his college injury. "Guys were drafted ahead of me and and didn't play that long. It wasn't always easy, but it worked out in the end.''
While too much had been expected of Anderson as a player, Overton was at the other end of the scale. Near the end of his career, Overton would sign a 10-day contract with a new team, study the playbook overnight and arrive the next day at practice with a grasp of the offense that made coaches love him.
"I ain't looking for nobody to give it to me,'' he said. "I want to earn my way. I did it as a player, and I want to do it as a coach.''
On the second day, they held their virtual interviews back-to-back, the legend and the nobody. Overton aced his, telling Casey, a former head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, that he would preach early-morning workouts for NBA rookies and teach them how to dribble tennis balls to improve their handling skills. Anderson offered no such details apart from promising to share with young players "the dos and don'ts'' based on his own NBA experiences. Casey referred to them both as "solid'' candidates, though he was clearly more impressed by Overton. Of Anderson, Casey said: "He needs to be more organized in helping young players to become better. He needs to be more specific about it than just talking to them and that type of thing.''
Back in his hotel room after the camp, still dressed in his navy suit from the interview, Anderson broke down crying as he recalled the passing of his mother. "It was me, my mother and that basketball. Me and my mother,'' he said. "My kids eat, they got a roof over their heads, clothes. At least I have an apartment; my mom got evicted. We went apartment to apartment in the neighborhood. I lived in three or four apartments. ... Money? I never had it. Then I had it. Now I'm comfortable. I've been through everything.''
Over the next hour, he articulated the kind of NBA coach he will be someday. He will tell these young millionaires to make the most of their careers, to learn from his mistakes. The diagramming, the computer work, the details of organization -- he promised to learn those habits. The NBA game is something he knows deep in his soul. He knows what cannot be taught.
"Somebody is going to see something in me,'' he said. "One GM or coach, one day: 'I need Kenny Anderson. I need him.' "