There is a dark legend that surrounds New York City playground basketball heroes. For every one who becomes a star, every Lew Alcindor or Bernard King, there are dozens more who become nothing but bad memories, asphalt wizards gone to jail or gone to drugs or just gone to seed. Even the ones who eventually find success in the NBA often arrive there with a tragic quality, the way Lloyd Daniels did, and Connie Hawkins before him. Part of the fascination with schoolyard stars in New York comes from the knowledge that heartbreak awaits so many of them. No one knows this better than Kenny Anderson.
He was as bright a schoolboy star as the city has ever seen, and although he now works on the other side of the Hudson River, as the New Jersey Nets' All-Star point guard, you cannot take the New York out of Anderson. It is there in the cocky little bop to his stride as he walks through a restaurant to his table, in the way he orders a cup of caw-fee from the waitress. He has fuzz on his chin and an earring dangling from one lobe, but otherwise his looks haven't changed much from the days when he was making his reputation in the city, "gettin' a little name," as he describes it, first as a pickup-game prodigy in the Lefrak City section of Queens and later as a point guard at Archbishop Molloy High.
He proved early that he was one of the special ones, so special that recruiters came to watch him when he was a sixth-grader and came in even greater numbers when he became the first high school freshman ever to be named all-city. Friends compared him even then with NBA players, but he was only vaguely familiar with the names they threw around, because he didn't watch people play basketball—people watched him. He had never set foot inside Madison Square Garden until he played there as a freshman at Georgia Tech. "You have to understand, I've been on the front page of the sports section since I was 14," he says.
But while word of Anderson's talent spread, he was learning about the other side of stardom, hearing tales of the great New York players who never went as far as their basketball skills promised to take them. Not that he needed to be told. He had seen firsthand that talent guarantees nothing. He knew the story of his uncle James McLaughlin, who had taken him to the neighborhood courts from the time Kenny was old enough to walk. McLaughlin was a star on the playgrounds and at Jamaica High in Queens. Like Kenny, he was a quick, flashy lefthander. He died of heart disease at 25, when Kenny was six.
March 28, 1994
"I've seen guys who were park legends, guys who could play with anybody, and they didn't take it anywhere," says Anderson, now 23. "Some of them had bad luck, and some of them just didn't want it bad enough. I always had it in my mind that I wouldn't be like that."
Anderson developed not a fear of failure but a fascination with it. "I study downfalls," he says. "I've always wanted to know how a player at the top slips off that pedestal. If I look at a guy's stats and I see he only made it to the All-Star Game once in his career, I have to ask around, I have to find out why. Did he start hanging out too late at night? Did he get a big head? Did he start playing just for the paycheck? I want to know all the different ways a guy can start to slide."
What goes unsaid is that maybe in knowing this, Anderson can learn how to avoid his own sudden slide from the top, now that he has finally made it there. His first two years in the NBA were marred first by a conflict with then Net coach Bill Fitch, who kept him on the bench for much of his rookie season, and then by a broken left wrist that prematurely ended a far more successful second season. But now, in his third season in the league, he has fulfilled the expectations that have followed him since those early days on the courts at Lost Battalion Hall in Lefrak City and has earned a place among the league's elite point guards. Through Sunday his 9.4 assists per game ranked fourth in the NBA, and his 19.0 points per game made him the highest-scoring point guard in the league.
The fans have noticed, electing Anderson the Eastern Conference starter in last month's All-Star Game. And his NBA peers are no longer talking about what Anderson could be; they're talking about what he is. "If you list the top point guards in the league, you've got to mention his name," says New York Knick guard Derek Harper. "He might be the best ball handler in the league. With most guys, every now and then they'll make a mistake with the ball, and you can get a hand on it. With him, there aren't too many mistakes, not too many wrong moves."
Anderson is just as wary of making the wrong move away from the court. It's a heavy responsibility, being a New York legend, even for someone who seems as utterly confident as Anderson. When he was growing up, his every career move in basketball was analyzed, and he felt the weight of the scrutiny. As a high school senior with his pick of college scholarship offers, he suffered from tension headaches when the deadline for making a decision approached. He enrolled at Georgia Tech, only to be faced with the choice of when to leave college and turn pro. He left after his sophomore year, but not before his hair began coming out in patches from worrying about the decision.
"He's never been as cocky as people thought," says New Jersey forward Jayson Williams, who also grew up in Queens and has known Anderson since elementary school. "When he was a kid, the bigger guys all wanted to kick his butt, because he always played with thus smile, and it looked like he was making fun of them. But you know what? It was really a nervous smile."
That's why Anderson appreciates this view from the top. "It feels great, it really does," he says. "And it's kind of a relief, because I've made it to where I always wanted to be. I appreciate it even more than I thought I would, because after the last couple of years, I know it didn't come easily."
Anderson's difficulties began soon after the Nets made him the second overall pick of the 1991 draft. He missed the entire preseason and the first three games of his rookie year because of a contract dispute, and when he finally joined the team, Fitch made no secret of his displeasure at the things the Nets had been forced to do—such as releasing reserves Jud Buechler and Dave Feitl—to fit Anderson's five-year, $14.5 million contract under the salary cap. Anderson got a hint of what he was in for when, at the press conference to announce his signing, Fitch blasted it as a "horrible decision." Fitch had wanted the Nets to draft a big man such as Syracuse's Billy Owens.
Fitch decided that Anderson wasn't in top shape, was too far behind the other players after missing the preseason and should learn most of his lessons from the bench, behind starting point guard Mookie Blaylock. "I went from depression to anger and back to depression," Anderson says. "There came a point where I even thought, If this doesn't work out, at least my money is guaranteed. I thought about leaving basketball, period." But then he would have been one of those playground failures. Worse, he would have failed right in his own backyard.
"Mostly I wanted to be traded," Anderson says. "The thing that saved my confidence was that it wasn't like I had been put out there and I had failed, it was that I wasn't being given a chance. I really wasn't the one taking the heat." Fitch was the one who came under fire, and he resigned after the season. Yet the first letter he received from a Net player after he left was from Anderson. "He never blamed me," Fitch says. "He wasn't in shape, he missed training camp, and we had Mookie coming into his own. I think he eventually understood."
The next season brought new coach Chuck Daly, formerly of the Detroit Pistons, who arrived with a reputation for handling guards well, having enjoyed so much success with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars in Detroit. "I didn't hand Kenny the job," Daly says. "I just told him that everyone was starting with a clean slate, that I didn't even want to know the whys and wherefores of what went on the year before. Everyone was going to earn his playing time in training camp." Anderson earned his, and the Nets traded Blaylock days before the start of the regular season in order to make it clear that this was Anderson's team to run.
Anderson justified the trade, averaging 16.9 points and 8.2 assists through the first 55 games, but he broke his wrist on a drive to the basket when he was slammed to the floor by New York Knick guard John Starks. The Nets were 30-24 when the injury occurred, and they finished 43-39 before losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs. This season Anderson has been even better than last, sliding his 6'1", rail-thin body through traffic to the basket and passing with skill and daring. "He was born to be an NBA point guard," says Daly, who sees Anderson and the Nets' other All-Star, power forward Derrick Coleman, developing into a younger version of the Utah Jazz's pairing of guard John Stockton and forward Karl Malone. But Daly nevertheless says that Anderson isn't a complete package yet.
"He needs to be a more vocal leader on the court," Daly says. "He's getting better at it, but he essentially has a passive personality. You think of New York kids as being all toughness and puffed-out chests, but Kenny's a sensitive kid. He believes in his ability, but when it comes to directing a team, really taking charge, I don't know how confident he really is."
Anderson knows he isn't a finished product. He shoots and misses too much for a point guard (through Sunday his shooting percentage was 42.5), and he realizes that even though he has made a name for himself in the league, there are other names that enter fans' minds before his does. His absence from the roster of Dream Team II, the U.S.'s all-NBA entry in this summer's world championships in Toronto, reminds him that he has more ground to cover. "Just because I'm happy with where I am," he says, "doesn't mean that it's where I want to stay."
He's interested in pushing forward, because he believes that anything less will make him vulnerable to the fall he wants so badly to avoid. "The first thing I thought about when I heard I made the All-Star team is how I can make it again next year," he says. "I want to make sure when they talk about me on the playgrounds, they have something good to say."
It seems certain that in the dark legend of New York playground heroes, Kenny Anderson will be a point of light.