The play, ironically, started with defense, a hand extended into the passing lane. It was midway through the second half of that Final Four game between Houston and Louisville. Benny Anders, a shoot-first-pass-maybe swingman for Houston, reached in and stole the ball near the free throw line.
This is an article from the March 25, 2013 issue
The play that followed took place 30 years ago this month, but it's etched in my memory. Anders slalomed through traffic and headed upcourt, his spectacular Jheri curl trailing him like tails on a kite. He passed half-court, picking up speed. A defender from Louisville (I had to spark up YouTube to I.D. Charles Jones) tried to cut off his angle to the basket. No matter. Anders elevated for what looked to be a conventional layup.
Except that Anders always seemed to have a deep-seated grudge against convention. He splayed his thick legs, sausaged into a comically tight pair of shorts, cocked his arm and threw down a vicious dunk, nearly beheading Jones.
Though Michael Jordan was a sophomore on the North Carolina team that had won the previous NCAA championship, Houston was the It Program that season, a traveling road show whose aerial performance art took on mythical dimensions. The Cougars, led by future top 50 alltime NBAers Clyde Drexler and Akeem (the H came later) Olajuwon, had been nicknamed Phi Slamma Jamma, a nod to the quantity and quality of their dunks. But none was as extravagant as this particular throwdown by Anders.
One reason was aesthetic. But another was the blithe disregard that Anders, a sophomore reserve, had betrayed: for the defender occluding his path and fouling him, in turn making the dunk all the more remarkable; for the rules of physics and geometry that should have served as discouragement; for the fact that his team was trailing in this, the most important game of the season and of Anders's career. And I wasn't the only one struck by that Anders dunk against Louisville. In his 2009 book, Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman recalled the moment perfectly as "a midair shark attack."
Galvanized by the play, Houston eventually pulled away, but Anders wasn't done yet. His team ahead by eight points in the final 30 seconds, Anders was at half-court with no defender in his path and a teammate ahead of him. Anders declined to pass or dribble out the clock. Instead he achieved cruising altitude, cuffed the ball with his right hand and threw down a nasty reverse dunk.
The move may have been imprudent—"the most selfish play I've seen in all my years of basketball," his teammate Reid Gettys would later tell ESPN—but it was the essence of Anders. Here was a player who summed up his game as "Take it to the rack and stick it on them." Which was not even his best line that season. For years his admonishment to Olajuwon—"When I drop a dime to the big Swahili, he got to put it in the hole"—endured as the gold standard for sports quotes.
But that's all that endured. Despite his athleticism and flair, Anders never made as big an impact again. He floundered at Houston and failed to ascend to the NBA. Then he disappeared. Not metaphorically disappeared, as in, fell out of the public eye and now leads a life of pleasant seclusion. He literally disappeared, as in, whereabouts unknown. Vanished. Evaporated. Gone. A Jheri-curled Yeti.
"Where in the world is Benny Anders?" became a parlor game in the hoops ecosystem. Mention Anders's name to Drexler, and he whistles, smiles and says, "Benny Anders is a mystery. Probably the '90s is the last time anyone heard from him." The University of Houston's sports information department claims it's been at least that long. As Michael Young, another Phi Slamma Jamma alumnus, told the Houston Chronicle in 2011, "Nobody knows where Benny Anders is. We've been trying to find him for years." Other former teammates joke about his having entered the witness protection program.
A decade ago Grant Wahl, covering college basketball for SI, was asked about what ever happened to Anders by a reader. Grant called the only Anders listed in the directory of Bernice, La., Benny's hometown. He reached Anders's grandmother, who could only lament, "If you find him, tell him I'd love to hear from him." How could an athlete with such staggering presence leave behind such a staggering absence?
And thus began a ... well, what? I wouldn't dramatize it as an obsession or white whale or even personal quest, but maybe as something closer to an abiding interest in finding Benny Anders. He had to be out there somewhere, right?
Anders was the kind of figure I gravitated toward as a journalist, the embodiment of all those c words: charismatic, colorful, combustible, candid. But in 1983, as a kid in elementary school, I thought of him as the avatar of another c word: cool. He had subversive appeal, a funkadelic soulfulness. If Olajuwon and Drexler were the polished performers who played the big stage, Anders was the alterna-band rocker, all authenticity. He was a cowboy baller, with a personality to match. And I didn't even know the half of it.
In high school, known as Bennie Anders, he was a star in tiny Bernice and played on the same AAU team as Joe Dumars, Karl Malone and John (Hot Rod) Williams. "Benny always had a big personality," says Dumars. "He was the most spirited guy on our teams." While the other three players were content to go to smaller, in-state colleges—McNeese State, Louisiana Tech and Tulane, respectively—Anders was hell-bent on playing for a big-time program. On his recruiting visit to LSU, however, he showed up wearing a shirt that read THE OUTLAW, his high school nickname. When LSU's coach, Dale Brown, asked about the phrase, Anders embellished. "I'd go from town to town, causing disturbances." LSU passed.
Two days after Anders helped Houston defeat Louisville, he was on the floor in the waning seconds of the championship game against North Carolina State. Anders gambled for a steal at half-court. Of course he did. He missed, freeing Wolfpack guard Dereck Whittenburg to throw up a long jump shot, which ended in the hands of teammate Lorenzo Charles, who dunked the ball at the buzzer, consummating one of the great upsets in college hoops history. Jim Valvano's scramble to find someone to hug? It doesn't happen without Anders's unbridled nature.
The next season Anders, and his comparably eccentric teammate forward Braxton Clark, quit the team after clashing with the coach, Guy Lewis, over their banishment to the bench. "Heavy pine time," Anders called it. When Alex Wolff of SI visited the campus for a story and took Clark and Anders to the local Bennigan's, the players thought nothing of ordering drinks. As they stewed over their Long Island iced teas (Clark) and Heinekens (Anders), they couldn't resist issuing gems like this one from Clark: "There are two fraternities. There's Phi Slamma Jamma on the court and Phi Slamma Clappa on the bench. And once you're in Phi Slamma Clappa, you're finished."
But Anders wasn't. He rejoined the team a few weeks later. Drexler had departed to the NBA, but the big Swahili was still receiving dimes. With Olajuwon dominating, Houston again reached the NCAA final. Again, the Cougars lost, this time to Georgetown. Again, Anders solidified his cult status. He showed up in Seattle wearing a pink bow tie and cummerbund. He didn't play in the semifinal game against Kentucky because, he told reporters, he'd worn "the wrong brand of sneakers." He played sparingly in the final. "How can [Lewis] forget the athletes he has on the bench?" Anders wondered aloud. "I could have scored at will."
According to a story by Mark Bradley in the Hendersonville Times-News, a Kentucky fan named John Gambill had become enamored by Anders, and at the final game he and some pals held up a sign reading BENNY ANDERS FOR PRESIDENT. Afterward Gambill and crew went to the Cougars' hotel and found Anders, who invited them to the Houston team party. Wrote Bradley, "The night ended with Gambill and a friend riding around Seattle in a Jaguar with Anders and teammate Reid Gettys." A week later Gambill received a package in the mail. It contained Anders's Phi Slamma Jamma warmup.
Anders missed the following season with a knee injury. That spring he argued with a classmate at the campus field house. The other student threw a sprinter's starting block at Anders, who went to his car and, as self-proclaimed outlaws are wont to do, returned with a gun. Anders was sentenced to three years' probation after pleading no contest to possessing a firearm on school property. He was kicked off the team. He played briefly in the Philippines and South America, and that was it. He was gone.
The first stumbling block to finding Benny Anders was a simple SEO annoyance. Benny Andersson, a founding member of ABBA and executive producer of the Broadway musical Mamma Mia!, kept intruding on searches. While that was easily corrected, I was having no success in my quest. A search of the usual databases did not turn up a Benny Anders born in October 1963 and living in the U.S. There was a Benny Anders living in Sweden. When reached by phone, that Benny quickly grew confused. When I mentioned Phi Slamma Jamma, he responded plaintively in a heavy Scandinavian accent, "I don't speak the good English."
Often when there's no residential address for someone, there's a good chance he's in prison. But there was no recent record of Anders in the Louisiana criminal justice system, nor in those of surrounding states. Though his arrest record from the campus gun offense showed up in databases, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported no Benny Anders incarcerated in a U.S. facility. Another records search revealed that in March 1997 Anders took out a personal loan of almost $21,000 from the Community Trust Bank in Bernice, which he has yet to repay.
Talking to those who once knew Anders left only a cold trail of rumors. Benny Anders was a truck driver. He was living in Asia. He was living in Louisiana but going by his middle name, Michael. It was even suggested that he had undergone a sex change. There is an @BennyAnders on Twitter, but the profile reads: "17, lifeguard, waiter, studying at south devon, Living the devon dream!"
When I told a friend about my search, he referred me to a friend of his, a private investigator in New York City. The gumshoe had recollections of Anders at Houston, and he offered to help. A day later he called me back, impressed: "Not much on this guy at all. He knows how to hide!" He did find a record indicating that Anders had worked in the late '90s for a security firm, J.R. Nell & Son Security, in Flint, Mich. There was, however, no current record of a B. Anders, a Benny Anders or even an M. Anders living in Flint. Nor was there a record of J.R. Nell. The Michigan Department of Licensing claimed to have no information showing that the firm ever existed.
A poster on Coogfans.com, the Houston athletic message board, had a lead on Anders: "I found this on Google: Prison Ministry. Every Monday and Thursday we have groups that serve at the Clifton Prison teaching Bible Studies, leading Worship Services, and serving Family Outreach. If you are interested in more information or in volunteering, please contact Benny Anders or the church office." A follow-up revealed that this Benny Anders was not African-American.
Even in his absence, the legend of Anders grew. When the 2011 Final Four was held in Houston, it triggered the typical "Where are they now?" chatter about Phi Slamma Jamma. Inevitably Anders's mysterious disappearance came up. A story that Gettys earlier recounted to the journalist Robert Weintraub made the rounds: "An agent who places players overseas told me ... he had set up a tryout camp in Louisiana a few years ago. He started with 150 players, narrowed it to 75, then down to 15, then held a full-court scrimmage. So one dude, he's about 300 pounds, is just killing guys. Just busting them up. The agent knew he was too heavy to interest anyone but had to know more about this guy, and asked him his name.
"'I'm Benny Anders,' the guy said.
"The agent was shocked. 'The Benny Anders? What do you weigh?'
"Shaking his head, the agent asked, 'What are you doing weighing 292 pounds?'
"'I'm down from 350,' Benny said."
It was another classic tale in a compendium so, well, fat that it could be serialized. But it was of little help. No one could recall the site of the tryout camp, the name of the agent or even the league auditioning the players. I sympathized with Charles Jones, the hapless Louisville defender in the '83 Final Four. I thought I had an angle on Anders; he remained one step ahead.
About a year ago, I had a speaking engagement in Little Rock and finagled a side trip to Bernice. Driving the single-lane roads that thread the Louisiana countryside was a little like traveling back in time: cell service was sporadic, women sold vegetables out of the backs of their trucks, roadside motels advertised FREE HBO.
Pulling into town, I steered my rental car down the main drag and turned onto a dirt road. I found the address of Anders's boyhood home. No one currently resides there. At the Bernice Town Hall a woman in charge of records thought she had recently seen Anders and called a friend for more intel. My pulse quickened as she nodded with the receiver affixed to her ear. Then she made a sour face. She'd confused Anders with Willis Reed, who lives a few towns away and is, supposedly, Anders's distant cousin.
I drove by Bernice High, where the Outlaw had been based. It's now an elementary school, though Anders's name still adorns the gym wall. But no one had seen Anders.
Finally I ventured to the address listed for the only Anders in the directory that seemed like it could have a link to Benny. A mobile home rested on bricks several feet off the ground, a bedsheet hung over the door. An elderly woman who emerged claimed not to have seen Anders in years: "Ya'll keep looking for him, but he ain't here!" I presumed that this was Anders's Aunt Gracie but could not confirm it because in the most unambiguous of terms she asked me to leave the property.
Maybe a month later I came upon an old blurb on thecabin.net, a newspaper's website in Conway, Ark., noting, "Ethel and James Lewis McClure Sr. are celebrating their 11th wedding anniversary this weekend with a trip to Sam's Town in Tunica, Miss. They were married April 12, 1993, at the Faulkner County Courthouse." The item mentioned that "the McClures have seven children," among them "Benny Anders of Flint, Mich."
Aha! Not only did this support the private investigator's assertion that Anders was living in Flint, but it also gave the name of Anders's father, which had been elusive. A records search revealed that McClure was born in 1946, which meant he would have been young when he fathered Benny in 1963, but it was possible.
When I called James McClure, he spoke genially, if nervously, but denied being Anders's father. He was "more like an uncle," he said, and besides, he hadn't seen Anders in years. I left my phone number, and maybe an hour later I received a call from a blocked number. The woman on the other end would not identify herself but wondered why I had just called Mr. McClure. When I explained my search to find Anders, she shot back, "Benny don't want to talk to nobody."
"But he's alive?" I said. "He's doing O.K.?"
Now I had multiple references to Anders living in Flint. And in Bernice, a resident provided a name for Anders's biological father that matched with an address in Flint. I thought it was somehow fitting that Anders might be living in a city that was strong in another era but now deteriorating, a shell of its former self.
So it was that last Wednesday I flew to Detroit and drove an hour north. The Flint home corresponding to the address is a brick ranch house on a main drag, not far from a GM plant and not far from a golf course. There was a dark blue H2 in the driveway and an old Lincoln shrouded in a tarp. A basketball rim, rusted and bent upward, was affixed to the garage. The house appeared to be divided into two residences. A light was on in one kitchen. So far, so good. But my knocks went unanswered.
I wondered if Benny was playing hoops, so I ventured to the Flint YMCA. Jeff Grayer, a former NBA player, was there finishing a pickup game. He smiled when asked about Anders. "Benny Anders! We used to see him around, but that was a long time ago," said Grayer. "When you find him, let me know."
I returned to the home and, in stinging cold, stood on the doorstep, feeling pathetic and somewhat guilty intruding on the privacy of a man who hadn't been heard from in a quarter century. When my knocks again yielded no answer, I was almost relieved. I left a note and a business card in the mail slot, but the gesture was pro forma.
It's entirely possible that Benny is alive and well, that there's a simple explanation for his disappearance. His family's concern? His teammates' cracks—which have become less funny through the years—about witness protection? It might all be a misunderstanding, and he's teaching gym in Birmingham or running a Subway franchise in the Chicago suburbs or working in a cubicle in Bangkok. But someone else will have to find him. I failed. And now I'm done looking. Benny Anders remained a step ahead.
Perhaps, ideally, he should remain there. As it stands, Benny exists as a series of brazen quotes, a flash of pink cummerbund, and astounding dunks, one in a pivotal game—a fleeting vision of athletic perfection and personal cult. Out, out brief candle.
A man named Benny Anders, once the Phi Beta Kappa of Phi Slamma Jamma, is now outside the reach of social media, geocoding, voting records and satellite maps. Outside the hazy memories and unquenched desires of people like me. The Outlaw persists, and I'm O.K. with that.