By Stephen Burnett
At 12 years old on the streets of Louisville, Derek Anderson was effectively homeless.
His mom often left their home for days at a time. His father wasn’t involved in his life. That’s why he learned to play basketball, Anderson said — because otherwise, he had nothing else.
“Some nights when mom wouldn’t come home, I would stay at the basketball court,” he recalled. “It would be real late and I would play basketball by myself. The ball didn’t have any air, but I would still shoot it. … I just stayed at the basketball court all the time.”
Only guidance from male role models –- from his uncle to his high-school coach to UK basketball coach Rick Pitino and many others — kept Anderson from being just another statistic, he said. Now, following a career in professional basketball and charity work with his nonprofit Derek Anderson Foundation, Anderson is planning more to encourage young people to take responsibility for their own actions and futures, including a new book and even film efforts.
What little home life Anderson had was not only poor, but abusive. With his absent father, he had no way to know how a man should behave, lead and take responsibility. Anderson did hope to play football and did so until about age 13, when he opted for basketball. But any higher goals may have been sidelined when, at age 14, Anderson fathered a son. Working at a candy store for child support while going to school, could have trapped him in a cycle of poverty.
On many mornings, he would wake from sleeping outdoors and head to school in the same clothes. Even without doing drugs or drinking, his life was often in jeopardy. So were the lives of his family members. When Anderson was 13, a friend called to say Anderson’s sister had been killed. A friend of Anderson’s father had been trying to rob her and stabbed her 17 times.
“How many twelve-year-olds could survive that?” Anderson asked.
Even that trauma did not yet wake him up to the peril of his situation. At age 16, Anderson was standing outside at a high school party, when a young man standing next to Anderson was shot in his head and killed instantly.
“What if that was me?” Anderson recalled asking himself. “If I didn’t stay away from that stuff, I would probably be in trouble, or I would probably be killed.”
But then his uncle, George Williams, his mother’s brother, stepped in.
“He became the father figure I always needed,” Anderson said.
Williams signed Anderson out of a shelter home, gave him a place to live and encouraged him.
“He always made sure that I did the right thing,” Anderson said. “He would make me sacrifice not living in the streets.”
Joining that influence was Anderson’s high-school coach, Ken Salyer, who taught him about life, politeness to others and responsibility for one’s actions.
“He wound up settling me down completely,” Anderson said. “He was key in my life.”
Anderson joined the basketball team of Doss High School and began to improve his game and his life. He was elected class president. He began to aspire to more: to go to college, either the University of Louisville or the University of Kentucky, and play basketball there.
“I was six-[foot]-five, and I was a point guard,” he said. “I was super-fast, and I could dribble.” Every team that saw him in action, the summer after his graduation, asked him to play in all three positions. “I played with guys who were like five or six years older than me,” Anderson added.
Most people who knew Anderson assumed he would go to the University of Louisville, but then Ohio State University coach Randy Ayers met with Anderson and invited him into the program.
The decision to attend Ohio State, ended up being a negative experience. The program was in probation trouble, and Anderson was had knee problems. Still, he met other friends who instilled in him the value of family — Mark and Sunny Masser, a couple with whom he spent much time.
“It was painful leaving there,” Anderson said. But with the Massers’ help, in 1994 Anderson chose to move on. Then he faced a decision: go to UCLA, or UK. He sat out a year to recover from his left knee injury, and in 1995 came back to Kentucky, to join the Wildcats — which led him to experience, like never before, a new kind of family.
During his year of recovery, Anderson got to know Tony Delk, Ron Mercer, Wayne Turner and several other players who later won acclaim for the team and in the NBA . Delk and Anderson became especially close friends and began working out every day, as a friendly competition.
“I’d never been around a group of guys that loved the game of basketball the way that they did,” Anderson said. “Of course, Pitino had us on pins and needles!”
Team members practiced hard, but never got into fights. Never was any difference made personal, and the players bonded as men in a way that Anderson said he hasn’t enjoyed since.
To this day, he said, he misses those golden hours.
“Away from the games were the best times of my life,” Anderson recalled. “We were all like brothers. We were like being kids again.”
On road trips, players would wrestle, half the team against the other half, in hallways. “Those were times that you just wish you could do that all the time. … Besides winning the championship [in 1996], those were the best times I ever had,” he said.
Eight to 10 players might go play laser tag, or go out to eat or enjoy a movie. No girlfriends came along, and no coach made them do it — only players enjoying each other’s company.
That bonding certainly reflected during the team’s winning season, he said. Players had learned to trust each other implicitly away from the court, so combining their ambitions was natural.
“When we got outside the gym, we knew that other person’s character,” Anderson said. No one could fault another man because he was trying to play and help the team like everyone else, and Anderson said that even now, that bond, along with winning championships, seems without match.
Foundations for giving
Anderson averaged just less than 10 points per game during UK’s national championship run in 1996.
Anderson carved out a bigger role as a senior, but his UK career was cut short on Jan. 18, 1997, when in a game versus Auburn.
“I was running up the floor and slipped on a wet spot to the side, going after a loose ball,” he said. Anderson had torn his ACL, ending what he believed had been his best year yet.
“It was brutal,” he said. “Knee pain wasn’t anything compared with not being able to play the game. … This was it. I would never be able to play college basketball again. It was just like my soul had been taken from me.”
Yet he felt he must draw back on that sense of responsibility and ambition that others had taught him, before college basketball. “This is another obstacle for me to overcome,” he said.
And in a Final Four game later that season, when UK played Minnesota, Anderson proved wrong those who said he would never score another point for the Wildcats. He was asked to come forward to make two free-throw shots, and he sunk them both.
Anderson graduated from UK, and was drafted to the NBA later in 1997, despite his injury. For two years he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, helping take them to the playoffs. After two year-long stints, for the Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs, he played for the Portland Trail Blazers from 2001 to 2005. From there he went to the Houston Rockets.
His next team, the Miami Heat, won the NBA championship in 2006. Anderson then tried to retire, but like Michael Jordan, he said he had to be pulled back into the game for one more period — in Anderson’s case, to play for the Charlotte Bobcats from 2006 to 2008.
After the 2008 season, he finally did retire.
“My knees were fine, but my back started hurting,” he said. “And I wanted to leave on my own. I’d seen too many horror stories where guys got hurt.”
Already he had plenty of other tasks waiting for him. Along with owning several companies — including D. A. Enterprises and two hotels — in 1998 he had started the Derek Anderson Foundation, with help from his Uncle George. Anderson said he recalled not getting gifts for Christmas or birthdays or enjoying either of his parents’ support during any of his games — from high school to professional basketball. He wanted to provide those gifts to other kids in rough situations, and encourage them to pursue education and a way out of those lifestyles.
“‘Each one, teach one,’ Uncle George said,” Anderson quoted. “I’ve always taken that to heart.”
The foundation partners with charities to give children free clothes, shoes and food, and hold free picnics, concerts and fundraisers. Its mission is also to help abused women and children — something that Anderson soberly remembers all too well.
“My dad used to beat my momma real bad,” he said. “In a lot of situations, they were both drunk with alcohol. So neither one of them knew what they were doing, because they wound up getting back together the next day.
“I just didn’t want to see people go through that. Women went from being nothing, to being able to vote, to being independent. But now they also need respect.”
Much of that work occurs in Louisville, yet Anderson now lives in Atlanta, dividing his time between there and Los Angeles. Besides basketball, he loves writing and has written in several genres. In addition to a book that may be released later this year, his written repertoire includes many screenplays, which he hopes to produce with the help of a new company, Loyalty Media Group.
“I love fiction, I love all of it!” Anderson said. “The only thing I don’t like is horror movies. I grew up in the projects — bad neighborhood. I was in enough horror.
“I’ve seen so much in such a short time. I’m thirty-seven, and I’ve seen so much.”
Anderson remains close to and grateful for all the men who helped teach him and launch his career in basketball and interests even beyond the sport. Uncle George still supports him 100 percent as a father figure as well as one to Anderson’s son, Derek Anderson Jr. Anderson stays in touch with his brother figures from UK — a camaraderie he said never found again on more individually-focused NBA teams.
Soon Anderson’s story may be more widely known, when he may go on book tours and appear on TV talk shows to promote his book, “Be Unstoppable.”
Even before that, Anderson hopes to spread that same encouragement and respect to others, either in real life, or during his frequent exchanges on Twitter, where he is @DerekLAnderson.
“I’m one of these kids who’d say: ‘Quit making excuses,’” he said.
Anderson thinks that with help anyone can defeat the hostility of his background and lifestyle, and not only by being lucky and becoming a proficient basketball player. One can work as a janitor, or a McDonald’s server — anything to take responsibility for one’s own choices, Anderson said.
“If you’re able to provide and protect for your family and yourself, then that’s success,” he said. “Stop making excuses, and start doing something for yourself. … You got to fight through these things to make it in life.”
Stephen Burnett is a newspaper reporter and freelancer in Central Kentucky.
Photo from the Derek Anderson Foundation.