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.
"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."