Kenny Anderson has found his smile, the one he had when he took Archbishop Molloy to the New York City Catholic high school championship as a freshman, when he led Georgia Tech to the Final Four as a freshman, when he started the 1994 NBA All-Star Game as a New Jersey Net. Anderson found that smile 3,000 miles away, in Portland, and now it is brighter than ever, as he guides the Trail Blazers to the playoffs.
Proof of Anderson's newfound contentment was evident last Thursday as Portland visited the Bucks. The veteran point guard made one of eight shots from the field and scored a season-low four points, but Portland won its 11th straight, 97-78. There were no grimaces from Anderson after missed jumpers, no shaking of his head in frustration. "When I used to have games like that, it'd kill me," he said the following day. "If I wasn't succeeding, I got depressed. But I vowed this year that I wasn't going to let the game kill me. If I went 1 for 8 or 0 for 20 and we won, that's all that mattered. The way I'm playing, with my attitude, I'm a terror."
Anderson leads the Blazers in scoring (18.1 points) and assists (7.1) and had 24 points and seven assists in Sunday's 94-88 win at New York. He's shooting the three-pointer with great faith (a career-high 37.5%), playing energetic defense and enjoying the quiet life out West, away from the pressures of playing near home. "I got three times as much attention in high school as I'm getting in Portland," he says, laughing. "I was a legend in New York even before I got to the NBA. People don't understand that."
Understand. During a two-hour lunch last Friday, Anderson used that word 10 times. He understands the business of the NBA, the importance of staying out of trouble and most significant—after studying Utah's John Stockton for years—the role of the point guard. Sure, Anderson can score; he can beat anyone off the dribble. But on a young, fragile Portland team full of offensive weapons, he realizes that his ability to control the game with his wizardly ball handling and prescient passing is the biggest reason the Trail Blazers, 41-29 at week's end, have an outside chance to win the Western Conference title.
Against the Bucks, Anderson dictated the tempo from the opening tip. He didn't force the action, and he didn't try to gun his way out of his shooting woes. He just ran the offense (11 assists, two turnovers) with Stocktonesque precision. After the game, Milwaukee coach Chris Ford praised Anderson. "He's a great point guard," Ford said, "who has found a home."
Home was New Jersey for Anderson's first 4� seasons in the league. He often had to carry the team, an impossible task for a 6'1", 165-pound guy with a 32-inch waist and hands so small he can't palm a basketball. "One player can't do that at this level," he says. "Even Michael Jordan couldn't do it until he got Scottie Pippen and [Dennis] Rodman. This isn't tennis."
But the expectations surrounding Anderson have always been high around New York, and as the second player taken in the 1991 draft, he was expected to revive the Nets. When he couldn't, he felt he'd failed, and critics agreed. "It took the happiness and joy right out of the game for me," he says. "I was playing only for the money, to support my family. If I had been an older guy last year, I would have retired."
He was traded to Charlotte on Jan. 19, 1996, played well, then became a free agent. "The forgotten free agent," he says. Six or seven teams expressed interest, including the Nets, who offered him a six-year, $40 million deal. He turned it down, knowing that for his career to flourish he had to leave the distractions of home—even if that meant not seeing as much of his mother, Joan. He signed a seven-year, $46 million contract with Portland partly because of coach P.J. Carlesimo, who, as a former Seton Hall coach (1982-94), knew Anderson when he was in junior high. Carlesimo says he "couldn't be happier" with Anderson and that better days are ahead. "People forget how young he is," he says.
Anderson is 26. The only NBA player who's younger and has scored more career points is Shaquille O'Neal. "I'm not old," says Anderson, "but I'm old for what I've been through."
He entered the league at 20, wide-eyed and unprepared. "If I could do it again, I would have stayed in school," says Anderson, who left Georgia Tech after his sophomore year. "I loved it there. I didn't want to leave, but I had to take care of my mother [financially]." He had two children (now 6 and 4) out of wedlock. The NBA lifestyle "was bad. I got caught up in it," he says. "I wasn't a man, like I thought."