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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.
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?