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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.