A rocky childhood gives him perspective about his Blazer role
This isn't how he planned it. Derek Anderson spurned a lucrative offer to re-sign with San Antonio to accept a six-year, $48 million deal with Portland, but not with the intention of being a backup shooting guard. Since his days as a teen-ager on the playgrounds of west Louisville, Ky., he has always been a starter, more often a star.
But Anderson can take it. Basketball is his profession, but it isn't life. He knows the harsh side of life, and this isn't it. Even the two knee surgeries in college, the shoulder injury that curtailed his playoff run with the Spurs last spring, the ankle injury that plagued him during his first two months in a Trail Blazer uniform Ñ hardly a blip on the radar screen in comparison. That's just basketball, not life.
Life can be having a father and mother who don't care that much about you, who move in and out of your life but wind up more out than in.
Life can be hardly knowing your brothers and sisters and moving from house to house through your childhood but never really having a home.
It can be having enough food on the table only every now and then.
It can be the temptations of crime and drugs on every other street corner, of having friends and classmates who wind up in prison, or dead, or both. It can be frustration and embarrassment and shame.
Life can be cruel, and it was for Derek Anderson growing up. Coming off the bench for the Trail Blazers isn't so bad after what he has been through.
'It is amazing Derek is such an incredible young man, the type of background he had,' says Louisville coach Rick Pitino, his college coach at Kentucky.
Anderson helped Pitino's Wildcats to the NCAA championship as a junior in 1996 and to the title game as a senior in '97.
'In 26 years of coaching,' Pitino says, 'Derek has the most charisma of any kid I have been around. Just a tremendous person, on and off the court.'
Long before his college days, Anderson had established himself as a survivor who stepped beyond what life laid out for him.
'I didn't know my father that well,' he says. 'My mother was on and off.'
The two were never married and were together only at intermittent times during his upbringing. His father had 10 children, but Derek really knew only one, an older brother, and they weren't close. At least Derek wasn't sent to a foster home.
'That's one thing I didn't go to,' he says, 'but I was passed from house to house.'
How many times? Ten? Twelve?
'Way more than that,' he says. 'So many I can't even count. Lived in Flint, Mich., for a while, but mostly in the projects in west Louisville. Where I lived, they tore them down, they were so bad. Lived with my mother, or aunt and uncle, or my great-grandmother. She was the most stable person. I was always with somebody Ñ friends, family, someone. But so many different things happened to me. We were always on welfare. It was very tough. I had no stability in life.
'But now we're all tight. My father, whatever his mistakes were, you can't hold him up for it. I love him to death now, love to be around him. Want him to know his grandkids. My mother, we have a relationship now as well. They are good people. What's done is done.'
The pitfalls of society were all around. Many of the boys in the neighborhood got swallowed up by it all.
'A couple of guys are in prison now,' Anderson says. 'Quite a few are dead. Most people didn't even make it alive out of where I came from. It was a very bad area. The guys in my group, we hung together and didn't get into no trouble. Regular fist fights in the neighborhood, yeah, but nothing against the law. No stealing, no robbing, no drugs, none of that.
'But it was bad. I was so hurt as a kid, I used to hide my smile. I would hide all that frustration and disappointment. I don't ever want to see people as hurt as I was.'
Basketball was his salvation.
'From the time I was 10 or 11, I'd get up at 6 in the morning and go play basketball until the lights went out in the neighborhood,' he says. 'Even after that, really. You couldn't see. No one was out there. I'd dribble, shoot, just to get away from everything.'
Basketball steered him in the right direction, away from trouble and toward a college education. He signed with Ohio State, blew out a knee and transferred to Kentucky after two seasons with the Buckeyes. He played his final two seasons with Kentucky. Midway through his senior year, he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the other knee, which by all rights should have ended his college career.
Appreciates Pitino's decision
Anderson healed quickly, though, and was given medical clearance to play in the Final Four. Pitino, mindful that a potentially successful NBA career could be in jeopardy, chose to hold him out, a decision that Anderson appreciates today.
Anderson did enter the Wildcats' semifinal victory over Minnesota, shooting a pair of free throws after a technical, then immediately checking out of the game. 'A great moment in my career,' he says.
By that time, he had become a beloved figure in the Lexington community, as much for his personality as his basketball skills. During his two years there, he played with such future NBA players as Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Tony Delk, Nazr Mohammed, Walter McCarty, Mark Pope and Jamaal Magloire. Anderson shined more brightly than any.
'Derek had that great flamboyance, where he could lift his teammates with an incredible dunk or steal,' Pitino says. 'But the most important thing was, he had the game in proper perspective. He never came to practice without a smile on his face. He was always good-natured. Never had a chip on his shoulder. Of all the players I have coached, he was the most fun.'
Anderson maintains his connection with Kentucky, helping coordinate an annual summer exhibition game in which proceeds are split between his charitable Derek Anderson Foundation and the UK Basketball Museum. Wildcat fans haven't forgotten him.
Trademark smile captivated UK
'Derek is a magnetic personality,' says Brooks Downing, the school's assistant sports information director. 'Everybody who came into contact with him wanted to be closer to him. He would throw out that trademark smile and pose with every fan in Big Blue Nation. He was one of the more popular players we have had here.'
Anderson played for three teams during his first four years in the NBA, starting with Cleveland, moving to the LA Clippers his third season and then to San Antonio last year, where he blossomed as a key cog with the Spurs. They wanted him back, offering him nearly as much money as did the Blazers. When he signed with Portland, Spurs coach/GM Gregg Popovich accused Anderson of reneging on a deal, which Anderson denies.
'They just lied,' he says. 'Your word is your word, but I didn't give it to anybody. But like I told him, 'We are Christians. We have to forgive each other.' He has to deal with his mistakes. This is a business. You can't take it personally.'
Anderson began this season as a starter but stepped on Shaquille O'Neal's foot and sprained his ankle in the opening loss to the Lakers. He says it continued to bother him until about two weeks ago, 'and it still bothers me on second games of back-to-backs.'
His contributions were sporadic the first two months of the season. After Portland's sixth straight loss in early January, he went to the bench in favor of Bonzi Wells, and the Blazers snapped their skid with a victory over Philadelphia. Since then, Portland had won eight of 10 going into Thursday's game with Memphis.
In his reserve role, Anderson has averaged 9.8 points and 24.2 minutes while shooting .438 from the floor.
'I could start here, but someone has to be a sacrifice,' Anderson says. 'A lot of people's egos and attitudes have to be adjusted. I don't mind being one of those guys to do that, because I want the same thing the next guy wants Ñ to win. I didn't think I would be coming off the bench. Quite frankly, I still think I am more valuable as a starter. But right now for us to win, we have to sacrifice. That's what I am doing now.'
Says teammate Damon Stoudamire: 'It is asking a lot for somebody who pretty much started throughout his career to come off the bench and accept it. That is real big on his part. He is a quiet guy who doesn't worry about the little things. You have to respect a guy like that. He has been playing well for us, too. He sees what we need and comes in and gives us whatever boost we need.'
Anderson gets his countenance from his Christian faith.
Rediscovers Christian faith
'God has been with me so long, but I accepted him back in my life last year, on Father's Day,' he says. 'I went to church, and all of a sudden, he said to me, 'Look where you are today, and look where you have come from.' I found it in my heart to find him again.'
Anderson has two children, Derek Jr., 13, and DeAsia, 7, who live with their mothers in Louisville.
'They come and see me regularly,' he says. 'I talk to them on the phone every day. I want to be there for them Ñ not just money-wise, but in every way.'
He and his fiancŽ, Usheema Thomas of Louisville, have set a tentative August wedding date.
'I have always wanted to get married,' Derek says. 'One thing I have wanted to do is raise my kids in a family like I didn't have.'
Already, the fans in Portland are getting to know Anderson as a quality guy.
'I want to let people know (Blazer players) are approachable,' he says. 'Every time I go somewhere, people say, 'You are the bright spot.' It seems like I am the only one they might say that to. Hopefully, people will understand that we have a lot of good guys on this team.'
Anderson would love to play more, 'but I don't let it get me down,' he says. 'I went through the worst times, and I have made it this far. Now I have $48 million.'
And a life. A real life. Life doesn't have to be so harsh, if you just won't let it.