The star player who overcomes an impoverished childhood is a familiar sports story. The narrative arc begins at the corner of Poverty and Despair, and ultimately ends with shiny success. Basketball courts — fixtures in rundown inner city neighborhoods as well as downtown stages for millionaire NBA players — serve as fitting bookends for these Horatio Alger tales.
Former Kentucky player Derek Anderson's rags-to-riches story is well known. He detailed his determination to make it no matter the obstacles in a book titled Stamina.
Yet, despite the commonplace of these can-do sports stories, in general, and knowing Anderson's vivid example, in particular, a retelling last week captivated the Lexington Bluegrass Area Minority Business Expo luncheon. During his 30-minute talk, the crowd of more than 1,000 repeatedly broke into applause, whooped approval as he recalled not surrendering to discouragement and sighed audibly as he recalled setbacks in an early life straight out of a Charles Dickens novel.
Abandoned by his parents at 10. A single father at 15. Reunited after 20 years with his father, who died two months later. A Christmas dinner with his mother for the first time in 28 years (that brought sustained applause).
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"The best thing I got out of that relationship was I didn't quit," he said of Christmas dinner with his mother. "And neither did she."
A voice in the audience exclaimed, "That's right!"
Not quitting was a major theme in Anderson's talk. "Life is about how bad you want to win," he was quoted as saying on a display marking which Lexington Convention Center ballroom he would speak.
When asked the next day about his inspiring rags-to-riches story, Anderson balked.
"I wouldn't put it as rags to riches," he said. He prefers a more inclusive follow-my-example story line.
"I tell people, I'm from the projects, but that's not my excuse," he said. "Quit telling me I'm from the projects. Tell me how to get out of the projects."
Referring to himself in the third person, Anderson added, "No, he's not telling you a story. He's telling you to write your own story."
Anderson's story seems hard to believe. After moving from Flint, Mich., to Louisville at age 10, he had his father leave without a goodbye, he said.
Survival instincts took him to a Winn Dixie, where he volunteered to help shoppers with their grocery bags in hopes of getting a five- or 10-cent tip. He made $3 the first day and treated himself to a two-piece meal at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
"I was an entrepreneur at that age," he said.
A few months later, he returned home to find his mother had departed.
In hopes of having a place for the night, "I used to fake falling asleep," he told the Expo audience. "You ever do that? It works."
Anderson's boyhood became proof of the African proverb: "It takes a village to raise a child." At various times, neighbors, friends' families and an uncle, George Williams, supported him. "They knew my situation," he said.
Months after becoming a father, he became a single father when the baby boy's mother was arrested for shoplifting, he said. A neighbor taught him how to change a diaper.
"Plenty of scary nights," he said. "But you only have two options: survive or die. And I didn't want to die."
Anderson volunteered for any and all odd jobs anyone needed done. "Doing everything you could to stay fed," he said.
Personal improvement became a mantra. When he said he had a 3.7 grade-point average at Doss High School and was elected class president, applause filled the ballroom.
As a budding basketball star at Doss, Anderson lived with friends' families or the high school coach or the high school assistant coach. "I was all over the place," he said.
Of course, Anderson played for Ohio State, then transferred to Kentucky after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament. He helped UK win the 1996 national championship and might have helped UK win the 1997 title had he not again tore an ACL.
People noticed a smile seldom left his face. Of the basketball injuries, he said he thought, "This ain't nothing to what I've been through."
Anderson mixed light-hearted basketball anecdotes into his talk. "You don't want people down the whole time," he said the next day. For instance, then-UK Coach Rick Pitino had players who made mistakes in practice run on a treadmill. Turnovers condemned teammate Cameron Mills to this punishment so many times it inspired a nickname: "Treadmills."
Anderson played in the NBA for a decade. Now, he works as a motivational speaker. He also trains young players with an emphasis on playing the right way and keeping a good attitude.
He's written a script for a movie of his life and begun looking for locations. He hopes the casting process will begin soon.
He advised those in the Expo audience to forgive someone, and to get about self-improvement today.
He ended his talk to the Business Expo by saying, "Always keep your stamina."
The crowd rose and gave him a standing ovation.
Changing the game
During an appearance on an ESPN podcast last week, UK Coach John Calipari was asked about the move to a 30-second shot clock next season. Of course, that's only five seconds fewer than the previous shot clock. "That's not the rule that's going to make a difference," he said.
Calipari noted another change, much less publicized, that he said could significantly change how college basketball will be played. That's the elimination of the five-second closely guarded rule. In other words, a player will be able to dribble the ball for as much of the 30-second clock as he'd like without worrying about a five-second violation. (A five-second count will remain in effect for a closely guarded player who is merely holding the ball.)
Calipari suggested that the change may work against the stated purpose of speeding up play and making college basketball more appealing to fans, viewers and advertisers (not necessarily in that order).
"This will make the game ugly," the UK coach said. "We're trying to make the game pretty."
We go to the NBA to better understand. The NBA does not have a five-second closely guarded violation. So an NBA player can monopolize the ball for as long as he'd like within the overall limitations of the shot clock (think LeBron James backing down a defender ad nauseam while his teammates stand and watch). Ball and player movement could be significantly reduced.
Calipari promised to closely watch preseason exhibition games to see how the rule change affects play. "I hope it's not a mistake," he told ESPN hosts Seth Greenberg and Andy Katz.
Calipari held out hope that if the change is considered a mistake, it can be repealed before the beginning of regular-season games.
Jake Bell, the SEC's coordinator of officials, noted two reasons for the change: 1) the 30-second shot clock with keep the action moving; 2) referees have been inconsistent in enforcing the five-second count.
Bell suggested that it was possible, but unlikely, that the rule change would be repealed prior to the start of the 2015-16 regular season.
Maui: Yeahs and nays
John Calipari made no secret of how he developed a distaste for the Maui Invitational. Too far to travel. A format (three-games-in-three-days) that Kentucky won't encounter again except, maybe, in the SEC Tournament (another event Calipari speaks of as an unnecessary nuisance).
So no surprise that UK was not part of a teleconference conducted last week to beat the promotional drums for this November's Maui Invitational. Even without Kentucky, which hasn't played on Maui since 2010, the event still draws standout fields. The 2015 event features four of college basketball's 10 winningest programs: No. 2 Kansas (2,153 victories); No. 7 UCLA (1,803); No. 8 St. John's (1,795); No. 10 Indiana (1,756).
Coaches acknowledged Calipari had a point about the arduous travel required to play on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
"It is going to be a beast of a trip," Wake Forest Coach Danny Manning said. He noted that he and his family went to Hawaii this summer. To ease the travel burden, he said the Wake Forest team will arrive on Maui "early."
When asked about the travel, St. John's Coach Chris Mullin simply said, "That is what it is."
Yet, the coaches noted many benefits for playing in the Maui Invitational. Those included:
■ Team bonding. "A lot of camaraderie with teammates," said Manning, who played on a Kansas team that won the Maui Invitational in 1987. "I thought that was one of the better experiences and trips I ever had with a team."
■ Good competition. "I feel like challenges are always good," Mullin said. "They make you focus."
■ An accurate gauge on a team. "Great litmus test right away," said UCLA Coach Steve Alford, who added that Maui would give the Bruins "a month's head start" toward settling on a team identity.
Hey, good looking
In assessing Kelenna Azubuike's potential as a television commentator, the director of Syracuse's Sportscaster U. program quickly got to how the former UK player is "a really good-looking guy."
No scoop there. TV is a visual medium. Being attractive is a good thing.
"What it does is it delivers a level of appeal ... ," said Matt Park, who also does radio play-by-play for Syracuse football and men's basketball. "(Azubuike) gets on camera, and you like what you see, even if it is subconscious, because he's a good-looking guy with some personality and some energy."
'Give them something'
Participating in the Sportscaster U. program at Syracuse this summer led former UK player Nazr Mohammed to a conclusion. After seeing the preparation by personnel on and off camera, he decided he should make a greater effort in the future as the person being interviewed.
"I think every player should go through Sportscaster U. because it shows you how much work goes on behind the scenes," Mohammed wrote in his blog. "It makes you want to be a better interviewee."
In a follow-up phone conversation, Mohammed said he was taken aback by the work that goes into the lights-camera-action.
"You want to give them something," he said. "You want to give them an enthusiastic interview."
To Mike Pratt. He turns 67 on Tuesday. . . . To Gene Stewart. He turned 70 on Friday. . . . To Mike Flynn. He turned 62 on Friday. . . . To North Carolina Coach Roy Williams. He turned 65 on Saturday.