“Where are they now” is a periodical series that will take a look back at the careers of former Kentucky basketball stars and/or John Calipari-coached players and find out what they’re doing post-college. Today we catch up with Derek Anderson, a guard at Kentucky who helped UK win the 1996 national championship.
One of the most athletically gifted players to ever don a Kentucky Wildcat uniform, Doss High School (Louisville) product Derek Anderson not only found a way to entertain fans with his basketball abilities, his post-basketball life is a study in how to positively impact at-risk children and adults alike.
Raised in the most difficult environment imaginable, Anderson brought the toughness and focus he used as a survival mechanism as a youngster to the hardwood. The result of the marriage of his skill with his attitude was two titles – a 1996 national championship with Kentucky and the 2006 NBA title he helped the Miami Heat earn.
But the most long lasting footprint Anderson will leave has nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with his service to others.
An unfathomable childhood
To understand what drives Anderson and his interest in helping motivate those in difficult circumstances, one has to first understand where it is he came from.
Anderson’s dad left him when he was 10 and his mom left him when he was 11, forcing the young and confused kid to cycle between different people’s homes, including his high school coach. Making an already difficult situation even worse was the fact that Anderson fathered a child while still in high school.
“I had a child at 14, got custody of him at 15,” Anderson said about Derek Anderson, Jr. “I had to work two jobs while playing basketball and going to school, so I was basically one of those kids who missed a lot of life, but I never complained. I always smiled. I always tried to make due with whatever I had.”
And what Anderson had wasn’t much.
“It was pretty tough,” Anderson said. “I (had to wear) a size 13 shoe when I really wore an 11. I had to wear the same clothes (over and over). Today’s kids would lose their minds trying to deal with certain things, but me, I just made the most out of it. I didn’t feel like I had to prove anything to anybody. I just wanted to be a better person. I didn’t make any excuses.”
Luckily, Anderson was not without role models. He had adults around him who cared enough to make a difference in his life, beginning with his mother’s brother, Jordan. Jordan was an outstanding basketball player in his own right, and his solid decision-making and love for Anderson brought the two closer together.
In addition to his uncle, it was some of Anderson’s teachers who encouraged him to overcome his lot in life.
“I learned a lot from my teachers,” Anderson said. “A lot of the school teachers used to tell me I had a good mind, (and that) I need to stretch it, I need to study more, I need to focus on what’s good for me. They were always encouraging me. Usually a teacher would give you a bad grade and send you on your way. These teachers actually cared. I felt like they really helped me become a better person because they believed in me.”
Anderson was taught to not place blame for his difficult circumstance, but instead to grasp the opportunities that came his way.
“Find a positive out of all the negative things that were happening to me and make something out of myself,” Anderson said about the lessons learned from his instructors.”Because I’m not going to blame my parents for not being there, or society for being so messed up, or my neighborhood for being full of drug infested problems. I could care less about those things because I still had a chance to make something out of myself.”
Fortunately for Anderson, the people around him recognized what was important in young Derek’s life and provided a support system for Anderson, teaching him that character and respect for others were two keys to his life-long success.
College years filled with success
Despite an illustrious high school basketball career, Anderson, an All-State guard, was not recruited by Louisville, and UK’s head coach at the time, Rick Pitino, told him he wouldn’t have a scholarship available until his sophomore year.
Instead of staying home, Anderson headed north to Ohio State where he starred for the Buckeyes for two years, earning second team All-Big Ten honors his sophomore year.
After the Buckeyes found themselves in hot water with the NCAA over another player’s recruitment, Anderson left Columbus, Ohio, for Lexington. Of course, Anderson was a key cog on UK’s 1996 national title squad — averaging 9.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game — and he entered the 1997 season with high hopes for a repeat of glory.
Fate intervened, however, and Anderson was struck down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament after playing in only 18 games. In those 18 games, Anderson averaged 17.7 points per game and shot 40.4 percent from the 3-point line, as the Cats lost only two games. His impact was so great Anderson was voted second team All-SEC despite playing in only five conference games.
In spite of his serious knee injury, after his graduation from UK — where he earned a pharmacy degree — the NBA beckoned, but it was a call unfamiliar to Anderson.
“I never thought about going to the NBA when I was in high school or college,” Anderson said. “I wasn’t thinking about it all. People started telling me things (about playing in the NBA) beginning in my sophomore year in college, but before then I just wanted to get a regular job and move out of the projects. I just wanted to get a nice house, take care of my son, and grow up to be a good father.”
It was the words of his role models from his youth which stuck in Anderson’s mind. He grew up with certain realities, and the NBA wasn’t one.
“Work, retire, grandkids; that was my dream,” Anderson said. “I never had the dream of playing in the NBA. My blessing was the NBA; my goal was getting a job and taking care of my family. That’s the realistic goal I had in mind. Anything more than that was just a blessing. I’ve always focused on the reality of life. There’s only a 2-percent chance of people making it in the entertainment world, and I was focused on the 98-percent chance where I knew I would be regardless of whether I played (professionally) or not, so I always had a plan that I was going to make it in life because my vision was realistic.”
Anderson was drafted 13th overall in the 1997 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was both a nerve-wracking experience and a time for jubilation for Anderson.
“It was kind of stressful leading up to the draft,” Anderson said. “Just worrying about where I was going, how I was going to get drafted … the details and all that. When they finally called my name it was like I could finally breathe again because I was holding my breath the entire time. But once they called my name I could finally breathe. I had finally made something of myself considering the way I grew up. I was ecstatic. It was the best feeling ever.”
Anderson played 11 seasons in the NBA, winning a championship with the Miami Heat in 2006. He averaged 12.0 points per game for his career, but it was a career stymied by multiple injuries. Anderson, though, never got down, never felt sorry for himself.
“It was very tough,” Anderson said about dealing with so many injuries. “But when you come through an upbringing that I went through, you don’t let stuff like that get you down. You just find another source of motivation. A lot of people haven’t went through enough as a child or a parent covered up when things were going wrong, so when a kid faces adversity he doesn’t know what to do. For me, it was I need to find a way.’ “
A purpose-driven post-basketball life
Anderson retired from the NBA in 2008 and has since been spreading his message of empowerment to the youth of America through his motivational speaking engagements, and his new book, “Stamina.”
“I think (the youth of America) don’t have enough strength, enough support from other people,” Anderson said about his motivation for helping others. “I grew up in the worse situation ever, but I had other people believing in me. I had male role models that actually cared about the kids, and not say, ‘hey, if you win 20 games then you won’t get in trouble,’ (therefore) rewarding me for playing basketball.”
Because of the example set by those in his early life who cared about and nurtured him, Anderson was compelled to reach out and help others who found themselves in a similar situation by forming the Derek Anderson Foundation. It is a foundation which provides aid and assistance to abused and battered women as well as under-privileged children, two demographics Anderson is able to clearly relate to.
Anderson’s pointed message is not only for children growing up under difficult circumstances, he also provides a dose of reality for adults.
“You should never have a kid walking around with his pants sagging and you not say anything because you’re allowing this to become a problem, and people turn their back on them and now, those same people they ignored are the ones causing problems for them,” Anderson said.
“That kid you didn’t give a job, now he’s coming in and robbing you or stealing from you. Those are the people you ignored for so long, now it’s coming back to get you. When so many people ignore you for so long, you begin to ignore people, and it becomes a cycle. So for me, I just want to direct those situations, not just for youth. … The reason I (speak to youth, though) is because of my situation (growing up), I felt in my heart I had to reach out to them because sometimes they’re lost, and they’re blind in this wicked world.”
Anderson’s book, which can be pre-ordered at http://derekandersonworks.com and will be available in bookstores in late February, is a message about how to make it in the world despite lengthy odds. It’s something Anderson knows a thing or two about.
“Everything about ‘Stamina’ is about me surviving, whether it be professionally, college, high school, growing up or regular day-to-day life,” Anderson said. “It’s about surviving. And I think that’s the biggest thing, when you have enough energy and enough belief in yourself, you can do anything. You just have to keep fighting and have enough stamina to keep winning. If you give up, you never give yourself a chance to make something of yourself. I never gave up, I just kept going.”
Asked to deliver what he considers to be his most important message to young people, Anderson did not hesitate.
“Believe in yourself first, then go out and make something of yourself, second,” Anderson firmly stated. “When you stop complaining and having negative energy about whatever has happened to you, or around you, you won’t lose focus anymore. You find a way to survive. Because my thing is, no matter what’s happening around you, you can pick up yourself.”
The University of Kentucky and Victory
In September of 2012, Anderson participated in UK’s Alumni Game, where he had a chance to reconnect with old friends, former teammates and Wildcat coach John Calipari. Anderson’s love for UK still permeates his soul, and his appreciation for Coach Cal and what he has meant to Kentucky, is something he happily shared.
“Coach Cal has done such a tremendous job of bringing the university back to where it needs to be,” Anderson said. “We’re known to be a family type of college. Coach Cal brings all the ex-players back, whether you’re from the NBA, or just a regular guy who was on the team, he wants you to come back and be a part of it, because that’s what we are. We’re a family and that’s what we’re always supposed to be. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and I’ve always appreciated him. He’s a man of character. I’ve seen how he treats all the former players with so much respect.”
It is Anderson’s love of UK which led him to name a drinking water he developed and now sells, after his time at Kentucky. The water, called “Victory H20, was inspired by Anderson’s transforming body that was in need of an alternative from sports drinks.
H20 is available in local Walgreen’s stores.
“All these doctors told me about alkali and oxygenized water and electrolytes,” Anderson said. “We put them together through osmosis and it’s working. It’s a great taste, no calories, no sugars, but you get everything you need. This is what normal people and athletes need. (The name) Victory came in because of UK, of course. It’s a great product, and I’m excited about it.”