After NBA glory, demons haunt NYC basketball legend Kenny Anderson
“I study downfalls,” a young Kenny Anderson told Sports Illustrated more than 20 years ago. The implication was obvious: By analyzing where other stars went wrong, Anderson could avoid a similar fate.
This was 1994. Anderson was 23 years old and blossoming as an NBA star after a two-year All-American career at Georgia Tech.
Before that, he’d been a prep basketball legend from Queens, a wizard of a point guard who broke ankles and threaded no-look passes as a young prodigy in the world’s media capital. Now here he was, making big NBA money, beaming a superstar’s smile, and giving interviews to Sports Illustrated.
“It seems certain that in the dark legend of New York playground heroes, Kenny Anderson will be a point of light,” the magazine wrote of the young player who studied where others went wrong.
Anderson was riding high back then, but he had no idea his own “downfall” was yet to come — nor that the seeds for it had long been planted.
By the time Anderson was arrested for DUI in 2013 and then let go from his high school coaching job, a much darker picture had emerged. After racking up career earnings of $63 million, he filed for bankruptcy in 2005 — the same year his mother died. He had already fathered several children by multiple women. Anderson’s 2013 DUI seemed to crystallize that he was lost in his life after pro basketball.
That nadir is where the documentary Mr. Chibbs picks up Anderson’s story. The film, which opens May 3 at New York’s IFC Center and is set to hit other markets later this year, follows Anderson as he struggles to find meaning, discipline, and direction in his post-NBA life. In many ways, it’s a new twist on the classic trope of the fallen-star.
From low to high, and then back down again
Directed by Jill Campbell, Mr. Chibbs is as raw as Anderson is candid.
We’re shown Anderson, who’s now 46 years old, triumphantly returning to Queens. We’re shown him tearing up as he recounts times he failed those around him. And we learn how Anderson himself was failed by a money-driven pro sports ecosystem that hyped him from his days as a New York phenom — but had little care for the human behind the highlights.
“When I met Kenny I became really passionate about telling the story because he was clearly in this mid-life crisis,” Campbell says. “I thought, ‘This is a really interesting part of someone’s life to focus on, one that’s different from your typical sports doc.”
Mr. Chibbs draws its title from Anderson’s childhood nickname, which was bestowed upon him by his mother. The film examines his present struggles, and his past successes. But it’s most powerful when studying Anderson’s deep past, before he found teenage hoops glory.
Anderson’s early years were spent surrounded by addiction and despair. In one scene of Mr. Chibbs, he recounts being molested by a neighbor as a young boy. In another scene, we see him talking to a youth team about the horrors he endured while sharing a rented room with his mother, who was battling substance abuse problems.
Viewed through this prism, the question in a viewer’s mind becomes less of how Anderson could have fallen so far from his NBA heyday. Instead, it becomes something more along these lines: “How did Kenny Anderson ever reach such great heights after enduring so much?”
Today, Anderson lives in South Florida, where he runs basketball camps and clinics as well as coaches a youth travel team. He also sees a therapist once a week while continuing to build stability in his post-NBA life.
Ahead of Mr. Chibbs’ release this week in the town where he became a child star, Anderson chatted with Mashable.
“Basketball was simple for me. It’s everything else that was hard,” he says. “I wanted people to see Kenny Anderson from a different side and get the real. This is what was created from all the things I’ve done, and all the demons I’ve faced.”
The transcript that follows has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. You can find a trailer above, and an exclusive clip from the film after our Q-and-A with Anderson.
Q-and-A with Kenny Anderson
Mashable: A line from the film that jumped out to me was when you described the height of your stardom as “chaos” because of the money you were spending, the relationships you were having, and the general lifestyle you were living. Fans see the glamor parts from the outside, but what was that “chaos” like from the inside?
Kenny Anderson: When you’re in the chaos, you’re enjoying the chaos. I was so used to a lot of drama in my life that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. There’s a lot of people walking around in the world who have money and everything they could ever want but have demons they can’t or aren’t willing to come face to face with.
I wasn’t happy. I didn’t even know what happiness was. You don’t know who’s in your corner, because there’s a lot of leeches and a lot of fake love going on. There’s only a few people that are still in my corner, that are willing to help me out. And I’m not talking about money — I’m talking about people willing to give love and give that motivational kick.
Now I’m just trying to get better as a mentor and a father. I think my mom would be wanting me to do that. A few months before she passed, she said she wanted me to change my life and do the right things.
Mashable: Your story is unique in so many ways, but you aren’t the only ex-star to struggle in retirement. Then other former stars make that transition smoothly. What do you think separates the ones who struggle from the ones have an easier transition?
Kenny Anderson: Most of those guys who had the smooth transition never had to be childhood prodigies at eight or nine years old. Even today with social media, usually it happens a little later on in high school. But to get the attention I did, at eight years old, in the media capital of the world? And then to be successful at every level after that? High school, college, NBA? I think that’s unique to me.
I respect the guys who made the transition. They set themselves up for that. I didn’t. I was blinded. My whole thing was to take care of my mother — then after I accomplished that, there was no Plan B.
Mashable: Another memorable moment in the film is where you say you “never had to do anything for yourself” as a teenager because of your status as a basketball star. How do you think that caught up to you as you became an adult and a pro?
Kenny Anderson: It didn’t help, and it only got bigger. When you’re in the NBA and playing well, you get the VIP treatment. So it only got worse and I took advantage of it. But when it’s over, you see who’s in your corner for real. When things are no longer poppin’ and you’re no longer able to help people the way you used to, you learn it’s no longer unconditional love. And you gotta deal with that.
I wasn’t real with myself. The nature of the business got to me and it wasn’t pure anymore. Eventually I was playing basketball, but I wasn’t smiling anymore. That’s when I knew something wasn’t right.
But when you’re in the limelight, you have to hide everything. When I retired and my mom passed away, I was able to start looking at a lot of things in a different way.
Mashable: What are you hoping the average viewer — the person who doesn’t know your name and didn’t watch you when you were an NBA star — gets out of seeing Mr. Chibbs?
Kenny Anderson: That’s who’s getting the most! A lot of people watching it at the film festivals, during the Q and A after, they’ll say, ‘Wow. I feel you. I’m going through the same thing, just a different version.’ Kudos and God bless all those who are trying to be the best version of themselves, because we’re all going to get slapped down at some point.
There was a guy who came to one of my screenings in my old New Jersey Nets warm-up uniform. He said I inspired him to go to college. I get choked up just thinking about it. Who would’ve ever thought me, of all people — and after retirement — would inspire somebody?
Exclusive clip from ‘Mr. Chibbs’