Playoff series is homecoming for Chicagoan Anderson of 76ers

May 05, 1991|By Phil Jasner | Phil Jasner,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- He was in his first season at Santa Barbara Junior College, a long way from his Chicago home, and he knew he didn't have enough money in his pocket.

So he discussed it with his coach.

"He said he could get a job for me," the Philadelphia 76ers' Ron Anderson recalled after practice Thursday.

"He had me cutting weeds, cutting grass. It was hot out, and it wasn't easy. He said he wasn't just going to give me something, that in this life you had to work for what you got.

"I never forgot that. He told me I had to work for everything."

Anderson has. And he is one reason that the Sixers opened their best-of seven second-round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls yesterday in Chicago Stadium. He also is one of four Sixers with ties to Chicago.

Hersey Hawkins played at Westinghouse High, Rickey Green at Hirsh. Brian Oliver was born in Chicago but lived there only briefly before his family moved to the Atlanta area.

Anderson's situation was different. He was just another student at Bowen High, a youth who lived for street ball, who never even tried out for the school team. He was 21 before he agreed to try junior college, 25 when he left Fresno State. He made his National Basketball Association debut with Cleveland against the Sixers in the Spectrum in 1984-85, scoring 27 points on opening night.

"I'd score, Julius [Erving] would say 'Nice shot, young fellow,' " Anderson remembered. "He didn't know how old I already was."

Anderson is 32 now, a 6-foot-7 forward who averaged 14.6 points during the season, then increased that to 16.7 during the three-game sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

He's old enough to have the experience necessary to help the Sixers in what promises to be a tough series, the winner of which will advance to the Eastern Conference finals. But he is young enough to exploit the skills necessary -- perimeter shooting, scoring, running the floor and defense -- that the Sixers will need against an opponent that won 61 games during the regular season. He is the team's best conditioned athlete, and only he and backup center Manute Bol appeared in all 82 regular-season games.

His life changed again when the Cavaliers traded him to Indiana and when the Pacers sent him to the Sixers in October 1988.

The latter was a trade that paid off for the Sixers. Anderson, trapped behind Wayman Tisdale and Chuck Person, was obtained for forgettable guard Everette Stephens, a second-round draft choice from Purdue.

"It's funny now, because every time I see [Pacers general manager] Donnie Walsh," Anderson said, "he tells me he's still kicking himself."

Anderson savors the idea of going home to start an important series.

"I just enjoy playing in front of my family," he said. "I know the fans know Rickey and Hersey, because they were high school stars in their city. I'm making my presence known."

Why now? Why did Anderson skip the conventional route to success, instead working as a stock clerk in a grocery store, playing in a park league in grim Cabrini Green, an area he calls "one of the worst neighborhoods in the city"?

"I was a kid, a good kid, but with little desire to do much other than that," he said. "Maybe I didn't want to find out what life was about. What would I have done if I hadn't gotten the opportunity I did? People have asked me that a lot, and the truth is, I don't know."

His life changed dramatically when a Santa Barbara player, Keith Williams, saw him play impressively one summer night.

"He had come to watch his brother play, but it was one of those situations where his coach had said, 'If you see a player, let me know.' "

Next stop, California.

"I didn't know what to expect," Anderson said. "But stock manager was my 'title' at the store. I had nothing to lose. Till then, all I had seen of California was in commercials. I remember, when I got there, I thought it was paradise. I mean, the gym was about 300 yards from the ocean."

He thrived in that atmosphere, spending two seasons before going to Fresno State, before the Cavaliers drafted him. As a junior, he became the Most Valuable Player of the National Invitational Tournament. As a senior, he made it to the National Collegiate Basketball Association Tournament, but his team lost in the first round to Louisiana Tech, "getting kicked by Karl Malone."

He is playing for a modest -- by league standards -- $425,000 this season but has signed a new three-year contract that guarantees him about $2.7 million. He says his story "is one in a million."

And that's the message he tries to deliver in the many personal appearances and speaking engagements he makes on the team's behalf.

"I stress education," he said. "I tell the kids that I don't see it happening for them the way it happened for me, that they have to find another way in life.

"When I retire, I'm thinking about counseling troubled kids. I have a buddy in New Jersey, Marvin Frazier, who works with kids like that in a program. He tries to help them change their lives.

"I think I could do it, because I'm like a big kid at heart. I like to be the role model in all phases of my life, not just when I'm playing ball. If kids are going to choose an athlete as a model, I don't mind being their choice.

"I think my parents had a great deal to do with that. I know my wife [Gail] did. She always wanted me to be somebody our kids would want to be like.

"I've been through hell and high water, and I tell the kids at schools and camps about that."

He attracts their attention with his basketball skills, his stories and his willingness to sign autographs, to spend time talking.

Still, he says he has never done a commercial, has never done a poster.

"But I'm pretty far away from going home to say, 'I made it,' " he said. "I've already done that."

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