It isn’t often that going to college in Stillwater, Oklahoma, represents a move to a much bigger city.
Compared to former Oklahoma State basketball star James Anderson’s hometown, Stillwater might as well be the New York of the Midwest, with Kerr-Drummond acting as the picturesque skyline. Anderson hails from Junction City, Arkansas, a city with 721 residents according to the latest census data. There are no movie theaters or shopping malls, but there is a high school, one that Anderson put on the map during a decorated career that attracted the eyes of prominent Division 1 programs like OSU, Oklahoma, LSU and Baylor.
“I just knew that if I worked hard I could try to make something out of myself,” Anderson said.
Blessed with the ideal physical pedigree for a wing player, Anderson worked countless hours to refine his skillset, eventually developing into a complete scorer that ESPN ranked as the third best small forward recruit in his high school class, ahead of recognizable names like Evan Turner and Austin Daye.
“He was just incredibly driven,” said Joy Mason, who taught Anderson social studies in high school and is currently Junction City’s principal. “He knew he had to work twice as hard as other kids to standout because of where he was coming from. And instead of working twice as hard, he worked three times as hard.”
Despite being a big fish in a little pond – both literally and figuratively – Anderson impressed his elders with the way he stayed grounded and unassuming.
“He acted like any other student,” Mason said. “He never thought he was better than everybody else because he was a good athlete.”
As a senior, Anderson led Junction City to its first state basketball title scoring 43 points in the title game while becoming a state champion in the high jump, and he was named Arkansas’ Gatorade Player of the Year and was a McDonald’s All-American, two unthinkable achievements for a Junction City native. Given that, it should come as no surprise that Anderson was voted Most Athletic and Most Unlikely to Be Forgotten in his final high school yearbook.
“Everything revolved around him on the court,” Gayla Helbling, Junction City High School’s librarian and media specialist, said. “But you would never know that. He was always working to get the best out of those around him and never developed an ego or sense of entitlement.”
Anderson’s accomplishments are well known on campus more than a decade after his departure, not just because of word of mouth, but because there is a shrine in the library of his accomplishments. The city even holds “James Anderson Day” which is an annual celebration for the community that falls on the day he signed his letter of intent to play at Oklahoma State. Even now, during his offseason, Anderson heads to his high school gym, which used to fill up to a capacity three times the city’s population to watch him play, and keeps the lights on at night so the kids can keep their games going a little later.
“The humility and personality he showed and still shows really sets an example for everyone around here,” Mason said.
In so many ways, Anderson is the poster boy for his hometown. Everyone who knows him points out just how rare it is for someone from their city, in which nearly a third of the residents live below the poverty line, to make it on a national scale, but Anderson has despite myriad obstacles. Among them, Anderson didn’t have a car, so his basketball coach offered to drive him for his college visits.
“I had a lot of support and a lot of people went out of their way to make everything possible for me,” Anderson said.
In a vacuum, moving from Junction City, Arkansas, to Stillwater, Oklahoma, might not seem life-changing, but for Anderson, it was just the beginning of a journey that would soon have him traversing the world.
“James is example of what believing in yourself and never giving up can lead to,” Helbling said. “The legacy he left behind is about more than basketball, and it will last longer than any of us will know.”
LIFE AS A COWBOY
By the time Anderson had made it to Stillwater, he had developed a prominent national reputation for a player from such a small city, and that pattern would continue during his time as a Cowboy.
“(Oklahoma State) is where everything started to come together for me,” Anderson said. “Being recruited to play college ball was a big enough deal, but at OSU the idea of me playing in the NBA one day really started to take shape.”
Just as he did in high school, Anderson’s tremendous talent lifted his team into the spotlight. The Pokes made it to consecutive NCAA Tournaments for the first time in three years during Anderson’s career, and his junior season vaulted him into first-round pick territory, as his 22.3 points per game (the third highest average in OSU history) earned him All-American honors and the Big 12 Player of the Year award.
Of all of the things Anderson accomplished as a Cowboy, two victories in particular stand out.
“Beating Kansas two times at home was a big time accomplishment,” Anderson said. “Those were definitely my best memories at Oklahoma State.”
Court-stormings prompted by upset victories against the prominent Jayhawks bookended Anderson’s accomplished collegiate career. As a freshman in 2008, Anderson played a minor role as Byron Eaton led the Cowboys with 26 points in a thrilling one-point win over the 4th-ranked Jayhawks, a team that would go on to win the national championship. Two years later, Anderson had taken over as the star of the program, pouring in 27 points to help clinch an 85-77 victory versus the No. 1 team in the country.
“James just had one of his nights where he was just unconscious,” said Keiton Page, Anderson’s former who now works as an assistant coach for the Cowboys. “He was pulling it from everywhere. The basket seemed like the ocean that night.”
Anderson was feeling it and the Gallagher-Iba Arena crowd couldn’t get enough. He drilled four threes, got to the rim for some athletic finishes, including the back-breaking dunk that put Oklahoma State up 10 with two minutes left, and he iced the game down the stretch at the free throw line. It was without question the brightest moment of his Big 12 Player of the Year campaign.
“James was always just so serious about basketball and took everything so seriously,” Page said. “In games and in practice and in preparation, James was always so focused. But he showed more emotion in that Kansas game than I think he did in any practice and any game combined. He was beating his chest after three-pointers and I think he even stuck his tongue out one time. That was definitely one of the most exciting moments of my career as a Cowboy.”
Anderson’s legendary performance may have even inspired future generations of Cowboys to accomplish the same feat.
“(The coaches) showed us a few clips of the teams that had beat Kansas before,” said Jeff Newberry, a former Cowboy guard who beat Kansas in his junior season. “They showed highlights of Anderson’s team and the one that beat them last year. It helped get us pumped up.”
Those final moments are tattooed into Anderson’s mind. As the clock wound down to zero and the students began spilling down from the baseline bleachers and pouring onto the court, Anderson dribbled the ball across the halfcourt line, clutching it by his side when the final buzzer sounded.
“When you beat Kansas in your first and last season,” Anderson said, “that’s going to be the highlight of your career.”
TROTTING THE GLOBE
“It is a nice place to live,” Anderson said.
He isn’t talking about San Antonio or Philadelphia or any other NBA city, and he is a long way from Stillwater and Junction City.
“It’s a different experience,” he says. “The food is different and it is cold, but I’ve embraced it and I’m enjoying my time here.”
Anderson is living in Istanbul, Turkey, where he plays for the Turkish League team Darüşşafaka Doğuş. Although Anderson is constantly working toward getting another NBA offer, in many ways it is even more surreal that his basketball expedition has led him across the Atlantic Ocean. The kid who grew up in Junction City, went to college in Stillwater and was drafted by San Antonio has now upgraded again, this time to international capitals like Madrid, Rome and Athens.
“It is surreal when you think about it,” Anderson said.
Anderson’s current club is relatively new to the top-flight scene in Europe, but a recent infusion of cash has allowed the team to upgrade its profile across the board. Former Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt is in charge and several American players were signed this summer, including Anderson. The team achieved its best ever finish this season, making it to the Euroleague Playoffs before losing in the first round against Real Madrid.
Before making a pit stop stateside in Sacramento last season, Anderson was playing in Lithuania for BC Žalgiris, a European basketball power that specializes in raising the profile of American players in the eyes of legendary Euro clubs like CSKA Moscow or Maccabi Tel Aviv. Even with their dominance of their domestic league and their commendable Euroleague success, one could say that Žalgiris is a bit of a feeder club for American players, and those who play there generally do so to increase their international appeal.
“I was playing some of my best basketball (when I was) in Philly,” Anderson said. “But I just looked at the situation that I was in and decided not to risk it. I wanted to come over to a good club and get my name out there in Europe.”
Although heading overseas at age 25 when NBA or D-League opportunities may exist seems like a risk, the opposite is true. European clubs often offer more financially secure deals to players who would otherwise be looking at minimum or short-term contract in the states. And given the success that Anderson has had so far this season in Lithuania and Turkey, he may have opened the door for even more lucrative offers from bigger foreign clubs.
“It’s a lot different in Europe,” Anderson said. “It’s more passionate overseas. In the NBA, the fans don’t really get going until the playoffs. In Europe, there is always more going on with the different chants they have, and they are always rowdy. When the time comes, we’ll see what opportunities present themselves.”
CLASS IS IN SESSION
Anderson might have looked like a stereotypical American tourist when he first moved to Europe – thus far, Barcelona has been Anderson’s favorite foreign metropolis to explore – but he was at least a little familiar with the European style of play. After all, he started off his pro career with the Spurs, a team that has adopted an exotic identity to match its multinational roster.
“I couldn’t have been more excited to start my career in San Antonio,” he said.
As the No. 20 pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, Anderson was the Spurs’ highest draft selection during the Tim Duncan era. Anderson was a great fit with the Spurs because he was all about basketball all the time, and San Antonio is thought of as the preeminent organization in pro sports when it comes to professionalism and work habits. That said, being coached by an Air Force Academy graduate like Gregg Popovich wasn’t just about falling in line and keeping a straight face all of the time. If anything, it was the opposite.
“My rookie year, Pop told me in the huddle one time, ‘James, you can laugh at the joke’,” Anderson said. “He had a lot of different tricks to bond the team. He would give us different quizzes. He would write a word on the board and put four synonyms beneath it and we had to go put our names by the one we liked. It wasn’t just about basketball.”
While Popovich helped make James a more cultured individual with his “Pop” quizzes and informative discussions about important happenings around the world, a certain trio of soon-to-be Hall-of-Famers crafted him into a more well-rounded player by setting a powerful example.
“Manu (Ginobili) and Tim and Tony (Parker), man,” Anderson said. “They were great role models to start off my career around, Tim especially. To see Tim still put work in on his off days after all the success he had in the NBA, it was impressive. It really motivated me.”
Duncan, a noted recluse when it comes to media attention, has been known to turn his teammates on to some of his quirky hobbies, and Anderson was fortunate enough to tag along for a few infamous trips to the paintball course alongside the Big Fundamental.
“The first time that I went was with a lot of the guys from the team,” Anderson says. “Tim was like a paintball pro. You would not think that he would be so agile, him being seven foot, but he was always the last one standing. He really got the game figured out. I was wondering why he had so many different guns, now I know why.”
The lone downside of being drafted by the Spurs was that the team was incredibly deep, making it tough for Anderson to find a consistent spot in the rotation during his time in San Antonio. Anderson only started four games for the Spurs during his first two seasons in the league and didn’t do enough during his minutes off the bench to earn a regular role.
It wasn’t until two seasons ago, following various stops in the D-League, a short second stint with the Spurs and 29 games in Houston during the 2012-13 season, when Anderson got his first real shot to prove himself in the NBA. The Philadelphia 76ers claimed him off of waivers in the summer of 2013, reuniting Anderson with former Spurs assistant Brett Brown during his first season as Philly’s head coach. Anderson started 62 games for the Sixers, scoring 10.1 points per game while playing close to 30 minutes a night.
After Anderson’s season in Lithuania, the Sacramento Kings brought him back to the United States on a one-year deal, but upon its completion Anderson opted to return to Europe, closing the NBA chapter of his career.
At least temporarily.
Playing for BC Žalgiris and Darüşşafaka S.K. might just be the beginning of a long, successful and profitable basketball career overseas for James Anderson, but even as his game becomes more and more integrated with the European style of play, there is an omnipresent feeling tugging him back to the United States.
“It is tough being away from them,” Anderson says. “It’s the only thing that I don’t like about being out here.”
James is referring to his wife Brooke, whom he wed in the summer of 2014 whilst wearing a tailored white suit, a spiffy black bowtie and matching pink Converse with his bride, and his two daughters. Brooke and James decided that it would be best for her to stay at home in Arkansas to take care of things, which has left James just a tad bit lonely in a foreign land.
“A typical day in the states, I would just hang around with my family,” Anderson says. “Over here, it’s different. We FaceTime three or four times a day, as soon as they wake up and before Makynlee goes to school. Otherwise I’m just watching movies or TV.”
Perhaps Brooke and the girls will join James in Europe one day, but you can understand why two Arkansas natives who have spent their entire lives in the United States prior to James’ recent migration might want their family to grow up stateside. So even though there may be big things on the European horizon for Anderson, there is pressure on him to find his way back to the best league in the world.
“I know that it’s a big deal for him to get back to the NBA and to get back to his family,” Page says. “The type of person James is, he’ll keep working hard until he reaches that goal.”
Whatever the future holds for Anderson, whether he makes it back to the NBA for his prime seasons or if he continues to traverse around Europe for the remainder of his career, James is going to have options. Because as good as he is as a player, it’s the ancillary benefits that he offers that makes him a valuable basketball commodity all across the globe.
“We just had a team meeting the other day and the players asked me who my favorite guy to play with was during my four years at OSU,” Page said. “I played with a lot of guys, so it was tough, but my answer was James Anderson.
“It wasn’t only how good of a player he was and all of the accolades he collected. If somebody in the locker room was having problems, James was the first one at their apartment to talk to them and to pick them back up. That goes a long way when you’re the guy putting up 25 points a night and you’re taking time to solve all of the problems off the floor.
“He was just the ultimate teammate.”