HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — As vibrant as Toronto is as a sports market, as passionate as its fans are for whichever team is working that night, the feeling among some NBA players remains largely unchanged from what it was 18 years ago when the Raptors joined the league via expansion.
It’s that place up there, with the funky money, the customs checkpoints and defence that’s almost as tricky to spell as it is to play.
But the Air Canada Centre is Madison Square Garden or Staples Center as far as Alan Anderson is concerned. He learned the hard way the difference between basketball outposts and basketball outposts.
“Well, you go to China and to Italy and Russia and all those places, and you’ll see Toronto as the NBA,” Anderson said in a phone interview this week, after taking his physical and wrapping up paperwork on his two-year contract with the Brooklyn Nets.
He didn’t mention Croatia or Israel, or Tulsa, Albuquerque or Canton for that matter. But he didn’t need to. This NBA dream of his, a dream that nearly died overseas or grinding through the D-League for four seasons and nearly five years that could have been his basketball prime, is alive and well.
What’s dead is any shred of entitlement or arrogance or even self-pity that Anderson might have had about deserving better than what he got from 2007, when the Charlotte Bobcats were done with him, to March 2011 when the Raptors finally called.
The 6-foot-6 wing player from Minneapolis didn’t need much more humility, mind you, after going undrafted out of Michigan State in 2005, landing with Charlotte for a year and a fraction, then getting his passport stamped like Jason Bourne for the next several seasons. But the harder he pressed, the farther away he seemed to get. How often did he doubt he’d get another shot?
“Always,” Anderson said. “Once I left, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, how long is it going to take me to get back? When am I getting back?’ And after a year goes by, two years go by…
“Actually, it was worse for me when I was thinking like that. That didn’t help me out at all. Once I started thinking about where I was at and winning a championship where I was at [in Croatia in 2009, in Spain in 2011], it started getting easier and I started seeing the NBA at the end of the tunnel.”
Anderson is forever indebted to former Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo and current head coach Dwane Casey for the call that finally came. In February 2011, he had come back from a completed season in China with hopes of a 10-day deal in Washington that never panned out. His agent Mark Bartelstein suggested that, beyond his individual workouts, Anderson head back to the D-League to keep his game sharp.
Shrewd move: He joined the Canton Charge, played eight games, averaged 21.5 points and shot 55 percent from the floor while helping them in a late playoff run and caught Toronto’s eye.
“He said to me, ‘Mark, just get me one more opportunity in the league. If you do, I’ll take advantage of it,’ “ Bartelstein said. “And that’s exactly what he did.”
Anderson stuck through two 10-day deals and the few days left in 2011-12 after that. He was back last season, averaging 10.7 points and 23 minutes off the bench, helping the Raptors to a 31-34 mark when he played [3-14 when he didn’t]. He scored 20 points or more eight times, including a 35-point performance against the Knicks on March 22, which might have been all the resume he needed to grab Brooklyn’s attention.
Now, Anderson is headed onto one of the league’s grandest stages, with the newly configured Nets battling the Knicks for New York and Atlantic Division supremacy. He’ll be a relatively anonymous role player on a roster now crammed with marquee names and proven veterans, eager to back up Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson as needed, flesh out a vastly improved Brooklyn bench and team with Kevin Garnett. Anderson first met Garnett back in Minnesota in 1997, when he was headed to De LaSalle High and Garnett was all of 21, working a summer camp.
“For someone growing up in the inner city, where I came from, we loved watching KG play and everything he brought,” said Anderson, who plays with a little on-court edge himself. “When I finally go to meet him, he was talking to me like we already knew each other as friends. That was big for me.”
So many years later, Anderson has a chance to help make Garnett’s twilight time special. He’s no kid himself –- Anderson will turn 31 in the preseason –- but his NBA miles are low and his adrenaline is spiking.
“I don’t think I do anything great, but I think I do everything pretty good,” said Anderson, whose minimum contract includes a player option for 2014-15. “I can spot-shoot, I can rebound, I defend, I can create, I can pass. Me being versatile, it can come down to me –- if we’re in a shooting slump or we need to get to the basket or need to get to the free-throw line, I think I’m capable of doing all of that.”
Anderson calls this gig a “blessing.” Bartelstein considers it a “wonderful story.”
“Alan’s a guy who just wanted desperately to get back to the NBA,” the agent said. “To be on a stage like he’s going to be on in Brooklyn, I’m so happy for the guy. A lot of people counted Alan out and thought his NBA career was over. So, to come back from playing internationally and rebuilding his career to levels that a lot of people didn’t think he could do, it speaks volumes about his perseverance and how hard he’s worked.”