MONTCLAIR, N.J. – Kenny Anderson is introduced to a crowd of moviegoers who have just watched his life story unfold in all its fits and foibles on the big screen. He strides over to join the film’s producer and director, Jill Campbell, smiling under a baseball cap pulled low enough to shield his eyes.
Soon he is talking about his mother, who was primarily his savior but in certain ways, he can admit, was also his saboteur.
The smile melts away into sobs.
“My mother meant the world to me,” he says, his voice breaking through the tears and the recollections of her demons with alcohol, drugs and men who didn’t stick around. “My only thing was to take care of her. I really didn’t have a Plan B.”
He is referring to how he conducted a basketball career that held the promise of professional greatness and by extension a life of surmounting the most daunting of socioeconomic odds. Nearly a quarter century ago, Joan Anderson sat in her living room in LeFrak City, a housing development in Queens in New York, and seemed, in retrospect, to be speaking from the future when she said, of the four children she raised alone, but mostly of the one who would earn tens of millions and spend it all, “I gave them life, but I couldn’t live it for them.”
She died in 2005, the same year Kenny Anderson retired from the NBA after 14 seasons and filed for bankruptcy after earning roughly $63 million.
The timing of it all sounds haunting, but, he says now, his tough New York City skin holding up to the years of piercing pain, “I don’t want no pity from nobody. My mother used to say, `You had eight kids? Did you have fun making them? You’re a knucklehead but take care of them.’ ”
How does he take care – or repair – a complicated life he can so casually call “a walking mistake?” How does he make sense of it all?
Four years ago, Anderson was approached by Campbell, a filmmaker and Long Islander with an appreciation for the game and for who he was, or had been. Once knighted by New York super-scout Tom Konchalski as “the greatest high school point guard” he’d ever seen, and selected by the New Jersey Nets with the No. 2 pick in the 1991 draft, Anderson had bottomed out with a DUI charge that cost him a coaching position at a private high school in Florida.
The job had been a baby step back into basketball, or what he calls “the part of my life that was always easy.” Campbell found him at a point in which the rest of it was plagued by a nagging and even injurious lack of purpose.
With his mother gone, he was free to bare it all in living color, he said, and the result is a documentary, “Mr. Chibbs,” which premiered over the weekend at the Montclair Film Festival and will open Wednesday in Manhattan. The title is derived from the nickname his mother gave him as a toddler who became the precocious ball-handling wizard and first caught the eye of Kenny Smith, another prodigy of the LeFrak housing project, situated alongside the Long Island Expressway.
The takeaway revelations – the womanizing and wallet-draining eight children by five women, the substantiation of excessive drinking rumors that followed him throughout his career and even his molestation as a youth by two men – including a youth coach – are not news-breaking. Anderson has alluded to all of it in interviews during his years out of the game. But what amounts to a revisiting with the people and places of his past – including two sons in New Jersey he has had little contact with – makes for a raw, uncompromising 86 minutes.
Afterward, in the lobby outside the theater, Anderson chats with a few of the attendees, some of whom remember him well as the shifty and spindly Nets point guard who could make the ball dutifully obey the commands of his left hand, just a few miles east at a no-frills arena near the Lincoln Tunnel to Manhattan. Having heard him say on screen, “It’s difficult trying to figure out how to be selfless when you’ve been selfish your whole life,” they wish him well. Anderson walks away to greet a familiar reporter and to say that making the film, in his mind, is a start.
“It was like my mother was an angel on my shoulder and I was talking to her, asking, ‘What should I do?’ ” he told The Vertical. “I’m at the crossroads of my life. Should I hold this in and keep it to myself or should I open up and be selfless and help somebody that might get my story? Because if one person walks out of a theater and says, ‘I’m going to get help. I’m going to get a therapist,’ then I did my job.”
There is much evidence that the film has been therapeutic for him, too, a weapon against persistent depression that has had him in and out of counseling for years.
A 72-year-old cousin reassures Anderson, now 46, that he still has as much to do as he has to be proud of. A visit to his high school, Archbishop Molloy in Queens, and his coach at Georgia Tech, Bobby Cremins, conjures up enduring legacies at those institutions. A day spent with his estranged New Jersey-based sons, Kenny Jr. and Devon, may be a staged, shallow attempt to make up for lost time, but when they accompany him to the LeFrak building of his youth, the suburbanized boys, sullen and uncertain in their edgier biological father’s presence, see and hear for themselves some of the hardships and horrors he overcame.
“I didn’t know about that,” says the teenage Kenny, Jr. after Anderson tells of the evictions into the cold of winter, the crowded quarters that left him exposed to his mother’s destructive coping habits that much later, he told The Vertical, included “spending a lot of my money.”
He spares the boys the most distressing memory, of the streets that led him to the male predators who touched him in a sexual way and would have done more had he not been as fast out of danger as he was on the court.
Back in the theater lobby, Anderson wonders how “Mr. Chibbs” compares with the last documentary made about a New York City basketball prodigy, 2013’s “Lenny Cooke,” a Brooklyn scholastic legend on the LeBron James level who never made it onto an NBA roster.
Cooke failed at basketball and the film found him struggling at life. Conversely, Anderson played those 14 seasons and was an All-Star in 1993-94, when he averaged career highs of 18.8 points and 9.6 assists. His Nets teams were talented but behaviorally and organizationally dysfunctional, and finally derailed by the 1993 car-wreck death of rising Croatian shooting guard Drazen Petrovic.
What might have been had Petrovic lived, or, better yet, had Anderson not partied his way into the career of an NBA drifter?
“I could’ve been great, but I stopped doing the things that gave me a chance to be great,” he told The Vertical.
The film doesn’t sugarcoat the ongoing process of Anderson trying to figure out who he is vs. who he was. The opening scene – reminiscent of the Jake LaMotta bio-pic “Raging Bull” – finds him at a hotel pool, smoking a cigar, not hiding a middle-age paunch, and suggesting that two young women Google him to see he’s not lying when he says he was once someone special.
A visit to the Washington office of his old agent, David Falk, results in Falk telling Anderson that he’d love to help him return to the game (his relationship with the NBA has been strained since he accompanied Dennis Rodman on his ill-fated 2014 trip to North Korea) but merely suggesting that he ask the players association to let him serve as a life coach to young players.
On the subject of alcohol, he insists, “I don’t have a problem,” but the film several times finds him with a beer in his hand. Scenic and affectionate walks on the beach with his third wife, Natasha, near what he calls his “middle-class” home in Pembroke Pines, Fla., are darkened by her admissions of Anderson’s infidelities that have strained the decade-long relationship.
Even coaching the AAU team of a talented teenage son who lives with him and Natasha makes for uncomfortable viewing when Anderson verbally erupts at the conclusion of a close defeat. That this son – like the one in New Jersey – is also a Kenny Jr. provides the film’s symbolic underlying premise.
Two Kenny Andersons. One for whom basketball was easy. The other for whom life is hard.
“My whole life,” he says, “has been hard.”
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