A decade ago the North Carolina Tar Heels emerged as the 2005 men’s basketball national champions for a fourth time, defeating a Deron Williams led Illinois team in the final 75-70. In the Semifinals they easily dispatched Tom Izzo’s Michigan State squad, whose best players were Maurice Ager, Shannon Brown and senior Alan Anderson.
"That was a lot of fun," said Anderson, who was a two-time team MVP in 2003 and 2005 and also won MSU’s John E. Benington Defensive Player Award in his freshman and senior seasons. "I played all four years there so too finally in my last year make the final four was a great accomplishment for not only myself, but the guys I came in with."
Ten years later he and Williams are teammates with the Nets, but the 32-year old Anderson’s path to Brooklyn has been far less glamorous. After his breakout performance in the tournament, Williams, was drafted third overall by the Utah Jazz. Meanwhile, Anderson, who was voted the Spartans team’s MVP by the team's players and the media after averaging 13.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, went undrafted.
He was, however, drafted into the CBA by the Michigan Mayhem and then signed two months later by the NBA’s newest team, the Charlotte Bobcats (formed only a season before). In his rookie season, he averaged just over five points per game in 36 appearances. In his sophomore campaign, Anderson averaged 5.8 points per game for a second consecutive season, but he was waived after just a few weeks.
During the next few months, he went on to tear up the relatively new NBA Development League with the Tulsa 66ers, earning a spot on the NBADL All-Star team and a contract with the Bobcats for the final two months of the 2007 season. But in the off-season they didn’t offer him another contract and with no other N.B.A. team-calling Anderson decided to pursue a professional career overseas, which began a five-year odyssey through the hinterlands of pro basketball.
"It humbled me. It made me appreciate playing in the NBA is a privilege, it’s not something that’s just given," said Anderson, who had locks, lighters and coins thrown at him by hostile fans in various countries, none more than when he was playing for a Croatian club team.
"It didn’t let me take anything for granted and made me take every opportunity that I had to get back in to play make it to the fullest."
He first landed in Italy, where he signed with the Italian League club Virtus Bologna for the 2007-08 campaign. He then made an appearance with the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA Summer League and started the 2008-09 season with Russian League club Triumph Lyubertsy, averaging 9.8 points and 5.2 rebounds in six games. His backcourt mate? Vasily Karasev, Sergey's father.
In January he moved on to Cibona Zagreb of the Adriatic League, where he poured in more than 15 points in eight Euroleague contests. After the short stay in Croatia, he made a cameo back in the states with the Lakers summer league squad. But again, there was no contract offer.
He then made his way to Maccabi Tel Aviv of the Israeli league, where he spent the 2009-10 season. After the year he was drafted to the D-League's New Mexico Thunderbirds with the second-overall pick in the 2010 NBA D-League draft, where he averaged 21.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, before signing with F.C. Barcelona of the Spanish League. In the championship game of the 2011 Copa del Rey, Spain’s domestic cup competition, Anderson scored 19 points, helping F.C. Barcelona defeat archrival Real Madrid, and was named most valuable player of the tournament. Later that season, they won the Spanish championship, defeating Mirza Teletovic's Caja Laboral along the way.
"That was great," said Anderson, who has played for teams in eight countries and has earned Most Valuable Player awards in two domestic cup championships. "Outside the NBA, I’d say the Spanish league was the best league to play in. So it was a pretty tough and competitive league. So to get the MVP was a great individual accomplishment for me."
Shortly after, Anderson was off to China, joining the Shandong Lions for the 2011-12 campaign, where he averaged 25.5 points. In the spring he returned to the D-League to play for the Canton Charge, averaged 21.5 and after nearly five years without playing in an NBA game, he was finally given a chance by the Toronto Raptors, who signed him on two separate 10-day contracts and then to a contract for the rest of the season.
He started 12 of the last 17 games for Toronto, averaging 27 minutes and 9.6 points per game, which was enough to earn a one-year deal for the following season. Playing in 65 games the next year, Anderson had a career year in almost every offensive and defensive category. He averaged 10.7 points per game and had career highs in steals, assists, rebounds and three point shots made. He also had his high game, a 35-point outbreak in March vs. the Knicks. It beat his previous best, a 26-point effort, also against the Knicks.
Among those who he impressed was the Knicks point guard Jason Kidd, who pushed to get him on the Nets roster that summer. He signed the first multi-year contract of his NBA career, a two-year deal with Brooklyn worth $2.6 million. The signing of a journeyman like Anderson was just an afterthought to the summer's high profile trades and signings, but he turned into a productive piece off the bench, averaging over 20 minutes per game in both the regular season and playoffs.
In the off-season he opted out of the second year of his contract, but after testing the free agent market he decided to return for another tour of duty in Brooklyn.
"I think just the camaraderie amongst the guys and the relationships we have and I just like playing here," the Minneapolis, MN native Anderson told me in the Nets locker room. "I’ve been playing for a lot of places where guys going for the money and all that. But money ain’t everything and you got to play for your happiness."
Once, Anderson was something of a cautionary tale -- a good four-year college player who flamed out in the NBA and was relegated to Europe and China for the rest of his uneventful career. But he made his way back and for the first time in his career, the 6-foot-6 swingman has seemingly found a home. He's a reliable bench player for an NBA playoff team, a "3-D", a player who can hit the three and defend. and it only took ten years, 12 teams and a couple continents to get there.