Kenny Anderson sits on the edge of a hotel pool, his legs in the water, when a woman on an upper floor notices a cameraman filming him.
“Are you somebody famous?” she shouts.
“Used to be,” he says.
At the time of the filming, Anderson was a decade out of the NBA, where he spent 14 years as a point guard, the first five with the Nets, then still in Jersey. In 1991, he was the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft. And 26 years later, Kenny Anderson is still a hallowed name in the tri-state area.
But to hear Anderson, now 46, tell it, life after his star-making turn on the basketball court has been markedly less glamorous — a cloud of dashed opportunities, tangles with darkness in his past and a daily struggle to keep going.
“I’m a walking mistake,” Anderson says in “Mr. Chibbs,” a documentary screening at the Montclair Film Festival (Clairidge Cinema) on April 29 and 30 and opening at the IFC Center in New York on May 3. In the film, the NBA veteran tries to reckon with his missteps and find a post-basketball calling.
Kenny Anderson drives towards the basket in the first quarter of a Nets game against the 76ers in January of 1996. (Star-Ledger file photo)
Mr. Chibbs is a nickname coined by Anderson’s mother when he was still a newborn in the hospital — she had been eating and tried to say “cheeks” but everyone heard “chibbs.” The name followed him as a standout high school point guard in Queens as he started on the road to becoming a NBA All-Star in 1994, later serving as one third of the so-called “Lethal Weapon 3” crew that made it to the NCAA Final Four at Georgia Tech in 1990.
For someone who was plucked out of Queens as a teenager and sent almost directly to the big time, a career in the NBA often proved to be a destabilizing force. But it’s only now, looking back, that Anderson can appreciate the whirlwind for what it was.
Talking about the film, Anderson, who suffers from depression and goes to therapy every week, speaks as plainly and frankly as he does in the documentary.
“I wanted to tell the truth,” he tells NJ Advance Media. “I think we got that across.”
“Mr. Chibbs,” which premiered at the DOC NYC film festival in November, covers Anderson’s ascent to basketball greatness and lingers on the theme of faded glory. Clips from his ’90s heyday, when he was in peak physical condition, are interspersed throughout, but the resounding image is of Anderson getting his kids off to school, trying to be a better father and retracing his steps in search of his next gig.
Living in Pembroke Pines, Fla., Anderson, still mourning the 2005 death of his mother, Joan, is also haunted by the DUI that left him jobless in 2013. After filing for bankruptcy in 2005, despite making $63 million over the course of his career, he found it difficult to find coaching work at the college level and took a job as a basketball coach at a Jewish day school.
“When I had that job, I felt good,” Anderson says in the film. “I ain’t felt the same since.”
Then there was the trip to North Korea for Kim Jong Un’s birthday with Dennis Rodman in 2014, a move for which Anderson and several other former players were heavily criticized.
His wife, Natasha, who calls him a “hurt, lost soul” and “damaged,” says there’s reason to question their relationship, hinting at recent infidelity. But she sticks with him for their family, including son Kenny Jr., a budding basketball player, and Anderson’s stepdaughter, Tiana. (Anderson, who has been married twice before, has eight children from relationships with five women.)
Jill Campbell, a former Westfield resident, worked on the documentary — executive-produced by Jersey local Barry Greenstein and picked up by film distributor Abramorama in March — over the course of three years. A longtime basketball fan, she had followed Anderson’s career, but was curious to know more about his motivation and the story behind his legacy.
“It was clear he was in the middle of a midlife crisis,” Campbell says of Anderson, who she first met through the film’s producers. Her brother had played basketball in college — “Basketball was like the music in my family,” she says.
“I just got Kenny,” Campbell adds. “I just got the whole world.”
Though his wife was initially hesitant to let cameras in, Anderson was game to allow Campbell to follow him as he made appearances at schools and basketball clinics, visiting his old coaches and mentors and trying to network in search of a coaching opportunity.
Kenny Anderson in his Georgia Tech days, before he was drafted by the Nets. (Courtesy of Abramorama/BMG Brokers)
Anderson wanted to be open in service of the the story he could tell for younger generations — “That you still can make it, with all the obstacles and the all the negativity in your life,” he says.
A heavy piece of information lands like a thud in the film’s third act: a man who lived down the street from Anderson’s grandfather sexually abused him when he was young.
“It’s like you’re peeling an onion, unraveling these layers,” the director says.
For his part, Anderson says he’s happy how friends, including actor Michael Rapaport, have received the film. “He said, ‘Hey man, you’ve got something special here’,” he says. “So that gave me a lot of encouragement.”
In one sense, not that much has changed for Anderson since the cameras started following him in 2014. He hasn’t landed the full-time coaching job of his dreams, but he’s made progress on the route to self-improvement, encouraging his son on the basketball court, sometimes coming off as a bit of a sidelines parent.
“It’s really beautiful to see,” Campbell says. “He didn’t have that. Now, he has it.”
“I’m still a work in progress,” Anderson says. “I’m just trying to work on myself. You can’t knock nobody if they’re trying.”