Kyle Anderson was living the dream.
The former St. Anthony High School All-American and two-time Hudson Reporter Player of the Year was actually playing basketball at one of the most storied schools in college basketball history – namely UCLA.
Yes, the same UCLA where the college basketball coaching icon John Wooden devised the famed Pyramid of Success and became the Wizard of Westwood, winning one NCAA championship after another. It’s where Lew Alcindor dominated before becoming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and where Bill Walton began his legendary career.
It’s a place that oozes college basketball history, with Pauley Pavilion and the nine national championship banners. Every kid who ever laced up the sneakers and headed to the playground could only imagine being a part of all that basketball legacy.
Kyle Anderson was able to get that chance. The North Bergen native chose UCLA in 2011 after an extensive recruiting process.
Anderson went to La-La Land with huge hopes and aspirations. He was joining a team that featured several talented returning players and included a fellow McDonald’s All-American in Shabazz Muhammad.
However, things didn’t exactly work out as planned. The Bruins struggled. Coach Ben Howland didn’t know how to properly use Anderson, playing him at power forward, a position he never played before. Anderson has always been best with the ball in his hands. Anderson averaged nine points and eight rebounds per game, but was never really comfortable all season.
Needless to say, it was an emotional struggle for young Anderson, being 3,000 miles away from home and facing adversity for the first time in his basketball life.
There were rumors about that Anderson was considering leaving UCLA and putting his name into the pot for the NBA Draft, much like teammate Muhammad did.
Those rumors became even more prominent when Howland was dismissed after the season, especially after a Sports Illustrated article portrayed Howland as a coach who let the inmates run the asylum, with some former players being quoted in the article that Howland had no control over the program.
However, Anderson decided to stay as Muhammad departed.
“People talked to me about leaving, but I was pretty much set on coming back,” Anderson said in a recent phone interview.
Former Indiana All-American Steve Alford was pried away from New Mexico to take over the coaching reins at UCLA.
As the 2013-14 college basketball season was set to tip off recently, Anderson was asked if things were better now than last year.
“I’m definitely looking forward to this season,” Anderson said. “We have a lot of key pieces coming back. We have a good group of guys.”
Anderson was asked about his relationship with his new coach.
“I think things are developing really well,” Anderson said. “I think he’s starting to trust me with the ball a little bit more and done a great job of getting me more involved.”
Trust with the ball. That must have sounded like a hymn for Anderson. Even though he stands 6-foot-9, Anderson has always been a guard first with a guard’s mentality. He’s been the one to make things happen. He’s one of the best pure passers to ever play in Hudson County basketball history – and that says a lot. His size is only an asset with the ball in his hands.
“Having the ball gives me a bigger sense of confidence,” Anderson said. “I’m definitely more effective with the ball in my hands.”
Anderson said that he never really confronted Howland with his responsibilities with the Bruins last season.
“I never really asked him why,” Anderson said. “I just went along with what he wanted me to do.”
But with Alford, there’s a lot more freedom. Alford realized that Anderson is a unique talent. You can’t find someone with that height and those ball skills every day. The last one to have that ability was named Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Anderson’s God-given skills with the ball, combined with his stature, made him a player in his own class.
“It’s great being at the point,” Anderson said. “It’s a new team, a new era. Basketball has become a little more fun.”
So far, Anderson has done well. In the first game of the season, Anderson had 12 points and 12 rebounds in a win over Drexel. In a blowout win over Oakland, Anderson filled out the stat sheet, collecting eight points, nine rebounds, six assists and three steals.
Sure, it’s only two games, a small sample of what he can do, but Anderson is playing like he’s a worthy candidate for the Wooden Award, symbolic of college basketball’s top player. Anderson was named as a finalist nominee for the Wooden Award last week. See, Anderson cannot avoid the UCLA mystique if he tried.
“It’s great being part of the UCLA tradition,” Anderson said. “It’s really an honor to represent those four letters across my chest. It’s truly been a blessing. I never really understood the UCLA tradition before I got here. But now I do. It’s something special.”
Anderson said that he was glad to have been prepared for college by playing at St. Anthony.
“It really helped me to get an easy start on college,” Anderson said. “I know so much more than most players after playing for Coach [Bob] Hurley. When you leave St. Anthony, things are different, but it’s about what you learned.”
Anderson believes that the Bruins are primed for a long run in both the Pac-12 race and NCAA Tournament come March.
“I think we have all the pieces,” Anderson said. “I think we’re all buying into what all the coaches tell us. We’re doing that every day to get better.”
And Anderson believes that the Bruins will be better because he will have the ball in his hands, making the decisions and the plays.
“This is definitely more of my kind of a team,” Anderson said. “I think we’re in the right place to have a good year.”
Anderson will not speculate as to whether he will forego the final two years of college and enter the NBA Draft come April.
“I’m not giving any attention to that,” Anderson said about a ranking of possible NBA Draft players that has him among the top 10 prospects. “I think that’s something to think about in the postseason, not now.”
At this point, Anderson just feels comfortable, relaxed and living life in L.A. with the ball in his hands. Sure enough, he is definitely living the dream.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.