When thinking of writing a series profiling the players on the University of Memphis basketball team, consideration had to be given as where to start. Why not start with the best?
Yes, the best. Antonio Anderson, without a doubt, is the best player on Memphis' team. If you want a hard working, defensive stopping leader that will do whatever it takes to win, then Antonio is your man.
No, he doesn't lead in scoring. In fact he is fourth on the team at a respectable 10.2 point per game for the 2008-09 season. He doesn't lead in assists (2nd) or rebounds (4th) or steals (2nd) either.
He does lead in one category though... minutes played per game. In fact, he has averaged more minutes over the last four years than any other player, including an exhausting 34 minutes per game this year. And that's significant because it gives some insight as to why Antonio is so valuable to this Tigers team.
Leading in minutes is a direct reflection of how Anderson's coach views him and trusts him. Coach John Calipari doesn't play favorites. It's not his style. Everyone on his team earns all they get.
If you whine and complain, if you are lazy, if you talk back, if you don't follow directions, if you aren't coachable... in other words, if you don't do what you should, you won't play. It's just that simple.
On a team that often seems to have a revolving door at the score keeper's desk, it is remarkable that one player almost never comes out of the game.
A player misses a defensive assignment, he comes out. He misses a few shots, he comes out. A player doesnt' run a set right, he comes out. He doesn't hustle for a lose ball or rebound with two hands... out.
Calipari is constantly pulling players in and out of the game, partially to coach them, partially to punish them... negative reinforcement if you will... to let them know that they messed up and either they fix it the next time in the game or they sit even longer in the future. And if you really mess up, you could sit for entire games.
And yet one player never comes out except to give him a short break for water and a rest. What is it about Antonio Anderson that makes him so valuable despite a stats sheet that doesn't seem to scream his worth?
Antonio Anderson is a worker. He comes from an industrial, blue collar area in Lynn, Massachusetts just north of Boston and was raised to work hard by his mother.
Antonio still says she is still the hardest working person he has ever known and that's something considering who his coach is.
Growing up in an area of town where you choose one of two paths in life, Antonio's family made sure he chose the right path by channeling his time and energy into basketball.
As others in the neighborhood were getting in trouble, Antonio's brothers and uncles were keeping Antonio busy playing basketball, and they saw a real potential starting to develop and transferred him to Lynn Tech to be coached, and watched, by his uncle, Marvin Avery.
After his time at Lynn Tech, he transferred to the well known basketball prep school Laurinburg Prep in North Carolina. It was here his life changed and put him on the path to where he is today in Memphis.
Coach Calipari was putting together the recruiting class that would redefine Memphis basketball and begin the program on the road to its "nouveau elite" status it enjoys today.
Anderson joined a team stocked with future NBA players like Rodney Carney, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Joey Dorsey.
It also included two teammates from Laurinburg... Shawne Williams, who is now with the Dallas Mavericks, Robert Dozier, who will likely join Antonio in the NBA next year, and Chance McGrady (younger brother of Tracy McGrady).
Anderson is a winner. All he knows is winning, and he makes sure to do his part to win every game he plays despite the magnitude of the game or talent of the opponent.
Antonio, along with Dozier and McGrady, just became the most winning players in NCAA history with 135 wins (though he hopes to reach 141 wins before he's done) with only 13 losses over those 4 years.
Those who aren't impressed with that number, chew on this. At Laurinburg Prep, that trio of players, along with Roburt Sallie who joined Memphis' team this year as a juco transfer, went 40-0 while they won the national championship. That means these three have the amazing and gaudy record of 175-13 over the last 5 years!
Antonio Anderson was overshadowed his freshman year by Rodney Carney and Shawne Williams, by Chris Douglas-Roberts and Jeremy Hunt his sophomore year, by CDR again and Derrick Rose his junior year, and now by the new freshman superstar Tyreke Evans and his old buddy Robert Dozier.
And yet who is it that gets the call to be on the floor the most, to be Calipari's other half on the court, to lead this winning behemoth called The Memphis Tigers? It's Antonio Anderson.
He may not get talked about by the talking heads of sports or appearing on magazine covers. It may not be him being mentioned at the beginnings of games as "key players". Antonio may not be collecting the hardware or the NBA scouting reports of his "One and Done" freshman phenom teammates over the years.
But he's the one with the record. He's the one with the playing time. He's the one most loved by the fans. He's the one with the greatest level of trust and respect from his future Hall of Fame coach.
And he's the one who will not be able to be replaced next year, even with the star studded talent Calipari has coming in next year. It takes time, it takes a lot of hard work, and it takes natural leadership to become Antonio Anderson.
Memphis fans understand that Antonio doesn't worry about being the star and simply does everything he can to win. That's why Antonio recently became the only player in Memphis Tigers history to have 1000 points, 500 rebounds, and 500 assists.
The fans see his hard work. They see his intensity, his emotion, his fire. They understand the intangibles he does and the value he brings, and they love him for it.
And he loves them back, considering Memphis his second home.
Recently it was reported that Antonio was asked what his favorite memory was as a Tiger. He surprisingly replied that it was on the bus leaving the arena after losing to Kansas in the National Championship last year.
As Anderson looked out the window, he noticed something that amazed and touched him. Every Memphis fan was smiling, cheering, and waving to the players, letting them know how much they were loved and appreciated.
He knew at that moment that everything would be alright. THAT was his favorite moment.
Yes, Antonio Anderson is the best, and you don't just reload and replace the best. So Tiger fans, enjoy it while you can because in a few weeks it will all be over. And Memphis will no longer have its best player.