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NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT : Georgia Tech’s Secret Was Winning Over Anderson

He came to Queens, eager to make points with a little left-handed basketball player already being raved about as the hottest prospect to come out of New York City since Lew (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) Alcindor. So, as long as he was in the neighborhood, he made the acquaintance of one Giuseppe Liantonio, and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“How’d you like to come work for me?” Bobby Cremins asked.

“As what?” Liantonio asked back.

“Student-manager.”

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So it was that the coach of the basketball team from faraway Georgia Tech just happened to offer a full scholarship to the student-manager of the basketball squad at Archbishop Molloy High School, who evidently impressed the heck out of Cremins with the way he folded towels and wiped the sweat off basketballs. No doubt it was complete coincidence that Archbishop Molloy’s best player was the same point guard that Dean Smith, John Thompson, Jim Boeheim and so many other rival coaches so strongly desired.

Kenny Anderson.

At that point, Anderson was still a junior, but his fame was spreading. Cremins, an old Bronx boy with a productive Big Apple grapevine, played every perfectly legal angle at his disposal. If even a student-manager could provide any sort of pipeline into Anderson’s good graces, hey, why not? Already the coach had seen Anderson play dozens of high school games without saying a word to him. It became a familiar beacon to Anderson in the bleachers, that Cremins platinum haircut.

Tech took hold. Its foot was in the door. Joan Anderson, who raised Kenny without a husband and worked three jobs to make ends meet, wondered why Georgetown’s Thompson never came to her door. She found Syracuse’s Boeheim as chilly as his city. She heard North Carolina’s Smith drone on and on about what her young Kenny could do for Carolina, but never heard a word about what Carolina could do for Kenny.

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Cremins played his trump card. Come play ball with Georgia Tech, his proposition went, and you can start right now, be the man, fire at will. All the comforts of home. Even Giuseppe would be there waiting, now as head student-manager. Cremins once again made an offer a kid couldn’t refuse.

“He told me I could run the team,” Anderson said.

Very rarely does a freshman guard run his team all the way to the Final Four. Magic Johnson didn’t. Isiah Thomas didn’t. Kenny Anderson has maneuvered Georgia Tech into today’s NCAA tournament semifinal game against Nevada Las Vegas. His last-second buzzer-beater--well, maybe it didn’t beat the buzzer, but it sure did count--saved Tech’s bacon against Michigan State. His 30 points and eight rebounds helped get rid of Minnesota. The run of Kenny Anderson might go all the way to the NBA.

He thinks he’s ready. One year of college ball is all the preparation this big-thinking, 6-foot-2, 166-pound wisp of a ballplayer believes he needs. He recently stated his reasons: “I wasn’t born with a gold spoon in my mouth. If they offer me a lot of money, I definitely would jump on it.”

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Cremins contradicted him publicly. “He’s not ready (for the NBA),” Cremins said. Cremins is concerned for Anderson. Cremins also has to be concerned for Cremins.

But oh, what others have been saying! How can Kenny Anderson not believe it? How else can he react when he hears what Marty Blake, the NBA’s director of scouting, calls him? In Blake’s opinion, Anderson is “the best I ever saw at his position coming into college, and I’ve been following college basketball since 1940.”

Breaker of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s season scoring record for freshmen . . . only freshman in the nation nominated for the John Wooden Award . . . fourth in the nation in assists . . . second-greatest assist total in the Atlantic Coast Conference . . . school record-holder for steals in a season . . . 28 points in his college debut . . . 17 assists against North Carolina . . . a triple-double against Pittsburgh . . . behind-the-back passing, between-the-legs dribbling, buzzer-beating shooting . . .

This is one fresh freshman.

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“I am not a slouch,” Anderson assesses Anderson. “I’m not bragging or anything, but I can shoot, dribble, pass and I can put it in the hole.”

Rebuttal?

None offered.

None of his new Tech teammates knew exactly what to expect, but six games into the season, their new point guard still hadn’t had a game under 20 points. And yet he was getting them the ball, too. Dennis Scott, the team’s super-scorer, marveled at Anderson’s ballhandling, compared it to “a guy with a yo-yo . . . Whatever he does, the ball comes back to his hand.”

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Brian Oliver, the other partner in what even the Yellow Jackets themselves have come to call Lethal Weapon 3, said Friday that Anderson’s confidence continues to amaze him. “Kenny’s so sure of himself out there,” Oliver said. “No wonder he’s met all the expectations and surpassed most of them.”

Scott, a Virginian, and Oliver, from Georgia, were aware that their coach came from New York, but that didn’t necessarily mean Anderson would be an OK guy. Scott got caught with his stereotypes showing. He told the Atlanta Constitution: “For a guy from New York, he’s really mild-mannered. He’s not some loud jibbety-jivey type.” And Scott was hardly alone on that score. Wrote the writer, Atlanta columnist Mark Bradley: “Indeed, Anderson is that anomaly--a seemingly innocent New Yorker.”

One day the kid’s just another hotshot recruit, next day he’s out there lighting up Pitt for 32 points, 12 rebounds and 18 assists. That’ll impress anybody, from New York to New Zealand.

Not bad for a scrawny child whose high school coach first thought of as more in need of a square meal than a spot on the basketball roster. Anderson was so puny, even his mother wondered what was going on when he started bringing home basketball trophies, worried that maybe he was buying them at some store for her benefit.

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As a player, Anderson is virtually self-taught. His father took a hike, leaving the woman he got pregnant. His uncle, James McLaughlin, gave him tips, but died of heart disease at 25. His high school math teacher, Brother Terence Jones, gave him guidance, but died last year of a stroke. Anderson scribbled “BR. T” on the shoes he will wear in the Final Four.

Georgia Tech has come this far only because Anderson, as the clock struck 0:00 the night of March 23 in New Orleans, had the nerve and presence of mind to uncork a shot that took Michigan State into overtime and eventual defeat. To this day, nobody’s quite sure whether Anderson’s shot should have been worth three points instead of two or nothing at all. The bottom line is that Georgia Tech is here, and Michigan State is history.

“I guess it’s, like, intuitive,” Anderson told the Atlanta paper. “All I can say is that it’s cleverness, or instinct . . . it’s just God-given talent.

“Sometimes it scares me.”

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