The Surreal Life of Ryan

It’s been unbelievable, but a breakout year with the Magic has Anderson realizing people believe in him.

It was one of those “Hey, I’m standing here!” moments. At the time, Ryan Anderson was just a junior high school kid. So maybe his feelings weren’t important. But his future was. Especially to his mother. The Andersons were an average middle-class family in El Dorado Hills, Calif., a half-hour outside of Sacramento, a dot in the middle of nowhere, the kind of small town that eventually you’re from. In other words, you eventually move out. Could basketball be Ryan Anderson’s ticket out?

Sue Anderson wanted to know.

So she sidled up to young Ryan’s junior high coach one day and asked him if her boy had a chance, you know, if he developed his hoop skills, to one day maybe get a college scholarship. The coach’s answer was immediate, almost knee-jerk.

“No. Not a chance. No way.”

“He was so blunt,” Ryan Anderson, 24, recalls, all these years later, sitting at the office where he works. Perhaps you’ve heard of his office. It’s called the Amway Center, home of the Orlando Magic. “He said it right in front of me, as if I wasn’t even there. I was so young at the time that I didn’t know what to think. It affected my mom more than it did me. But over the years, I’ve replayed that again and again to where I know it had more and more of an effect on me. Now I can say it’s definitely something I used to push myself harder and harder to prove people wrong.”

Call him an underdog, an overachiever, whatever. Ryan Anderson is comfortable with any of those terms. What the burgeoning Magic star isn’t comfortable with is people suddenly believing in him.

This is a breakout year for the Magic forward. The kid who wasn’t given even an outside shot of making it in college now has one of the best outside shots in basketball. He has scored more 3-pointers than anyone in the NBA this season and is the second-leading scorer for the Magic behind Dwight Howard.

Put the two stats together, and it added up to a lot of questions before the NBA All-Star Game, which Orlando hosted in February. Would Anderson’s rising star reach the lofty goal of an NBA All-Star? It didn’t. But even though he didn’t make the team, he was in the conversation, and he was also selected to compete in the weekend’s Three-Point Shootout contest.

“Surreal,” Anderson says. “When people asked me about playing in the All-Star Game, it was so surreal. I couldn’t help but laugh it off.”

It might’ve been nervous laughter. Not because Anderson didn’t think he could compete at that level. Rather, it was nervous laughter for a different reason.

“I don’t doubt myself,” he says. “I still have that mentality where I feel I can do anything. But having people actually agree with that is kind of weird for me.”

It goes back to that junior high kid hearing his mother being told he had no chance to play in college.

To be sure, for a while there it looked as if the coach was prophetic. Anderson didn’t come from an athletic family. His father’s athletic claim to fame is that he was a college badminton champion.

Otherwise, Jack Anderson is kind of a techie, geeky guy who’ll tell you that his real claim to fame was once hanging out at his buddy’s pool with a young guy named Steve Jobs. Yes, that  Steve Jobs—pre-Apple. And Ryan’s mom? No real athletic interests to speak of. Neither parent is particularly oversized, either. Dad is 6 feet, and Mom’s 5-foot-8, and his older sister is 5-foot-6.

So where did this sharp-shooting 6-foot-10 NBA forward come from?

“The postman. That was always the joke,” Anderson says, laughing. “I’ve seen the tape from when I was born, and believe me it’s not my favorite moment. Everybody was looking at me, like, what is this? I was 11 pounds and 24 inches long and very dark colored. I was this giant. And you could see the looks on everyone’s faces, like, what’s going on here?”

He was always a tad taller than other kids. And then, between his sophomore and junior years in high school, he grew from 6 feet to 6-foot-8.

“It wasn’t until the end of my junior year in high school that I started to get scholarship interests, and that’s really late,” he says.

It helped that he played on a very good high school team, good enough to win the state championship his senior year, beating Mater Dei High from Santa Ana, Calif.

“We were big underdogs, huge, which is typical for me,” Anderson says. “My whole life, no matter what it’s been, no matter what I’ve done, I’ve been overlooked, been that underdog, that under-the-radar guy. Even that year when we won the state championship, I was only the second or third best player on the team.”

Still, the University of California offered him a scholarship, and Anderson recalls arriving in Berkeley hoping for a chance just to play. He did, finishing second in the Pac-12 Conference for Freshman of the Year honors. The next season, he was the conference’s leading scorer. Suddenly, people were talking about the NBA.

The NBA?

“It was unbelievable, just crazy,” he says. “But after my sophomore season, there was an opportunity to possibly be a first-round pick. People were projecting me to go anywhere from 15th to 35th.”

In other words, anywhere from the middle of the first round to early in the second round. Anderson liked his odds, and he went for it. On draft night, he was sitting in his parents’ home. Actually, he was crouched. Really crouched. “Put it this way,” he says, “I was in a fetal position, sitting with my knees tucked into my arms. I was terrified, watching pick by pick by pick. Every time they called someone’s name that began with an R, I thought it was it.”

Finally, it was, with the New Jersey Nets taking him with the 21st overall pick.

“I ran out of my house, screaming, running up and down the street. . . . It was wild. I was just lying there in my driveway, screaming. I was so happy.”

A year later, he was even happier when the Nets traded him and Vince Carter to the Magic. Anderson was considered a kind of throw-in at the time. But now Carter, who was a big bust with the Magic, has been gone for more than a year, and it is Anderson who has proved to be the best piece of the trade.

Even he has a hard time believing it.

“My life, it’s so weird when you think about it, how things have happened,” he says. “I don’t even know how to explain it.”

Maybe so, for him. But think of how difficult it must be for his old junior high school coach to explain it.

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