Archdeacon: Dwight Anderson’s greatest feat? The Dayton basketball legend found a way back

Dwight Anderson was a basketball phenomenon from Roth High School. He went on to play at Kentucky and USC and then went to the NBA where his career was derailed by alcohol, drugs and homelessness. He started playing basketball as a youngster at McCabe Park in Dayton.

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

We all have favorite stories when it comes to Dwight Anderson — the greatest homegrown basketball talent Dayton ever produced — who the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office said died Saturday at age 61 of unknown causes.

”Dwight was two years older than me, so when he was putting on a show every night with Roth, I was on the freshman team at Wilbur Wright,” said Sedric Toney, who would go on to star at the University of Dayton and in the NBA.

“As freshmen we had to stay and watch our varsity play, but all I wanted to do was go watch Dwight at Roth. He was an entertainer, and everybody in town wanted to see him.”

The Roth games — whether it was when Anderson was a sophomore and leading the Falcons to a state title or when he was a senior and a Parade All-American averaging 38 points a game and sought after by every major college in the nation — zwere sold-out events.

Fans were packed three and four deep around the sidelines until the games finally were moved to UD Arena.

“Yeah, we had some great entertainers here — groups like the Ohio Players and Heatwave — but people weren’t talking about them back then like they talked about Dwight,” said Cliff Pierce, who was the captain of the Fairview High team when Anderson starred at Roth.

John Paxson, the standout at Alter, Notre Dame and the Chicago Bulls, where he won three NBA titles and then became a front office fixture — tells the story of when he played in a high school All Star game with Anderson in Milledgeville, Ga.

He said when they got there, Anderson wasn’t as well-known as some of the other players like Ralph Sampson, Isiah Thomas, Dominque Wilkins and Sam Bowie

Pierce, who’s a history buff, remembered some of the others players there: “James Worthy, Mark Aguirre, Byron Scott, Clark Kellogg, Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston.”

“Dwight dominated and was the MVP,” Paxson once told me. “Everybody knew him after that.”

Sunday morning, Pierce — who now runs the catering business, Bulldog Barbecue — recalled the “360 degree shot” Anderson made when he played for Southern Cal.

The Trojans coach at the time, Stan Morrison, called it “the greatest shot ever made.” Al McGuire, who was broadcasting the game, could only gush: “A star is born!”

USC was playing Washington at the LA Sports Arena, and the Trojans’ James McDonald rifled a way-too-long fast break pass that was about to sail across the far baseline, out of bounds.

Anderson — nicknamed The Blur — came streaking down the court, flung himself like a long jumper across the baseline, caught the ball, spun in midair and lofted a perfect shot from behind the backboard that snapped the net for a jaw-dropping two points.

My story comes later, on a cold, blustery winter day in 2010, when Anderson, in his own words, had become “a ghost.” For more than two decades, he had been trapped in the netherworld of drugs, alcohol, homelessness and hopelessness. At the time he was living in an old garage on Hoover Avenue that had no heat, electricity or plumbing.

Many years earlier I had visited him at his parents’ home on Westwood Avenue. It was winter then too, but he slept on the porch. His parents had moved a bed and a lamp out there and changed the locks on their doors.

They didn’t trust him inside because he’d grab whatever he could — including his trophies — and sell them on the street for drugs.

As he later explained to me: “I never thought about ballin’ again. I was gonna get high the rest of my life. If I did happen to play on the street, it was just for drugs.”

And that brings me to that 2010 day at McCabe Park and the court where Anderson once had played. Now one rim was bent and the playing surface was potholed.

Pierce got a half-flat ball from his trunk and teased Anderson, who hadn’t slept the night before: “Let’s see if you still got it.”

With a ball that wouldn’t bounce and a light snow swirling, he took two shots from 3-point range to get a feel. And then, he made eight of his next nine long-range attempts. By the end he was laughing and calling for the ball.

It remains one of my favorite basketball moments of all time.

Yet, for all those stories of marvel and magnificence, the greatest feat in Anderson’s career is none of the above.

It’s how he was living at the end.

By all accounts, for the past decade — thanks to the help a few Good Samaritans in this community — he had freed himself from the scourge of crack cocaine.

He was living with his mother in a high-rise apartment in the Edgewood-Salem area and was working full time at Economy Linen, said Pierce, who had just delivered a takeout barbecue order to him and his mother a couple of weeks ago.

“He was doing well,” Pierce said.

And that’s the real story, Toney said Sunday afternoon.

“Thank God he was able to be free of drugs and live normal,” he said. “He had gotten another chance at life.

“Sometimes we forget about the most important part of the world. Sports, if you’re lucky to do it, is just one part of it. Day to day living is what matters most.”

Career turns to struggles

The late Jim Paxson Sr. had a story from Anderson’s childhood.

He recounted how Father Harry Gerdes used to officiate the 6 a.m. mass at Resurrection Parish on Gramont Avenue. Outside the priest’s house was the basketball court.

“In the summer, Father Gerdes would sleep with the window open,” Paxson said. “If it was a full moon, the court would be lit up enough and he’d hear the constant dribbling of a basketball.

“He didn’t have to look. He’d yell, ‘Dwight, go home! I gotta sleep. I’ve got the early Mass.’”

Once Anderson got to Roth, he seemed heaven-sent, which is why you could often find the likes of Notre Dame’s Digger Phelps, UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian, North Carolina’s Dean Smith and Kentucky’s Joe B. Hall in the stands.

“In my opinion he’s the best to ever come out of here,” said Eric Bradley, the former Wilbur Wright standout who coached at Patterson and Stivers and now runs the Varsity Club that honors Dayton’s former high school stars. “He could do it all.”

Anderson chose Kentucky, starred as a freshman, but then had a falling out with Hall. He left for USC midway through his sophomore season. Per NCAA transfer rules, he had to sit out a half season at Southern Cal.

He became eligible at 9:01 pm on the night the Trojans were playing Washington.

Unable to take the court in the first half, he was sent to a practice gym to warm up, and soon 300 people had left the game to watch him get ready for his second half debut.

He became an All-Pac-10 first-team player thanks to showings like the Aloha Classic in Honolulu, where he made 26-of-33 field goal attempts

“He had a head-to-head matchup against Michael Jordan and they both scored 18,” Pierce said. “Jordan was a late bloomer coming out of high school and, as one story goes, he saw Dwight and wanted to wear No. 23 because Dwight wore 23.”

Yet, with all the stardom came temptation, and soon whispers circulated about Anderson’s lavish lifestyle as the 1982 draft approached. He was known to flash a thick roll of cash in Las Vegas, and around Dayton he dove a Mercedes 300sd turbo diesel.

The Washington Bullets made him a second-round pick but cut him in the preseason. He bounced through several other tryouts, played a few games for the Denver Nuggets and then ended up in the Continental Basketball Association, where he was the leading scorer one season.

He played two summers in the Philippines, and in 1991 he lasted two games with the Dayton Wings and was cut.

“I disappeared after that,” he once told me. “I had no self-esteem. I just got high.”

He called it “a long slide toward suicide.”

Piece understands why Anderson stayed in the shadows. He had been so praised here, and after that people only asked him about what went wrong or lectured him to pull himself together:

“The rest of us, if we have some kind of problem in life, we can deal with it and heal in private. But everyone knew him and when you don’t live up to the expectations of others around town, it becomes a huge weight.”

The way back

A decade ago several people reached out to help Anderson — people like Pierce, Richard Kidd, Rev. Marvin Arnold and his wife Vivian, Westley Anderson of St. Vincent de Paul and Fairmont basketball coach Hank Bias — but no one stepped up like Bradley and Toney, who got him admitted into the John Lucas Treatment Center in Houston.

Behind the scenes, Isiah Thomas and Dirk Minniefield helped, too.

Anderson was there 13 months and came home clean and sober. He first lived at St Vincent’s, and Bias made him an assistant coach.

In 2015, Cleveland sportswriter Branson Wright released a wonderful documentary on Anderson entitled “The Blur.” Since then Anderson’s personal story became less of a blur.

And that’s the best epitaph, said Pierce:

“The way the story ends, he was working and living with his mom and seemed to be enjoying life. That’s the big challenge for someone who once burned so bright.

“He grew up in greatness and was above and beyond us. But the elusive thing is when the lights go off. Can a you find a place in society? People like Michael Jackson and Janis Joplin could not.

“But he had found a way to come back to being a normal human being.

“That’s the most delicious thing here.

“Dwight Anderson became just like us.”

Dwight Anderson

Career

Roth High School, Class of 1978

University of Kentucky, 1978-80

University of Southern California, 1980-82

Denver Nuggets, 1982-83

Continental Basketball Association

Quotes about Anderson

“Dwight’s physical gifts — his flair for the game — he was a once-in-a-lifetime talent” - former Miami University coach Charlie Coles

“His ability to drive to the basket was like no one else. He could blow by anybody” - former University of Dayton coach Don Donoher

“I would say before I knew about Michael Jordan, Dwight Anderson was the Michael Jordan of our era” - NBA legend Isiah Thomas, in a documentary on Anderson

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