Blast From the Packs: Appreciating Nick Anderson

When it comes to sports fandom, I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. I never just rooted for a team because it was the “home team.” I don’t live in a major league city, but I live well within the media market confines of Chicago, meaning that the Bulls, Bears, Cubs, White Sox, and to a slightly lesser extent Blackhawks are all “home teams” for most of the residents of my city and surrounding areas. Sure, we have some outlier fans of other teams, mostly from other Midwestern locales such as Indianapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, and Milwaukee, but Chicago sports are dominant here.

As I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, basketball fans here were largely in one of two camps: Pro-Jordan and Anti-Jordan. If you followed the NBA, you were either massively into Michael Jordan and the eventual dynasty of the Chicago Bulls, or you couldn’t stand them. Here, too, I was a bit of a rebel: I enjoyed watching Jordan, but at the same time, I didn’t consider myself a huge Bulls fan. I was neither Pro- nor Anti-Jordan. I enjoyed watching him dismantle the loathsome Jazz in 1997 and 1998, but I rooted for the Sonics against the Bulls in the 1996 Finals. That was more a function of liking Shawn Kemp and wanting to see him win a ring more than any specific hatred of Jordan, though.

Since I wasn’t drawn strongly to the Bulls, though, I was a bit of a free agent when it came to having a favorite team. I also didn’t really care for my next closest geographical options, namely the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers. But then in 1989, the NBA announced an expansion team for Orlando, Fla. They were to be called the Magic (like Disney’s Magic Kingdom), and they had probably the coolest uniforms I’d ever seen.

They also had a player, Scott Skiles (number 4 in the picture), who had grown up near where I was from, and their first first-round pick, Nick Anderson (number 25), hailed from Chicago and was College Player of the Year from the University of Illinois. Not realizing at the age of 8 that it would be difficult to follow an expansion team from 1,000 miles away, I decided to make Orlando My Team.

That first season was pretty bad, but Nick Anderson was a bright spot, not that I got to see him play much for a couple of years. It wasn’t until the Magic won the 1992 NBA Draft Lottery and selected future Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal that the Magic got picked for more than a couple of nationally televised games each season, and then, as you might expect, fandom became a little easier for a young boy looking for basketball heroes.

Those Shaq/Penny Hardaway years were great, and it hurt when Shaq left for L.A. (in retrospect, I don’t blame him: The DeVos family ran/runs the team with tight pursestrings, which has always kept the team from being truly competitive), but through it all and beyond, there was Nick Anderson, still the second-leading scorer in Magic history, still the team leader in steals by a good 200, still Mr. Magic.

When Shaq and Penny arrived, Nick went from being the top scoring option and fulcrum of the team to being a complementary piece. He still had elite scoring ability, but he wasn’t being asked to deploy it as often. Check out the highlights from Shaq’s first game with the Magic, where Nick absolutely filled up the box score.

Look at how many open looks he gets because of the gravity Shaq has in the low post. He still gets plenty of chances to slash inside, even in the half court, and takes advantage because the Miami forwards have to play cautiously with Shaq lurking. And with five steals in the game, it’s obvious he was active on defense.

He didn’t score 42 every game in the Shaq era, but that game is an encapsulation of how Nick buttered his bread for years to come. He found space to operate, he had excellent court vision, and mostly he was just a super underrated shooting guard at a period where there were a bunch of excellent shooting guards in the league (Jordan being at the top of that list, of course).

Being a Nick Anderson fan became another form of fandom rebellion. Why would an Indiana-born kid like me list Nick Anderson over Pacers legend Reggie Miller or GOAT-in-the-making Michael Jordan on his list of favorite 2 guards?

I’m just a snob that way, I guess. I’m drawn to the under-appreciated-yet-sublime in life. And that’s Nick Anderson to a tee. So imagine how happy I was, last week, when I was browsing basketball cards on eBay and I saw this with a current bid of like $5 and just a few hours to go:

Where else would I have ever gotten the opportunity to get Nick Anderson’s autograph? And it’s a super attractive card, too. He even forms his capital A like I do, like a nearly finished star. When I got this in the mail and opened it, my wife saw me “smiling like a little kid” when I was looking at it in my hand for the first time. I thought that seemed appropriate, given that I’d just made 12-year-old me extremely happy.

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