Jackie Mac Weighs in on Revamped Celtics

March 14, 2002

The Boston Celtics are back on the sports radar screen, buoyed by a trade that injected yet more 3-point shooters into the mix and All-Star performances by the Big Two, Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, and a six-game winning streak that added some significant weight with a thrilling 97-89 win over the Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey Nets last night at a rollicking FleetCenter.

But let's cut to the chase. You know whom the Celtics have to thank for their position near the top of the Atlantic Division?

   Kenny Anderson, No. 7 in your program, and No. 1 (hundred or so) in your heart.

Anderson's performance last night was a microcosm of his entire career. He earned wild cheers for picking the pocket of one of the league's best, Jason Kidd, on four occasions. He earned groans as he clunked one jumper after another, when the Nets chose to trap Paul Pierce, and leave him alone. Pierce was spectacular on this night, dropping 32 on the Nets, but the game clincher was provided by Anderson, with 50 seconds on the clock, and absolutely nobody around him.

"I feel I'm too good of a shooter to leave me open like that all night," said Anderson in the wake of a game that left him with 10 assists and 0 turnovers. "When I took that last one, I said to myself, 'This has got to go in.' "

Boston has found it difficult to warm up to its veteran point guard. He was one of those cocky New York City players who never quite lived up to the hype in the pros. He was the player who was caught on tape at the conclusion of the lockout, telling some autograph-seeking kid to scram, and asking his boys to pull the car around. He referred to himself more in the third person than Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens combined.

Worst of all, he didn't win games for the Celtics. As last year came to a close, Anderson was in danger of becoming yet another overrated Rick Pitino acquisition that had failed miserably.

But an amazing transformation took place last summer. Anderson rededicated himself to conditioning. He also took a long, hard look at his reputation and decided to reinvent himself, from a me-first point guard to an unselfish, share-the-wealth floor leader who understands - and accepts - his role as a third option.

Thought it was impossible? So did Kenny.

"I got to tell you," Anderson admitted, "with my ego, and my confidence, and my arrogance, I didn't think I could handle it."

The fact that he has embraced his role goes a long way in explaining why Boston is a legitimate playoff threat in the East.

"We are at our best when we are running, and the ball is in Kenny's or Antoine's hands," explained Celtics coach Jim O'Brien.

There was nary a shred of truth to that last season, when Anderson stumbled through his worst season as a pro. He broke his jaw and, he says, rushed back too soon after dropping 14 pounds he could ill-afford to lose on his already reed-thin, 165-pound body.

"I tried to do the organization and Coach Pitino a favor by coming back too soon," Anderson said. "As soon as I got my wires out of my jaw, I tried to play.

"But I came back out of shape, and I lost all that weight, and no one was giving me any understanding, not even my own coach.

"It was the worst year of my career. I don't care about the stats. I didn't feel good about basketball for the first time in my life."

Anderson said he went to management and requested a trade, "I didn't have any leverage. I hadn't played well enough to have any."

O'Brien, who staunchly stood by Anderson at his lowest moments, told him to go home, work on his conditioning, recoup his confidence, and come back ready to prove his doubters wrong.

Consider it done. Anderson averages close to 10 points a game and his assist to turnover ratio is about 4-1. Equally important, he has played and started in 63 of the team's 64 games. While he won't appear on anybody's All-Defensive team ballots anytime soon (hey, there's only so much transformation one guy can manage), the Celtics have Erick Strickland and Tony Delk to turn to when they absolutely must have a stop.

The addition of Delk has cut into Kenny's time. It's one thing to be a third option, but with 3-point threats Delk and Rodney Rogers aboard now, there will be nights Anderson is a fourth or fifth option - or no option at all.

"It's probably the best thing that ever happened to me," Anderson declared. "I've handled this role well, and I'm getting praise for it.

"To be honest, I don't get enough credit for what I've dealt with throughout my career. But taking a back seat, and helping this team win has finally let people see me for what I can be."

This is not just lip service. Consider last night in the first quarter, when Anderson saw an opening to the hoop with Jason Kidd hanging on his jersey. The old Kenny would have probably succumbed to the mano-mano duel, and would have eaten the ball when the bigger, stronger, taller Kidd followed him to the hoop, and rejected his layup. The new Kenny considered driving to the hole, but thought better of it, and kicked it out to Walker for a three.

Last Sunday against Washington, in the fourth quarter of a critical game, O'Brien stayed with the unit that was in the flow of the game, which meant Delk finished out the final 12 minutes at the point, and Anderson watched.

"I was fine with it," Anderson insisted. "Coach wanted to go with Delk down the stretch, and I dealt with it. I'll always accept it - as long as we win.

"Now, if I'm sitting there, and we're losing games, I might have something to say about it."

He is hoping his new approach will generate a little karma among the Boston faithful. He has been misunderstood, he says, on everything from his game to that incident after the lockout three years ago.

"That thing dogged me for a while," he said. "But that wasn't me. My friends know I give myself to the fans.

"I was just trying to get out of there. There was a guy heckling me from the back, screaming all sorts of obscenities at me, and I wanted out. There was a big crowd, it was cold, I was tired.

"People were pushing. I almost fell on top of the kid [asking for the autograph]. I didn't even see him. Then a guy shoves a microphone in my face. I wasn't even talking to him. I was telling my guys, 'Let's get the car and get out of here.'

"But, you know, that's the way it goes. Sometimes you get stuck with something you don't deserve."

Maybe, just maybe this new reputation will stick instead. Games like last night can only help the cause.

Has Anderson stopped to consider how he has turned his career around? Could he have accepted his reduced role two years ago?

"No way," said Kenny Anderson. "I probably would have been a problem to my team."

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