In the heart of downtown Jackson, Mississippi, in the dome-styled Mississippi Coliseum, Fred Harris prepared the Jim Hill High School boy’s basketball team to take on the Greenville-Weston Hornets in the 2009 5A State quarterfinal game.
The Tigers, however, knew that the road to the 5A State Championship would be a tough one.
Jim Hill was the only unranked team to make it to “The Coliseum”.
For sophomore basketball player Brandon Anderson, he was up for the challenge as this would be the first of many challenges to come in his life.
Anderson, a roughly 5-foot-10, 170-pound guard, had been a special “piece” to the team during the 2008-09 season. “SonnyBoi” as his friends called him knew how to deliver in big moments.
In the game against the Hornets, Jim Hill trailed by nine points to start the fourth quarter.
Anderson picked up a bad foul against one of the Hornets’ players. Quentin Watkins, Anderson’s teammate and one of the better defensive guards on the team, held Anderson accountable for his action.
“I remember this like it was yesterday, “Anderson said. “He told me to get it together with a very serious look on his face.”
As Anderson stood between two Greenville-Weston players, waiting for the Hornet player to shoot his free throws, something clicked in his head to get in “attack mode”.
Following the free throws, every uncontested shot Anderson had, he took it.
“I remember Greenville tried to apply pressure on the ball but we made great passes and capitalized on our opportunities,” Anderson said. “I was the one shooting on those opportunities and we came back and won the game.
Anderson credited this game as a major boost to his confidence.
“We were the underdogs. I was so happy. Green and gold was all that I saw in the stands of the Mississippi Coliseum. Duke Nelson picked me up and carried me to the locker room. This game solidified my confidence.”
The shining moments, bright lights and game winning shots did not begin that season.
Anderson began playing basketball at the age of four.
Marcus Anderson, Anderson’s father, played a huge part in his love for the game.
“My dad was my first coach and my biggest influence. He knew my whole game,” Anderson said. “He knew everything about to me.”
Anderson remembered being around his dad the the first time he shot the ball with the correct form and wanting to make all of his free throws that he took.
“When I made my first three pointer, my dad said “that’s it”. We would shoot free throws in the backyard and I would get frustrated because I would get to nine and miss the last one,” Anderson laughed. “I realized that if I focused on one shot and not all ten at a time, I could make all of them.”
Ne’Aisha Anderson, Anderson’s sister, said her brother’s strong work ethic came at a very young age.
“I remember Brandon outside practicing basketball for hours upon hours in the rain, sleet or snow,” Anderson’s sister said. “The ball was bigger than he was but he was doing his best to sling it up there.”
Growing up, Anderson wanted to be like his sister. Ne’Aisha was a solid student athlete. She played basketball and maintained honor roll status as an International Baccalaureate student at Jim Hill High school.
Anderson learned the importance of doing well in the classroom from his his mother, Libby Anderson-Thigpen.
“We instilled in him that a good education was important,” Thigpen said. “With God, hard work, dedication and persistence, anything is possible,” Thigpen said.
Basketball was not just a game for Anderson. It became a way of life for him.
Anderson began playing basketball for the WLA Tigers, a team named after his grandfather, Wilfret Louis Anderson. Playing for WLA helped him learn more about the game of basketball and life in general.
“WLA was more than just a game. It was like a little brotherhood through basketball,” Anderson said. “I was younger on the team and I had the opportunity to learn from some of the best players to ever play basketball in the state of Mississippi.”
From WLA, Anderson played basketball at Byram Middle School. Here, he learned a valuable lesson: make the most of your time on the court.
“I got in the game one time and I thought I was going to ball out,” Anderson laughed. “I did not think Coach Chancellor was going to sub me out and I heard the buzzer go off. He substituted me out until my next four minutes to play.”
Anderson continued to develop his game as he transitioned to Terry High School.
However, things would not go as planned for Anderson on the basketball court.
“I was growing as a player but we were not winning. We had the worse record in the state of Mississippi. We won only two games against Jim Hill and Northwest Rankin,” Anderson said. “Losing is an attitude and I got tired of losing.”
Following his freshman year, Anderson transferred to Jim Hill High School, a place filled with a rich heritage of his family playing basketball.
Transition, however, requires adjustment.
Being at Jim Hill was different for Anderson but he had been exposed to the school after watching his sister master the student-athlete concept.
Riding high on his faith in God, his love for the game and his support from family members and friends, his basketball career at Jim Hill took off.
Anderson went head to head with the best players in the state of Mississippi. Some of those players included Jarvis Summers, Jarren Mallory, Emery Kelly as well as players who played with him on the WLA team.
Anderson remembered vividly the early season matchup against his old WLA teammate, Andre Stringer, who went on to become Mr. Basketball in the state of Mississippi and a two-time Gatorade Mississippi Player of the Year.
“Andre was at Forest Hill. He was a sharp shooter and he was one of the best point guards in Jackson,” Anderson said. “He was having his way with us that game.”
The Tigers, who trailed by a huge deficit for nearly the entire game, mounted a huge comeback in the fourth quarter. Jim Hill cut the deficit to three points with roughly four seconds to play in the game.
In the final play of regulation, the Rebels denied Marquise Bailey, Anderson’s teammate, the ball. Seeing that, Anderson ran to the ball, took off down court as fast as he could, slipped, got back up on one knee, stepped back behind the three-point line and nailed a huge three pointer on Stringer to send the game into overtime.
“In overtime, the game came down to the last couple of possessions. It ended up being a game of free throws,” Anderson said with excitement. “It hurt me that we lost in that manner but the game served as a major boost to my confidence and my abilities at Jim Hill.
Drako Wells, an IB classmate with Anderson, said it was definitely a surprise seeing Anderson play at the level that he was playing during his sophomore year.
“I mean here was this new kid who I had never heard of until he transferred over and begin lighting it up every game. Then, it was more than just scoring. He was definitely getting about five assists per game and barely turning the ball over,” Wells said. “I definitely didn’t see it coming but I would say he was the best sophomore on the team at the time and surely one of the best players.”
The Tigers played with more confidence and looked better as a team in Anderson’s sophomore season.
Adrienne Erby, another IB classmate to Anderson, said there was an entire different feeling about the boy’s basketball team.
“When Brandon joined the team, it was like he picked up the whole atmosphere of the team. We started to win more,” Erby said. “Games were just so much more exciting to go to and his presence on the court was always a force to be reckoned with.”
Despite the team starting the season 2-5 before the month of December, things were on the rise for the team.
Band members swayed from side to side with the music. Fans, parents and students packed the gymnasium, shaking their green and gold pom-poms screaming, “Uh OHHHHHHH Green and Gold”.
The energy from fans, great team basketball from the players plus a coach who knew what it took to win close games down the stretch helped the Tigers go 5-2 in the month of February before playing in the 5A-State quarterfinal matchup against Greenville-Weston.
For Anderson, everything he dreamed about was becoming a reality. He was excelling in the classroom as well as on the basketball court.
How long would it last?
A magical season came crashing down as the Indians trounced Jim Hill, 80-47. The Tigers failed to score and struggled to slow down Isaiah Canaan.
As Anderson recalled, it was a very tough loss.
“Biloxi played a box and one defense and had someone eying me at every moment. It was a struggle to get a natural flow on offense. I wasn’t able to get my shots like I wanted to,” Anderson said. “When he dunked on our center on a fast break, I knew he was pretty good and that he was a special guy. It was very tough loss because we were one game away from playing in the state title game.”
Suffering a bitter defeat, Anderson never imagined that the end of his sophomore season would be the beginning to a series of unexpected events that would change his entire perspective on life.
In June 2009, while playing in an intense AAU basktetball game, Anderson stole the ball from a defender, went up for a layup and landed on his knee. After landing, Anderson said that he heard a pop.
After going for a MRI at the Mississippi Sports Medicine Clinic, Dr. James O’Mara diagnosed Anderson with a torn ACL in his left knee.
“This really hurt me bad. I thought to myself, my time was now. I wanted to win a state championship next year. I wanted to see and play against all of my old WLA teammates again, Anderson said. “Tearing my ACL made me feel like someone dropped kicked in me in the chest.”
Nick Pernell, Anderson’s best friend of 22 years, said it was hard for him to see his best friend go through such a difficult time.
“It hurt me just as much as it hurt him because I knew his potential,” Pernell said. “Nevertheless, I was there for him in his time of need.”
Refusing to quit the game he loved, Anderson went through surgery and began the rehabilitation process.
Anderson said going through rehab was truly a humbling experience.
“Rehab taught me to be positive, patient and appreciative. If you come to rehab with a negative attitude, you will produce negative results,” Anderson said. “Having to learn how to ride a bike again allowed me to appreciate the smaller things out of life.
Dilibe Offiah, who also was a former IB classmate and football player at Jim Hill, talked about how motivated Brandon was during his rehab process.
“When he tore his ACL, I saw his grit and determination to get back to the game he loved,” Offiah said. “It is extremely difficult to come back from injury, especially a knee injury, but Sonnyboi would go on to do just that.”
Just as rehab began to progress, a month later, Anderson’s coach Fred Harris passed away from a heart attack.
According to Anderson, Harris was more than a coach to him and to the Jim Hill community.
“That was really a big lost for me, the team, Washington Addition and the west Jackson community,” Anderson said. “He was like Coach Greg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs. He was a father figure, an assistant principal, a disciplinary who influenced a lot of people.”
With a new head coach and a torn left ACL, things were a lot different for Anderson during his junior year.
However, he did not give up on his dream.
In fact, he became a student of the game.
“I had a front row seat to games and it taught me a lot. When I was not in rehab, I came to practice and watched my teammates play,” Anderson said. “Being on the bench taught me that I wanted to play the point guard position. I wanted to be the person on the court that directed the offense, instead of simply coming off screens and shooting.”
The doctors cleared Anderson in spring 2010.
Anderson began working out and reestablishing his game at the Baptist Healthplex in Clinton, Mississippi.
It was not uncommon for him to work out and play a few games of pickup basketball on Sundays.
One Sunday afternoon, Brandon and I went to the healthplex to workout.
We lifted weights and worked out on the machines.
As we finished our last set of machines, Brandon said, “Wilton, let’s play one pickup game.”
I responded, “No, Brandon, let’s go home.”
He then said, “it’s just one game, Wilton.”
I gave in and said, “OK, Brandon, this one game and that’s it.”
I should have stuck with my first mind. Deep down inside, I was nervous about the entire thing. I did not want him to get injured again.
Anderson was very excited while I was on eggshells.
His first couple of series in the game went very well. He shot the ball well, he defended well and he drove to the basket for layups with no hesitation.
Everything looked normal but things took a twist.
As I passed him the ball to start our next series on offense, he dribbled up the court, made a normal crossover at half court and fell to the ground in excruciating pain.
“At that moment, I knew what it was,” Anderson said. “It was a total freak accident, no contact with anyone. I said oh my God and called my dad and told him that I tore my ACL in my right knee.”
Due to his second ACL surgery, Anderson missed the first half of his senior season. He played his first game on Jan. 4 against his old team, Terry High School.
“It was a lot, it was my second time around and I had been wanting to play this game, “Anderson said. We ended up losing the game but ultimately it felt good to get back to playing.”
Anderson completed his senior season and received offers from different colleges to play basketball, despite having two ACL surgeries.
The ACL injuries, however, sparked a change in his outlook on life.
“I received JUCO offers, but what ultimately made me decide not to play was that I needed to get away. I was open to something new,” Anderson said.
Deciding to venture into something new, the Jackson, Miss., native applied and was accepted to Morehouse College.
After suffering two traumatic ACL injuries, Anderson used his experiences to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in kinesiology.
While falling in love with his new career aspiration, Anderson made the best of his opportunities at Morehouse, becoming a resident assistant, a member of the Alpha Rho of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and the president of Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society. In addition, he earned the top senior award in kinesiology during his senior year.
After excelling at Morehouse, Anderson decided to take his education a step further in learning about what severed his full-time basketball career but brought something so much greater in return.
Anderson decided to pursue a Master’s degree in biomechanics from the University of Auburn. He will graduate on Aug. 6, 2016 from Auburn only to continue his pursuit of knowledge about what rearranged his life at the age of 16.
Anderson said he ultimately feels that he is exactly where he needs to be in his life.
“It is a blessing and honor to be accepted into Duke. It is a phenomenal school, one of the top-tier programs in the country,” Anderson said. “I am humble, grateful and I look forward to the next three years.”
Anderson will start physical therapy school on Aug. 30, 2016 at Duke University , which will also be Anderson’s 23rd birthday.
Looking back over his life and the obstacles he faced, Anderson learned to appreciate life and deal with life just like his free throws, one shot at a time.
“I would tell anyone to appreciate life and trust God. Every time I tried to plan something in my life, it was altered. I thought I would be playing basketball on the Division I level but I suffered two ACL injuries that rerouted my whole dream,” Anderson said. “I’ve been through some stuff to get to this point, which makes me appreciate my journey even more.”