Although he plays professional basketball for the Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA these days and makes his home in southern California where he went to college, Kyle Anderson is always about coming home and giving back.
That’s why his Celebrate Life Day basketball smorgasbord in North Hudson Braddock Park in North Bergen is so important to Anderson.
It’s a day to remember Anderson’s friend Paul Kim, who took his own life four years ago.
But it’s a day of celebration for the 200 or so youngsters who attended the day-long clinic and basketball tournament, held on the same blacktop courts that Anderson played on as a youngster growing up in North Bergen, just a stone’s throw away from the Braddock Park courts.
“I’ve just watched the camp grow bigger and bigger every year,” said Anderson, who held the festivities for the fourth straight summer. “I think the kids’ parents trust me and want me to be the one to teach them. I think the kids want to come out and enjoy the day. It means a lot to me, because we celebrate Paul’s life and we embrace suicide prevention. A lot of the kids don’t know that, but we tell them.”
More importantly, it’s about the local kids getting the chance to meet and greet with a legitimate NBA star. Most kids in this area don’t get a chance to interact freely with an NBA player.
“I was once in their position,” Anderson said. “I was a kid in this park just like them. I know what it’s like.”
Anderson, who went from St. Anthony High School, where he was a McDonald’s All-American and where he won back-to-back NJSIAA Tournament of Champions titles in 2011 and 2012, never losing a single game as a member of the Friars, to UCLA, where he spent two seasons.
Anderson was drafted in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 and spent four years with the Spurs, before signing on with the Grizzlies as a free agent before the start of the 2018-19 campaign.
Now 25 years old, Anderson has three more years on his contract with the Grizzlies.
Anderson said that he remembers attending a camp run by former New Jersey Nets point guard Stephon Marbury when he was a kid. He also remembers meeting NBA star Tim Thomas when he was just a youngster. Thomas was in attendance in North Bergen last week at Anderson’s event.
“I thank Tim Thomas for showing me what basketball life is all about and what it takes to play in the NBA,” Anderson said. “I saw Tim doing what he did from New Jersey and I thought that it was possible for me. So it means a lot to me to do something for the kids, to give something back to them. I grew up real close to this park so I know. This is my community. This is where I am from. I’m always going to stay in touch with this area.”
The weather was downright perfect to have an outdoor activity. Last year, the skies opened and the event had to be moved indoors to the North Bergen Recreation Facility.
But this year, you couldn’t have asked for a better day, with temperatures in the high 70s and not a cloud in the sky. The little ones in attendance were attentive to their respective coaches and the older ones were happy to be playing basketball under an organized setting.
“I think Paul was shining down on us,” Anderson said.
The turnout was tremendous for the middle of the summer. Anderson said that his organization went out to a lot of local camps and clinics to hand out fliers.
“Social media also helped promote the day,” Anderson said. “It really is a tremendous turnout. Of course, there is a message to what we’re doing, but it’s growing because the kids are having tons of fun. It’s awesome to see. It really means a lot to me that it’s going so well.”
Anderson said that his message of suicide prevention does not get lost.
“I had a camper who came up to me and said that he lost a friend who was 12 years old,” Anderson said. “The kid was 12 years old and killed himself. He shared that story with me and now we share that bond. I just want to bring positivity to the kids and a day like this gives them comfort.”
Anderson said that there was never a question of moving the camp to either of his other residences.
“I could have moved it to Memphis,” Anderson said. “But this is where I have the most impact. I want to give back to these kids.”
That impact certainly was not lost. Frank Valdez is a 14-year-old resident of Union City who attends eighth grade at the Emerson Middle School. He’s also a big basketball fan and player.
“This was a good experience for me,” Valdez said. “It’s great to have someone like Kyle Anderson teaching us how to play. This is my favorite camp to come to. I have friends here and I like coming here.”
Valdez said that it was great to get his picture taken with Anderson.
“It’s something new for me,” Valdez said. “I never did that before.”
Andrew Maldonado is also 14 and he’s headed into North Bergen High School as a freshman in a few weeks.
“It’s fun meeting a pro basketball player,” Maldonado said. “It’s really a great experience. I’m getting in some extra practice before I got to high school. It’s crazy to think Kyle played right here when he was a kid. It’s really a small world. It really has been nice. I’m so glad I came here.”
As were the 220 or so others who got the chance to celebrate life with an NBA star from their own backyard. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com