The Return Of The ‘Ghost’

By Tom Archdeacon
Updated: February 4, 2010

Dwight Anderson (circa 1981)

Dwight Anderson (circa 1981)

DAYTON — The most unbelievable basketball performance I’ve seen in a long, long time didn’t come in some college hoops arena or up in the NBA with LeBron and his cohorts.

It happened one windy, bitterly cold afternoon in West Dayton this past week on a mostly forgotten patch of red asphalt at McCabe Park along Home Avenue.

Dwight Anderson — once celebrated as the greatest basketball talent this city has ever produced and lately a self-described “ghost” who has drifted in and out of Dayton’s dreary, sometimes deadly underbelly — had returned to the court of his youth for the first time in decades.

“I used to live right down the road there,” he said pointing to an empty patch of land where all the houses but one had been torn down.

The court was in similar shape. The playing surface was full of cracks. One of the two goals was missing its rim.

Cliff Pierce — now something of a guardian angel to Anderson, though 35 years ago he was bedeviled by him on this very same court — carried a mostly deflated basketball from his car, lumbered to the one good hoop and took a couple of shots.

Then he flipped the ball to Dwight with a “Let’s see if you still got it.”

Anderson, his unshaven jaw showing flecks of gray and white, had no sleep the night before. He was wearing a heavy winter coat that had been given to him and a pair of borrowed sneakers.

He said he hadn’t played any basketball in a long time, but he still moved out beyond NBA 3-point range. The wind was in his face. It was beginning to snow. The ball was so flat it couldn’t be dribbled.

He needed just two shots to dial in his range and then: Swish … swish … swish … swish … swish.

Moving side to side, grinning, calling for the ball, he hit 8-of-9 shots from long range.

“How many guys 49 years old are gonna do that?” Pierce gushed incredulously. “How many NBA guys could do it on any court? Much less these conditions?”

So much for ghosts.

This was like the time Anderson, then playing for the University of Southern California, was the MVP of the Aloha Classic in Honolulu after hitting 26-of-33 field-goal attempts.

It was a reminder of his senior year at Roth High when he averaged 38 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists a game, was a Parade All-American and the No. 1 college prospect in the nation.

“He’s still our G.O.A.T.,” said Pierce, using the Greatest Of All Time acronym. “In other cities that’s up for debate, but not here. Not by those who … know.”

Miami RedHawks coach Charlie Coles — himself a Miami Valley hoops legend — doesn’t argue:

“Dwight’s physical gifts — his flair for the game — he was a once-in-a-lifetime talent. All those guys we’re watching in the pros now, Dwight was as good as all of them with the exception of LeBron (James). You notice I didn’t say (Dwyane) Wade or Kobe (Bryant)? And the only reason I said LeBron is because he’s taller.

“Oh my God, Dwight was good.”

Former Dayton Flyers coach Don Donoher — who recruited Anderson before the Roth star chose Kentucky — was just as complimentary:

“He was like a sprinter on a basketball court. His ability to drive to the basket was like no one else. He could blow by anybody. They called him The Blur.”

Pierce learned that nickname firsthand. The summer before his sophomore year at Fairview High, he had a teammate who was bused over from Anderson’s neighborhood:

“I kept hearing about this guy my age, so I decided to find out just who he was. I wasn’t driving age, so I got on my Huffy 10-speed and rode all the way from Philadelphia Drive to McCabe Park.

“About 20 minutes later, here comes Dwight.

Then some other guys showed up and we played a game and I realized everything I’d heard was true … The more I went against him, the more I realized ‘I’m in a bad, bad place.’ “

Pierce, grinning as he recounted their first meeting, was talking figuratively and only in a basketball sense.

But in the years to come, Anderson, quite literally, would go one-on-one with some of the worst predicaments life had to offer.

Drugs kill a dream

Nineteen years ago, I visited Anderson at his family’s home on Westwood Avenue, where they’d moved after Home Avenue. His NBA dream had been derailed by then and — while affable as ever — he had gone through a downward spiral brought on by drugs, alcohol and self-doubt.

We sat on the porch, the same porch on which he had lived for a while when his parents — at wits end over the chaos he was bringing into their lives — had banished him. They wanted him close, but no longer trusted him in the house, so they changed the locks and put his bed and a lamp out there.

“I’d even sold some of the trophies and pictures and balls I’d set the scoring records with — just took them from the house so I had money on the street,” Anderson said, shaking his head.

That sounds almost sacrilegious because many were roundball relics.

“I remember a few of us going down to the big B/C All-Stars Camp in Milledgeville, Ga.,” said John Paxson, the Alter High and Notre Dame star who played 12 seasons in the NBA, won three titles and is now the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Chicago Bulls.

“Going down there, Dwight wasn’t as known a quantity as some of the guys. But that changed instantly. He totally dominated that camp. And that was against guys like Isiah (Thomas), Dominique (Wilkins), Ralph Sampson and Sam Bowie.

“He walked away with every award possible. When he left, they all knew Dwight Anderson.”

Back here — especially over at the Resurrection Parish court on Gramont Avenue — folks had known about him for a while.

“Father Harry Gerdes used to be the pastor there and he had a 6 a.m. Mass every day,” Jim Paxson, John’s dad and himself a basketball standout, said with a knowing chuckle. “He’d sleep in the summer with the window open, but whenever there was enough moon to light the court, he’d hear that ball bouncing and finally he’d have to yell: ‘Dwight, go home. I gotta sleep. I’ve got an early Mass.’ “

By then, Anderson was realizing something came over him when he picked up a basketball:

“I knew I had something special. It was a gift. With a basketball, I could make magic.”

As a sophomore he led the Roth Falcons to the state title.

And his senior season, John Paxson reminded, “he averaged all those points when there wasn’t a 3-point line.”

Those days Roth basketball was the hottest ticket in town.

“The bleachers would be full and they’d be standing four and five deep along the baseline,” Pierce said.

“Pretty soon they started moving the games to UD Arena.

“You’d look out in the crowd and there would be Dean Smith, (Jerry) Tarkanian, Digger Phelps, Joe B. Hall. With all the big-time coaches and the national media, he gave this city something it had never seen before. He was bright lights and entertainment.

“Yeah, we had the Ohio Players then and Heat Wave with their ‘Always and Forever,’ but folks weren’t talking about them like they were talking about Dwight.”

But along with celebrity came some inducements, Anderson claims:

“You were gonna get money from some people, there were car packages and you might even get a house. They promised to set you up like royalty, whatever it took to get you there.

“It was illegal, but they told me there was no paper trail. It didn’t bother me as much as it should have and I just kept my mouth shut.”

He ended up at Kentucky, where he made an immediate splash. But within a season and a half — clashing with Hall — he quit school and transferred to USC, where, due to NCAA rules, he had to sit out part of a season.

“Strange as it sounds, I became eligible one night at 9:01,” he once told me. “It just so happens that was halftime of our game with Washington. During the first half, they had me warm up in a back gym. And you know, a crowd of about 300 people left the game and came to watch.”

He averaged 20 points a game in his season and a half with USC, but there is one 2-pointer that became a hoops legend. His old USC coach Stan Morrison calls it “the greatest shot ever made.”

They were playing Washington at the L.A. Sports Arena. The Trojans’ James McDonald, later of the L.A. Rams, rifled an over-long fast-break pass that was heading across the baseline out of bounds when Anderson, in full sprint, snagged it, turned while in midair and hoisted a shot from behind the backboard that arched perfectly and snapped the cords.

“I remember 15,000 people out their chairs, laughing and partying after that,” Anderson grinned.

Jim Paxson said Al McGuire was broadcasting the game: “I remember him saying, ‘And a star is born.’ “

Unfortunately, it would be one of those burning bright-then-disappearing shooting stars.

A haunting memory

By the time Anderson left USC for the 1982 NBA draft, there were rumors of drug use and an extravagant lifestyle — promoted by one of his agents — that included everything from flashing big bankrolls in Las Vegas to the fancy Mercedes 300 SD Turbo Diesel he drove back in Dayton.

The Washington Bullets took him in the second round and cut him before the season began. That began a basketball odyssey that led to tryouts with five other NBA teams — five regular-season games with the Denver Nuggets — three Continental Basketball Association teams and a league scoring title there in 1985.

There were a couple of seasons in the Philippines and two games with the short-lived Dayton Wings in 1991.

When the pro dream ended, Anderson has said he was left with a void:

“Nothing could touch that high I could get on the court. Just to be coming down the floor, fluid and free — magic just happened. There was nothing like it. Not drugs, not alcohol … not even sex.”

Back in Dayton, he said he began to dread the questions, the disappointed looks, the admonishments:

“I tried to disappear. It got so I avoided the street and took the alleys.

… I was looking for some kind of peace, looking for the noise to be gone, for all the stuff in my head to be clear.”

As Coles put it: “I’m sure the kid had a broken heart.”

For a while Anderson sunk further into crack cocaine and alcohol and once described it to me as a “long slide toward suicide.” He said he used to sleep in abandon warehouses, old factories:

“When you’re up for days, you sleep where you drop. If this would have been someplace where the streets were meaner — New York or Los Angeles or Miami — I’d be dead.”

They proved deadly enough, though, when Ivan Powell Jr. — a Meadowdale High basketball standout who sought out Dwight for tips on his game before heading to junior college — was executed one August night in 1999 while selling drugs next to the house on Huron Street where Anderson was living.

Anderson testified tearfully in court that he was sitting on the porch just 10 yards away when Damien Ford pulled out a hand gun and shot Powell three times.

“There wasn’t nothing I could do but scream,” he said softly the other day.

Although he claims everyone on the block had witnessed it, he — after some initial reluctance — finally came forward: “Everyone was too scared to talk, but it was the right thing to do.”

Ford went to prison and for a while Anderson melted even further from the scene. Powell’s memory, though, stayed with him:

“I didn’t want to see this happen to another youngster. I just had to figure out what I could do.”

And now, maybe he is.

An old friend

Pierce — who collects local high school memorabilia and had put on a reunion for Fairview — said he was asked at the event what his favorite high school memory had been.

Standing in front of the crowd, he surprised even himself when he brought up the game where he and his Bulldog teammates had beaten Roth and the great Dwight Anderson.

That got him thinking about his old friend and one day he went searching for him.

“He found my daddy, he found my church and then he found me,” smiled Anderson, who lives in a West Dayton garage with no heat, has a couch for a bed, uses a bike for transportation and said he had subsisted on a bread diet. “He saw me walking down the street, drives up and yells ‘Dressing Ball.’ That was our old code word.”

Pierce brought him to his Gordon Avenue home (which he and his wife Denise often do now) and showed him his collection, which included Anderson’s old Roth warm-up, and a friendship was rekindled.

“I don’t judge,” Pierce said. “I figure we’re all just one or two decisions in life away from another person’s situation.

And I know nothing is quite as it seems. Look at George Foreman, he was a mean, brutal guy, but he’s done his best work after 50.”

As the two sat together in Pierce’s home the other day, Anderson smiled: “He’s bringing me back.”

The pair appeared on a WDAO call-in show awhile back and the phone lines lit up. Now some guys from Cleveland are trying to put together a documentary on Anderson.

And this coming Friday, Feb., 5, at 5 p.m. at Rut’s Eatery on James H. McGee Blvd., Anderson will sign autographs, as Pierce debuts his new Bulldog’s Bar-B-Que sauce while serving sandwiches, ribs and wings.

Still vulnerable and a bit taken aback by this re-emergence, Anderson smiled and shrugged: “I know I’m the poster child for the good, bad and ugly … But right now I feel like a newborn baby.”

And there are people interested in that rebirth.

“I’ll be real honest, I think about Dwight a lot,” Paxson said by phone from Chicago. “I’d like to come and meet with him.”

Coles had similar thoughts:

“If you see him, tell him I love him. I really mean it. He was something special.”

Pierce hopes a lot of people feel that way: “I figure if we can rehab buildings and have all these stimulus packages, we can reclaim lives, too.

“Kids need to know Dwight’s story. Folks from back in the day need to reconnect to it, too. Dwight is a good guy and he has a lot to offer. And when he does, I think he can turn this all around.”

And as unbelievable performances go, that would make 8-for-9 in the snow and cold look just like it was — a walk in the park.