Hillcrest High School point guard Tim Anderson received the ball a few feet from the basket on the left side of the lane. It was a 2-on-1 fast break in a 2011 Alabama regional playoff game.
Before him stood 6-foot-3 future Alabama and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland, a forward for Bob Jones High School. Anderson, a self-described “floor general,” did something even his teammates hadn’t seen in practice.
“He leaves the ground,” Hillcrest coach Scott Suttles said. “Reggie Ragland goes up to pin his shot on the glass, and Tim tucks it up under and brings it back on the other side.”
This wasn’t a player with the length of a LeBron James or a Giannis Antetokounmpo. This was a 6-1 point guard against a future SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
“I changed hands, and I got up real high,” the White Sox shortstop recalled. “That was a huge moment in the ballgame.”
The crowd went nuts, and Hillcrest wound up beating Bob Jones, 49-47, on a last-minute tip-in from Anderson’s teammate Trey Wells. Hillcrest advanced to the regional final and went on to win its next three games, each decided by four points or fewer.
Long before he was a first-round draft pick, before he signed a six-year contract worth $25 million in 2017, and well before he became known as the bat-flipping African American shortstop trying to break the “have-fun barrier,” Tim Anderson was a basketball state champion.
“He was instrumental in that, too,” Suttles said. “He didn’t score a lot. He was quick as a hiccup. He did everything we needed him to do.”
“It was dope, man,” Anderson said. “It was a great run.”
Anderson is the only black player on a team that represents Chicago’s South Side. USA Today estimates black players made up 7.7% of MLB players on opening day in 2019. That number is down from its high of 18.7% in 1981, according to a study published in the Society for American Baseball Research.
Fewer and fewer black kids grow up playing baseball. Anderson grew up on the diamond and on the court – where demonstrative displays of emotion are common, even encouraged.
“I was energetic, man,” Anderson said. “I was the point guard. I always had the ball. I had to do something that made them guys want to go out and play.”
A now-infamous April bat flip after a home run against Kansas City landed Anderson a plunking his next time up and a suspension for calling Royals pitcher Brad Keller, who is white, the N-word.
“It was a bomb,” Anderson said a day after the bat flip. “I smoked it, so I got excited.”
Anderson, 26, has backed up those actions, however, with the best season of his young career. He was the American League Player of the Month in April and appeared on track to earn his first All-Star bid before an ankle injury sidelined him for a month.
“I continue to go out and play hard,” Anderson said. “Lead by example and continue to inspire and play the game with a lot of passion, the way I know how to play it. Show that energy and that passion for the game.”
In a recent Sports Illustrated article, Anderson said he feels like today’s Jackie Robinson. He wants to break the “have-fun barrier.”
“He changed the game,” Anderson told SI. “And I feel like I’m getting to a point where I need to change the game.”
Where he’s from, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Anderson grew up celebrating the big moments – whether a home run or a 3-pointer. Wells played power forward and graduated from Hillcrest the same year as Anderson.
“That’s Tim,” Wells said. “If it’s something he loves and something he’s committed to, he’s going to go all out for it.”
Suttles likened Anderson to more of a Kawhi Leonard, the quiet leader. Even the soft-spoken superstars aren’t immune to displays of emotion. Leonard famously stuck his tongue out as his playoff buzzer-beater fell through the rim to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers in May.
“He’s not cocky,” Suttles said of Anderson. “He’s not arrogant. It’s hard to imagine when you see that [bat flip]. He’s just really, really excited about the situation. He wasn’t ever trying to show anybody up.”
‘I THOUGHT HE HAD A CHANCE’
Anderson missed his first two years of high school baseball because of injuries on the basketball court. He broke one leg freshman year and the other leg sophomore year.
“It was freak accidents,” Anderson said. “Layup lines and messing around trying to dunk.”
Playoff runs shortened his baseball seasons junior and senior year. When East Central Community College baseball coach Neal Holliman asked then-Hillcrest baseball coach Todd Agee about his top players in early 2011, Agee said, “My best guy is in basketball.”
Anderson said ultimately his body type favored baseball.
He took the only baseball offer he had to play at East Central in Decatur, Mississippi, two hours from Tuscaloosa. Shortly before baseball season, Holliman moved Anderson from second base to shortstop when East Central’s starting shortstop “gets the dang yips,” Holliman said.
“He is the only guy that I have ever coached that I have seen him do stuff this week that he didn’t do last week,” Holliman said. “You see guys grow, and you see some kids do that, but I’ve never seen somebody do it week after week after week after week.”
Anderson’s career skyrocketed his sophomore year at East Central when he hit .495 with 45 RBIs and 41 stolen bases in 53 games. It was a meteoric
rise that even Holliman couldn’t foresee.
As draft talk picked up, Holliman advised Anderson to wait for a team to truly invest in him.
“I thought he had a chance to be a good draft [pick],” Holliman said. “What I mean by good draft is maybe top 15 rounds or so. I had no idea that we were sitting here dealing with somebody that was going to be in the first round.”
The White Sox selected Anderson 17th overall in the 2013 draft. He signed a contract worth $2.1 million.
“Hollywood couldn’t write a script like this,” Suttles said. “It’s not knocking Tim by any stretch of the imagination. We always knew he had the tools, the skills, he’d just been banged up. He’d been hurt.”
‘HE EARNED HIS RING’
Holliman always wondered if the state champion point guard ever had an itch to return to the court. Holliman never once saw Anderson play even a game of pick-up basketball.
“When I was done with it, I was done with it,” Anderson said.
Still, Anderson sees lessons in basketball that could make baseball more popular among black kids.
He pays attention to the NBA. He sees the passion NBA players exhibit on the court and the clothes they wear walking into the arena. When he sees an NBA player pound his chest after a dunk or yell toward his teammates on the bench, he believes he can bring that same passion to the baseball diamond.
“Basketball is an energetic sport where you have key moments that are happening that sometimes require you to bring that energy and passion for the game,” Anderson said. “I think that’s how it is in baseball. When you have those key moments, it’s OK to enjoy them and show that energy and passion for the game.”
Wells saw it all those years ago when Anderson rose for a layup against the future All-America linebacker Ragland.
“You could just see it in Tim’s eyes. It didn’t matter who it was,” Wells said. “He was going up, and he was going to make that layup.”
Suttles, who still coaches at Hillcrest, keeps in touch with Anderson frequently via text. He won’t soon forget how instrumental Anderson was to Hillcrest’s 2011 state championship.
Every game down the stretch was close. Anderson had key assists on baskets in the final minute of both the state semifinal and state championship games.
“He earned his ring as a state champion,” Suttles said. “He sure did.”