Anderson's Death Offers Perspective

This could have been an article about Blaine Gabbert. In a way, it still is. The news broke Saturday. Dante Anderson, a 16-year-old junior from Gainesville, Fla., who happened to be one the highest-rated players on the Missouri men's basketball staff's recruiting wishlist, had been in a violent one-car accident on the way home from a concert.

While trying to pass another car, Anderson lost control and slammed into a palm tree. Both Anderson and a passenger, Curtis Hampton Jr., died.

This coulmn was going to be about Gabbert, the bluechip quarterback from Ballwin who last week announced he'd chosen Nebraska over Missouri and by doing so elicited angry reaction from MU fans across the internet. One of the most highly touted players in recent state history, it had been thought that Gabbert was a lock for Mizzou. When he spurned the Tigers for the hated Huskers, who've made a tradition of poaching the Show Me State for top talent, the backlash was immediate and unrelenting. Gabbert's decision had thumped Tigers diehards on a very sore spot.

Message boards were plastered with postings about Gabbert being a traitor, about him turning his back on his home state, about how his family should go ahead and relocate to Nebraska. Is there validity to any of the reaction? That's a matter of personal interpretation. But the timing of the news about Anderson's death seems a bit ironic.

Perhaps this is a sign that we all need to take a deep breath.

There will always be another star recruit to hang our hopes on, another highly publicized teenager whose innocence and youthful naivete have given way to around-the-clock media coverage and swooning college coaches. It's enjoyable to follow it, to try and dissect the comings and goings of players and project how good your team could look in a few years if only Player A and Player B realize that MU is the best place for them. In that regard, it's not unlike the free agency season in pro sports or playing fantasy football, and we know how popular that has become. But it's not life and death.

"It really does put things in perspective for you," said Ryan Delafield, one of Anderson's coaches with the traveling AAU Club, the Jacksonville Lee Bulls. "Is the next game important? Are the games after that important? No."

Delafield had formed a father-and-son like bond with both Anderson and teammate Shaquille Johnson, whom Mizzou has also been recruiting, and of whom there had been talk of a package signing to MU. Delafield has been looking to go back to school and get an education doctorate, and had spoken about making it a threesome at Missouri.

"I can't say for sure because they're 16-year-olds and their opinions changed like the wind at times," Delafield said, "[but] Missouri was showing them enough love that they could have possibly been a package deal.

A few years from now, we all could have been marveling at the scoring prowess, toughness and creativity of Missouri star Dante Anderson, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard who averaged 25 points and seven rebound per game last year and was ranked among the top-60 players in the nation.

He'd emerged from obscurity as a high school sophomore to lead Eastside High School to the Class 5A state championship, beating out a team featuring several renown stars, such as 2007 McDonald's All-American Nick Calathes. An intrepid worker, he was always in the gym getting better. Last summer he earned underclass MVP honors at Adidas ABCD Camp. This summer he was selected for a Reebok all-star team traveling to play in Italy.

"He basically came out of nowhere," Delafield said. "He had a chip on his shoulder. It wasn't a bad chip, it was a good chip …When he stepped on the court, he just had that dog in him."

He was also a personality. He shared a mutual respect and friendship with all of the state's standout players. One time during a long ride to a tournament, Anderson reacted with excitement and exaggerated shock after learning that one of the two white players on his team was a fan of rapper'Lil Boosie The two spent the next hour or so trading freestyle rap verses and bouncing around in the team van.

"Natural born leader, whether it was either on the court or off the court," Delafield said. "Thinking about what the young man had in front of him, it's very, very hard."

Personally, I'd interviewed him as many times as I'd interviewed any other MU recruiting target, and indeed he did have a flair and style to his way communication. He came across as a nice kid with a lot of confidence and ambition.

"I don't ever think I saw him do a straight layup in his life. It always had that funky angle," Delafield said.

Eastside coach Pop Williams told the Gainesville Sun, "Dante was a rising star, a really special kid ... Being around him so much, I was able to see the work and effort he put into being the best basketball player he could be. It's really a shame he won't be able to become the player and person we knew he could be."

Now, perhaps it's reach to tie Anderson's death into the Gabbert hysteria. But it is inarguably a reminder that these are kids we're talking about. I sometimes attempt to imagine what the 16 or 17-year-old Jeff Ermann would have been like, had he been thrust into the spotlight and judged like these kids are judged. I can't do it.

Though I didn't know Dante all that well, the news smacked me. Probably three hours before his accident, I'd been exchanging emails with Delafield about Anderson and his possible plans for a trip to visit Columbia. Hours thereafter, Delafield awoke to a Blackberry device gorged with text messages and missed calls from coaches and reporters.

He thought to himself: ‘What's wrong with Dante?'

A while back, Anderson and Johnson were playing against each other in spirited game of one-on-one when Johnson faked out Anderson, slashed to the basket and dunked on him. The gym went nuts. But when the five-on-five scrimmage started, Anderson was in prime form, effortlessly flicking NBA-range 3-pointers through the net. He probably scored 30 points in 10 minutes. As he sprinted off the court to get a drink of water, he looked at Delafield and said, "It's just one of those days, man."

"I know it is," Delafield said, smiling.

This Saturday, too, was one of those days. But not the good kind.

Black & Gold Illustrated Top Stories