Small Town Hero, Big Time Prospect

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday.

>> Read more Ken Rodriguez Articles | Contact Ken

James Anderson
James Anderson.
(D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images)
For as long as he can remember, Robert Anderson says, his son could shoot. And for as long as the son can remember, he’s had a ball in his hand. "I grew up with one," says James Anderson, the Spurs’ first round pick in the 2010 NBA Draft.

It’s easy to understand why. In James’ hometown of Junction City, Ark., it was either play ball or watch the grass grow.

There is no movie theater in Junction City. No Pizza Hut. No McDonald’s. Located on the Arkansas-Louisiana border, Junction City is home to roughly 700 residents, one stoplight, a school and a gym on 1.1 square miles of land.

"There’s nothing to do," Robert says. "Nothing at all."

With zero entertainment options, the family created its own fun. Robert taught James how to dribble and shoot. Ira Williams, James’ mother, taught him a few things from her playing days at Southern Arkansas University. Soon, a lights-out shooter was born and James became the must-see show in town.

He returned home last week to watch the NBA Draft at Junction City High. He invited a few friends, who invited a few friends, and the word kept spreading, all the way across the Louisiana border. By the time his name was called, a gathering intended for a handful of people had turned into a party for more than 100.

"People kept coming," James says, "from the surrounding area and the next town."

A surging crowd jammed into a tiny school. Whoops and hollers erupted at the TV announcement of the 20th pick. Tears streamed down the face of a new Spur. Frame the picture: This is what a dream come true looks like in small-town USA.

"I was excited to see everybody," James says, "and everybody was glad to hear my name called from a little town like this."

Junction City has been cheering its favorite son for years. Residents knew he was special in middle school. James so dominated the floor coaches wanted him to start on the high school varsity as an eighth grader. "His form was horrible," Robert says, "but he could shoot."

High school coaches decided to wait on James another year. The kid led his middle school to a championship and Junction City celebrated. The town had a rising star but almost no one else in Arkansas had heard of him.

Up in Fayetteville, though, a fifth-grade point guard began drawing national attention. Only 5-foot-2, Fred Gulley III dazzled with transcendent skills – a spot-on Allen Iverson crossover, for example -- and wowed college coaches. One from the University of Arkansas even offered a scholarship.

In 2002, the boy’s father told an Arkansas newspaper, "They said he’s got a four-year, full-ride right now. I said, ‘But he’s only 11.’ And they said it doesn’t matter." The difference between Gulley and James? One played in front of college recruiters on two AAU teams that traveled across the state. The other played in front of the neighborhood. That changed after 8th grade when James joined an AAU team in Little Rock, the Arkansas Wings.

Soon, James began playing on a circuit against O.J. Mayo and other hot, young prospects.. Recruiters took notice but no one in Arkansas embraced James like Gulley. By 10th grade, James recalls, one school showed the most interest. Louisiana Tech.

So the kid worked on his game, and in the summer his divorced father flew him home to the San Francisco Bay Area. "I took him to the gym because I was still playing pretty heavily," says Robert, a former basketball star at Junction City High. "He held his own and he was playing against men."

The son grew to 6-foot-6, his shooting form improved, his stature soared. James won two state championships in the high jump and leaped to the top of recruiting watch lists. On the court, he led Junction City to the state championship as a senior, scoring 43 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in the title game. James earned Arkansas Player of the Year honors -- an award Gulley captured the next two years.

In a double blow to Razorback fans, the state's two best players in one three-year stretch went to Oklahoma State. Gulley started 17 games as a freshman last season while James, as a junior, scored more than 22 a game and became Big 12 Player of the Year.

All the practice, the thousands of jump shots in his small gym in Junction City, has paid off for James Anderson. "The best shooter in the draft," one analyst says.

The Spurs could use a deadly perimeter shooter. Coaches hope James becomes that and more.

With all that he has accomplished, Junction City might want to throw a block party for its favorite son and then head out to San Antonio for a game.

James would be happy to see that. Everyone in his town could fit nicely into a corner of the AT&T Center.