The NBL is a small league where everyone knows each other and teams have long memories. Make one mistake and it will be forgotten, but mess up again and you’ll have a harder time shaking a particular label.
There are only so many chances in life and right now, BJ Anthony is out to prove that he deserves another in the NBL.
The hard-nosed New Zealander has had a rough go of it over the past 18 months. After rupturing his Achilles tendon in early 2015 with the Adelaide 36ers, it’s been a long and, at times, bumpy road back to elite basketball.
While many in both New Zealand and Australian basketball circles think Anthony’s reputation precedes him, and not always in a good way, they may be pleasantly surprised by this young man’s focus right now.
“It’s hard,” Anthony told Downtown on the morning of the Tall Blacks’ first game at the recent Olympic qualifying tournament in Manila. “I can talk ’til I’m blue in the face but perception is reality at the end of the day so I’ve got to prove it.”
That perception is of a player who has found it hard to stay out of trouble off the court and has not always worked as hard as he should on it. Whether that’s entirely fair or not, it has merit given his history, but it wasn’t like that right away.
Benny Anthony Jr., the son of a former successful New Zealand NBL player, found success of his own at an early age. BJ broke into the Tall Blacks team in 2009 as a 21-year-old for the Oceania Championship against Australia.
“It was a dream come true and a lucky break at the same time,” Anthony explained. “I got the late call up that year and we ended up winning. It’s something I’ll never forget. It was definitely a special thing.”
The forward kept his spot in the side for the World Championship the following year. Being around his country’s best and going against some of the world’s elite gave him a different perspective on how to approach the game.
“I just learned that basketball is something that you have to study and you had to do it every day. The players out there are so world-class that you could never take any breaks.”
His career was on the rise and he joined the New Zealand Breakers as a development player that season (2010-11), where he continued to find lessons in what it takes to succeed, both on and off the court.
“It [making the Breakers] showed me a whole different side of being a professional,” Anthony reflected.
However, it was just a year later, in his first season as a contracted player, that Anthony failed to follow those lessons.
He was involved in a drink-driving incident and was also suspended for several games after breaking team protocols with a late night out.
A stress reaction in his ankle meant he missed the end of the Breakers’ season and the entire 2012 New Zealand NBL season.
He was let go by the Breakers following that 2011-12 season, purportedly to “pursue increased game time that he is unlikely to get as a Breaker next season” given the “surplus of talent in the power forward position,” as the Breakers stated publicly at the time.
“They [the Breakers] said that Dillon Boucher was coming back for another season and my assistance on the team wasn’t needed because they were planning on Bouch retiring the year after that,” Anthony explained. “Obviously they won that year so he came back for another one.”
Upon reflection, Anthony knew his actions hadn’t helped.
“I was devastated at the time,” he admitted. “Looking back it feels like that was a whole other person. One of those things where I was just so naïve to how everything worked, and I thought everything was going to be OK. Looking back I see just how young I was really.”
As devastating as it was, it might have been the kick up the backside he needed to refocus on his game.
“It kind of just pushed me to become a better player and take another route,” explained Anthony. “It made me go away from home and learn different ways to play the game. I think it definitely helped me.”
Once his ankle healed, Anthony took his game to Germany’s Regionalliga and earned all-star five honours before coming home in 2013 to the New Zealand NBL to join the Otago Nuggets.
His play that season caught the eye of new Adelaide coach Joey Wright, who signed Anthony to a two-year deal ahead of the 2013-14 season. He’d been given another chance. He was back in the NBL.
“[It was] another step in my career and a second chance. Both really. Going to Adelaide was a great decision.”
Wright is a player’s coach. He doesn’t care where you come from, only what you bring with you. Anthony quickly realised what it took to succeed in that 36ers system.
“If you play hard then you’ll play. If you show that you want to play, then you’ll play,” Anthony said of Wright’s expectations.
“He showed me how to read the game a lot better. He showed me defensively seeing the game. Joey taught me a lot. A lot more than I think he knows even. He’s a great coach.”
That work ethic and improvement saw Anthony selected for the Tall Blacks team for the 2014 World Cup.
“It was awesome to get back around the fellas,” BJ said. “To be back in the same team as everyone was real special. And a little bit older the second time around than I was at the first world champs, so got to take in the experience in a different light.”
He took that experience with him back to Adelaide for 2014-15, looking to grow further and turn that into a bigger role. After a rocky start, his career arrow was pointing straight up.
“I was feeling great,” said Anthony. “Looking back, I was on top of my game. I was pushing for that starting spot. It was a disappointment what happened after that.”
On January 4, 2015, as Adelaide was ironically taking on the Breakers, Anthony was having one of his best games of the season. He had scored 11 points and grabbed nine rebounds before his season ended in an instant.
“It was just a freak thing,” Anthony said at the time. “I didn’t do anything special. I tried to get the ball off Cedric [Jackson], turned and felt my heel on the ground and a crack.”
Anthony had ruptured his Achilles tendon.
The severity of the injury and what it might mean for his career didn’t sink in initially.
“Straight away I don’t think it hit me as hard as it would hit most people when they get an injury like that,” Anthony told Downtown.
“I think I kind of was in denial about it almost. I kind of just acted like it was nothing, like I was going to get it over and done with.
“But then a year later, I’m still feeling the consequences of having it happen and now I look back and go ‘God damn, I was playing some really good basketball at the time.’ It was devastating, but at the time I don’t think I processed it very well.”
Anthony saw out the season from the sidelines before heading back to Auckland without a contract and with a long road to recovery in front of him. The reality of what lay ahead hit him all of a sudden.
“I didn’t really have a sports team around me to assist me with my rehab,” explained Anthony. “So, that was the hardest part—doing it by myself.”
With no immediate playing contract to motivate him, as well as being back home for the first time in more than six months, his priorities moved from the basketball court to his home life.
“Mentally, I think that I shifted from basketball player to father quite a bit. Basketball definitely got put on the backburner at that time,” he said.
Recovering from an Achilles tendon rupture is gruelling and doing it without a professional support system made it all the more challenging.
“Definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” Anthony said.
With no NBL teams calling for the 2015-16 season, he was forced back to Europe. This time he joined several other ex-NBL players at the Plymouth Raiders of the British Basketball League.
As the season started, his teammates included Daryl Corletto, Auryn Macmillan, Bennie Lewis and Josh Wilcher.
“BJ is a great guy to have around any team,” Wilcher told Downtown. “He gets along with everyone, he’s got a personality that can adapt to anyone else’s personality. He was a fan favourite for the time he was there.”
On the court it wasn’t as easy. Anthony was not all the way back physically, but he still put everything he had into the chance he was given.
“It was up and down at the start because he was coming off such a big injury,” recalled Wilcher. “In trainings he was really starting to pick it up and you could see what you were going to get if you gave it time.”
Still, it was great for Anthony just to be back on the court after such a difficult recovery process.
“Yeah it was definitely a relief,” Anthony said. “It was good to get competitive again and go up against some basketball players that I didn’t know and they didn’t know me, so I could kind of extend my game.”
Anthony is known for his intensity, hustle, rebounding and defence. There were glimpses of that as he averaged 15 points and 7 rebounds through the first three games, although the Raiders were winless.
Behind the scenes, the club was having issues, and a restructure led to Corletto being appointed player/coach. The players thought the environment would improve.
“The culture changed from a standpoint in that we thought that the players had more of a leeway,” explained Wilcher. “It changed for a little bit and felt more free but over time we could realise that wasn’t the case at all.”
This became evident to Anthony after a night out with a teammate led to an alleged incident that the team felt obliged to investigate. Both were cleared of any wrongdoing, but the whole thing rattled Anthony a little and clearly the team didn’t trust him anymore.
“They didn’t cut me initially,” explained Anthony. “They made me sign a waiver saying I had to drop a bunch of weight. I wasn’t allowed to go out with everybody and I wasn’t allowed to hang with certain people anymore. I signed it.”
He was embarrassed to face his teammates, as he feared they’d think the worst.
“I messaged Daryl and asked if I could wait until I made a statement before coming back to practice because I was too embarrassed to look everyone in the eye.”
The next day, Anthony was cut by the Raiders.
A quick Google search will probably lead you to a Plymouth media release stating that Anthony and his teammate broke team rules, which led to their release.
When speaking to Downtown, Anthony wanted to make one thing clear.
“Everybody thinks I got cut for misbehaviour, but I didn’t get cut until I said I didn’t want to go to training the next day.”
Missing training was the only team rule he broke, but he holds no ill will towards Corletto.
“Through all of it, Daryl tried to help me out and keep me around until the club said that I had to go.”
His teammates were disappointed that Anthony was gone.
“It’s hard to come back from anyone leaving but when someone leaves that you really get along with and you feel could be a big part of what you had going forward then obviously that’s going to take its toll,” Wilcher said.
After working so hard to get back on the court, this was a wasted opportunity. But worse, Anthony knew this would affect his reputation. He was again without a contract and had to consider his next move carefully.
“I was thinking about going to Germany, but my dad advised me to go home after everything that had happened.”
He turned to a former teammate for help.
“Once I got home, I talked to Kevin Braswell and he helped me out and signed me up for Wellies [Wellington Saints in the New Zealand NBL]. Before I went down to Wellington I was getting workouts in with Kev. He helped me out quite a lot before the season.”
Anthony was back on court in a familiar environment and dedicated himself to getting into better shape to move on from his Plymouth experience. He did just that as he played a feature role for the Saints on their way to the title last month.
It was noticed. Anthony was recalled to the Tall Blacks squad for their Olympic qualifying tournament campaign by coach Paul Henare, and to say he was happy would be an understatement.
“It’s awesome. I didn’t expect to make the team this year. Since I’m here, it’s just a breath of fresh air.”
After a six-week camp, Anthony was seeing the benefit of working every day amongst his country’s elite, with the best support system available.
“I feel like I’m definitely getting myself in better shape and just the nose for the game is coming back. It’s definitely lifted my game playing with these guys. I hadn’t played at a level this high obviously in the last 18 months, so it’s making me better every day and I’m happy to be here.”
While he played a minor role for the Tall Blacks, who didn’t qualify for Rio, it was a sign that people are taking notice again. It gives him hope that maybe he can put his troubled past behind him once and for all and rebuild his reputation.
“I know it’s tarnished. I know it’s definitely damaged. And the worst thing it seems like it’s all been alcohol related,” Anthony said.
“I’m not sure how to go about changing that perception but I know just to keep my nose clean. I know with Paul [Henare] here I’ve been showing my good side and my attributes. But I think it definitely has tarnished my image and I know it’s hard to change that.”
What is not tarnished is his reputation among his teammates who enjoyed being around him.
“You knew every day what you were going to get which is sort of rare from some people,” Wilcher explained. “BJ was very much ‘what you see is what you get’ and he’s just a great guy.”
Former 36ers teammate Adam Gibson also liked having Anthony around.
“He’s one of those guys that would do anything for his teammates,” Gibson told Downtown. “He always had a positive/fun attitude. He seemed like no matter what he was always energetic and kept the vibe of the group up.”
Anthony’s short-term goals are clear.
“Getting in the best shape that I possibly can because I know that if I’m in phenomenal shape then I’m a very good basketball player, so after this [Tall Blacks] campaign, I’ve just gotta keep pushing,” he said. “Things happen and opportunities are everywhere so I’ve just got to get ready and stay ready.”
From what Wilcher saw briefly, he believes Anthony deserves another shot based on talent and attitude.
“If he gets his body back into the shape it was before his Achilles injury, then I think obviously he’s talented enough,” said Wilcher. “He competes hard; he has the work ethic on the court to go after people. So as long as his body stays in shape and his body’s right physically, then he’s got no reason why he shouldn’t be in the NBL.”
It’s been a bumpy career to this point for Anthony, but he will turn just 28 next week. He understands that NBL teams will be hesitant to sign him given his past, but he knows if he keeps his focus simple, things will work out just fine.
And if anyone asks where his focus is at, both on and off the court?
“I just want to play basketball and be a father and help teams win anywhere I can. And I want to make my son proud. That’s what I want to do.”
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