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ELKHART, Ind. -- The place he called home could double as the backdrop of a Robert Frost poem now -- two-week-old snow still blanketing the land surrounding the naked trees, the fading sounds of geese and passing trains across the St. Joseph River accounting for what little life is breathed into this terrain amid the depths of winter.
McNaughton Park is exactly that -- a beautiful park to visit, but certainly not a place to live. Yet seven summers ago, the best player on the best team in the Northeast Conference called the park home. Like much of Karvel Anderson's backstory, it wasn't, he insists, as bad as it sounds.
There was a blanket for him to sleep on and a blanket to cover him. There was Elkhart General Hospital right across the street when he needed to use a restroom. He would arrive early every day at Elkhart Memorial High for basketball workouts, so showering was not much of an issue.
"A lot of people think that I just got kicked out somewhere, didn't have anywhere else," Anderson said. "I had a place that I could've went to, but staying at the park was something that I chose by myself."
Anderson, the Robert Morris senior who this week was named NEC Player of the Year, averages 19.6 points per game for the 19-12 Colonials, who for the second straight year have home-court advantage throughout the conference tournament, which starts Wednesday. He is hoping to help fourth-year coach Andy Toole reach his first NCAA tournament.
Nicknamed "The Best-Kept Secret," Anderson might still exist in anonymity if it weren't for a complicated path that led him to the doorstep of March Madness, a path that includes lodgings big and small, mentors near and far, three junior college stops, several academic mishaps and more places of residence than he can remember. He has had an absentee father, a once-imprisoned mother and an uncle whose trust was once fractured seemingly to the point of no return, leading him to those harrowing nights spent sleeping in the park as a prep youngster.
"He's been honest and open about things he's done or situations he's been in," Toole said. "He's never used it as an excuse. I think he's always used it as motivation. He never once during the recruitment or his time here tried to use any of that stuff as a crutch, and it's obviously a tribute to his fortitude and his strength as an individual, that he's been able to compartmentalize some of the things he's been through but still focus on basketball, focus on academics when he really realized how important it was."
Kecoria Anderson gave birth to her first child when she was 14, raising him on her own. Two more kids followed, by two different men. She remembers Karvel and his infant sister, Mylekia, sitting in the crowd as she walked the stage to receive her diploma from Ross Beatty High in Cassopolis, Mich. By that point, she recalls, Karvel was already riding a bike without training wheels.
The family moved to Elkhart when Karvel was in fourth grade. What followed, Kecoria reasons, was by design.
In January of 2008, she was arrested for cocaine trafficking and received a sentence that could have lasted as long as six years. Long before the arrest, her behavior already was heading off the tracks and ultimately drove her son out of her home.
By the midway point of his high school career, Anderson was living with his uncle, Kevin Jenkins, one of the first people to recognize Anderson's basketball skills. Jenkins would take Anderson to tournaments in Indianapolis and, even with three children of his own, welcomed another into his home.
But the two clashed. Neither will say what caused the rift, but it was enough to end Anderson's last piece of stability.
"After that happened it kind of damaged us both, and we both were too stubborn and too prideful to be the one to apologize to the other," Anderson said. "Because of that I even missed my aunt and my uncle's wedding, because of that stupid fight we had."
|Senior Night was a good feeling for Karvel Anderson, who was surrounded by family.|
Said Jenkins: "It was just a misunderstanding. There were never no grudges held on either side. Families go through things all the time, stuff like that happens, but there's no love lost."
No longer comfortable with either of his parental figures, Anderson took matters into his own hands.
He became homeless by choice. He had enough clothes stored back at his locker to keep him comfortable. He ate free meals at a recreational center in the park.
And he told no one.
Elkhart Memorial had recently hired a new basketball staff. Jerel Jackson, one of the assistants, was an area mentor who knew about Anderson's talents. Eventually he'd earn most of the credit for turning Anderson into the sharpshooter he would become. The two spent many hours before and after school, with Anderson always staying past practice dismissal to shoot around some more. Dinners afterward became a staple.
As he would drive Anderson from school, though, Jackson grew suspicious.
"He would tell me to drop him off at this place, that place and I'm like, 'Why am I dropping him off here and there?' " Jackson said. "And I never thought that he wasn't living [anywhere], but I tried to put two and two together, and that's when I started talking to him. I would take him to other places, and I'm like, 'What's wrong here?' And then he'll tell me a little bit at a time."
Jackson helped Anderson navigate through the homes of several different families. The closest he came to settling came during a nearly yearlong stint at teammate Tyler Keck's home.
The teammates-turned-housemates bonded, with Anderson getting the basement to himself each night before both went off to school together in the mornings. The Kecks eventually helped Anderson get a job at a recycling plant.
"He just kind of ended up trusting me, and we connected, which was very unique and something that I haven't been able to do even here at college," said Tyler, now a kicker at Div. III Trine (Ind.). "We confided in one another, and I would open up to him in certain situations that I normally wouldn't do to anybody else. I think he saw that, respected it and he's like, 'OK, if he can open up to me, I should be able to do the same in return.' "
Knowing Anderson had not celebrated a big family Christmas in quite some time, the Kecks had him over for the holiday. When he arrived, the Michigan native and lifelong Wolverines fan was surprised to receive a basketball, a Michigan zip-up and three Wolverines T-shirts from the Kecks as gifts.
"It meant a lot to me that they were willing to even invite me to their house in the first place to be a part of it," Anderson said. "And then on top of that, to get gifts and to want me to feel like I was a part of the family, that was something that meant so much to me."
The Kecks, too, helped nudge Anderson in the right direction academically. All of the instability, coupled with his own indifference to schoolwork, had conspired against him for years, and not until the Kecks intervened did he set about getting things straight.
"He got very far behind at the early part of high school, and people that decided to help him helped get him back on the right track," said Doug Keck, Tyler's father, who is now the junior varsity baseball coach at Elkhart Memorial. "Give credit to the coaches he's had through the years; I think they've all taken a liking to him and tried to help him out to the best of their capabilities. But I do think the light's come on for him, and as good as he can be in athletics, it's not a guaranteed thing. At some point he's got to figure that out, that I've got to get good grades and make some opportunities with some kind of a career after my playing days are done."
Grades delayed the start of his Division I dream, and after earlier stops at Butler Community College (Kan.) and Lake Michigan Community College, he signed on with Glen Oaks (Mich.) coach Steve Proefrock, who was impressed with the school-record 46 points Anderson scored on Senior Night in 2009.
|Karvel Anderson (left) and his uncle, Kevin Jenkins, bonded over basketball.|
His eye-popping numbers continued at Glen Oaks, where he averaged 24.9 points per game, shot 48 percent from the floor and connected for 54 points in a loss to Schoolcraft College.
Searching for a shooter, Robert Morris assistant Mike Byrnes received a DVD of Anderson from Virginia Tech head coach James Johnson. The two connected by way of Division III Ferrum (Va.) College, where, coincidentally, Proefrock once coached. Toole visited a workout and was impressed enough to invite Anderson back to the Robert Morris campus, which turned into another adventure.
Riding with his girlfriend to South Bend (Ind.) Regional Airport, Anderson's ride was struck by a drunk driver. He missed his flight and ended up pulling an all-nighter at the airport. After he committed, all of his junior college stops added up to an arduous NCAA clearinghouse process, with Anderson not getting the green light until the night before he was set to leave for Robert Morris.
The next day, he hardly made it to the Indiana Toll Road by the time both of his tires blew out, turning a five-hour trip into an eight-hour obstacle.
"I actually told Coach Byrnes and Coach Toole when they were recruiting me that something always seems to happen, and I wasn't sure why," Anderson said. "It always seemed to be like that: Whenever I was close to getting somewhere I wanted to be, something negative had to happen."
Friends and family members laugh now when they hear that Anderson says he wants to write books and do public speaking engagements when basketball is over. A communications major on track to graduate this summer with a GPA above 3.0, according to Toole, Anderson has come out of his shell more and more over the last few years, turning old wrongs into rights and smoothing things over with family members in a manner that seemed unthinkable just a short time ago.
He and his uncle, whom Anderson once called his hero, brokered a peace offering via Instagram and Facebook comments and messages, each crediting the other for initiating the repair job.
He's been honest and open about things he's done or situations he's been in." -- Robert Morris coach Andy Toole
On Senior Night two Saturdays ago, Anderson poured in a game-high 31 points to lift Robert Morris to a one-point overtime win over St. Francis-Brooklyn, a victory that clinched the regular-season NEC title. Two cars packed with six people apiece made the 350-mile trek from Elkhart for the occasion, Kecoria among them. Released on good behavior in February 2011, she is now back in her son's life.
"I couldn't be in his shoes, I could never get there," said Kecoria, who works at a paint putty plant in nearby Mishawaka. "But I know that it had to be definitely hard for him to study and know that I'm not there and continue to motivate himself to be a good basketball player. I think he just put it together, like he just has to do this himself, basically. He knows I'm gone, he's missing me, but he knows I'm OK. I told him: 'Don't worry about me, just be who you wanna be.' And I think that just made it even better for him."
"I didn't inspire none of my kids to sit back and stress and worry about me because I was gonna be OK," she added. "I literally know what I did was wrong, but in reality I did that for my kids because I was a single mom and I couldn't afford everything, and it was like he needed to go to basketball camps and he needed money for this and he needed shoes and he needed this, and I couldn't do it all. And I knew that that was something that he really wanted, and I just made sure to have it at all costs, even though it ended up [with] me being away from them. It was hard, but I did it for my kids."
Just five years earlier, an entirely different Senior Night played out at Elkhart High School. Then the boy who had, for a time, thought it better to live alone was offered escorts by both Jackson and the Kecks, with one of his sisters and his grandmother -- matriarch of Karvel's home of the moment -- ending up walking him before a slightly smaller cheering section.
Now here he was at Robert Morris -- a one-time disinterested student about to graduate from college, a child who tried to go it alone -- surrounded by people he loved.