Twenty years ago, one of the greatest teams in college basketball history steamrolled the competition, went 34-2, won a national championship and sent nine players to the NBA.
We’re talking, of course, about the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats, who were also known as “The Untouchables.”
Derek Anderson, for one, cannot believe it’s been 20 years.
“No, I can’t,” he said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “I feel like it’s been about four or five years. I feel like we just won a championship. I don’t feel old, but 20 years sounds old.”
Anderson, along with Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, Nazr Mohammed, Mark Pope, Jeff Sheppard, Wayne Turner and Antoine Walker, won 27 straight games during the regular season and lost to Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament before winning the sixth national title in school history. The Wildcats beat Keith Van Horn and Utah, Tim Duncan and Wake Forest, Marcus Camby and UMass, and John Wallace and Syracuse during their brilliant run to the title.
“It was just a great run to have,” Anderson said. “Once we started back in the tournament, our whole mission – every day we went out – it wasn’t just to fit in or just play. It was to dominate. Our mindset was amazing. We had 86 points at halftime at LSU. We had a mindset that was very, very remarkable. . . . Our mindset was always to destroy people. Some teams would be like, ‘Hang around, let’s just have fun.’ But us, it was destroy whoever we played – and it showed in the tournament.”
While Anderson probably seemed like he had a perfect life back then, he didn’t. He didn’t have a stable home life. He was abandoned at the age of 11 and became a father at 14.
It would have been easy for him to slip through the cracks or become another statistic, but he didn’t. He overcame his circumstances.
“For me, it was being focused,” Anderson said. “Anybody can make excuses. You’ve got grown-ups now making excuses for everything. We all know this world is not fair, whether it’s government, politics, jobs, careers. Everything is not fair. Some of the best people that we know deserve more and they don’t get it, but you have to keep pushing. For me, even at the age of 11 being abandoned, I felt like if I just do the right things and put a smile on my face and go to work, people will help me. I was on campus and people were like, ‘Why are you always smiling?’ I’m like, ‘I got food and a bed. I’m happy. Forget everything else.’ Guys are complaining about going to class and all this. Coach (Rick) Pitino says it all day: It’s hard to yell at a kid who’s always smiling. My thing was, I survived, so I’m happy.
“I didn’t think about the NBA ever,” Anderson continued. “All these kids are so ready to go. I was getting told I was ready to go, and my upbringing was like, if you survive the next day, that day you should be smiling. That was my mentality. I would take food from the food table that was free and take it to my room, thinking I got to feed my son when I see him. So I guess everyone has their own thought process, but mine was survive until he next day and enjoy that one day. That was my mentality the whole time I was in school.”
After he was abandoned, Anderson would carry people’s groceries bags for a nickel or dime at a time. In the mid-1980s, he would sometimes make $3 a day. That went a long way toward his survival.
“I knew I had to do the right thing,” said Anderson, 41. “I felt like I could survive. I just have to work. For me, it was basically being forced into a situation where I had to grow up. Everyone needs that situation, whether you’re 34 and you don’t want to grow up. Sometimes you need to hit rock bottom and figure it out on your own. Luckily, I was aware enough to do that. Whatever age you are, if your mentality is if I work hard, I’ll keep fighting to that next day, you’ll be successful no matter what you do. But the moment you quit is the moment you lose.”