I'll never forget the first time I saw Joel Anthony while he was shopping at Target.
Wait. Let me back up a second. That's not exactly true.
Anthony's career began in Miami during the forgettable 2007 - 2008 season, when the Heat, not quite two years removed from a championship, plummeted to 15 - 67. They had traded away Shaquille O'Neal, sending the newly-christened "Big Cactus" to Phoenix, Dwayne Wade missed over 30 games and Miami's roster consisted of such basketball greats as Chris Quinn, Mark Blount and the resurrected corpse of Penny Hardaway.
At some point during the season, Miami acquired a young Canadian out of the UNLV by the name of Joel Vincent Anthony, signing him to a one-year deal. In 24 games that year, Anthony averaged a whopping 3.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. These would be career highs for the quiet, hardworking player. He didn't get on the court much but, during that long, rebuilding season, he showed flashes of grit and determination. A willingness to do the little things even as he proved incapable of doing the big things. His hands were terrible, all thumbs and each made of stone, but he didn't take plays off and he fought with every inch of his 6'9" frame to get a rebound. He was clearly a project, one that likely wouldn't (and never did) pan out, but his effort was greatly appreciated by Miami fans who were still reeling from the precipitous drop in glory.
The '05 - ‘06 season was glorious, the next was disappointing but that '07 - '08 season was horrific. Shaq, the self-proclaimed savior, had charmed Heat fans and helped guide the young Wade to perennial All-Star status. And then, bloating and bitter, O'Neal burned every bridge on the way out of South Florida so pathologically that it seemed like he was removing any evidence of his brief and wondrous time here.
So the season was clearly shot. The team was tinkering with its' roster and Pat Riley would soon give up the clipboard permanently. There wasn't much to look forward to on a nightly basis but at least Anthony, with a low-post game like a fat ex-jock at the YMCA, showed fans that quiet dedication could lead to some success.
He wasn't famous at any point, probably completely unknown to the average fan. But, even during that terrible season, I wasn't the "average fan." One weekend, I found myself at Target with my girlfriend, nodding politely as she pointed out her favorite kitchenware, accessories, etc., when I noticed a rather tall man with a basket in one hand and a set of new utensils in the other.
I recognized him immediately and was shocked to find him so obviously engaged in such a menial task as my assumption was, "Don't NBA players have someone to do this for them?" But, just 24 years old, in a new city and probably in new apartment, it wasn't that far-fetched for a young man to be shopping for a spatula and new cookware.
I didn't approach him, as if I understood that he needed to be alone to make these monumental decisions, but, for a brief second, he made eye contact and seeing me staring glassy-eyed at him in obvious recognition, he nodded, looked away and went about his business of selecting just the right tablecloth to match his new plates.
Wow. Joel-friggin'-Anthony. Shopping at Target.
Over the years, people have laughed when I told the story, making it seem trivial as Anthony hardly qualifies as a superstar. My wife (the girlfriend at that time), who is determined to attack any celebrity she sees as if it was her duty to remind them they chose to be in the public eye so they should expect the occasional harassment, has chided me for not speaking to him.
Still, I'm glad it worked out the way it did. You see, that moment is like a microcosm of his NBA career. Willing to do the dirty work. Quiet and unassuming. Solid-but-never-flashy. And, as any coach would tell you, absolutely necessary to a team's success.
He re-signed with Miami just before the beginning of the "Big 3" era, a 5-year deal that was probably too much money for too little production. Anthony also earned one of the best nicknames in Heat history, "The Warden", given to him by a local radio-show host for his ability to lock down defenders.
And, of course, he gave us this unforgettable highlight:
But, he was always there for the team, ready to mishandle a pass or grab that rebound in traffic. And I still say he should have gotten more playing time against the Pacers, where his strength and speed would have helped negate David West's bullying tactics.
He was far from the best player on the court and he'll likely be forgotten by the average fan in a few years. Somewhat perfectly, even the announcement of his trade includes mention of him as an afterthought, taking a backseat to other throw-ins Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks. But when his new team, the Boston Celtics, comes to the American Airlines Arena on January 21, I hope the home crowd gives Joel a warm welcome, even as he defends his former teammates. The Celtics are rebuilding this year, too, but at least they'll have something to look forward to when Anthony takes the court, bobbles a pass, blocks a shot and then fouls out in less than 10 minutes of all-out-hustle.
And for some lucky fan out there, I hope you leave him be when he invariably drops by your Boston-area Target for a little shopping.