ELKHART, Ind. — Gazing out of a restaurant window, Jerel Jackson thinks of the first time he saw Karvel Anderson on a playground basketball court, a memory that brings a wide smile.
The young player undoubtedly needed work, but there was a certain way he went about the game that made Jackson wonder — who is this kid?
Almost a decade later, as if it were fate, the two were reunited in 2006. Jackson was starting his first season as an assistant basketball coach at Elkhart Memorial High School in Indiana while Anderson a sophomore on the school’s team.
Many years separated them from that chance encounter, but as they got to know each other, Jackson could sense something wasn’t right.
“Are you homeless?” Jackson asked Anderson, now a standout at Robert Morris University.
Anderson snickered, brushing off the question and insisting he was fine. But in a short period of time, he had come to respect Jackson and felt compelled to tell him the truth. Yes, he was.
Anderson went on to live with Jackson for about a month, but what emerged from that conversation was a lasting bond, one that repaired a damaging family rift, paved Anderson’s path to college and ultimately helped save his life.
“He was one of the few people that came to me and let me know everything would be all right,” said Anderson, a senior guard and team leader for the Colonials, who face St. John’s tonight in an NIT game in Jamaica, N.Y. “That means a lot when you don’t have much.”
A father figure
There’s a cryptic message written under the bridge at McNaughton Park.
On the underside of a concrete beam near the abutment, in fading red graffiti, it says “I’m not dead!” in bubbly letters, as if being alive is an accomplishment for anyone who finds themselves there.
For about a month, this was Anderson’s home, where he slept on top of one blanket and underneath another. He would brush his teeth and shower in his school’s locker room after finishing basketball workouts. Every day, he was guaranteed at least one meal, but for another, he was on his own.
“I’m not proud of it, but I found a way to eat, let’s say that,” he said.
Strong-willed and admittedly stubborn, Anderson kept his living situation a secret, only telling a handful of trusted individuals. One of those friends told their parent, a teacher at Elkhart Memorial, who passed word on to Jackson.
“I knew something was wrong, but I hadn’t put two and two together yet,” Jackson said.
After briefly staying with Jackson and his wife, Anderson lived with a series of friends, often leaving after he felt he was becoming too much of a burden.
In a world where little was permanent for Anderson, his relationship with Jackson not only persisted, but grew stronger.
Jackson was just a basketball coach, but he had long prided himself on being able to help kids in need. In Anderson, he saw that.
The pair spent every day together, from their time on the basketball court to countless hours off it, talking about things that had little to do with the game — Anderson’s schoolwork, living situation and aspirations.
Anderson’s father was never in the picture, and though Jackson helped raise a daughter with his wife, he never had a son. Quickly enough, they helped one another fill those voids.
“We were both looking for the same thing and fortunately we found each other,” Anderson said. “It’s been a perfect match ever since.”
Mending a bond
As disheartening as it is to imagine a teenager living under a bridge, Anderson always has been adamant that his time in the park wasn’t bad. To him, there was a transcendental quality to the experience, one that allowed him to soul-search with the calming sounds of the St. Joseph River 30 feet from where he slept.
It’s the sort of tough situation he believes has been embellished, more than anything, because he was there by choice.
With his mother, Kecoria, incarcerated, Anderson and one of his younger sisters were given the chance to live with his uncle Kevin Jenkins. While his sister moved in, Anderson refused, citing a grudge between the two. He wouldn’t specify what it was, but the fracture was severe enough that it festered for years.
Just as it was with Anderson’s homelessness, Jackson eventually found out about the fissure in that relationship. Jackson had lost both of his parents in a five-year stretch, something he said made him feel “lost.” He didn’t want Anderson, already faced with a difficult life, to be the same way.
“Get to know your family,” Jackson recalled telling him. “All the beef and stuff you have with your uncle, let it go.
“He may not have liked it, but I think he listened.”
Anderson refers to Jackson as a father figure, but he wasn’t his first — that was Jenkins. In many ways, Anderson wanted to be just like his uncle, a man who overcame a tough upbringing to earn a good job, a beautiful wife and kids, and a house in the nice part of town.
Though the two aren’t in constant communication, Jenkins’ presence in Anderson’s life was a positive development for someone that needed one.
“Being able to have him back in my life was a big step for me,” Anderson said.
Getting a shot
There’s a fluidity to the way the basketball leaves Anderson’s hands when he shoots, the kind that makes one wonder how such a smooth stroke could come from someone whose life has been anything but. It’s the kind of form that allowed him to make 45.3 percent of his 3-pointers this season, but it wasn’t always that way.
Born to a 14-year-old mother, Anderson was extremely bow-legged and pigeon-toed growing up, something that forced him to wear leg braces and special shoes. Even as his legs straightened, those conditions made his shot inherently awkward.
Others, however, saw potential.
Beginning his sophomore season and through high school, Jackson and Elkhart Memorial head coach Mark Barnhizer worked with Anderson every day, conducting shooting sessions early in the morning before classes and in the afternoon after practice.
In the workouts, Anderson hoisted thousands of shots and developed go-to moves such as the two-dribble pull-up he now uses so effectively. That revamped stroke led him to the junior college ranks for two years after high school and it was something Robert Morris assistant Michael Byrnes noticed immediately on tape.
“You could just tell he could score in bunches, you could tell he had a quick release, you could tell he wasn’t a fluke,” Byrnes said. “You could see that it was something special there.”
Since joining the Colonials in 2012, Anderson has thrived, winning Northeast Conference player of the year this season while averaging 19.1 points per game. As a 6-foot-2 shooting guard, Anderson is undersized by NBA standards, but a professional career somewhere seems likely.
Regardless of where he ends up, he said he has no plans of starting a life in Elkhart. It’s a blue-collar Midwestern town, one where Jackson said you can leave your bicycle outside all night, but it holds too much pain for Anderson.
His hometown, however, will always be with him. It strengthened him from a young age and gave him the determination to be able to pursue his goals, the sort of qualities summed up in a tattoo on his left arm that says ‘Only the Strong Survive.’
Most important, it gave him the man that made so much of this success possible.
“Without coach Jackson, I’d be in Elkhart, dead, in jail or struggling, living day by day,” Anderson said. “Those are really the only three options.”
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.