EVERYBODY’S ALL AMERICAN IN CRISIS: Interview with Kenny Anderson Documentary Director Jill Campbell

Kenny Anderson – one of the greatest ballers to ever come out of New York City or really anywhere for that matter – led Georgia Tech to a Final Four and was picked second in the 1991 NBA draft. He played 14 years in the league.

And then, Anderson’s toughest game began: Anderson had to deal with life and the issues he had ignored his entire existence. Enter veteran documentary director Jill Campbell. Campbell’s Mr. Chibbs, www.mrchibbs.com, captures Anderson in mid-life crisis mode, when he’s examining his often difficult past – and figuring out what to do with the rest of his life. In a way, Mr. Chibbs, which will be on VOD soon, is the anti-highlight reel.

Campbell took a few minutes to discuss Mr. Chibbs.

POPGATES: What inspired you to make Mr. Chibbs? Obviously, it’s a massive undertaking.

JILL CAMPBELL: It was a massive undertaking and I was fully aware at all times that I was telling the story of a New York City basketball icon. I grew up in New York and knew about Kenny; who didn’t? When I was first approached about the idea, I thought it would be intriguing to film this documentary about the famous basketball player, but after I met Kenny, I became passionate about telling his authentic story. Here was a former prodigy in a full blown mid-life crisis trying to figure out who he was going to be for the rest of his life. He was open and raw and wanted to tell his story as a way to give back, grow and learn about himself, and that is what happened as we looked back on his life and travelled to the people and places of his past. 

POPGATES: How did you come into contact with Kenny? Were you a basketball person?

JILL CAMPBELL: I was introduced to Kenny by the original producers of the documentary. I grew up on Long Island and consider myself a basketball brat. My brother played basketball in high school and college and I tagged along to all his games. My father was a huge basketball fan and it was always on in my house. When I was growing up, the Nets used to play at the Nassau Coliseum. My father had season tickets and I used to wait outside the stadium door with my autograph book for autographs. My fondest memory was getting Dr. J’s autograph! And of course, I was and still am a Knicks and Nets fan, although I lost heart when Patrick Ewing did not get his championship!

POPGATES: And then how did you get Kenny to be so open in front of a camera? It’s a very personal, emotional film, to put it mildly. Do you think Kenny needed to do this?

JILL CAMPBELL: When you begin a biographical documentary, it’s similar to the beginning of any new relationship. At first, it’s slightly awkward as you figure each other out and see if you can relate. Kenny and I surprisingly clicked from our first conversation. It was important to me that Kenny trusted me. I needed him to know I was not there to exploit his story, but to share it in a meaningful and insightful way, where he could give back and I would help him to do that. I also shared some very personal moments from my life, where I experienced similar pain to what Kenny went through. I think Kenny appreciated that I was willing to be as raw and honest as he was. We had a conversation about being truthful and honest, and that as long as he remained authentic, people will relate and will be pulling for him and learning from him. We had many of these discussions along the way.

POPGATES: How long did it take you to make Mr. Chibbs? What were the biggest obstacles?

JILL CAMPBELL: From our first shoot until our theatrical screening at IFC Center in New York City it took three and a half years, but we were not shooting the entire time. We were off for almost a year to raise money and deal with legal stuff. The biggest obstacles was dealing with an ex NBA player and the circus that still surrounds him to this day. Figuring out who was real in Kenny’s life and who were the sycophants, because believe me, ten years out and they were still there. Also, how to approach the story.

When we started, Kenny stated he wanted to coach, we followed that story in our first cut and then realized with Kenny, that this was not what the film was about, what it was about was following him as he figured out what he wanted to do with his life. During filming, David Falk told Kenny he should consider being a life coach. Kenny gives inspiring speeches to kids and talks to them in a way that many athletes never do. We saw Kenny discover that this was his calling. Giving back. Also, Kenny is still battling demons. He admits he is a work in progress, so I knew from the beginning that this was not going to be a film where we saw him overcome these demons, because dealing with abuse and alcohol issues, takes years. What we discovered was that as Kenny went back to people and places of his past, he started to grow and reflect and find his voice and vision. That is what we captured. We also wanted to display his basketball genius on the court. We used the archival footage of Kenny’s basketball days as memories that drove the story forward. And there were some things we just had to show, like the famous “move” he did on Bobby Hurley.

Kenny Anderson & Jill Campbell

POPGATES: What were Kenny’s most successful years as a player? Was it before college, at Molloy, or at Georgia Tech or as a professional?

JILL CAMPBELL: Oh man, that is a hard one. He was incredible at Molloy and at Georgia Tech and although he admits he did not fulfill his potential in the NBA, he still played 14 years in the NBA. How many people do that?  But I would have to say his most successful time was at Molloy, because he was there for four years. He left Georgia Tech after two years and was the first player to be named All-City four times and was a McDonald’s All American and set the all-time state record in scoring. There’s so much great footage from that time.

POPGATES: What is the general public’s most common misconception about professional athletes?

JILL CAMPBELL: It really annoys me when people ask me if Kenny is broke. Why does everyone think all athletes go broke? Kenny did go through his millions, but mainly that was because he was generous to his mother and he supported his eight children and their mothers. Kenny lives a middle class life in Florida, his wife Natasha has her Masters and runs a hospital; this is not a film about an athlete visiting the poor house. There were many great people in Kenny’s life that gave him great financial advice, but at the same time, Kenny admits that it is hard to tell a 20 year-old what to do with their millions. People think that famous athletes live a storybook life and bring their problems onto themselves. Really? I mean, when you grow up in poverty and you were abused and are dealing with abusive people and drug addicts and alcoholics, I’d say that’s not your fault. That is what Kenny says in the film.

He was so busy getting his life together, getting his mother out of poverty, getting to college, attaining a career as a pro-ball player, that he did not have time to deal with any of these emotional factors until he retired. That is when I met him. In the middle of it. Going to therapy and taking it on the best he can. It’s pretty remarkable. I am honored I was allowed to share this side of an athlete.

POPGATES: What’s next for Kenny Anderson? What’s next for Jill Campbell?

JILL CAMPBELL: We still hope to screen the film at as many venues as possible. Kenny coaches his son’s AAU team and runs a basketball clinic in Tampa. He wants to continue that as well as do speaking tours, clinics and screen the film. I am finishing a screenplay and just started working on a short documentary about a mother who lost her son in a terrorist attack. I am also in conversations about my next documentary.