Joel Anthony was ready. After more than 12 years as a professional basketball player, including a 10-year NBA career and two NBA Championships with the Miami Heat, Anthony was ready to step out of his basketball shoes and away from the court. He felt that the time was right and most importantly, he had prepared himself for life after basketball. He felt good.
And then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“When I retired, I wasn't expecting to live in a COVID world,” Anthony said. “I had an idea in my head of how things would be when I stopped, like, ‘Yeah things will be different’, but no, once COVID hit, it was clear, things are going to be really different. It was a huge switch. Just like everyone else in the world, I’ve been trying to adjust.”
Anthony is reserved when speaking about himself. His praise is effusive when speaking about the successes of others, but when his own career is the topic of conversation, he speaks of the journey itself, rather than pointing out his own successes. Currently, the 38-year-old Montreal native has re-signed with the Canadian Elite Basketball League's Hamilton Honey Badgers for his second season as a player consultant, proof he has successfully navigated the first year of his post-playing career during a global pandemic.
After so many years as a pro, the nonstop travel and daily grind, and after reaching the pinnacle in team sport by being part of two championship seasons, Anthony felt it was his time to step away. Being able to have that mental clarity helped in his next steps into the unknown.
“Mentally, trying to transition into a different role in basketball is something I was eager and ready to do,” Anthony said. “ It makes it so much easier when the change is not something you’re trying to wrestle with.”
How does a Canadian playing in the NBA and then overseas find his way to a player consultant’s role in the CEBL? In a roundabout way, Canada Basketball can be credited with the assist there. Thanks to Anthony’s time representing Canada alongside former Senior Men’s National Team captain Jermaine Anderson, the duo have built a friendship that has outlasted each player’s individual playing careers. With Anderson serving as the general manager of the Honey Badgers in his own post-playing pivot, bringing in a veteran with Anthony’s experience was an easy choice for the Honey Badgers.
Aiding in the transition for Anthony: There weren’t any lingering feelings of unfinished business when the time came to step away from his own playing career.
“For me, I kind of prepped myself mentally, just knowing I wasn't going to play forever,” Anthony said. “The way my career went, where my role started to change my last couple of years in the league, I wasn't playing as much and my presence on the team was more of a vet mentorship, [helping out the younger guys] that type of role.”
Having been part of two championship runs with the Miami Heat also helps with accepting the natural progression of an athletic career.
For Canadians wanting to follow their favourite players and teams today, it’s as simple as swiping and scrolling on your phone. When Anthony was growing up in Montreal in the late 80s and 90’s, it was a different story. Without social media to follow your favourite players or League Pass to tune into games whenever you wanted, there were few avenues to pursue information about your favourite players. One of the most dependable resources for basketball fans was SLAM Magazine.
“I was saving up my money and buying SLAM magazine every month and I had all the posters up from every issue,” Anthony said. “I was reading all the articles, I wanted to know about all the players. I really just fell in love with the game. I was obsessed with everything. Everything is basketball. I'm looking for any video I could find and any interviews that any players were doing. [I] started to work on my game and try to find ways to be completely immersed in basketball. It hit me that all I wanted was to be involved with basketball. I just loved everything about the game. I just wanted to learn more.”
Anthony says he watched basketball while growing up, but it was during his teen years when that love grew to an obsession that didn’t quit. With basketball beginning to make its mark in Canada, Anthony was thankful to be able to watch the Toronto Raptors and (then) Vancouver Grizzlies.
“We’re fortunate that we had the Raptors and then the Grizzlies for a time,” Anthony said. “I think we were even more fortunate having Vince [Carter]. Having a star like that where everyone is really following the game a lot more because of him, I think that helped kind of speed up the awareness of the game because people were paying more attention to it because of that.”
To demonstrate how far the game has come in Canada, Anthony points to the wide range of Canadian players being drafted as well as the impact those players are having once they make it to the league. The distance that once limited access to NBA news to a monthly SLAM subscription for Anthony is no longer an issue. The barriers no longer exist.
“Seeing the type of work people are putting in, I feel that that’s part of the reason we’re seeing that shift where players are really catching up to the highest levels,” he said. “You’re seeing so many Canadians now that are coming into the NBA and it’s not someone just barely getting in, guys are like top five picks, No. 1 picks, first rounders, lottery. They’re coming in with a whole lot of notoriety already.”
Speaking about young Canadians in the league, it isn’t surprising that Anthony is a fan of Raptors big man Chris Boucher.
“I’m obviously going to be a little more biased about the Montreal guys,” Anthony said. “That type of mindset, coming from our city, that type of underdog mentality, that type of game, that’s where we thrive and where we were able to find a lot of success. I love seeing guys like Chris Boucher really just open everyone’s eyes to see what they can do and continue to prove people wrong and to surprise people and show that the sky's the limit.”
As the pathway to the NBA has been broken open for Canadians thanks to the work of those who dared to dream before them, the same can be said for the Canadian Senior Men’s National Team. Playing a key role in helping to grow the program so that it is in a better place today was crucial for Anthony.
“I have always been proud to play for the national team, but to say that I was able to have so many years with so many of those experiences [means so much],” Anthony said. “It wasn’t always easy because on the court we're all competitors and having so many times of not being able to qualify [for the Olympics], that was something that definitely stung. But I always wanted to come back immediately. It didn’t matter that we didn’t make it, it was like, ‘I want to come back, I want to make it and do whatever I can.’
“I’m definitely proud of what I’ve been able to do with the team to be able to help us get to where we needed to go,” he said. “It was a huge goal of mine to see where we are now. You just love to see it. I’m happy with the way the program is going and I'm happy for my experiences and I just want to see us continue to be successful.”
In a playing career with many colourful highlights, he counts playing with the national team among his favourite career moments.
“I have great, great, great memories of playing,” he said. “Those guys on the team will always be like family. I love them all like brothers, the players, coaches, everyone. I'm just excited to be the old guy watching these young guys continue to do well and continue to succeed. I want to be able to see them reach that podium when they start playing the Worlds and the Olympics again. That's what it’s about.”
For now, Anthony’s days are spent like the rest of the world; continuing to adapt and adjust his day-to-day during an ever-evolving global pandemic. With so much of the “normally scheduled” basketball timeline on hold, he continues to join in on calls and give his input to Anderson and the rest of the Honey Badgers staff as he waits for the opportunity to do more.
Getting to be part of the CEBL means getting to be part of continuing to grow basketball in Canada even after his own playing career. It also means being part of a league that is helping to provide another avenue for players who are hoping to get more exposure.
“For Canadians, this wasn’t something that was always available,” Anthony said. “It’s backed by FIBA, guys that are really serious about being pros have a chance to play, they can showcase their talent. Whether they are free agents that are just looking for a better job, whether they have injuries and are trying to come back and show people that they can still play, or whether they just want to play in the summer, maybe they didn't have the season that they wanted and they want some more reps and some some more organized ball under them, to have that type of opportunity is a very big thing.”
With so much in limbo over the past year, opportunity has only become more important. Anthony is making the most of his as he works to provide a fresh path for current players in search of more.