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Who knew? Who knew the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has a successful basketball team? They do, and naturally they are called the Engineers. And who knew MIT has a New England Basketball Hall of Fame coach, Larry Anderson, who hails from the Noxubee County town of Macon, has 20 brothers and sisters and once sold shoes at the Thom McAn store in Jackson’s Metrocenter Mall? Who knew?

Better yet, who would believe it?

Rick Cleveland

I did not. But once convinced, I wanted to know more. You do, too. Trust me.

And I know your first question: How does a self-admitted subpar high school student, who grew up poor in rural Mississippi, become the basketball coach at one of the world’s most prestigious universities?

“The answer is I drove my 1987 Honda Accord hatchback 24 hours straight from Holly Springs, Mississippi, to get here,” the 55-year-old Anderson answered, laughing at his own joke.

The truth is, the journey was much longer, more interesting – and certainly on a road less traveled to get to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Anderson’s father had a sixth-grade education and made bricks for a living. His mother made it through nine grades of school, worked as a nurse’s aid and did domestic work before and after her shift to make ends meet.

“I did enough in school to get by, so I could play basketball…I was in love with basketball.”

— Larry Anderson

Anderson has 14 full brothers and sisters, counting the four who died before he was born. His father, with whom he never lived, also had six offspring with other women. Anderson was essentially raised by his mother and his mother’s mother. They did not have much.

“One of my older brothers dropped out of school, went to work and bought himself an Olds 442,” Anderson said. “I thought that car was so cool. I wanted to do the same thing, go to work and get me a car. My mother told me I didn’t need to do that. She told me to stay in school, that education was the answer.”

But Anderson isn’t certain he would have taken his mother’s advice had it not been for sports, particularly basketball. He played all sports until the ninth grade. He remembers being at a baseball practice and hearing the basketballs bouncing in the nearby Noxubee County High School gym.

Larry Anderson pleads his case with an official. / Photo Courtesy MIT

“I remember thinking I’m out here playing shortstop and all those guys are in that gym getting better,” Anderson said. “I loved all the sports. But basketball was my passion.”

Reading, writing and arithmetic were not.

“I did enough in school to get by, so I could play basketball,” he answered. “I was in love with basketball.”

Noxubee won five games his freshman season — seven when he was a sophomore, 11 when he was a junior and 19 when he was a senior. Anderson played point guard and was only 5 feet 8 inches tall when he graduated.

“Some people graduate magna cum laude or summa cum laude,” he said. “I graduated Thank you, Lawdy.”

And then he planned to go to work, probably at the brick company, until he was playing pick-up basketball at nearby East Mississippi Junior College in Scooba. Richard Mathis, the school’s basketball coach and one of Mississippi’s best, saw Anderson playing in the pick-up game and offered him a scholarship on the spot. Mathis left for Northeast Community College in Booneville before Anderson arrived, but Anderson played two years at East Mississippi, grew a remarkable six inches during that time, and then planned to walk on at Jackson State.

Instead, he ended up getting the shoe salesman job at Metrocenter to pay his way at JSU for a year.

“Jackson was just a little too fast for me at the time,” Anderson said.

He transferred to Rust College in Holly Springs. There he got back into basketball and got serious – really serious – about school. He met role models there. He met his wife there. Really, he found himself at Rust.

One of his role models was David Beckley, then the Rust provost and for the last 26 years the president of Rust. “I knew Larry as a dedicated student and an active student leader,” Beckley said. “He was very clear that he wanted to become a leader in higher education, not necessarily a coach.”

Upon graduation, Anderson was hired as Rust’s director of student activities and as an assistant basketball coach.

“Some people graduate magna cum laude or summa cum laude,” he said. “I graduated Thank you, Lawdy.”

— Larry Anderson

He loved his jobs – and excelled, Beckley says – but decided he wanted to become a head basketball coach and began looking for jobs. After seven years working at Rust, he saw a posting of the MIT basketball coaching job in 1995.

“Why not? It’s worth a try,” he thought and sent in a resume, not really expecting to hear back. But hear back, he did. He went for a two-day interview, came back to Mississippi and, surprisingly at least to him, was offered the job.

He turned it down at first. “The salary just wasn’t high enough,” he said. “My wife was taking graduate classes at Ole Miss. We had two kids by then.”

A few days later, MIT called back. They would make him an assistant professor of physical education in addition to head basketball coach and raise the offer.

Larry Anderson talks to one of his MIT players. / Photo courtesy MIT

Anderson took the job. Twenty-four years later, he’s still there, still winning. But winning didn’t happen overnight.

He inherited a mess and his first team won four games and lost 21. “I’d never lost that much in my life,” Anderson said. “It was so discouraging I almost came back to Mississippi. Dr. Beckley had asked me to come back to be Dean of Students at Rust.”

His team was 3-22 the next year but, says Anderson, much improved and headed in the right direction. The third year, MIT won 18, lost 7. They have averaged 21 victories per season since, and they schedule only 25 in NCAA Division III. In 2009, he was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. His teams have made it to the NCAA Tournament in eight of the last 10 years and made it to the Final Four in 2012.

His record is all the more impressive when you realize not just anybody can get into MIT.

“I loved all the sports. But basketball was my passion.”

— Larry Anderson

“Less than one percent of all the players in the world who play high school basketball would qualify to play here,” Anderson said. “I recruit the whole world. We have to cast a world-wide net to get the players we need to compete.”

After a slow start, Larry Anderson’s MIT teams have become accustomed to championships and the cutting of nets. / Photo courtesy of MIT

Last season’s team included a 6-foot-6 All American forward, Bradley Jomard, an aerospace engineering major from Paris, France. Yes, a French rocket scientist. He is one of three rocket scientists on the team.

There was another player from Greece, another from Mexico. In the past, Anderson has coached players from Singapore, Bulgaria and all over Europe, as well as from all over the U.S.

“Obviously, our guys are very intelligent, but they are also very competitive,” he said. “Just like the players we had a Rust, they want to win. Our guys want to compete for the national championship.”

Anderson, who still serves on the Board of Trustees at Rust and returns to Mississippi at least once a year, has now lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for longer than he has ever lived anywhere else. He and his wife, the former Dawn Colquitt, have raised two successful college graduates. Daughter Skyy Anderson, a college soccer All-American at Maryland, works as a real estate account executive in Washington D.C. Son Paul Larry Anderson, who played college basketball at UMass-Boston, is in Los Angeles, producing music. Wife Dawn is working on her doctorate at U-Mass-Boston. Meanwhile, Larry Anderson, an avid runner, is teaching himself to play guitar.

Anderson family photo, from l to r, wife Dawn, son Paul, Larry, and daughter Skyy / Photo courtesy MIT

Yes, Larry Anderson says, he misses his native state.

“Mississippi raised me, made me who I am,” he says. “But I love where I am and what I do.”

And he still loves the Xs and Os of basketball, which he discusses from time to time with his friend, fellow Mississippi native Tim Floyd, the former NBA and college coach. He says his teams play much the way Floyd’s did.

“We play fast, we averaged 85 a game this past season,” Anderson said. “But much of that offense is predicated by defense. We guard really hard, man-to-man. It’s simple. Basketball is not rocket science.”

But, clearly, rocket scientists can play basketball.