Cole Anthony Wants to Revolutionize Basketball (And Play Zelda)
The son of former NBA player Greg Anthony has limitless talent, uncommon privilege, and an 8 p.m. bedtime. Those are just some of the reasons why he's the best high school point guard in the country.
Over the next two months VICE Sports will be profiling 16 athletes as they evolve into national superstars. Keep checking back here to find them all.
"Come on, Cole!" It's a sticky Saturday night in a rec center on the Upper West Side, and Cole Anthony, the most talented high-school basketball player in New York City—and arguably the preeminent point guard in the entire county—has just missed his third straight jump shot.
His obvious disappointment is quickly masked by unwavering energy and focus. Anthony nails a series of step-back threes with instinctive precision. His T-shirt, which was light gray 45 minutes ago, now resembles a gushing raincloud. Another exasperated cry echoes off the gym's wall like a clap of thunder. "Short!"
A handful of middle-school-aged boys are dribbling around below two hoops that flank Cole's basket. Each one pretends to ignore the sound, but not staring at its source —a blur of green shorts and white Nikes—would be impossible for anyone.
Anthony is as likely to toss a self-alley-oop off the backboard as he is to orchestrate a surgical half-court set. His game is capricious in the best possible way, with physical and mental characteristics that can't be learned studying film or living in a gym (both of which he does fastidiously). He's an immediate learner with a voracious appetite for information, and the older he gets—Anthony has played up a level in the AAU's 17-and-under division for the past couple years—the more complete his game looks.
As the session strings through shooting drills aimed to quicken his release and attack in various ways out of a pick-and-roll, DJ Sackmann, a skills trainer who regularly works with some of the top high-school players in the country, asks Anthony if he wants to go a little longer than they originally planned.
He spins his head as if the question was "Would you like a piece of cake?" then trots to the corner and fires up another 10 minutes' worth of jumpers. Once that's over, Sackmann directs Anthony to stand about four feet behind the top of the arc. The postscript to this workout's postscript is for him to make 20 NBA-range threes.
"20 in a row?" A devilish grin slides across the high-school junior's face. He swishes eight before a misfire—short!—but eventually reclaims his rhythm. The ball doesn't hit the floor. Instead, it flies from Cole's fingertips through the nylon net to Sackmann's reach below the rim...then back to Cole. I think about how long we'd be in the gym if anyone else in it had to sink 20 shots standing about 24 feet from the rim. Anthony wraps it up in under a minute.
"He has a different mindset as far as his work ethic is concerned," Sackmann says a couple weeks later. "He's very receptive to criticism and he's willing to take everything in and try to work on his weaknesses to improve his craft. You don't see that from any high-school kid, let alone a top-10 kid. He's already a Division-I point guard."
Two or three of the kids who were dribbling on the side have stuck around to watch Anthony wrap things up. Each has turned his basketball into a makeshift chair along the baseline, a few feet behind the net Cole's jumpers are eviscerating. Free front row seats to watch a teenager whose all-around flair and technical skill suggest he'll someday compete in the NBA's Slam Dunk and Three-Point contest.
Coming off a summer in which Anthony dominated several circuits, invite-only camps, and AAU tournaments—all overflowing with the best prospects in the nation—the young point guard has begun to treat the present as daily preparation for what very well could be a lucrative future doing what he enjoys most.
"I think he has a chance to be the prototype for how the point guard position is played at the highest level," says Greg Anthony, Cole's father and a former NBA player turned basketball analyst for Turner Sports. "He's what I call a natural basketball player. He's not methodical. He sees it before it happens and that's a special trait that all the great players have, is the ability to see things two, three steps ahead."
Anthony's days start at about 5:15 AM, when he arrives at a recreation center a couple blocks from his home. Andre Charles, an assistant coach from his PSA Cardinals AAU team will guide him through drills via FaceTime from Staten Island if he can't make it in person.
Anthony is 6'2" and is still growing. His primary goal heading into next season is to bulk up his trim frame, so before he ventures down to his building's basement for an hour-long calisthenics workout, he chases a peanut butter sandwich down with an Ensure. Before he leaves for school, Anthony will inhale a plate crammed with pancakes, eggs, and bacon.
After school, he's back in the gym to hoist some more shots up, then home to focus on his academics—according to a mandate from his parents, if he doesn't maintain a B average, he can't set foot on the court—before he climbs into bed by 8:00 PM every night. The routine hardly sounds sustainable for anyone, let alone someone who celebrated their 17th birthday a few months ago, but in addition to his unparalleled talent and surreal athleticism, it's Anthony's innate drive and discipline that will soon allow him to play basketball at whichever college he wants.
"He truly loves the game every bit as much, if not more, than I do. I think the better he's gotten, the more he's wanted to improve," Greg Anthony says. "It's been a fun journey to watch thus far."
Indeed, Cole's future feels filled with endless possibility. As he sees it, "[The NBA] is really not that far ahead. If I play my cards right, do what I need to do, I'll be in the NBA in probably three or four years? I've just got to keep my head on and stay focused."
On the court, Anthony is simultaneously cerebral, steady, and relentless. He anatomizes defenders with ease and can already attack in myriad ways from all three levels. Duck under a screen and he'll stick a pull-up jumper. If a defender steps up to take away the shot, Anthony, who first dunked when he was 14, will slip by and deliver a teeth-rattling finish. In June, he was named Co-Most Outstanding Player at the Pangos All-American Camp, an honor once awarded to James Harden, John Wall, and Harrison Barnes. The subsequent weeks were filled with impressive performances at an array of invite-only camps and tournaments.
"He's a top-five-in-the-country athlete," says Terrance Williams, Anthony's head coach on the PSA Cardinals. "But he doesn't rely on his athleticism."
Towards the end of the summer, Anthony had the opportunity to meet Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving while his family vacationed in the Hamptons. According to Anthony's mother Crystal McCrary, the four-time All-Star flipped the script and told Cole how much he loved his ability.
"He actually said he was a fan of my game," Anthony says. "It was awesome."
Anthony is nestled near the top of just about every prospect list there is (For the Class of 2019, ESPN currently has him ranked sixth and Rivals.com has him fifth), but instead of worrying about who's in front of him or what schools are rumored to have interest, he instead studies his peers at every position, reading scouting reports and absorbing film to get a solid understanding of those likely to become his friends and foes at the next level. All other elements of the process—contact with college coaches, scheduled visits, etc.—are controlled by his father.
"You want to feel good and be proud of the program and all it has to offer, not just on the court but off it," Greg Anthony—who helped shepherd UNLV to a National Championship in 1990—said. "That stuff is really important because that becomes your family. And that's gonna be a part of your family your entire life. So all that stuff will play a role and we'll look more at it as he develops more."
Thanks to his dad, Anthony can forget about college recruitment and zoom in on all the ways he can improve as a person, player, and student. Anthony enjoys playing hide-and-seek with his four-year-old brother, and sometimes wakes up at 3:00 AM to play video games for an hour or two before his day begins. His favorite, he says, is Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. "I beat that game like three times already," he adds.
There are few distractions in his life, and his family, which constantly demands humility, help prevent his ego from creeping in and becoming an antagonistic force. He feels no pressure outside that which he sets on his own shoulders. He doesn't care about the simmering belief that he can be one of the most exciting guards to ever emerge from New York City, and comparisons to his dad don't stress him out in the slightest bit.
"He is my dad and I'm his son," he says. "There's really been no disadvantages for me. Everything's been an advantage."
Anthony hears his name whispered when he walks down the hall at school, receives complimentary DM's from fans all over the globe (most recently from someone in New Zealand), was once recognized while on vacation in the Bahamas. Spike Lee, a family friend, is in his cell phone. The taste of celebrity is nice, but Anthony's self-awareness and head-down concentration keep his priorities glued in place.
"[Popularity] is not something you can fall into," he says. "I didn't make it yet, so I can't get accustomed to that."
Though he may very well find himself shaking NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's hand on draft day in the not-too-distant future, right now Anthony is driven less by NBA dreams than he is by a pair of crushing defeats he suffered in recent months. In early spring, Anthony's high-school team lost in the Catholic High School Athletic Association championship by two points, with Anthony missing what would've been a game-tying bucket in the final seconds.
A few months later at Peach Jam—a Nike sponsored AAU tournament that pits the nation's best programs against one another—Anthony led all scorers in an event that also featured Duke commit and future NBA lottery pick Marvin Bagley Jr., but his PSA Cardinals failed to make it out of pool play, losing in the final seconds to a team that went on to win the whole thing. ("That's gonna be in the back of my head until I win Peach Jam, which we're gonna do next year," Anthony says.)
"How he handled defeat was really telling," Greg Anthony tells me. The elder Anthony then imparts some wisdom he'd gleaned from Pat Riley, his former coach whose legendary idioms have become gospel among basketball fans. "[Coach Riley] used to say there are two things in competition: There's winning and misery. And you have to embrace both. And the guys that embrace the misery oftentimes are your best winners because they know what it's like not to win, and they're gonna do everything in their power to not feel that misery.
Since Cole was a small child, the act of competition was a minute-by-minute way for him to validate his supremacy at everything, but especially the most mundane activities—whether it was dashing past his sister into the bathtub before she could climb in, seeing which of his siblings could eat dinner the fastest, or brush their teeth the quickest. When he was still tiny, a foot race against a nine-year-old first taught him to hate losing. Anthony came up short by an inch; he was inconsolable.
"We were thinking 'Oh you did such a great job. What an effort,' and he was just crying and crying, and we were like 'Why are you crying? You did such a great job!'" McCrary remembers. "He said 'My feet are supposed to be faster than his. I was supposed to win.' He was three years old."
Anthony was born in Portland, Oregon, while his father was a backup point guard for one of the best teams in Trail Blazers history, then moved to Manhattan when he was still a toddler. (Greg and Crystal divorced over ten years ago.) He could throw a wiffle ball before he could walk, and as he grew it became clear to his parents that their son had uncommon agility. Competitive juices around the game of basketball started to bubble up right before he entered the fourth grade, when Anthony would frequent local parks and look to prove himself in pickup games.
He'd patiently wait for his turn on the sideline, eager to square off against kids that were five or six years older. At first they were amused: Look at you, little guy, little Cole. Anthony's response was fiery: I'm not little. Stop calling me little Cole!
"He has dog in him, as they say," McCrary laughs. (The one trait Anthony admires most in an NBA point guard is Russell Westbrook's tenacity.)
Shortly after, he joined his first AAU team. At that age, Anthony's talent level didn't stand out relative to his peers, but he played with irrepressible emotion and a level of aggression that bled over from his desire to win at anything and everything.
"I used to call him the Charles Oakley of fouls, because when he fouled somebody, he fouled them," Billy Council, the team's coach, says. "So if you had beat Cole to a spot or you beat him to the basket, you best believe he was gonna chase you down and foul you hard so you won't do it again."
Though his passion shined under Council, Anthony truly came into his own in the fifth grade, when Steve Harris—an established figure in New York's AAU scene who also mentored NBA All-Star Kemba Walker—became his coach. After Anthony's first game with his new coach, Harris, going off a gut feeling, told his newest player he could be the best kid in the country as early as next year—course-altering words that awoke a confidence inside Anthony that he didn't know was there.
"He looked at me like I was crazy," Harris says. "The next year he was the best kid in his class."
That team utilized Cole at every position, in every role imaginable: On the wing, down low, at the high post. 25-point performances were the norm; he was the hub of their entire system. In one game against the top team in his region, Anthony's squad entered as a 25-point underdog. Harris remembers how worried he was before the opening tip, until Anthony walked by and looked up at him, as if to say, Coach, keep your head up. We got this. We're gonna beat them. We're gonna run them out the gym.
In the end, Anthony's team won by 25.
"When he steps on the court, you can see his whole facial expression change," Harris says. "Like, he's a lion. I see my prey, I'm going to kill it. I'm going to eat today...I talk about it with my kids to this day: 'You gotta be strong-willed like Cole.' That's what separates him."
As Anthony was about to start his freshman year at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, he decided to switch over to the PSA Cardinals, an AAU club that competes in the Nike-sponsored Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL). The move allowed him to cut his teeth beside and against some of the best players in the country.
During that first year he was one of the youngest players in AAU's oldest age group, on a team that featured several NBA prospects slated to play for Division-I schools this winter, including Mohammad Bomba at the University of Texas and Brandon Randolph at the University of Arizona.
Anthony still started every game while averaging double figures in points, then blossomed into the tip of PSA Cardinals' spear this past spring. Not only did he become the first sophomore point guard to be named Defensive Player of the Year in the EYBL, but he also grew to embrace the expanded leadership role his coaches and father have urged him to accept. He's conscious of how his body language affects those around him, and understands that each teammate is wired differently.
"I think his ultimate strength now is he's learned how to lead individually, where he can understand and define different guy's trigger points," Williams says. "He knows one guy needs to be yelled at where another guy needs to be coddled; another guy needs a phone call. So he's been able to expand his knowledge of leadership."
Anthony's living room is spacious enough to fit several couches and a glass coffee table that's neatly concealed by enormous books on Michelangelo, Diego Rivera, and The Image of the Black in Western Art. He lives with two siblings, his mom and stepfather Ray, an investment banker at Citigroup who played basketball at Harvard. Between towering windows that overlook Central Park, the walls are adorned with paintings by William Johnson and Norman Lewis that make the room feel like it belongs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. A black baseball bat autographed by Derek Jeter rests in a glass case on a mantel above the fireplace.
"Cole is a child of privilege," McCrary says. "What we constantly remind him is 'There but for the grace of God go I.' This could all be taken away in any number of ways."
Given his surroundings, it'd be so understandable for Anthony to behave as if the entire world revolved around him. But his support system is wound by unbreakable cable. Everyone around him is there for a reason.
"It's pretty unique," Williams says. "It's holistic. His situation is so pinpoint that no one gets into the other person's lane. So like his dad has a role, his mom has a role, his step-dad has a role, AAU has a role, he has a role, even high school for a certain amount of time has their role, and then no one steps on each other's toes but everyone is connected."
Impending fame separates Anthony from a vast majority of people his age. But he has also grasped his own good fortune. He has a selfless streak.
"He's definitely learned compassion and appreciates his life and his upbringing," Greg Anthony said. "And that in order to truly be the kind of person he wants to be, you have to be someone who's willing to be generous with your time, whether it be to teammates or friends or those less fortunate."
Over the summer he was given free shoes, shorts, and t-shirts as a participant of adidas Nations. Instead of keeping the free goodies for himself, he gave everything to an 18-year-old assistant coach who's headed to college in the fall. "It just shows that Cole is mentally mature, that materialistic objects don't trigger him," Williams said. "And that's a little different for his age group. Most guys enjoy that stuff."
Anthony's munificence applies to people he doesn't even know, a reflection of the belief his family has instilled in him: To whom much is given, much is expected.
"I joke with him, like, I see him on social media and he gives away his sneakers," Council said. "If a kid wants his sneakers he'll tell them to hit him in his DM's. He's got more sneakers than a sneaker store, and he's just a good-hearted individual."
Last year, Anthony took a self-imposed six-month break from social media. "I just felt like it was a distraction," he said. With over 53,000 followers on instagram, Anthony has a link on his page to a GoFundMe he started to help those in the Houston area who were affected by Hurricane Harvey. It was an idea that started after a conversation with his sister and mom.
"I see a lot of people on Twitter, on Instagram, just say 'oh pray for…', alright thanks for that," Anthony said. "It's not really doing much. I wanted to actually go make a change. I know I'm not physically there, but see if I can do something that'll physically help them."
There's no way of knowing what the future will hold for any person (let alone an athlete) as young as Anthony, no matter how dominant they are or how much better they project to be. Guarantees do not exist in the world of sports. But reasonable optimism surrounds Anthony, whose ascendance is only accelerating.
"If Cole didn't make it to the NBA, I would say it's gotta be a bunch of politics or he just simply didn't want to be there," Harris said.
Again, so much can go wrong between now and then. Immense odds are stacked against each and every individual who wants to earn millions of dollars playing a game. But Anthony's foundation foreshadows a happy ending; it's admirable how well he balances confidence and wariness as the stakes around him start to rise.
Back in the gym, Anthony and Sackmann are working on a few advanced separation moves. In one fluid motion, he stabs the ball into the court, sidesteps back and to the right, then, without losing his balance, rises up a few feet to stick a jump shot. He gets the ball back and does it again. And again. And again.