For many of us, childhood represents that beautiful, yet brief, moment in time where we are free of responsibilities and we boldly exercise our freedom to dream. We often envision ourselves as astronauts, doctors, lawyers, star athletes, and the list goes on. Our dreams are endless and the concept of there being limits that may stop us is nonexistent, however, somewhere in between preschool and puberty, we start to lose our spark of imagination.
Space starts to look farther and farther away, the concept of medical school or law school seems daunting, and the closest we feel we may ever get to becoming a star athlete is by owning one of their jerseys. For professional basketball player and Norfolk State alum, Anell Alexis, the art of manifesting ones’ own destiny wasn’t lost on him. His childhood dream of playing professional basketball, one that many of us may have likely chalked up to adolescent reverie, was the catalyst he needed to create a career that many have envisioned but few have attained.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Anell for a quick interview amid what I can only describe as a whirlwind schedule. One that included a flight back to Newark, New Jersey after finishing the 2017-2018 basketball season with his team, BBC Coburg (Germany), as well as a rigorous gym regimen that he would follow daily. This was all in preparation for his training camp, which would place Anell in Phoenix, Arizona for the better part of his summer. And with only four weeks to himself before camp, I could only describe my having the opportunity to interview Anell as a blend of luck and persistence.
Even while sitting, the 6-foot-7-inch swingman’s towering frame dominated his space. It was his calm persona, however, as well as his laid-back tone, that would ultimately fill the space once the interview began. I was curious to know about how he got his start as a basketball player; was a passion for the game ingrained in him from childhood or did he stumble upon his talent by chance, maybe while aimlessly bouncing a ball around as a child? The answer turned out to be a blend of both.
Anell is no stranger to the game of basketball. As a child, he watched in awe as his father toured the world playing the sport abroad. His father’s eighteen-year career as a professional athlete allowed him to see countries some of us have only dreamed of venturing off to, including France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. “Seeing my father play basketball overseas definitely opened my eyes to the possibility of playing outside of the US,” Anell told me. While Anell’s height and natural ability to handle a basketball were innate, it was his unwavering determination to master the sport that earned him a coveted spot among the top ten best high school basketball players in the New England region while attending prep school in Connecticut. But the road to the top ten wasn’t easy!
“From 6 years old to about 14 I was always either best or second best on my team,” Anell said. “It wasn’t until about my sophomore year of high school where I realized I really had to step my game up. I was playing on some great teams, and needless to say, I wasn’t automatically the best anymore.” Before the year he spent bulking up for collegiate sports in prep school, Anell spent four years playing for St. Joseph’s Metuchen and St. Benedict’s High School. Both at the time were breeding grounds for some of the state’s top players.
Like many of the great basketball players that had come before him, Anell found himself welcoming a feeling he hadn’t before experienced firsthand — adversity. By his fourth year of high school, Anell had garnered a great deal of attention for his prowess on the basketball court, as well as the opportunity to play for the Marist College Red Foxes men’s basketball team. But weighing in at 160 lbs., his father advised him to delay his offer to play under the NCAA and spend that time in prep school bulking up.
One year later, Anell walked away at 175 lbs. and was ready to show Marist what he’d been working so hard for. But what presented itself as an opportunity to take his athletic abilities to the next level quickly proved itself to be a journey riddled with injuries, not just to his body, but to his ego as well. “I tore my ACL the summer before my freshman year at Marist and it was disheartening, to say the least,” said Anell.
As Anell delved deeper into his days as a Red Fox his eyes seemed to dim. His voice slowly began to drift, and his towering stature seemed to sink into his living room couch. “We lost a lot of games and quite honestly, I just wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to, Anell said. “I maybe played 4-5 games my Junior year.” And after a tumultuous four years of perpetual struggle, a chance at a fresh start presented itself to the young player.
“A good friend of mine had transferred to Norfolk State during our sophomore year and that’s how I was introduced to NSU,” said Anell. It was in that moment that he mentioned his subsequent alma mater that the demure titan began to perk up. And as I probed him for more insight it became clear that his HBCU experience gave him more than a second chance. His time as a student-athlete at Norfolk State University gave him his second wind.
“My friend had nothing but great things to say about the University,” Anell recalls. “And by the end of my four years at Marist, I still had another year of eligibility to play under the NCAA. I used that as an opportunity to take my talent to Virginia.” It was in the moment that Anell took his first steps onto the campus of Norfolk State University that he realized the familiar HBCU saying, “It’s a different world,” was true.
“That was the first time I’d been exposed to that type of culture,” Anell said. “The Greeks were on the yard — the AKAs, the Deltas …” letting out a laugh that seemed to carry stories for another day and another time. “It was the type of environment where if you wanted to find a party, you could,” he said. And while Norfolk State undoubtedly opened Anell’s eyes to a new realm of social possibilities, the University also introduced him to a level of school spirit he hadn’t been exposed to at Marist.
“It’s night and day going from a PWI to an HBCU,” Anell told me. “I really enjoyed it. I saw a lot at NSU that I wasn’t exposed to at Marist. You’d see your face on banners and on buses- it was crazy.” But the HBCU experience, while introducing the college player to a series of new cultural experiences, didn’t distract Anell from his ultimate goal, which was playing professional basketball.
“I knew that I had to earn the respect of my teammates a bit, as well as understand what I was bringing to the table, ” he said. “I knew there was no turning back or other options. I was ready to take no prisoners. The summer leading up to Norfolk my mindset was ‘I’m gonna make this happen.”
Anell spent the summer leading up to his Fall semester at Norfolk State in complete tunnel vision. Aware of the fact that he’d be entering an environment whereas one of 7 seniors playing for the 2013-2014 season he’d be at a disadvantage of not knowing his teammates’ strengths and weaknesses, his sole focus was proving to himself and to his team that he could add value.
“While my teammates were partying, I was in the gym,” he recalls. “While they were sleeping in, I was in the gym. After practices and sometimes even after games, I was working on my performance.” Today, Anell still focuses heavily on training in the gym; on average, Anell accrues up to five hours of gym time per day during the offseason and eight hours per day during the regular season.
One could say that it was Anell’s iron will that attracted the attention of several sports agents who caught wind of his potential early on in his season with the NSU Spartans. “Midway through the season I became a starting player, and that’s when I noticed that agents were watching me,” he said. “Soon after that, they started expressing interest in representing me, and they ultimately shopped my game footage around to several teams overseas.” Among those teams were Monte Hermoso in Argentina and Ehingen in Germany. Both extended offers to Anell to play professionally shortly after his school year at Norfolk State came to an end.
But as things began to look up for the HBCU athlete, things took a turn. Monte Hermoso folded without warning, ultimately making their initial offer to dissolve with the organization. Ehingen, which had already extended an offer after inviting Anell to practice with the team, was unable to see their offer through due to Anell’s difficulty attaining the paperwork necessary to work overseas.
The unexpected loss of both offers briefly shattered the promising players’ confidence in his ability to take his career to the next level. After spending years dedicating himself to his craft, everything that Anell had worked so hard to attain seemed to come crashing down all at once. “Losing the contract was deflating,” Anell said. “I did a lot of soul-searching, spoke to a lot of people, and I had to determine how bad I really wanted it. How much was I willing to endure to get what I wanted?”
Despite the setbacks, Anell was later offered another opportunity to play professionally overseas, and he knew that once he attained the right to work overseas he was going to prove to them what he never got to prove to Monte Hermoso or Ehingen. Today, Anell is coming away from his fourth season playing abroad and has nothing but inspiring things to say to HBCU athletes coming up after. “Control the things you can control and believe in yourself.”