In many ways, Justin Anderson is living in an entirely different universe today from the one he called home just a few months ago. Before enrolling at the University of Virginia, he grew up in a small Virginia town named Montross, home to 300 people on a busy day. Charlottesville, Va., home to the Cavaliers’ big-time basketball program yet a city of only 45,000, doesn’t quite compare to a sprawling Metroplex with 7 million people.
Just imagine the culture shock when he stepped off a plane from a town half the population of Allen into Downtown Dallas, an hour away from a suburb twice the size of his D-I college town. While Texans live the Southern lifestyle to be sure, things are a bit different down here, and Anderson has been getting used to it.
To give you an idea of the whirlwind that’s been his life since the Mavs drafted him on June 25: When he sat down for an interview with Mavs.com a few days after he was drafted, not only did he not know what day it was, but he didn’t know how long he’d been in town. Life is crazy for an NBA rookie. Things are finally starting to slow down after what surely was the fastest three months of his life.
Just 21 years old, the rookie wing is quickly getting acclimated. He recently got a car and he’s been using it to check out the barbecue scene around town, because he’s heard it’s pretty good down here. (Oh, the innocence!) He has his own place. He knows his way around downtown. Now that he’s comfortable, he’s beginning to get to know the people of Dallas and the people are getting to know him.
To know Anderson is to follow him to the food. And in this case, we found the holy grail of dining: the State Fair of Texas. Home not only to the oddest variety of cuisine on the planet, but also the most inventive culinary creations, the Fair represents the ultimate binge for the strongest food junkies. Count Anderson among them. And while the strangest thing he’s eaten to date is escargot — which, let’s be real, is pretty strange — the Fair would present challenges he’d never thought possible. With that, the rook took over the Fair on Oct. 2, greeting the quintessential Texas experience with a big smile and growling stomach.
His day at the fair starts in the Fair parking lot, where an attendant directs him to a spot for his brand-new car, smell and all. The woman has a deep Southern accent, and Anderson, no stranger to rural slang, appreciated what seemed both foreign and familiar at once.
“People out here are so country,” he joked, taking particular satisfaction in the way she pronounced “right.” “I loved every bit of that.” What’s funniest of all, however, is that Anderson has a drawl himself. It’s like when someone from Texas makes fun of a New Yorker’s accent. You might think you speak normally, but you don’t.
From there he hops onto a golf cart, which State Fair representatives use to transport Anderson’s contingent around the 277-acre park. On-board, Anderson grabs a camera and snaps some photos of the fair-goers. After the first few, he half-wonders, half-proclaims, “I don’t think it’s illegal to just take pictures of random folk.” (“Random folk” is the country way of putting it, of course.) Snap. Snap. “How are y’all doing?” Snap.
We arrive at the heart of the Fair — Big Tex’s stomping grounds — and this is the first time Anderson realizes what he’s in for. The world’s biggest cowboy stands 55 feet tall, dons a 95-gallon hat, stands in size 96 boots, and wears a shirt with 325-inch sleeves. Clearly this isn’t just any fair, and we aren’t in Kansas, or Virginia, anymore. Everything’s bigger in Texas.
He gets in line for a Fletcher’s corn dog and, to kick off what will become the busiest lunch of his life, grabs a regular, spicy, and turkey corn dog. By now, people realize who he is, and it seems like the entire Fair has stopped to ask for a picture, autograph, or both. He obliges every request that he can. At one point, he heads to the condiment stand, where a woman makes sure that he’s going to put mustard on his dog. “Of course I am!” he responds, almost defensively. This is the Texas way of life. He then becomes analytical.
“The first one that I tried was the original. As soon as I bit into it, instant flavor, amazing taste. It was great,” he says. “I put mustard on it because I hear in Dallas mustard is a big thing — not really big into ketchup. So I wanted to get that style, I guess, that Dallas style of eating.”
I ask if he’s ever considered that there would be more than one type of corny dog. “I thought it was just one type,” he says. “I honestly thought it was just the original, and then everything else you kind of maybe just drizzle cheese on top or put a jalapeño on top. But the fact that they were all in it together… it was amazing.”
He should have his own Food Network show.
“Well, you know what,” he responds, “we’re working on it.”
Anderson takes a seat at a table and is soon brought a tray of smoky bacon margaritas and cowboy corn crunch, both brainchildren of Isaac Rousso. (The margarita won “Most Creative.”) The frozen cocktail tastes exactly how it sounds: like a margarita, but surprisingly smoky. It’s delicious. Perhaps the most notable moment of the afternoon is when Anderson admits he doesn’t enjoy drinking. This isn’t to say that he’s expected to, but generally we perceive athletes as hard-partying, always-going socialites. Anderson, on the other hand, had his first drink last year after his 21st birthday. He says it’s never been his thing. That’s certain to make head coach and fellow Virginia alumnus Rick Carlisle happy.
The cowboy corn crunch gave Anderson the first food buzz he was looking for. Loaded with sweet corn, minced jalapeño, cream cheese, and a bit of bacon, the spicy snack worked in perfect harmony with the margarita. These words are from Anderson himself, by the way, spoken carefully in between bites and sips.
En route to the Midway, he passes by a group of teenagers. “Y’all from Texas?” he asks. They nod. “Y’all lucky you have this,” he says, pointing to what’s left of the first round of food. “I wish I had this at home.” He fist pumps one of the kids and we keep going. With more food like this, Texas will become home.
If Big Tex’s plaza is the heart of the Fair, the Midway is the stomach. That’s where the most food can be found, and it’s also home to the rides, games, and other attractions of the Fair. Anderson devours honey pecan chicken wings, deep-fried collard greens, and deep-fried alligator by Cassy Jones, beer-battered buffalo by James Barrera, fried ice cream, and fried Oreos. He can’t finish the ice cream by himself, so he recruits a nearby family with two young kids to help him. But before he does so, he checks to make sure it’s alright. “You think it’s OK for little kids to eat deep-fried stuff?”
From there, it’s a dizzying blur of games, including, of course, basketball — he makes a shot, succeeding at an impossible game, sending the surrounding booths into a frenzy. He barely loses to a park employee in a dart-throwing contest, possibly cheats in a duck-fishing game, and exacts revenge in the spray-gun race when, after losing the first heat, he wins the second.
After each game, he gives his stuffed animal prize to the nearest child. It’s not a matter of kids swarming him, either: He goes out of his way to find the youngest person around and offers them his reward. Big Tex might wear the biggest smile in the park, but no one generates more smiles today than Anderson.
In between bites of fried lobster and fried PB&J (and banana), Anderson takes a trip on the world-famous Texas Star Ferris wheel. Once he steps off, he reflects. “I could almost see where my apartment is, downtown,” he says. “So that was pretty sweet up there.” He then pokes fun at a cameraman who accompanied him on the wheel who has a bit of a fear of heights. But it’s all in good fun.
It’s almost shocking how down-to-Earth the rookie is. Most 21-year-old NBA players — heck, most 21-year-olds in general — want to live like rockstars. But Anderson takes pleasure in the little things. He enjoys taking selfies with fans. He thanks employees and the wait staff. He drowns his corny dogs in mustard. Maybe he’s just well-mannered, or maybe there’s something to that Southern sensibility we talk about so much down here. Perhaps there’s not that big a difference between Virginia and Texas, after all.
“I’m fortunate to be in the position that I am,” Anderson says as we leave. “Like I’ve always said, I kind of wish I was in the situation where I could show up at my state fair back at home in Virginia and an NBA player were to come be around and show up for the community.”
He adds: “What I think people don’t realize is how much we really love doing this. It’s not for the publicity, it’s not for any of the wrong reasons. It’s solely for the purpose of just giving back. We’re grateful to be where we are. We just want to put smiles on peoples’ faces.”
Share and comment