Flightless Birdman

Chris Andersen doesn't want to dispute the drug test that led to his suspension. He just wants to play in the NBA again
October 22, 2006

For a guy whosecellphone rings to Metallica's Enter Sandman, Chris Andersen doesn't do muchsleeping. On most days he's up at 4:45 a.m., taking his monstrous cane corsofor a walk in the Rocky Mountain foothills that frame his new home in Larkspur,Colo. By 6:00 Andersen has usually pretzeled his 6'10" frame into his truckand headed for a gym on Denver's south side, where he sweats through a headbandfestooned, pointedly, with the NBA logo.

After that, hehas oceans of time at his disposal. When the NBA season begins in two weeks,Andersen, once a hyperkinetic forward and defensive stopper for the New OrleansHornets, will be nine months removed from his dismissal from the league, havingrun afoul of its one-strike-and-you're-out policy with respect to "drugs ofabuse"--including amphetamines, cocaine, opiates and PCP. His case can bereviewed, though, and Andersen can apply for reinstatement on Jan. 27, 2008, adate he anticipates the way a prisoner does his day of release. (The conditionsfor reinstatement are vague, but he'll have to demonstrate that he's clean andthat his life is in order.) "I have a one-track mind right now,"Andersen, 28, said last week in a soft voice flavored with a Texas drawl."Getting back to the NBA, for me it's like getting back home."

Andersen has ledan unusual life. After his mother gave up custody of him (she was working threejobs and pulling down $15,000 a year) and his father, an artist, left town totour with his work, Andersen spent his early teenage years at a Dallas-areaorphanage. Lightly regarded at his tiny high school in Iola, Texas, he played ayear and a half of junior college ball before heading to the Chinese BasketballAssociation--"He had more energy than anyone," recalls Yao Ming, whoopposed Andersen--and then embarked on an odyssey of basketball backwaters.When he caught on with the Denver Nuggets in 2001, his raw skills were offsetby his athleticism and energy. "He played cowboy basketball," saysClyde Drexler, who, as a Denver assistant, turned the Nuggets on to him.

Andersen'sself-deprecating can-y'all-believe-I'm-here? disposition was on full display atthe 2005 dunk contest when he memorably required eight attempts to convert adunk. In five NBA seasons he never averaged more than 7.7 points, but themelding of his Everyman sensibilities and his penchant for creativedunks--spawning his nickname, Birdman--made him a cult hero. "He connectedwith fans," says former teammate P.J. Brown. "People that never met himconsidered him a friend."

But in the summerof 2005, the Birdman's wings got clipped. He and his girlfriend split. He andhis mother stopped speaking. His New Orleans home was ravaged by Katrina. TheHornets relocated to Oklahoma City, and Andersen arrived 20 pounds overweight,bulk that caused shin splints and blunted his energy. He doesn't use this as anexcuse--he knows he still had it better than most people--yet lonely,displaced, injured and underperforming, Andersen became a fixture in OklahomaCity's watering holes. Soon he moved beyond alcohol. He won't reveal which drugwas in his system, but, as he puts it, "Let's just say all that [excess]weight went away."

With onesensationally bad choice (his most serious offense till then had been beinglate for practice), Andersen lost his job and the roughly $12 million left onhis contract. Yet when he learned of his positive test, he felt like anythingbut a man condemned. "I was torn up emotionally, but I realized it was timeto make a drastic change," he says, his voice catching. "I could'veended up killing myself."

Andersen hadalways been a rare Birdman, a first-team oddnik who covered his body intattoos, changed hairstyles weekly and once cracked a tooth on his tonguepiercing. But he was never more eccentric than when he tested positive. Thestrategy in sports is deny, deny, deny--no matter how preposterous theexplanation. Blame the tainted energy shakes or mishandled samples or avanished twin or flaxseed oil. Andersen took the singular step of owning up tohis mistake. Even when he went before an arbitrator, Andersen stuck to histalking points: "I did it. I messed up."

He'd be wellwithin his rights to question why he's been banned while others--say, StephenJackson, the Pacers' guard and co-star in the Auburn Hills brawl, who last weekwas charged with firing a gun into the air outside a strip club--are playing.And is it fair that an NBA player could fail four tests for steroids beforefacing banishment? Andersen has no interest in going there. "The rules arethe rules," he says. "Certain drugs are in certain categories for areason."

After thearbitrator upheld the suspension last March, Andersen moved to Denver, spentfour weeks in rehab and says he's been clean for months. When he's not workingout, he's reading about real estate investments and learning new chords on hisguitar. "Honestly, the worst thing that could have happened to me isturning out to be the best thing," he says. "I'm back in charge of mylife, brother."

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The Bonus

For more on Chris Andersen from L. Jon Wertheim go toSI.com/birdman.

"I saw my picture on the Jumbotron and went numb.It was a heck of a feeling." --STEVE APONAVICIUS, WALK-ON WONDER, PAGE26

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)