Flight Of the Birdman

After an improbable rise to the NBA and a costly misstep, the spirited Chris Andersen soars in the eyes of Nuggets fans
October 04, 2009

For the record,the mayor of Denver is John W. Hickenlooper, a Democrat serving his secondterm. You could be forgiven, though, for thinking that the office was occupiedby a strikingly tall, strikingly pale, strikingly tattooed guy who answers toBirdman. Chris Andersen can scarcely walk a downtown block, park his customizedblack semi cab (sans trailer) or finish his burrito lunch at Illegal Pete'swithout a member of the citizenry stopping him. And it's not simply a requestfor an autograph or a photo; folks tend to share assorted thoughts andconcerns. Damn, Bird, you seen the construction down on I-25 southbound?

On a typicalsummer day Andersen greeted them all with handshakes and bro hugs and knuckleknocks (both exploding and nonexploding). He nodded, made eye contact, listenedattentively and thanked them for their support. Like any politician, Andersenhas his own slogan: "Live free, brother," his parting words to eachwell-wisher. He spoke of vague plans to host a summit of sorts where hisconstituents—all those people who send him e-mails and stop him on thestreet—could talk to him at greater length. As Andersen's immediate supervisor,Nuggets coach George Karl, puts it, "Birdman has tapped into somethinghere."

These Mile Highapproval ratings exist for good reason. The 31-year-old Andersen—who, alongwith the rest of the league's players, reported to training camp thisweek—ranked second in the NBA in blocks as a reserve forward and figuredprominently in Denver's surprise success last season, when the Nuggets reachedthe Western Conference finals for the first time in 24 years before falling insix games to the eventual-champion Lakers. Andersen's laid-back demeanor beliesa game based largely on ambition. He swoops in for rebounds, pounces on looseballs and plays with an almost jarring amount of energy. Andersen's reward forthis industriousness came in July: a five-year, $26 million contract."Here's a guy who plays harder than anyone on the court," says Karl,"and he does it every night."

Andersen'sappearance also feeds his popularity. The same way Chevy Chase's character inthe classic 1985 movie Fletch stood "6'5"—with the Afro, 6'9","Andersen is listed at 6'10" but exceeds 7 feet once you include his blondMohawk, a monument to the durability of the hair gel he uses before games.Andersen's body doubles as a tattoo artist's sample book. He wears his headbandover his ears, a look copied by thousands of kids and otherwise dignifiedadults, the same fans who flap their arms when Birdman is about to check in.During the winter Andersen will walk around town in a full-length mink coat andJohn Deere hat. On a hot day last month he complemented a black T-shirt andcargo shorts with red Ralph Lauren socks and white Chuck Taylors. In Denver,where the free sprit is native fauna, Birdman has found an ideal habitat.

But beyond that,Andersen balances the contradictory elements that contemporary sports fans lookfor in their heroes. They want athletes to be not only cartoonlike figureseager to perform superhuman acts—say, a madcap block of Kobe Bryant's shot frombeyond midcourt—but also mortals who, notwithstanding their gifts, remainunaffected and fallible. The freakishly gifted Andersen is more than happy toset aside his fame and fortune and act like the rest of us. In fact, for twoyears in the middle of his career he had to set them aside and act like therest of us, when the NBA suspended him after he failed a drug test. "We'reall human," he says. "We all make mistakes; we can all recover. I guessthat's the moral of my wild story."

The Tale of theBirdman begins in Iola, Texas, a dust-choked town a little more than an hourfrom Houston as the Harley flies. Andersen's father was a painter and hismother a motorcycle enthusiast. When Claus Andersen went on the road and LindaHolubec was working odd jobs and unable to care for their rambunctious son,Chris was sent first to a grandfather and then, at age 11, to CumberlandPresbyterian Children's Home outside Dallas. His parents divorced, and he wentmonths without talking to either. Did he feel abandoned? His childhood was sochaotic, he says, "I was just happy for the place to sleep."

Andersen returnedto Iola for high school. He lived with his mother in poverty but, in a ruraltwist on a familiar urban story, was delivered through basketball. Hislimitations were numerous, but he coupled uncommon athleticism with uncommoneffort. "He basically played crazy," says Rob Stewart, then the IolaHigh coach. Andersen, who played against such weak competition that he waslightly recruited, spent a year at Blinn, a junior college in nearby Brenham,and then joined a pro team in China, where he played against Yao Ming. "Hewas different," Yao recalls, "but the fans could always tell he washaving fun." Andersen later landed with the Fargo, N.D., franchise in theInternational Basketball Association. His reputation for eccentricity picked upmomentum when he missed a game after breaking a molar while biting down on histongue stud.

Andersen'sbreakthrough came in November 2001, when the Nuggets signed him. On one of hisfirst NBA possessions he used his elbow to block Karl Malone's shot. "Damn,son," the Mailman said, "you gotta calm your ass down." It was inthose early years that teammate Kenny Satterfield coined the Birdman nickname,seeing the way Andersen soared for alley-oops in a summer-league game. In 2004Andersen's frenetic energy led the Hornets to sign him as a free agent. By thetime the self-described "best hillbilly in the NBA" competed in the2005 slam dunk contest—memorably flubbing seven tries—Birdman was afull-fledged cult figure.

Then his wingswere clipped. Andersen was struggling in the summer of 2005. His girlfriend hadleft him. He wasn't speaking with his mom. Hurricane Katrina severely damagedhis house in New Orleans. Slowed by injuries, out of shape and feelingdislocated in the Hornets' temporary home of Oklahoma City, he frequented bars.Then he turned to substances heavier than alcohol. In January 2006 he failed atest for a "drug of abuse"—to this day, Andersen declines to namespecifically which drug—and was punished with a two-year suspension.

Andersen's firstcall was to an old friend, Mark Bryant, a Denver lawyer. Bryant orderedAndersen to undergo rehab at Promises in Malibu, Calif. After a few days Bryantgot a call from a frustrated counselor.

"Chris isn'tgetting it."

"Not gettingwhat?" Bryant asked.

"He thinkshe'll play in the NBA again. Facing reality is part of the programhere."

"I guessthat's not Chris's reality," said Bryant.

After 30 days inrehab Andersen went to live with Bryant's family and put himself on theequivalent of house arrest. He arose at dawn. He worked out at a suburban club,then returned in the afternoon and helped coach a boys' basketball team."Here was this NBA player with no kid of his own on the team, and he's atevery practice, every game," says Michelle Marchildon, whose nine-year-oldwas one of the players. "It went from, He was suspended for drugs, to, Iwant to set my single friends up with this great guy!"

Never mind thatAndersen was a player of limited skills in his late 20s with a drug suspensionto his name. He was so sure he'd return to the NBA, he went to Nuggets gamesand took mental notes on future opponents. "Looking back, I think goingfrom my dad's home to my mom's home to the children's home helped,"Andersen says. "I learned to handle my emotions, not feel pity and rely onmyself. My attitude was always, I made it to the NBA once, I can make ittwice."

The suspensionended in March 2008, and last summer various Nuggets employees who'd stayedclose to Andersen lobbied Karl to give Birdman a shot. "I sat withhim," recalls Karl, "and thought, If nothing else, this kid sure iscommitted to being a basketball player." Still, he didn't envision Andersencontributing so abundantly—6.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.46 blocks in 20.6minutes per game—and becoming a major reason that the Nuggets developed into ateam greater than the sum of its parts. Karl certainly didn't anticipate thatAndersen would change the complexion of entire games. "I've had good benchplayers before," says Karl. "But not like this, where they wait till hegets in the game to get involved. There's just a whole spirit abouthim."

Denver forwardCarmelo Anthony may have the All-Star chops and the Olympic gold medal, but agood many more fans at the Pepsi Center wear replicas of Andersen's number 11jersey. As Nuggets guard J.R. Smith puts it, "Birdman is a rock star."And that's largely because he has no pretensions to be one. Bryant, who stilladvises Andersen, recently got a call from a friend, praising him for the savvymarketing of the Birdman brand. "Marketing? Brand?" Bryant responded."You got the wrong guy."

At first Andersenwas disappointed by how often the "drug thing" (his words) wasmentioned in conjunction with anything he did on the court. "It was, ChrisAndersen has 10 rebounds in his first season back from a drug suspension,"he says. "Never just: Chris Andersen had 10 rebounds." But he came toaccept that as part of the recovery process. He also began hearing positivestories about his comeback. The star high school wrestler who blew out hisknee, turned to drugs and was inspired by Andersen to quit. The girl who saysthat she went to AA because she saw how Andersen had fared in recovery."Honestly, I was ready to move on a long time ago," he says. "Butif I'm helping people with problems, hell, yeah, we can talk about it."

The most popularman in Denver mostly stayed in the area this summer to work out with histrainer and improve his jumping and free throw shooting, anticipating that along-term contract might bring with it some extra shots. He and his fiancée,Brandy Newman, moved into a new home in the suburb of Larkspur, far from theclubs and the bars that had once seduced him. He'd wake up early to hike themountains behind his house. Silhouetted in morning light, he'd climb up, comedown and then go back up again.

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Ian Thomsenchecks in from around the league as training camps open, at SI.com/bonus

"Here's a guy who plays harder than anyone on thecourt," says Karl, "and he does it every night."

PHOTOPhotograph by PETER READ MILLERTAT'S NOT ALL The self-described "best hillbilly in the NBA" charms with his smile and humility and inspires with his energetic play. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH[See caption above] PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHWING MEN Birdman's many backers turn Denver's Pepsi Center into a virtual aviary. TWO PHOTOSJOHN W. MCDONOUGHFOWL BALL Despite coming off the bench, Andersen finished second in the NBA in blocks last season.
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)