It would be easy to take Chris Andersen lightly.
At first glance, he probably strikes the casual viewer as some sort of hardwood version of Yelawolf or – worse – Shifty Shellshock, all preening brashness and cartoonish machismo. And really, that’s an understandable reaction. Consider the tattoos, the waxy Mohawk, the wiry beard, the post-dunk wing-flapping celebrations, the whole gangly and unhinged vibe.
With that kind of stylistic baggage in tow, it’s easy to reduce him to an archetype.
But behind all that inky flotsam is one of the NBA’s most interesting personalities, a complicated character with a pockmarked past and a penchant for making questionable decisions. A literal human canvas, his body is a roadmap of where he’s been and where, someday, his migration will end. He is massively entertaining to watch on the court, yet mysterious off of it, a journeyman with a bizarre and winding journey to the Promised Land.
Finally, at age 35 with 12 years in the league under his belt, Chris Andersen has found a home as a key contributor with the defending NBA Champion Miami Heat. The ride’s been bumpy, though. Here’s how the Birdman became one of the most unlikely redemption stories in sports:
Humble Beginnings: After growing up dirt poor and fatherless in something called Iola, Texas, attending something called Blinn College (these are real places, promise) and developing his game with something called the Jiangsu Nangang Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association, Andersen eventually found his way to the NBA’s Development League. In 2001, he became the first player in league history to be “called up” to the bigs, beginning his NBA voyage with the Denver Nuggets.
Kid Ink: He’s got “HONKY TONK” emblazoned across his stomach. He’s got “FREE BIRD” wrapped colorfully around his neck, which works on many levels, because his nickname is Birdman and also because Skynyrd, bro. He’s got “BIRDMANN” (not a typo) across his back, though apparently, there’s no significance to the extra “N.” All in all, it’s been scientifically estimated that 45 percent of his torso is tattoos.
Clipped Wings: During the 2005 Slam Dunk Contest, a decidedly un-inky Andersen famously failed on 8 consecutive dunk attempts while the entire NBA clowned him courtside. Sadly, this wasn’t even the worst thing to happen to him that year.
Party Prime: Andersen signed a lucrative four-year, $14 million dollar deal with the New Orleans Hornets in the summer of 2005. Because he’d never sniffed anything close to that amount of money in his entire life, he reacted to his good fortunes by expanding his posse to unhealthy sizes, plowing through tons of money, generally estranging himself from his mom, growing his hair out like Wiley Wiggins and cultivating a chill, hackeysack bro vibe. You can probably guess how all of this played out.
Suspended by the NBA: In January 2006, Andersen failed a league drug test and was suspended indefinitely, right in the midst of his prime. While the drug he tested positive for has never been revealed – and Andersen remains mum on that subject to this day – it was definitely something on the NBA’s “Drugs of Abuse” list, a serious collection of substances that includes meth, coke, heroin and PCP. It most certainly does not include halfsie drugs like weed. “As a child growing up, you dream of being in the NBA. I just destroyed that,” Andersen explained with remorse.
Soaring Again: Repentant, Andersen cleaned up in rehab, passing weekly drug tests for two years in preparation for a return to the NBA. Andersen was reinstated by the league in March 2008, suiting up for the Hornets and Nuggets over a solid four-year stretch that included multiple playoff runs, a sparkling new $26 million contract with Denver, and a cult following amongst fans caught up in the “Birdman” zeitgeist. He also got shit-tons of tattoos, and complimented the fresh ink with a shift to a waxy Mohawk, officially entering his “SoCal Pop-Punk Bassist” era.
Birdman gets Catfished: You might not remember this, but there was a period in 2012 where the entire world thought that Chris Andersen was a child pornographer. It turned out not to be true, as Andersen was actually a victim of a strange and complex Canadian cyber-theft and extortion scheme – as well as a victim of some of his own (technically legal) behaviors. If you really want to get into all the sordid and complicated specifics, plenty of others have documented what transpired.
Regardless, Andersen effectively had his NBA career destroyed for a second time. His name was eventually cleared, but not before the Nuggets cut him from the squad during the ongoing legal investigation. Andersen was devastated by the whole episode, but resolved to return to the league. “I can’t tell you how much Chris agonized over the label placed on him,” his attorney said. “He will continue to do what he’s always done in life, and that’s turn something bad into something good.”
Flying South: Adrift, Andersen was picked up by the Miami Heat in January 2013 for a veteran’s minimum salary. The team promptly tore off a 39-3 finish to the season, including a 22-game winning streak that saw Birdman energize the team’s second unit with his trademark shot blocking, rebounding and efficient scoring. His 80.7 percent field goal percentage during last year’s post-season is an NBA Playoffs record, and he played critical minutes in the epic 2013 NBA Finals.
His teammates love him. Babies do too. He’s used in a role that suits him perfectly. He’s a critical part of some of the Heat’s most-effective lineups. He’s gleefully giving insane post-game interviews. And he’s currently in the midst of a new, sage motorcycle-enthusiast period.
He’s also an NBA Champion. And he might grab a second ring very soon. In Game 1 of the Miami’s Eastern Conference Finals grudge match against Indiana, he chipped in 14 points and 4 rebounds in 18 minutes of action. The Heat still lost, but Birdman was resolute. You can understand why. A dozen years into his NBA migration, he’s beyond getting by on a wing and a prayer … now, he happily flies beneath the radar.
“You know what, it’s incredible, but at the same time I’m just trying to stay in the moment,” he told the New York Times last year. “And I know I’m destined for more.”
Somehow, Birdman turned shit into champagne.