Chris Andersen: Tattooed Tears And Broken Wings


Rarer than a four-leaf clover, Chris Andersen is a living testament of taking full advantage of a third lease on life. The same blessing a young man 1,000 miles north prays for every day from his jail cell.

Slightly hungover about three weeks ago, I decided to force myself out of bed Saturday morning and clean my apartment. Doing so wasn't life or death. Everything was clean for the most part. Yet, like every person suffering from too much liquor the night before, I became my own physician convincing myself the quicker I began moving, the quicker the symptoms would disappear. Smart or not, that's what happened, too. As is the case with any moment in my life, a soundtrack was needed to help push through the faint headache and dealing with the fact my hands would soon smell like a combination of dish detergent and dirty clothes.

Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle was chosen. Dishes were cleaned. Clothes were washed. The carpet was vacuumed. And the entire time, Snoop and I rhymed in unison, stopping only to remind myself there aren’t 10 better debut albums in rap history than The Dogg’s.

Had it not been for randomly glancing at the windowsill where my phone sat, I’d have never known an incoming call was being received. Looking at the number, I immediately knew who it was. It was from a Virginia correctional facility where my friend Ricky was housed. He’s been the subject of several pieces I’ve written over the past five years. Since 2004, I’ve seen him more times behind bars (2004-2010) than I have as a free man (2010-2012). This time in particular, I was aware of the nature of the call.

He sounded depressed, much different from the previous occasion we spoke. New charges were being brought on him. Meanwhile, his innocence was becoming more and more difficult to prove despite him denying every charge brought against him. I believe he’s innocent. I want to believe so, at least.

The most critical notion he stressed was how he was attempting to make the most out of his second chance at life before "the powers that be" intervened. He was enrolled in college because his plan to do so at 18 was cut short by his first prison stint. He was also adjusting to being a father of a new born baby boy and future husband to an all-around awesome young lady. Being locked up for nearly seven years caused him to see life differently. Where I saw opportunity, he saw simply trying to avoid trouble. His court date had been pushed back several times already, meaning he was sitting in a cramped cell for months waiting to tell his side of the story. A growing sense of urgency was forming because of the unknown. Perhaps the prosecution didn’t have a case and was attempting to stall. Perhaps they were building an indefensible attack. The stress of possibly spending the next handful of decades behind bars seeped through the phone.

Calls from prison rarely  last long. I wanted to lighten the mood, or at least try to. We joked briefly about sports; him telling me this was Carmelo Anthony’s year. We talked about the Cowboys, which made us sad again. For two or three minutes, we were on his front porch shooting the shit again like we were kids in middle school. With less than 10 seconds remaining on the call, the last thing he told me was to tell my family hello and that he’d be home soon.

For a third chance at freedom.

NBA Playoffs - Hornets at Nuggets - Game 1

Last Sunday, the Miami Heat defeated the Chicago Bulls 105-93 for their then 64th win of the season. 2012-2013 has been a magical campaign headlined by a winning streak spanning nearly two months and came within the front doorstep of knocking on the 1971-72 Lakers' 33-game winning streak.

Yet, beyond LeBron’s once-in-a-generation mastery, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh’s efficiency, Shane Battier’s willingness to do whatever and Ray Allen’s seamless role change, a magnificently documented team chemistry between the coaches and players proved they absolutely adore one another. Except, of course, when Mario Chalmers overthrows an alley oop and then proceeds to receive a tongue lashing from James or Wade, and even then it’s all love. Arguably the most personal storyline, though, revolved around something that happened midway through the season.

Chris Andersen – much like Ricky is hoping for – received his third chance at (professional) freedom. The first came when he simply made it to the NBA in 2001 with the Nuggets as an undrafted rookie out of Blinn College, impressing coaches and scouts with his high motor and carefree nature on the court. Long before he became "Birdman," Chris was no stranger to the odds game. His mother relinquished custody of him when her $15,000 a year salary from three jobs wasn't enough to make ends meet, let alone stand on the same street. His father left town to pursue a career in art.

Most of Andersen's teenage years were spent largely in a Dallas orphanage. Making it to the NBA was a chance at a better life and providing for himself spoils he was never afforded growing up. He was never the greatest basketball player, though his energy, personality and body art endeared him to a legion of fans. It's why they stood and cheered as he barreled down the court. It's why he was voted into the 2005 dunk contest where he ironically put on one of the most memorable performances in All-Star history. Only for Andersen, it was for all the wrong reasons (it took him eight attempts to complete a dunk, though watching it live it felt like 28).

However, demons still presided heavily in Bird's life. According to a 2006 Sports Illustrated piece, 2005 was a pivotal year. His relationship with his girlfriend ended. He and his mother cut communication. Those personal battles had him walk into training camp 20 pounds overweight. From there, the story plays out like a movie script. Chris' on-court production suffered, and he became a "regular" at local bars. Only until alcohol wasn't enough to ease whatever pain resided in his body.

Alcohol provided the gateway to heavier material. In one of his most powerful quotes, Birdman never revealed what drug(s) he found himself drowning in, only, "Let's just say all that [excess] weight went away."

One positive test provided another added negative. Bird was suspended from the league until January 27, 2008. From there, his second chance was underway. He made the most of his opportunity staying in shape and mentally cleansing himself. Starting in 2008-09, he would play in 147 of the next 162 regular-season games, effortlessly falling back into his role as an energy guy off the bench. The tats were there telling their own story, as was the intensity.

Aside from injuries, Andersen's career appeared to be back on track. That was until May of 2012 when potentially the most damning of allegations were levied against him. It's one thing to have a drug problem. There's a certain sense of responsibility a person can take upon themselves saying, "Yeah, this is me. This is my problem. These are my demons." To have his name linked to potential "Internet crimes against children" was something totally different. The stigma of "pedophile" is a permanent stain, especially stemming from the success of MSNBC's To Catch A Predator and the country still reeling from the Jerry Sandusky nightmare.

Bird's house was searched and property was seized stemming from leads on Chris beginning in February 2012. Ironically, he was never charged with any crime, nor was there ever any intent to arrest him. Chris' official statement helped support such, too. In something straight out of a Catfish episode, the story goes a young woman claiming to be 21 e-mailed "scantily clad" pictures of herself to Andersen in 2010. Communication continued to the point where they eventually met a year later. She flew to Colorado showing visual identification of her supposed age. Figuring there was something off-base, Andersen fell back and eventually the young woman left Colorado pissed off with his lack of attention. She then threatened legal action if she was not properly and financially compensated. Chris was excused from team-related activities and later released from the Nuggets.


Sports, like life, has always identified itself as a "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" club. The last report the public had heard about Andersen was his name being linked to possible crimes against children. He could've curled in a corner and faded away until the only memory NBA fans would've remembered him by was "the crazy white guy with all the tats." He could've taken the easy route and called it quits.

But Chris' life as never been easy, nor has he opted for the road more frequently traveled. The career 5.4 points and 5.1 rebounds a game enigma worked as hard to have his legal situation put behind him as he did to regain playing shape. He worked out for months in hopes a team would take a shot on him. He prayed for a third opportunity to prove in his 34-year-old body there was still gas in the tank and wings to be flapped. So in a league with very few choir boys - even Kevin Durant has edge to him now - it was only right Chris received one last opportunity to write the final chapters to his book in his own words.

Yet, the team who took a gamble on him made the pairing even more ironic. Like Birdman, the Miami Heat have been no strangers to controversy, vitriol and the wrong side of the press. And it just so happens, for a team with so many overpowering qualities, their biggest weakness was Birdman's biggest strength. Miami needed help protecting the paint and grabbing rebounds. Nearly five years to the day his suspension ended in 2008, Birdman signed with the Heat on January 21 of this year.

It was the perfect situation, at the perfect time, with the perfect cast of characters. Mike Miller and Birdman hit it off from jump street, becoming tag team karaoke champs for their rendition of Vanilla Ice's "Ice, Ice Baby" at a charity event. Based off their interactions on the sideline, too, a summer reality show following them around Miami wouldn't be a bad idea, especially given the fact there are far worse shows with far more God-awful premises behind them. Because seriously, who wouldn't want to see the hijinks and tomfoolery of two 6'8"+ tatted-up white guys could cause on South Beach? LeBron - at least from a macro standpoint - has long been seen as the ideal teammate who loves involving all his colleagues in his antics both on and off the court. Pat Riley never met a reclamation project he wouldn't have the balls to take on (see Eddy Curry from last season and Rashard Lewis this year). And Erik Spoelstra? He noted the day of the signing, "We've done enough research on him. We feel he fits in very well." That's putting it lightly.

A legal slate that's as clean as a whistle and apart of a team who can't envision itself without him, to say the union thus far has been a success would be an understatement. The Heat have notched a 37-4 record since signing Birdman, running away from the rest of the league in the process. He's bought in to the culture in Miami, and simultaneously, they've let the him fly. Like in Denver and New Orleans, his unique charm has instantly made him a fan favorite and a key cog if the Heat are to repeat the outcome of last June. What a difference a year makes, indeed.



The concept of the unknown is intimidating.

For Birdman and Ricky, both represent troubled souls dealing with their own unknowns. For Ricky, his life hangs in the balance. This verdict means the difference of being able to take his son to daycare or not seeing him again as a free man until he's a grandfather. For Chris, his situation, in perspective, is astronomically less grim. The pressure to perform will be there, only on a much more intensified pedigree. The regular season was fun, but now the work true work begins for Chris. Blood, sweat and tears will become as common as putting one foot in front of the other. Sixteen wins separate him from basketball immortality and crowning achievement on a career that's been put on halt more times than he'd care to remember.

Ironically, June holds the answer for both. Barring some unforeseen circumstance like LeBron suddenly retiring in May to pursue a baseball career, Birdman and the Heat are the favorites to be the last team standing. Of course, they've got to go out there and earn those four series victories. Immortality isn't guaranteed. And neither is freedom. Ricky's court date is in June.

And like Chris, all he prays for is third chance at life.

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