Chris Andersen, the illustrated man
What makes the Miami Heat's 'Birdman' fly?
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com
"And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last." — "Moby Dick," Chapter 110
* * *
MIAMI — Even in the half-light of the tent, the ink tells his story. But tells it only to him. The player at the rim, in the clouds. The great crowned skull. The chains and the ideograms. The Celtic cross. Pit bull and bulldog. Real Rock N Roll. Good ol boyz. Dead End. Honky-tonk. Country. Screw you. Punk ass. Dollar sign behind the right ear; 11 behind the left. The Viking. The bat. Stars on his earlobes. Swifts and swallows flying up out of his shoes. Phoenix rising at his throat. That Free Bird turtleneck, neon green and acid yellow on a field of purple flames. All of it under skin so pale it's luminous. And the wings. Those wings.
His arms and legs and back and chest are stitched with ink, with story, but in a secret language. He commemorates adversity and what didn't kill him. He records his happiness. He just doesn't say how. Which image stands for what? Which for abandonment or a broken heart? Which for anger or loneliness or joy? Which is the picture of his sadness, his ambition, his regret? Which defines him? Even in this unknown language, he's no hero, and every story is true and not true, because everything is complicated and because the ink hides as much as it reveals. All the success and every failure, crowded now with line and color, has been made beautiful. "It is what it is," says Chris Andersen. He is half a mystery, even to himself.
* * *
The Birdman is sitting in the tent with the others. It's cooler here. Out front it's all hot grit under a cannibal sun. Fans pass, stop, squint into the darkness. Blind at first, then smiling. There's LeBron and Bosh and Wade. Allen and a couple more, Haslem and Oden and Beasley. The whole championship sideshow all knees and elbows, shorts and tees; everyone too tall for his little folding chair. This is behind the stage, where they're waiting to go back out. The Miami Heat Family Festival happens every year in the big vacant lot between the arena and Biscayne Bay. Food, rides, music, photo ops. Door prizes, high hopes, giant checks to charity, the roll call of players and coaches and owners and fans. Everyone here, everyone loose, everyone having fun.
Birdman spent his first half hour being photographed with fans on the back of a personal watercraft. The line was mostly children, scores of them. "Do you see the Birdman, honey? Do you see him?" A new fan hopped on and off every 15 seconds for a souvenir photo taken against a green screen in a cloud of special effects and liquid nitrogen vapor. High-five, low-five, forearm, dap. He scowled that Birdman scowl. The scowl is a mask the children see right through. They love him the way they love dinosaurs and steam shovels.
The tents smell like hot plastic and kebabs and drugstore perfume, and the bass line from the DJ's dance mix rumbles up through the sand and the soles of your shoes. "There he is, there he is." In the next tent they line up for video flipbooks, this time in cowboy hats and feather boas and strumming inflatable guitars. "He's so cool." Sports stars as rock stars and lines 200 people long. Bosh and Battier ham it up as Birdman sneers and everyone smiles and someone in another tent is singing terrible karaoke and someone asks, "Did you see Chris Andersen go by?" And someone answers, "How could you miss him?"
That's the crazy part. You can't miss him. But because he's wrapped in a kind of camouflage, you wonder whether anyone can really see him, either. Or whether he even wants to be seen. Especially when the interviews so often go like this. And who can blame him? There's nothing less necessary than another jock sound bite, than another uplifting profile. Who he is on the court is who he is. The end. One day he'll retire to the mountains without saying goodbye and disappear entirely.
He's been reading up on the Buddha, so he is unsentimental about the stories, about his family, about himself. "Life is pain, man," he says. This is surely true, but it is also in the nature of people and of sports profiles that what's been written about him so far is likely only half true. Which half? Depends on who's talking.
Here are the fragments and mythic figments of his origin story: Abandoned by his father in an unfinished house in the Texas greasewood, he and his sisters are raised by his hard-working mother. They live in the barn for a year, shower with a garden hose. Mom holds three jobs. The kids wind up in and out of the group home. Mother never gives up. Son never gives in. Grows tall. Learns basketball. Jumps fences on the way to school. Promises to buy Mom a house one day. Smart, but grades that only get him into a junior college no one outside Washington County, Texas, has ever heard of. Tours semi-pro, then pro, winds up somehow in China, "picture that if you can," then New Mexico, North Dakota, North Carolina. First man ever taken in the NBA developmental draft, 2001. Goes to Denver. Tattoos begin in earnest. Parties. Cars. Girls. Trusts too much. Trusts the wrong people. Falls out with Mom over whom he trusts. Buys her no house. Then New Orleans. That dunk contest. Hurricane Katrina and the move to OKC. Then the two-year "drugs of abuse" suspension from the NBA, and to this day only he and the NBA know for sure which drug(s) it was. He won't say. It's a safe bet something hard and very scary to the suits and the straights, because what else could frighten the league that way?
He was trying to ease the pain of a bad breakup, a broken engagement, but he made no excuses. He told the NBA arbitrator, "I did it. I messed up."
Out of the league. More tattoos. Cars. Girls. Plays 1,000 hours of "Call of Duty." Works out. Spends time alone in the mountains. Hunts and fishes up there in the high turpentine. Hikes. Reads. Thinks. Reinstated. Is he chastened? Remade? Only he knows. Back to New Orleans. Back to Denver.
Then, May 2012, and this: The Douglas County Sheriff comes to his door and carries away what's left of his reputation. He lives under the worst kind of suspicion — computers confiscated, feds coming and going in those navy windbreakers, rumors and bad whispers of hard drives and the age of consent — until September 2013, when he's completely cleared of wrongdoing and it's revealed he's been the target of an elaborate online extortion plot engineered by a woman in rural Manitoba, Shelly Lynn Chartier. Catfished. The case is so complex even the lawyers don't know exactly what happened or how or why.Chartier is free on bail, and was due back in court the week of the conference semifinals.
Even an iconoclast passes the point of caring what you think. "I just don't care if people understand or misunderstand me. I had to live that whole year and half proving my innocence every day, day in and day out," he'll tell you. "For me to get back into the public was probably the hardest thing. So I've already had my image tarnished. The damage has been done. Those are the darkest days of my life, man."
Then Miami. Then an NBA championship. It reads like a fairy tale, a fable. Saved by the grace, maybe, of a second chance, or a third, but no one reconciles and the moral is unclear. He gets engaged again. He gets disengaged again. "Skip that part." OK.
Burned and burned again, unable to trust, do you become untrustworthy? "He fit right in as soon as he got here. He's a great guy. His exterior is a little unique. But he's just an at-home, down-South kind of guy. He just likes to have fun." This is Chris Bosh one afternoon talking about Chris Andersen. "He loves playing basketball. He's always been a good fit, and he'll continue to be a good fit while he's here." His teammates trust him like a brother, but even his teammates get lost in the ink and the art. Man, those wings!
The tattoos are reminders, cues and prompts right out of "Memento." But the ink is also a way to hide in plain sight. A disguise. A body double. Armor. As much an erasure as a declaration, Birdman is a fiction. A character. He tells his story at the same time he edits it at the very moment he hides inside it. New ink covers old. Life is pain.
The Mohawk is cropped this year. Now he's growing out a blond beard, Viking-style. Straight-up mead hall. You half expect it to be matted with blood. The effect is jarring. Where he was goofy before, he's badass handsome and dangerous-looking now, a blue-eyed Berserker with a double-bladed axe, a broadsword and the second-highest true shooting percentage in the NBA. Off the court he's a puzzle he can't quite solve. To the rest of us, he's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a Dodge Challenger.
On the court, inside the lines, he thrives. He's safe. He's whole. And this is his last best chance to set things right. By the numbers and not by the numbers, he might be the best seventh man in basketball.
* * *
"My game? My game is defense. And I think about what my coach told me a long time ago in high school, 'Defense wins championships.' My work ethic is just constant. I gotta be in the gym. I gotta be in the weight room. I feel like if I don't lift, if I don't run, I get soft. So I just continue to keep pushing myself, keep my strength up. I gotta keep my motor going. As soon as I feel comfortable, things just don't go right."
That game is all acute angles and foot stomp and manic work rate and disruption. He trails chaos everywhere he goes. On defense, at the rim, he's the best on the Heat by a wide margin. Thirteenth best in the NBA.
Illustrative of the Birdman game — which combines maximum effort and basketball intelligence with the theft of all your livestock and a salting of the earth — is the biggest game of the year so far, Game 2 against Indiana on Tuesday night, pivotal, momentum and inevitability draining out of the Heat's season, from their march to another championship, and he saves them all. He comes off the bench for 29 minutes and plays exactly as his teammates know he will, all defensive energy and mania and long-armed chaos. Twelve rebounds, three points, one block. He disrupts. He upsets. He flies. He's an impossible plus-25 when he walks up the tunnel.
In fact, his signature play idealized would probably start with a blocked shot on the defensive end that he guides up the wing to a waiting LeBron James, who turns and puts the ball on the floor and heads to the middle to drive the lane, where he finds a pick set by Andersen, now at the top of the arc, creating space for LeBron to go hard for the rim, which he does, banking the ball off the glass a little too high so that it comes up off the iron just enough for a trailing Andersen to grab it with both hands and jam it down hard through the net and then hang from the rim for a second, nothing flashy, with his knees drawn up to his chest. His game looks like something out of Beowulf.
"His game on the floor is high energy," Shane Battier says. "He brings a level of intensity and energy. Whenever he comes into the game, the game picks up — because one thing the Birdman does is fly around. He makes his presence felt. He's a grinder. He's been a grinder all his life. He's never been highly recruited, he's never been highly touted. He's just a guy who figured it out. He has an amazing motor and he knows that's the best way he can impact games. That's an underrated skill in this league."
Shoulders and elbows and hard screens and stop-and-go, his game may not be beautiful, but his real plus-minus was 15th in the league this season.
Of Miami's Big Three, Dwyane Wade is the longest serving, and to many locals remains the elegant face of the franchise. "Birdman? Energy," Wade said. "He brings that to the game; he's the guy who protects the basket for us. On the offensive end he does an unbelievable job of getting us the ball. He's the reason we're successful."
Andersen himself is more circumspect. "I try to do a lot," he says. "And a lot of stuff doesn't show up on the stats sheet. I want to block shots, contest shots, alter shots, create opportunities to rebound, push the ball."
But a lot of stuff does show up on the stats sheet. In fact, Andersen averages 12.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes. The only player who can match those numbers this season is the NBA's next superstar, Anthony Davis.
Maybe that's why Erik Spoelstra lobbied so hard to bring him here. In the middle of a winning streak that turned into a losing streak that turned into a winning streak, Spoelstra smiled and said, "Energy. Motor. Momentum. Athleticism. He plays with the youth of somebody 10 years younger. This league will pay for motor. Why does he fit? How does he fit? His skill set we targeted. We liked him for years. We always thought he'd be a great fit because of that energy and because of his defensive disposition. When we got him in here, he was everything we hoped and more. He's a tough warrior. We're sure glad he's on our side."
Birdman also has the best field goal percentage in team history. But no one mentions that. It's as if even the Heat don't quite see him.
From one locker to the next, every quote from every teammate sounds the same. They know him. Or have at least decided who they think he is. Chris Bosh, again: "He brings that energy. He can catch one off the rim and get a big dunk — I mean he does those things that get people out of their seats."
Counterintuitively, Andersen, who can never escape your notice, succeeds in part by setting aside his identity and his past, just like Ray Allen, two lockers over. "We're devoid of ego. We've been around long enough to understand where we fit in, and we have to find a way to fit in by adding whatever is missing. As veterans you do whatever you do to help the team win."
Andersen is more conventional than you think. He eats. He works out. He naps. On game nights he's one of the only players with his hand over his old-school heart for the anthem. He drives American cars, listens to American music, grills American beef. He is you, taller and with better hands and more energy. On the court he's who you'd be if you were intuitive and unstuck. He doesn't study the shot charts and dispersion graphs of opposing teams. "I just keep the opponent in front of me." He often comes in midway through the first period and stays through the middle of the second. Ten minutes. Same in the third and fourth. He averages 20 minutes a night, like clockwork. Even on the sideline, waiting, he's bouncing on his toes. He's ready. He works. Harder than ever, because this is what he has left. And because they depend on him like family. And maybe this time it will all turn out.
* * *
He walks out of another tent trailing another line of kids. Like his teammates, he wears a black Family Festival T-shirt. Unlike his teammates, he wears camo cargo shorts with his keys snapped to a belt loop on a locking carabiner. He pauses to be photographed with a vintage car; to be photographed with a python; to be photographed with another young family. Scowl. Sneer. Scowl. The kids steer him to the outdoor court where Pat Riley stands with his grandson and where Ray Allen is draining unlikely 3s with the help of some vocal 10-year-olds. Even here Birdman plays his game, hand checking and swatting blocks out of play. He is a monster. The kids howl with delight at the unfairness of it and at the scowl and the sneer and the wraparound sunglasses and the huge hands. At the ink. At the goaltending and the slap of his immense black sneakers on the ground. He hoists them one by one to throw down their miniature jams. He gives no instructions, offers no encouragement. "He's sweet," says one of the moms at the railing to her friend.
He lasts a few more minutes, reddening now and sweating, then the team publicists lead him to the tent backstage. Whole thing like a carnival. Right this way to the Illustrated Man.
* * *
Maybe what the tattoos disguise is how good Chris Andersen is at basketball. At 35, he's one of the most productive players per minute in the NBA.
What was once transgressive is now ordinary. Get into the fifth or sixth season of the fifth or sixth reality show about skin art; make tattoo a suburban fashion accessory; make it impermanent; realize half the planet is inked — and it doesn't feel much like rebellion any more. It feels like conformity — in the Heat locker room and every other. The league is swimming in ink. Besides, all skin art in the NBA is a footnote to Allen Iverson.
Still, there's no denying Chris Andersen is a canvas on whom every one of us paints. And like every other American, he lives in a constant state of personal reinvention. His is just easier to see. So the people who questioned his acquisition in 2012 are the same ones now saying what a great contribution he makes; what a coup it was to get him, at any price.
He doesn't want your attention, even as the art demands it. With the press, Chris Andersen is personable and funny and cooperative until he stops talking and cooperating entirely. He is unsentimental about himself. "I have no regrets. I love my life."
Is choosing not to explain yourself the same as being unable to explain yourself? For better and for worse, he is his own man, imprisoned by the character he created. The fans know this. They trust him on those terms. He seems nice, and without knowing exactly why, you feel a deep affection for him. Outside the tent, they're chanting, "Let's go Heat! Let's go Heat!"
Maybe they see themselves in Chris Andersen; or what they believe about fire and giant wings and reinvention. Hard work. Or disguise. Possibility. Failure. Success. Persistence. Forgiveness. Appetite. Love. Some or none of those. It's not important. Not where he's from or what he's done or even where he's going. Forward or back, time reveals nothing. He's here right now. Cutting to the basket. Blocking a shot. Running end to end to end to end. Without belonging to any of them he belongs to them all. Maybe that's the trick to stardom in America. That you see him, unmistakably, without ever knowing who or what he is. The known unknown.
The key to the art? Or to understanding him? "I would definitely have to say my Free Bird on my neck, you know, basically just illustrating that no matter what kind of hard times you go through and the downs that you have, the negative vibes that are around you, what people think about you — that you'll always be free. I'm free-minded, free-spirited. Free." And when he says, "I really don't care if nobody understands me," you believe him.
The sun stares down and the palms rattle and across the water the cruise ships tower white as snow and the turkey vultures wheel and turn above the five-star hotels.
Back on stage, last season's NBA champions sway and fidget to Pharrell Williams' "Happy." They clown and scowl and sing and clap. LeBron looks out over the heads of the crowd, looks far off into the dazzle and absently mouths the words. Here come bad news talkin' this and that. It is the worst most beautiful place ever. Then the Family Festival is over and there is nothing left for anyone to do but drive home and win another championship. Bosh. LeBron. Wade. Allen. Chris Andersen, the Birdman, is neither the first nor the last to leave the stage. The fans keep watching long after the music ends and he walks away with the others, up the ramp and past the arena, the fans watching even when it's impossible to see him, crossing the sand and trailing a long shadow, rising out of sight against the horizon of the sea. He has let go of everything that ever let go of him.
The next tattoo, already sketched and laid out for the length of his calf, is the Larry O'Brien Trophy.