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Flightless Birdman
L. Jon Wertheim
October 23, 2006
Chris Andersen doesn't want to dispute the drug test that led to his suspension. He just wants to play in the NBA again
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October 23, 2006

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

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For a guy whose cellphone rings to Metallica's Enter Sandman, Chris Andersen doesn't do much sleeping. On most days he's up at 4:45 a.m., taking his monstrous cane corso for 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 truck and headed for a gym on Denver's south side, where he sweats through a headband festooned, pointedly, with the NBA logo.

After that, he has 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 Orleans Hornets, will be nine months removed from his dismissal from the league, having run afoul of its one-strike-and-you're-out policy with respect to "drugs of abuse"--including amphetamines, cocaine, opiates and PCP. His case can be reviewed, though, and Andersen can apply for reinstatement on Jan. 27, 2008, a date he anticipates the way a prisoner does his day of release. (The conditions for reinstatement are vague, but he'll have to demonstrate that he's clean and that 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 led an unusual life. After his mother gave up custody of him (she was working three jobs and pulling down $15,000 a year) and his father, an artist, left town to tour with his work, Andersen spent his early teenage years at a Dallas-area orphanage. Lightly regarded at his tiny high school in Iola, Texas, he played a year and a half of junior college ball before heading to the Chinese Basketball Association--"He had more energy than anyone," recalls Yao Ming, who opposed Andersen--and then embarked on an odyssey of basketball backwaters. When he caught on with the Denver Nuggets in 2001, his raw skills were offset by his athleticism and energy. "He played cowboy basketball," says Clyde Drexler, who, as a Denver assistant, turned the Nuggets on to him.

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

But in the summer of 2005, the Birdman's wings got clipped. He and his girlfriend split. He and his mother stopped speaking. His New Orleans home was ravaged by Katrina. The Hornets 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 an excuse--he knows he still had it better than most people--yet lonely, displaced, injured and underperforming, Andersen became a fixture in Oklahoma City's watering holes. Soon he moved beyond alcohol. He won't reveal which drug was in his system, but, as he puts it, "Let's just say all that [excess] weight went away."

With one sensationally bad choice (his most serious offense till then had been being late for practice), Andersen lost his job and the roughly $12 million left on his contract. Yet when he learned of his positive test, he felt like anything but a man condemned. "I was torn up emotionally, but I realized it was time to make a drastic change," he says, his voice catching. "I could've ended up killing myself."

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

He'd be well within his rights to question why he's been banned while others--say, Stephen Jackson, the Pacers' guard and co-star in the Auburn Hills brawl, who last week was 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 before facing banishment? Andersen has no interest in going there. "The rules are the rules," he says. "Certain drugs are in certain categories for a reason."

After the arbitrator upheld the suspension last March, Andersen moved to Denver, spent four weeks in rehab and says he's been clean for months. When he's not working out, he's reading about real estate investments and learning new chords on his guitar. "Honestly, the worst thing that could have happened to me is turning out to be the best thing," he says. "I'm back in charge of my life, brother."

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