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.
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."
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."
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
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
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