IN FIVE NBA seasons Chris Andersen carved out a reputation as a hard-nosed defender and earned the nickname Birdman for his aerial acrobatics. But two years ago Andersen, a 6'10", 230-pound hyperkinetic forward for the Hornets, gained notoriety for a less welcome reason. He became the first player in seven years to be suspended by the NBA for testing positive for what the league classifies as "drugs of abuse"—a list of substances that includes amphetamines, cocaine, opiates and PCP (but not marijuana). The drugs fall under the umbrella of the league's one-strike-and-you're-out policy.
Since the ban Andersen, 29, has worked hard to put his life back together. "You tend to grow up a lot in a situation like that over the past two years," Andersen said. He paid $50,000 to get into a 30-day rehabilitation program in Malibu, Calif. He got involved in charity and community-service work in Denver, where he played his first three seasons. Unable to play overseas (FIBA, basketball's international governing body, respects NBA suspensions), Andersen worked out on his own in Denver, doing drills and lifting weights for up to six hours a day. "Sometimes I was doing three-a-days," he said. During the off-season he played in pickup games in Las Vegas with Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups and Jermaine O'Neal.
Andersen applied for reinstatement shortly after he became eligible, in January. On March 5, satisfied that Andersen was clean, the NBA cleared him to return. The Hornets—who voided Andersen's four-year, $14 million contract after his suspension but had remained in contact with him through his agent—signed him to a prorated one-year, $3.5 million contract. The team plans to use Andersen, who has career averages of 5.1 points and 4.8 rebounds, as a backup to power forward David West and center Tyson Chandler. "He still has great size and athletic ability," says G.M. Jeff Bower. "Why wouldn't we want a guy like that?"
Under the terms of his reinstatement Andersen will be subject to frequent random drug testing. "This was not a controversial decision," says Bower. "We really believe he can help our team."