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For the record, the mayor of Denver is John W. Hickenlooper, a Democrat serving his second term. You could be forgiven, though, for thinking that the office was occupied by a strikingly tall, strikingly pale, strikingly tattooed guy who answers to Birdman. Chris Andersen can scarcely walk a downtown block, park his customized black semi cab (sans trailer) or finish his burrito lunch at Illegal Pete's without a member of the citizenry stopping him. And it's not simply a request for an autograph or a photo; folks tend to share assorted thoughts and concerns. Damn, Bird, you seen the construction down on I-25 southbound?
On a typical summer day Andersen greeted them all with handshakes and bro hugs and knuckle knocks (both exploding and nonexploding). He nodded, made eye contact, listened attentively and thanked them for their support. Like any politician, Andersen has his own slogan: "Live free, brother," his parting words to each well-wisher. He spoke of vague plans to host a summit of sorts where his constituents—all those people who send him e-mails and stop him on the street—could talk to him at greater length. As Andersen's immediate supervisor, Nuggets coach George Karl, puts it, "Birdman has tapped into something here."
These Mile High approval ratings exist for good reason. The 31-year-old Andersen—who, along with the rest of the league's players, reported to training camp this week—ranked second in the NBA in blocks as a reserve forward and figured prominently in Denver's surprise success last season, when the Nuggets reached the Western Conference finals for the first time in 24 years before falling in six games to the eventual-champion Lakers. Andersen's laid-back demeanor belies a game based largely on ambition. He swoops in for rebounds, pounces on loose balls and plays with an almost jarring amount of energy. Andersen's reward for this industriousness came in July: a five-year, $26 million contract. "Here's a guy who plays harder than anyone on the court," says Karl, "and he does it every night."
Andersen's appearance also feeds his popularity. The same way Chevy Chase's character in the classic 1985 movie Fletch stood "6'5"—with the Afro, 6'9"," Andersen is listed at 6'10" but exceeds 7 feet once you include his blond Mohawk, a monument to the durability of the hair gel he uses before games. Andersen's body doubles as a tattoo artist's sample book. He wears his headband over his ears, a look copied by thousands of kids and otherwise dignified adults, the same fans who flap their arms when Birdman is about to check in. During the winter Andersen will walk around town in a full-length mink coat and John Deere hat. On a hot day last month he complemented a black T-shirt and cargo shorts with red Ralph Lauren socks and white Chuck Taylors. In Denver, where the free sprit is native fauna, Birdman has found an ideal habitat.
But beyond that, Andersen balances the contradictory elements that contemporary sports fans look for in their heroes. They want athletes to be not only cartoonlike figures eager to perform superhuman acts—say, a madcap block of Kobe Bryant's shot from beyond midcourt—but also mortals who, notwithstanding their gifts, remain unaffected and fallible. The freakishly gifted Andersen is more than happy to set aside his fame and fortune and act like the rest of us. In fact, for two years in the middle of his career he had to set them aside and act like the rest of us, when the NBA suspended him after he failed a drug test. "We're all human," he says. "We all make mistakes; we can all recover. I guess that's the moral of my wild story."
The Tale of the Birdman begins in Iola, Texas, a dust-choked town a little more than an hour from Houston as the Harley flies. Andersen's father was a painter and his mother a motorcycle enthusiast. When Claus Andersen went on the road and Linda Holubec was working odd jobs and unable to care for their rambunctious son, Chris was sent first to a grandfather and then, at age 11, to Cumberland Presbyterian Children's Home outside Dallas. His parents divorced, and he went months without talking to either. Did he feel abandoned? His childhood was so chaotic, he says, "I was just happy for the place to sleep."
Andersen returned to Iola for high school. He lived with his mother in poverty but, in a rural twist on a familiar urban story, was delivered through basketball. His limitations were numerous, but he coupled uncommon athleticism with uncommon effort. "He basically played crazy," says Rob Stewart, then the Iola High coach. Andersen, who played against such weak competition that he was lightly recruited, spent a year at Blinn, a junior college in nearby Brenham, and then joined a pro team in China, where he played against Yao Ming. "He was different," Yao recalls, "but the fans could always tell he was having fun." Andersen later landed with the Fargo, N.D., franchise in the International Basketball Association. His reputation for eccentricity picked up momentum when he missed a game after breaking a molar while biting down on his tongue stud.
Andersen's breakthrough came in November 2001, when the Nuggets signed him. On one of his first NBA possessions he used his elbow to block Karl Malone's shot. "Damn, son," the Mailman said, "you gotta calm your ass down." It was in those early years that teammate Kenny Satterfield coined the Birdman nickname, seeing the way Andersen soared for alley-oops in a summer-league game. In 2004 Andersen's frenetic energy led the Hornets to sign him as a free agent. By the time the self-described "best hillbilly in the NBA" competed in the 2005 slam dunk contest—memorably flubbing seven tries—Birdman was a full-fledged cult figure.
Then his wings were clipped. Andersen was struggling in the summer of 2005. His girlfriend had left him. He wasn't speaking with his mom. Hurricane Katrina severely damaged his house in New Orleans. Slowed by injuries, out of shape and feeling dislocated in the Hornets' temporary home of Oklahoma City, he frequented bars. Then he turned to substances heavier than alcohol. In January 2006 he failed a test for a "drug of abuse"—to this day, Andersen declines to name specifically which drug—and was punished with a two-year suspension.
Andersen's first call was to an old friend, Mark Bryant, a Denver lawyer. Bryant ordered Andersen to undergo rehab at Promises in Malibu, Calif. After a few days Bryant got a call from a frustrated counselor.