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Flight Of the Birdman
October 05, 2009
After an improbable rise to the NBA and a costly misstep, the spirited Chris Andersen soars in the eyes of Nuggets fans
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October 05, 2009

Flight Of The Birdman

After an improbable rise to the NBA and a costly misstep, the spirited Chris Andersen soars in the eyes of Nuggets fans

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"Chris isn't getting it."

"Not getting what?" Bryant asked.

"He thinks he'll play in the NBA again. Facing reality is part of the program here."

"I guess that's not Chris's reality," said Bryant.

After 30 days in rehab Andersen went to live with Bryant's family and put himself on the equivalent of house arrest. He arose at dawn. He worked out at a suburban club, then returned in the afternoon and helped coach a boys' basketball team. "Here was this NBA player with no kid of his own on the team, and he's at every practice, every game," says Michelle Marchildon, whose nine-year-old was one of the players. "It went from, He was suspended for drugs, to, I want to set my single friends up with this great guy!"

Never mind that Andersen was a player of limited skills in his late 20s with a drug suspension to his name. He was so sure he'd return to the NBA, he went to Nuggets games and took mental notes on future opponents. "Looking back, I think going from my dad's home to my mom's home to the children's home helped," Andersen says. "I learned to handle my emotions, not feel pity and rely on myself. My attitude was always, I made it to the NBA once, I can make it twice."

The suspension ended in March 2008, and last summer various Nuggets employees who'd stayed close to Andersen lobbied Karl to give Birdman a shot. "I sat with him," recalls Karl, "and thought, If nothing else, this kid sure is committed to being a basketball player." Still, he didn't envision Andersen contributing so abundantly—6.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.46 blocks in 20.6 minutes per game—and becoming a major reason that the Nuggets developed into a team greater than the sum of its parts. Karl certainly didn't anticipate that Andersen would change the complexion of entire games. "I've had good bench players before," says Karl. "But not like this, where they wait till he gets in the game to get involved. There's just a whole spirit about him."

Denver forward Carmelo Anthony may have the All-Star chops and the Olympic gold medal, but a good many more fans at the Pepsi Center wear replicas of Andersen's number 11 jersey. As Nuggets guard J.R. Smith puts it, "Birdman is a rock star." And that's largely because he has no pretensions to be one. Bryant, who still advises Andersen, recently got a call from a friend, praising him for the savvy marketing of the Birdman brand. "Marketing? Brand?" Bryant responded. "You got the wrong guy."

At first Andersen was disappointed by how often the "drug thing" (his words) was mentioned in conjunction with anything he did on the court. "It was, Chris Andersen has 10 rebounds in his first season back from a drug suspension," he says. "Never just: Chris Andersen had 10 rebounds." But he came to accept that as part of the recovery process. He also began hearing positive stories about his comeback. The star high school wrestler who blew out his knee, turned to drugs and was inspired by Andersen to quit. The girl who says that she went to AA because she saw how Andersen had fared in recovery. "Honestly, I was ready to move on a long time ago," he says. "But if I'm helping people with problems, hell, yeah, we can talk about it."

The most popular man in Denver mostly stayed in the area this summer to work out with his trainer and improve his jumping and free throw shooting, anticipating that a long-term contract might bring with it some extra shots. He and his fiancée, Brandy Newman, moved into a new home in the suburb of Larkspur, far from the clubs and the bars that had once seduced him. He'd wake up early to hike the mountains behind his house. Silhouetted in morning light, he'd climb up, come down and then go back up again.

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