SALT LAKE CITY — It was in the pressroom, before a playoff game in 2010, where I spotted the Birdman a few tables away. He wasn’t exactly incognito. It was hard not to impolitely stare, but he may as well have been wearing a flashing sign that said, “Circus in town today!”
Chris Andersen was talking with someone from the Denver Nuggets and a couple of reporters. From what I overheard, he sounded completely normal, just a laid-back guy exchanging pleasantries.
It’s true he was once banned from the NBA for violating its drug policy. His neck, arms, back, hands, stomach and chest look like a going-out-of-business flier. Yes, there are birds and wings, but so much more: skulls, chains, dogs, numbers and inscriptions — right down to the fingertips.
Birdman left the pressroom and soon emerged from the locker room, the evolving new Rodman. He had fewer tattoos then, but even so his body art was imposing. A thunderbird spread its wings at the clavicle, his long arms were covered in images.
The Nuggets beat the Jazz by 14 that night. Andersen went 5-for-7 shooting, snagging seven rebounds and blocking three shots.
Sometime during the game, Jazz players had begun mocking Andersen’s body art, which didn’t yet include his famous “Freebird” collar. Upset with his team’s intensity, Jerry Sloan raged along the bench, where he overheard his players’ wisecracks.
“I wish ONE of you guys played as hard as him!” Sloan shouted.
It was a grudging show of respect for one of the league’s most polarizing players.
Yet there could hardly have been more different people than Sloan, the former Jazz coach, and Andersen. Sloan is so low profile he doesn’t even wear pocket squares. His hair is a no-nonsense business cut, not a Mohawk. While Birdman often wears a goatee, Sloan has been clean-shaven since his college days.
Birdman’s favorite show: “Sons of Anarchy.”
He’s more of a monarchy guy.
The only similarity is that they both spent time in farm country as youths, Sloan in downstate Illinois, Andersen in rural Texas. And this: They both go to war. Andersen, a respectable rebounder and defender, has also made 38 of 42 shots in the playoffs this year. When Miami owner Micky Arison presented the conference trophy after Monday’s game, he didn’t hand it to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. He handed it to Andersen.
“It’s amazing to hold that. But I really want to hold up the other (Finals) trophy,” he told fans, sounding like a regular button-down John Stockton. “I know there is another test at hand.”
Therein lies the paradox. Nobody is as one-dimensional as it seems on TV. Last year, Andersen’s home was raided by child pornography investigators. But no charges were filed or arrests made, and Andersen’s attorney said a woman made false claims in hopes of extorting the 6-foot-10 forward.
Then there’s the Andersen who is a strong advocate for PETA. He is attempting to trademark his nickname so he can donate proceeds to his foundation for underprivileged children.
He signed with the Heat in January, where he immediately made an impact. The team has gone 51-6 since then, including a 27-game streak.
Andersen missed Game 6 of the conference finals after shouldering Indiana’s Tyler Hansbrough to the floor, then shoving him. That brought a one-game suspension. But he apologized for being overly emotional and was back for Game 7, a Miami rout, contributing seven points and five rebounds.
Some experts are saying Andersen will be the X-factor in this year’s Finals against San Antonio, which begin Thursday. Already the Birdman has become famous. The nickname arrived long ago, before almost all the tattoos, during the Jazz-sponsored Rocky Mountain Revue in 2002. Teammates noted his soaring game and sweeping arms and began the chant. Now even his coach refers to him as Bird or Birdman.
It’s debatable how many years the 35-year-old Andersen has to play. But he is playing well, a hot commodity in 2013. Just like the Worm, 15 years ago, he is disrupting opponents, drawing jeers and attracting major attention.
Meanwhile, far from the playoffs, Sloan watches in distant admiration.
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