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The Honky-Tonk Outlaw: Revelation In Plain Sight

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

Christopher Claus Andersen is, of course, the most visually ridiculous person o’er the whole Association. He didn’t emerge from the womb this way. A young-adult Andersen looked handsome enough; as he’s slowly creeped towards middle age, Andersen has voluntarily and aggressively turned his body into a zany, unemployable technicolor collage, replete with immaculately planned hairstyles that surely require buckets of gel and hours of time to envision, execute, and upkeep on a daily basis.

Surely this look has been profitable for imaginative souvenir-shop owners in Denver and Miami, where TV cutaways to kindergarten-aged boys decked in Andersenian ‘hawk-and-ink are now so ubiquitous we hardly even notice them. But, like baseball’s Brian Wilson, it’s a look so attention-grabbing that it will always dangerously approach becoming a parody of itself, a blistering shout for attention through a megaphone, followed up by stuttering and nothing in particular to say.

Unlike Wilson, who grew up in the “largely affluent bedroom community” of Winchester, Massachusetts, Andersen came of age in Iola, Texas, where life is, I’m presuming, pretty sparse and extreme. With his lifetime financial security conceivably accounted for, Andersen’s development of his signature look feels like it’s just a rare personality that has been allowed by the world to maximally express itself, an externalization of a free (if aesthetically unpleasing) soul.

Because he’s a pretty crazy dude. Interviews with Andersen are liable to travel in previously unfathomable directions. How many other professional athletes would ever find themselves participating in an interview with this much massive, awkward sexual tension? (I kid you not, it took three concentrated efforts for me to get to this short video’s end–it’s rather intense.)

Footage of Andersen pre-suspension, before his second stint with the Nuggets, is as hard to find as it is electrifying. Andersen played four years for the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, compiling only 104 games (he’s already played 95 for Miami, including playoffs), living through both Hurricane Katrina and the career-defining suspension. Only Andersen knows the recipe for the cocktail of substances that was ricocheting around his noggin during these clips. But this truth remains: at his youthful, leaping apex, Andersen demanded that the game be stamped with his personality; an impossibly lengthy and constantly airborne spring-loaded attack, always ready to thieve full ownership of any possession on either side of the floor. He played like what his present-day tattoos look like:

The thing is, the early-to-mid aughts were flush with trampolining blockers and dunkers. Lottery sensations like Stromile Swift, Darius Miles, or DerMarr Johnson could all throw down with outrageous viciousness. These three players have two things in common: none of them have been in the Association for about five years, and all of them are younger than the Birdman. (As these phenoms were getting drafted and starting out in the league, Andersen had just finished a lone year of community college ball and was grabbing jobs with teams like the New Mexico Slam, the Fargo-Moorhead Beez, and China’s Jiangsu Nangang–all excursions that I’m sure would make for a jaw-dropping documentary.)

Chris Andersen is, right now, 35 years old. He’s a scant few years away from retiring from natural causes, about to bump up against the upper milage limit of what even the most durable and experienced of bodies can handle. He’s on track to become the rarest of breeds of NBA players–there are more lottery picks than players in this category, more have won the championship–able to proclaim his retirement on his own terms, not after long angsty waits next to a silent phone.

His aerial maneuvers are what gained him entry onto SportsCenter and into the hearts of Nuggets and Heat fans, but Andersen has remained in the NBA because he approaches each of his minutes on the NBA floor as work. By inking almost all of his visible skin, Andersen is feigning to be a man who shirks responsibility, who can be told what to do by nobody, who values the self and self-vanity before all else. It’s an act. The opposite is true.

Video of a workout Andersen did with the awesomely maniacal Steve Hess is instructional:

Andersen referring to himself, in third person, as “Birdman” appears at first to be nothing if not vain and/or childish. In truth, it’s an effective mental paradigm that Andersen has set up for himself to ensure his basketball success. Chris, raised in Iola, has a disorganized mind, a disorganized body, an unrestricted id that yanks him into trouble’s jaws. Birdman, born, raised, and grown into adulthood in the gym and on the court, is more or less an entirely different identity. Birdman goes to Red Rocks at 6 AM so Steve Hess can run him through the gauntlet. Birdman runs himself underneath the basket when every shot is hoisted, prepped for the board. Birdman doesn’t need any more minutes or any more shots than he already has, his only motivation is to use each precious minute, each precious shot wisely, to be the first to lift a fallen teammate up and the last to leave a teammate exposed on the defensive rotation. Birdman is a champion and, at a two-year veteran’s minimum, one of the most premium dollar-for-production values in the game today.

As much as they are on national TV, this Miami Heat regular season undoubtedly has the feeling of idle thumb-twiddling. The most compelling stories are, in some order: how the minutes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be managed; the rehabilitation of Michael Beasley; and the rehabilitation of Greg Oden. A Finals favorite, they are paradoxically the one team in the league least likely to descend into panic if they were to lose by 17 to the Washington Wizards. They may still be in warm-up mode straight through mid-May. They will, at many times up until that point, appear to have downshifted to neutral on an uphill and be entirely unconcerned about it. There is at least one player on that roster who will never coast. Chris Andersen, the Birdman, he doesn’t know how to.

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