Chris “Birdman” Andersen’s Bizarre NBA Journey

Feb 29, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay (0) passes the ball around Memphis Grizzlies forward Chris Andersen (7) in the first quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 29, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay (0) passes the ball around Memphis Grizzlies forward Chris Andersen (7) in the first quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /

Very few athletes in the NBA can become stars. For the rest of the more modestly gifted players, the quickest route to being a household name is to join a contender and feed off of the attention bestowed upon the star players of that team. If you can’t obtain individual glory, be remembered as an important part of a legendary squad.

Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen had guys like Steve Kerr and Luc Longley. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant had guys like Robert Horry and Rick Fox. As the national media descends upon a great team, the basketball community builds reverence for the hustle guys and role players present in the highlight reels diving for loose balls, making the key pass, or setting a strong pick to help the team succeed.

On a team that’s 20 games under .500, these players are banished to the obscurity of box scores for meaningless games that only the most dedicated fans notice beyond a brief skim. Such is the life of an NBA role player.

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For the Spurs and Grizzlies series, a man who was once prominently discussed in the basketball sector and relevant to the league’s narrative is set to make a grand return to (possible) significance. “Birdman” is about to take flight again. Whether he soars or crashes is yet to be determined.

With Marc Gasol out with an injury, Chris Andersen will be more relied upon to contribute for the Grizzlies. Never a particularly skilled offensive player, Anderson provides rebounding and animated defense. His vivacious presence combined with his colorful tattoos and unique hair styles makes Andersen an infectious personality on the basketball court.

His career has had the typical ups and downs of a role player seeking a home on an NBA roster, with the added drama of off-court turbulence. In true blue-collar distinction, Andersen was actually the first player ever called up to an NBA roster from the NBA Development League.

The Denver Nuggets admired his rebounding and rim protection. He was originally bestowed his nickname “Birdman” due to his lengthy wingspan. He glided through the air on both offense and defense, even being invited to participate in two Slam Dunk Contests, once with the Nuggets and the other with the next team he’d play for: the New Orleans Hornets.

In 2006, he was suspended by the league for testing positive for a banned substance. After being reinstated by the league in 2008, Andersen finished up a shortened campaign with the Hornets and signed with the Nuggets again that offseason.

The 2008-2009 season saw him rank 2nd in the league in blocks per game. Andersen spent the next few seasons in Denver as a rebounder and shot-blocking specialist, until the Nuggets used their amnesty clause to free Andersen’s salary from their books and make him a free agent.

In 2013, Andersen signed a 10-day contract with the Miami Heat, who’d eventually take him on for the rest of the season. Playing alongside LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, Andersen provided the basketball world with high-flying antics and exciting charisma, and as the Heat won the championship, Andersen found what every role player in the NBA can only hope for: relevance.

2013 also brought closure to a distressing allegation against him off the court. He was suspected a year before of possession of child pornography, but Andersen was later found to be the victim of an elaborate hoax.

The unfortunate reality of being a complementary player is that you’re never in control of your own destiny; yes you may still be able to hit 3s or block shots at the same rate, but ESPN only cares about you if you’re mugging for the cameras after a theatrical victory alongside a superstar during games in May and June.

James eventually left Miami, and it appeared as though the Heat were no longer worthy of the blinding spotlight cast on them during James’ reign in South Beach. Andersen returned to toiling in obscurity, no longer on the minds of basketball pundits wondering how he was going to impact a game of any gravity.

Just a few months ago, Andersen was traded to the Grizzlies in their frantic search for depth at center after Gasol’s injury. “Birdman” returns to the national stage, but this time as the opponent of one of the league’s premier teams.

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Regardless of the outcome of this series for the Grizzlies, Andersen can rest assured that he has left his mark on the NBA thanks to not only his specialized talents, but his unique persona. That’s all a guy in his position can ask for.