Monday, May 27, 2013

The New York Times Wrote An Article About Chris (Birdman) Andersen: Miami’s High-Flying, Low-Key Role Player

MIAMI — The Birdman is most comfortable when he is soaring above the chaos, over the rim, poised to swat the basketball away or to slam it home. Elevation has always suited him best.

At the moment, however, the Birdman is sitting, maybe a little uneasily, the focus of two dozen reporters and television cameras, all seeking colorful insight from the Miami Heat’s most colorful player, who generally avoids these messy scrums.

Chris Andersen — known universally as the Birdman, or sometimes just Bird — responds dutifully, his answers concise, his expression warm but wary.

When he is flying around the court, with his blond hair gelled up into a Mohawk, his brightly tattooed arms flapping and fans screeching in delight, the Birdman seems the consummate entertainer. The real-world Andersen is more reserved, almost shy, a self-described “country boy” from Texas who somehow blends perfectly into the South Beach vibe, and the Heat locker room, where N.B.A. icons and low-wage specialists live in basketball harmony.

“A natural fit,” center Chris Bosh said Thursday.

Andersen is no attention seeker, but he was impossible to miss in Wednesday night’s opener of the Eastern Conference finals, whether he was flying from the baseline to score 16 points or rising high to block the Indiana Pacers’ attempts in a 103-102 overtime victory.

The points were a career postseason high for Andersen, 34, in his 11th N.B.A. season. His 7-for-7 shooting — every shot within 2 feet of the basket — set a franchise playoff record, besting the 6-for-6 mark by the Heat’s Alonzo Mourning in 2007.

“An honor,” Andersen said, sitting on a stool for this rare group interview. “But at the same time, my main focus is the Indiana Pacers and trying to get to that championship.”

That goal seems imminently attainable, which is incredible considering that just four months ago Andersen was unemployed, a Bird with nowhere to fly.

The Denver Nuggets waived Andersen last July under the league’s amnesty provision, a move that cleared millions of dollars from the salary cap and made room for their younger centers — JaVale McGee, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov — to play and develop. At the time, several teams seemed to shy away from Andersen because of possible off-the-court issues. He also had minor knee surgery.

Despite his sound reputation as a high-energy rebounder, shot blocker, dunker and crowd pleaser, Andersen remained a free agent until the Heat signed him on Jan. 20.

“I was hunting hogs and living that country-boy life,” he said Thursday.

But Andersen has been through much tougher stretches. In 2006, he was dealt a two-year suspension for violating the N.B.A.’s drug policy. He returned in 2008, clean and sober. So even as he waited for months for the phone to ring last fall and winter, Andersen would not consider the possibility of his career ending.

“I didn’t think about that,” he said.

The 6-foot-10 Andersen was exactly what the Heat needed: a rangy, athletic big man who could protect the rim at one end and finish at the other, a sure-handed receiver to catch all those lobs from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade after they broke down the defense.

“He’s changed their team dramatically,” said Pacers Coach Frank Vogel, whose team lost to the Heat in six games in the 2012 playoffs. “Just phenomenal rim protection, great finishing at the basket, toughness, size — all the things that everybody was critical of this team for the last two years, he’s brought that. I think it’s been a major, major difference maker.”

Andersen’s postseason shooting statistics are startling, even for a player who lives around the rim: 35 attempts, 29 makes, for an .829 field-goal percentage. But one statistic shines above them all: the Heat are 48-4 since his arrival.

“He fit in with this team like he’s been here the whole time, the whole three years,” Wade said.

Miami won the title with a small lineup last spring, but Heat officials were always looking for a big man in Andersen’s mold, preferably Andersen himself. Coach Erik Spoelstra had repeatedly lobbied Pat Riley, the team president, to acquire him from Denver.

“We had conversations initially,” Nuggets General Manager Masai Ujiri said. “It never really worked out.”

Nor did Ujiri want to part with Andersen, whom he considered a friend. Ujiri once made an NBA TV appearance wearing a Birdman T-shirt, at Andersen’s prodding, to help him promote his campaign to be included in the dunk contest.

The decision to cut Andersen last summer — removing the last two years and $9 million of his contract from the cap and helping Denver avoid the luxury tax — was “very tough,” Ujiri said.

It is standard to praise every player as a great person, Ujiri acknowledged, “but Bird is a legit good guy,” he said. “You can ask any teammate or anybody. They all love him.”

That camaraderie is clear in Miami. Not long after Andersen arrived, James and Wade cast him in a starring role in the Heat’s instantly famous “Harlem Shake” video. Andersen, dressed in his Heat warm-ups, opens the scene by flapping his way through the locker room — a quiet prelude to the madcap antics that ensue.

“He is an unbelievable character,” James told The Miami Herald in February.

As Andersen held court on Thursday after practice, James strode by and let out a shrieking squawk in tribute, startling reporters and making Andersen break into a smile.

In 2009, Andersen made the Western Conference finals with the Nuggets, losing to the Lakers in six. But the spotlight is much brighter here, and the championship has never seemed closer.

“You know what, it is incredible,” Andersen said of his circuitous journey, “but at the same time I’m just trying to stay in the moment, keep my focus on what I need to do and where I need to improve on. And I know I’m destined for more.”

The Birdman, as enjoyable a character as any in the N.B.A., deserves this stage.

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