Chris Andersen is a man with a routine. He needs one. Without it, he gets into trouble, and trouble is something he's trying to avoid at all cost. Still, his routine occasionally needs to be adjusted.
"For a while, I was getting up at like 5 a.m., get some breakfast and then go to the gym," Andersen says. "But I slowly found out that that's also the time that a lot of people go to the gym."
Welcome to Chris Andersen's version of The Real World: Denver, where the former member of the New Orleans Hornets is fighting for floor time with the 9-to-5 crowds.
To Andersen, "the gym" used to mean the New Orleans Hornets' practice facility, populated by multi-millionaire elite athletes. Now it's the Greenwood Athletic Club on the south side of Denver. And these days, as he hoists up jump shots among CPAs and MBAs, it's become the launching pad for his NBA comeback.
In January 2006, the NBA kicked Andersen out of the league for violating its drug policy. Even in an era in which the ink on the sports pages and the police blotter regularly smear together, Andersen's fall from grace was an aberration. The last player booted from the NBA for drug use was former LSU center Stanley Roberts in 1999. Andersen's dismissal meant one of the most popular and colorful players to don the teal and gold since the Hornets' arrival in New Orleans was persona non grata in the world's most prestigious pro basketball league.
Nicknamed "Birdman" for his arsenal of acrobatic dunks and swooping blocked shots, Andersen was a tall drink of espresso -- a caffeinated concoction of energy and enthusiasm on both ends of the floor. His fierce double-fisted jams were often followed by his signature celebration -- hands crossed and held aloft, flapping like a bird's wings.
There was also his unmistakable exterior. A lanky 6-foot-10, Andersen's long blond hair, trademark headband and ever-expanding tableau of tattoos made him one of the most recognizable reserve players in the league.
His charisma on the court and his small-town Texas affability everywhere else endeared him to the home fans wherever he played. Denver, New Orleans and Oklahoma City all flocked to see Birdman.
An NBA security official alerted Andersen that he had failed the drug test, and he was immediately suspended. As is standard procedure, the NBA Players Association filed a grievance on his behalf, but the appeal was denied.
Andersen could not apply for reinstatement for a minimum of two years. The richest contract of his career, a four-year $14-million deal with the Hornets, was voided after he fulfilled just one year of it.
"I was kind of in shock for maybe two days," he says. "I was like, what did I do? After I got the news, me and my friend drove down there (from Oklahoma City to New Orleans) the next morning. We came to my house (in Harvey). And that's when I made the decision to pick myself up and start moving forward because I can't sit here and dwell on this sitting at home. I had to dig myself out of the hole."
The move forward meant a move north, to what had become Andersen's emotional safe harbor during his NBA career.
The most important phone call he fielded in the days after he got the news was from his Denver-based lawyer, Mark Bryant. The two men don't share the typical attorney-client relationship. It's a bond that can't be measured in billable hours.
"Basically I didn't have anybody to turn to at the time," Andersen says. "Mark Bryant, who is also like family to me, told me to come home ... back to Denver."
Andersen spent his first three NBA seasons with the Denver Nuggets. During that time, the two struck up a friendship that was both quick and durable. The Bryant family provided a place of calm and comfort that was in sharp contrast to the nouveau riche fast lane of the NBA -- a life fraught with pitfalls. And when Andersen fell into the deepest pit of his pro career, he returned to familiar surroundings.
Andersen had violated the NBA's zero-tolerance policy pertaining to "drugs of abuse," which are classified as amphetamines and its analogs -- cocaine, heroin, Ecstasy and PCP. He's never publicly revealed what substance he took, but he does share what led a life-long risk-taker to take his biggest risk ever.
Andersen says he battled personal turmoil in the months leading up to his positive test. He and his mother stopped talking. He and his girlfriend broke up. Hurricane Katrina damaged his West Bank home and forced the Hornets to temporarily move from New Orleans to Oklahoma City. He had lost his routine.
The weight he felt wasn't just emotional. He showed up for training camp in 2005 heavier than he'd ever been in his playing career. His high-flying style suffered.
"I was at the point where I couldn't hardly play my game, and it was eating me up. I couldn't just sit there and take it. My conscience wouldn't let me. I was like, I know what I need to do to try to take this weight off. I had tried going on a diet, eating less food, I even took some dietary supplements. You eat them and they freaked me out. You would crash. And I did that for like a week, and I'm like, I can't do this. What (the supplement) did was rip me up. I lost all fat. I was just all muscle and I was still 260 pounds and I made some decisions that weren't evidently good ones to get rid of this weight."
As traumatic as it was to lose his livelihood, Andersen still wasn't ready to admit that his life was in need of drastic change. At least not until Bryant got wind of a story circulating on the Internet about Andersen's escapades in a Denver nightclub.
Bryant called him into his office.
"I showed the story to him," Bryant says. "It said he was out drinking and dancing. He said, 'I wasn't dancing.' I told him, 'Get your (stuff) packed. I'm shipping you out.'"
Andersen completed a 30-day program at a California rehab facility.
"It was rough the first week, but after getting through that first week, it was kind of like OK," he says. "I started feeling more comfortable going to all these meetings and talking at these meetings."
Now the strongest beverage he quaffs is served by an apron-clad barista.
"I don't even drink. I don't do anything. I'm straight and clean. I can drink, because it's legal but I don't. It's my choice. I won't touch it."
After staying with the Bryant family for five months, everyone agreed Birdman needed a nest of his own. Bryant helped Andersen find his own little slice of alpine repose 40 miles south of downtown Denver.
Larkspur, Colo. Population: 300. Elevation: 6,680 feet above sea level.
"A nice house, a nice location," Andersen says. "I have a bunch of pine trees. I have a big dog that can run around the yard. It's real secluded."
Perfect for a country kid from Iola, Texas. And perfect for an erstwhile NBA player looking to reassemble the scattered jigsaw pieces of his life.
"He's far enough out of town that people can't bother him," Bryant says. "I don't mean to say that in a harsh way. But there are some associations that are no good for him. And that's a little too far of a drive to bother him, so it's good."
With the NBA out of his life for at least two years, Andersen had other options. But they were very limited. FIBA, basketball's international governing body, honors NBA suspensions. Andersen says he considered playing internationally but didn't want to step on any toes in the NBA.
"I could have paid money to go overseas and fought it in their court systems with FIBA to say I want to play in Europe, but I'm going to have to pay some money to fight this in court and maybe win, maybe not, just to play over there. That's not what I wanted to do. What I want to do is play in the NBA. That was my dream as a kid and that's what I'm sticking with."
"He wasn't going to come work bagging groceries," Bryant adds. "We were very resistant to [the notion that] it's over, find a real job. We're going to take care of ourselves out here physically and financially and keep him in NBA shape, and it's far from over."
Staying in NBA shape means daily trips to the gym for hours of solitary shooting drills and weight-lifting sessions. And now he has a schedule for his workouts.
"I like to have the gym to myself. That way I can do a lot of shooting without having loose balls running around in every direction. So basically I try to go in there at an hour when nobody's in there. Like right after lunch, there's hardly anybody in there."
Andersen, 28, says if he can be a well-conditioned athlete a mile above sea level, he'll be ready to play anywhere. His weight currently fluctuates between 235 and 245 pounds. He could always dunk and block shots. Now he's trying to hone his skills in the low post and behind the three-point line. And he says his pogo-stick leaping ability remains intact.
The travails of the past year have also inspired him to add even more tattoos to his densely inked upper body. He says he's waiting to unveil the newest ones upon his return to the NBA.
Jan. 27, 2008, will mark two years since the NBA expelled him, and on that date Andersen will be eligible for reinstatement.
According to NBA spokesman Tim Frank, both the NBA and the NBA Players Association have to agree to his return. Frank says one of the conditions is that Andersen must have 12 months of clean drug tests.
Drug testing is already part of Andersen's routine. He says ever since he got out of rehab, he's submitted to regular urine tests, the results of which he'll furnish to the league when he applies for reinstatement.
If Andersen is allowed to return, the Hornets will get the first crack at him. If he does not sign with the Hornets, he would become a free agent.
Andersen makes it clear: he wants to be a Hornet.
"It's like a family in that locker room. I do want to play again for Byron Scott. He's a great coach, great guy. I love the way he just lets you play, and if you make a mistake you can make it up."
His former head coach remains a fan.
"Birdman was one of my favorites," Scott says. "I loved him as a person. I loved the way he played the game. I loved his energy. So obviously I'm rooting for him to get reinstated when the time comes, and hopefully he can resume his career."
In a statement, Hornets owner George Shinn did not address whether he's interesting in re-signing Andersen, but Shinn appears to be in Birdman's corner.
"I have heard through various reports that Chris is working hard and has made tremendous strides to improve himself while keeping in top condition for an eventual return to the court," Shinn says. "I have faith that he will reach his goals, and I applaud him for continuing to look towards the future rather than focusing on the past."
If the traditional transition from a Division I college straight to the NBA is a trip down the primrose path, Andersen's journey was more of a back road ramble amid the tumbleweeds.
After graduating from Iola High School, 100 miles north of Houston, he attended Blinn Junior College in Brenham, Texas, where he played for a season and a half. Then the pros beckoned -- sort of.
Spotted while playing in an exhibition game in China, he signed with a team in the Chinese Basketball Association. Four and a half months later, he was back in the States, making stops in Albuquerque and Fargo, playing for minor league teams as anonymous as the players they employ. He caught on with the NBDL, the NBA's fledgling development league. After two weeks in Fayetteville, N.C., Andersen finally reached the summit, signing with the Nuggets.
Andersen's tortuous odyssey to get to the NBA made many wonder why he would jeopardize all his hard-earned success and prosperity. "I think about this all the time," he muses. "If I did come forward (and voluntarily enter the NBA's drugs of abuse program), what would I be suspended for ... 10 games? Then what? Then I'd be drinking in the bars again. What would happen after that? I'd have been drinking and maybe drove drunk and might have hurt somebody or myself. So basically I look at it like, I just changed my whole lifestyle. I'm still the same guy, I just changed my style and I'm paying my dues."
It would seem as if Andersen has spent much of his basketball life paying dues. This latest round cost him dearly. But he has gained a new perspective.
"It's definitely heart-wrenching, because playing in the NBA is everything I ever worked for. It was my dream as a little kid and I get to this spot and it was just like, problem after problem in my personal life affected me on the basketball court. And I made some decisions that ended up affecting me. But I kind of put a twist to it. The worst thing that has happened to me could be the best thing to ever happen to me."
Adam Norris is a sports anchor with WGNO-TV, ABC26 in New Orleans.
- NBA Photos
- Chris "Birdman" Andersen dunks a basketball during his tenure as a New Orleans Hornet. The NBA booted Andersen out of the league in 2006 for violating its drug policy, the first player to be ditched for drug use in the NBA since 1999.