The On Deck Circle

The unofficial home of Real Talk

The Birdman Flies Again

Posted by Blake Murphy on January 29, 2008

“The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply that they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings” – James Matthew Berry

On Janury 25, 2006, Chris Andersen was found to be in violation of the substance abuse policy set forth in the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and NBA Players’ Association. On March 20, 2006, an arbitrator upheld the ruling, and the man who had affectionately come to be known by fans around the league as The Birdman was suspended for two seasons.

It was later revealed that he tested positive for a “substance of abuse” which, in the legal mumbo jumbo of the collective agreement, refers to amphetamines and their derivatives. In street terms, then, Andersen was found to be abusing one of cocaine, PCP, LSD, heroin, or possibly other amphetamine- or opiate-based drugs. The rumors I heard at the time suggested heroin, but no evidence ever proved this and the league keeps that type of information strictly confidential. Regardless, Andersen was clearly using hard drugs for recreation, leading the Denver Post to call him, “the most disgraced NBA player since the drug-induced haze of the ‘80s.”

Fans and league sources alike seemed saddened by the events, terrified that a young up-and-comer in the NBA could fall victim to the clasp of illegal drug use. Ever a fan favorite, Andersen seemingly went into complete exhile for the length of his suspension, surfacing only the odd time in rumors about his whereabouts or speculation about where and if he would return.Well check your calendar. Today is January 29, 2008, two years and four days after Chris was originally suspended. As expected, he began the process of appealling for reinstatement into the NBA on Friday, the exact day his sentence ended. Whether he will be permitted to return is unclear, but I want to take a look at the impact it could have on the NBA if he is, as I feel he should be, reinstated.Just 27 years old when suspended, Andersen was largely considered to be on the rise in the NBA. After dropping out of the University of Houston, Andersen played out his college days at Blinn College, going undrafted and heading to the NBDL. It only took two years for a team to take notice and the youngster who had developed a reputation as a hustle player with NBA potential was signed by the Denver Nuggets. In 2002-03, his first full season in the league, Chris averaged a respectable 5.2 points and 4.6 rebounds with over 1 block per game, all in just 15 minutes of playing time. He was quickly regarded as a player that coaches and players love to have and hate to play against, a scrappy guy who gets after loose balls, does the dirty work, and plays good to great defense.

Chris was also seeing his reputation among fans increase, seeing more and more signs showing him love and hearing fans scream out bird calls and flash his now-trademark hand symbol, folding their hands over each other and wiggling their fingers like wings. Chris responded in kind by making this his signature after big dunks, another aspect of the game that was becoming a specialty of his. In 2003-04, Chris’s numbers stagnated on a deep Denver team, but his popularity was rewarded with a spot in the 2004 Sprite Rising Stars Dunk Contest.

It was here that Chris solidifed himself as an entertaining star of the future, showing up with wild spiky hair and throwing down a disgusting 180 windmill with his face at the rim that many feel was the dunk of the contest. It also nearly gave Jack Nicholson a stroke. Instead, Chris lost out to 6’1” Fred Jones, a man who many hardly even realize can dunk anymore and who won primarily because of his height disadvantage. Chris would again define his career in the dunk contest in 2005, embarassing himself by missing his first eight attempts at a long running dunk, and missing his first five attempts on his second dunk, garnering boos from the fans and ridicule from other players and the TNT broadcasters.

What Chris lost in popularity and dignity that February, he made up for with career best numbers. Now playing for the New Orleans Hornets, Chris put up career highs in minues (21.3), field goal percentage (53.4), points (7.7), rebounds (6.1), and assists (1.1), while averaging an impressive 1.5 blocks per game, just shy of last year’s career high of 1.6.

That offseason, Chris was rewarded handsomely, signing a four year-$14M deal to stay with the Hornets, an impressive contract for an ‘energy’ player at the time. The deal was important in that it showed the league’s growing awareness of the need for players like Andersen, paving the way for big contracts like that given to Anderson Varejao earlier this year. Chris’s numbers slipped a bit in the early part of the 2005-06 season (though his field goal percentage went up), but he was the same defensive and energetic force the league had come to know.

The tattooed, shaggy-headed, headband wearing, blond-haired dunking machine had arrived in the NBA. The Birdman had truly flourished and was rising to new heights as a 27 year old cornerstone of the Hornets.

And then he tested positive, a test he didn’t dispute with much fire, a test some say was inevitable, and a test that shocked the basketball world. Chris Andersen, The Birdman, a bright young star in the NBA’s changing game, a poster boy for the ‘little things’ and ‘hustle plays,’ was going on a two year mandatory vacation because of an accusation the league hadn’t had to deal with in decades.

Little has been heard from or about Chris in the last two years. There are questions of whether he can still play at an NBA level, if he was ever going to be that good anyways, or if two years away from premier competition has rendered him irrelevant to a game that has adapted and found more players like him since his departure. Under the terms of his original suspension, the commissioner’s office has free reign to take as long as they want to review his application for reinstatement, and they will likely take their time reviewing it. It is, after all, a very flammable situation. On one hand, the NBA can let him back in, show trust in their rehabilitation programs, and promote his story as a positive learning experience for the league, risking ire from parents and sponsors alike for allowing a drug addict back into the league. On the other hand, the NBA can turn their back on him, reject his application, and come under ire from the players union and NBA die-hards, but more importantly shunning an allegedly changed young man in spite of the long journey he has undertaken and overcome.

Addiction is no joke, it’s not a light hearted subject. Nor is it one many writers and media types will want to touch on with much vindication on either side of the fence, because it is so flammable and divisive. David Stern has his hands full in the next week or two, or however long he takes to make the decision, and he should take all the time he needs, because this is one of the issues I feel his term will be remembered for. Moreso than a dress code or age minimum in the draft, this will be remembered because it sends such a strong message by the league about drugs: a zero tolerance, disciplinarian, one-strike-and-you’re-out approach, or a rehabilitating and accepting approach aimed at helping players beat addiction.

I’m sure you can tell from some of the language I’ve used in describing Commissioner Stern’s options that I am in favor of letting the Birdman play once again. And it’s not because I’m a big fan of his (I am), I enjoy his tattoos and unique look (I do), or because I remember him so fondly for his dunk contest appearances, good and bad (I do), and it’s definately not because I think the six points and five rebounds he could provide the Hornets, lacking in front court depth, would push them over the top in the West should they choose to claim him (I don’t). Instead, I think Chris needs to be let back into the league because it is a drug story with a positive message, a rose among thorns, a story the basketball world hasn’t really had since the “drug-induced haze of the ‘80s.” When drugs in basketball come to mind, very few think of the positive message preached by Earl “The Goat” Manigault following his tragic basketball tale. Instead, the first image that comes to mind is Len Bias, dead from an overdose two nights after he was drafted by the Boston Celtics. Drugs are a terrible evil in this world and I’m not pretending for a second that basketball is important enough to bring change to that subculture, but the NBA can send a message by allowing Chris back into the league and providing the world with a positive story of overcoming an addiction that threatened someone’s livelihood and their life.

I’m sure David Stern, master of public relations, has a decision firmly entrenched in his mind already, just waiting for the right opportunity to proclaim it, whether it be in the slow news weeks following the Super Bowl or during the heavily covered NBA All-Star weekend. And how appropriate it would be, during a celebratory weekend where Chris Andersen made a name for himself (twice), to announce that Chris Andersen has been reinstated…

…that The Birdman flies again.

5 Responses to “The Birdman Flies Again”

  1. stu Says:

    to honor the Birdman I will drop eight points in intramurals tonight, one for every missed dunk in the slam dunk contest.

  2. Queen's Says:

    pretty stern drug policy. i was totally unaware of this story. interesting stuff. if he’s clean, definitely get him back in the league. I think for athletes with drug abuse problems, taking away the best part of their lives, basketball in this case, is fairly dangerous. It could just drive them to drugs moreso.

  3. Blake Murphy Says:

    I like that Stu. Along the same lines, I will play 5 minutes tonight, one for every dunk he missed for his second dunk attempt.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    uncage the birdman

  5. Blake Murphy Says:

    Now has no decision been made on this yet??

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