His spiky hair and colorful body has made him a fan favorite among Denver Nuggets fans, and today the man they call Birdman turns 33.
Chris Andersen and his flamboyant style have been a familiar sight around the Pepsi Center, during his well traveled career. He started his career in Denver in 2001 and has played six of nine season with the Nuggets.
A Long and Winding Road
Andersen wasn’t always the colorful image Nuggets fans see today, in fact his journey to the NBA was just that a journey. After graduating from Blinn Junior College in Texas in 1999 and going undrafted in the 1999 NBA Draft, Andersen spent a season playing basketball in China (even having to defend Yao Ming once or twice) and then another season in South Dakota playing for Fargo-Moorehead Beez (which is a semi-professional league). He finally caught a break in 2001 when he was the first-ever pick in the NBDL Draft, drafted by Fayetteville Patriots, and would soon receive the first-ever call up by an NBDL prospect. Dan Issel’s coached Nuggets team had a very depleted frontcourt and decided to take a gamble on the athletic big man.
The Nuggets were hit hard when star forward Antonio McDyess ruptured his Patellar tendon and required season-ending surgery (McDyess did try to make a comeback and played 10 games late in the season, before partially re-injurying his knee). Despite the shortage of big man, Andersen still didn’t see much playing time. He played a minute in 13th game, but it was in January when the Birdman came alive.
On Jan. 14 vs. Hall-of-Famers Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz, Andersen stepped in and scored 17 points in only 22 minutes. He also added nine rebounds and two blocked shots. However, the Nuggets lost and dropped to 11-25. A month later the Nuggets’ Front Office decided to start the rebuilding process. In a blockbuster trade they sent out Raef LaFrentz, Nick Van Exel, Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Avery Johnson to Dallas.
After the trade, Andersen saw more frequent minutes. He played in 17 games and averaged 12.3 minutes and quickly became a fan favorite due to length, athleticism and energy.
The Bzdelik Years
In 2002, Andersen found a spot in Jeff Bzdelik’s heart early on. Before Bzdelik even became the coach of the Nuggets, him and Andersen teamed up on the Nuggets’ Rocky Mountain Revue team and helped the team go undefeated, with Andersen receiving first team accolades and also being named the MVP of the tournament.
When Bzdelik was named the Nuggets new head coach he showed immediate trust in Andersen and gave him a significant role off the bench. And the Birdman responded, he played 59 games and averaged over five points and nearly five rebounds. However, Denver still finished the season 17-65, tied for last place in the NBA.
The next season the Nuggets revamped their entire roster, they added superstar rookie Carmelo Anthony and veteran guards Andre Miller, Earl Boykins and Jon Barry. Andersen thrived with the new group and started to catch national attention. He was invited to participate in the 2004 Slam Dunk Contest, but since he was a rather unknown he didn’t receive the recognition that the other contests did in the dunk contest and was robbed of any chance of winning it (But he did get some attention from Jack Nickolson due to his hair).
He also helped the Nuggets make the playoffs for the first time after an eight-year drought. In one game in the playoffs he tried to play with a perm, but Bzdelik made him go in the locker room and change it. Birdman finished the season with 114 blocks and the New Orleans Hornets rewarded him with his first multi-million dollar contract.
With a rather new hairstyle and some fresh ink, Andersen played arguably his best season in 2005 during his first year in New Orleans. Being one of the first players off the bench, he set career best marks in points (7.7) and assists (1.1). Once again he quickly became a fan favorite and once again was invited to the Slam Dunk Contest which was held back in his old nest – the Pepsi Center. But after such a promising showing the year earlier, Andersen had one of the worst displays in the slam dunk contest. Andersen took up to 15 dunk attempts before finally settling for a generic dunk. Needless to say that was the last time he was invited to the dunk contest.
Andersen’s second season for the Hornets wasn’t as glamorous and proved to be a life-changing event. On January 25, 2006, the Birdman was kicked out of the NBA for failing the league’s drug test. He wasn’t eligible for reinstatement until January of 2008.
Two years later, in March 2008 the NBA finally allowed The Birdman to fly again. And the Hornets quickly signed their reserve big man for the rest of the seasons, but only playing him in five games the rest of the season and not using him in the playoffs.
Back to Denver
After a four-year hiatus Andersen signed a veteran minimum to return to the Mile High City in 2008. Skeptics weren’t sure where or if he’d fit in, but once again Denver had a shortage of big man. The summer before they traded Marcus Camby and let Eduardo Najera walk and was starting Nene out of position at center.
Andersen quickly found a spot in the rotation as the top big man off the bench. He also took advantage of most of the league not knowing about his game and was the top shotblocker in the NBA (per 48 minutes). He had career highs in blocks (175), offensive (163), defensive (279) and overall rebounds (442). Finally in the playoffs, teams started to adapt to Andersen’s block every shot mentality and took advantage of it. However, he was still valuable in helping the Nuggets advance to the Western Conference Finals.
That season, he received recognition for Most Improved and was in the running for Defensive Player of the Year (placing ninth). Andersen resigned with the Nuggets on July 8, 2009, receiving a five-year contract that was worth up to $26 million.
Statistically, Andersen was just as good in the 2009-10 season but in reality he was far from it. Teams figured out Andersen’s weaknesses and he also was hampered by a nagging, but still set career highs in minutes (22.3) and rebounds (6.9) as Denver once again advanced to the playoffs.
Last season, Birdman was hampered with a slew of injuries. He was recovering from an offseason knee surgery and was also dealing with an ailing back. The injuries limited Andersen to only 45 games, but he came on strong late in the season. Nearly doubling his scoring average after the All-Star break and shooting an impressive .739 from the field.
Despite turning 33, Andersen has been one of the hardest working players on the team this offseason. He has spent much of the summer working with Steve Hess and hopes to just keep getting better with age.
Tags: Andre Miller Antonio McDyess Avery Johnson Birdman Carmelo Anthony Chris Andersen Denver Nuggets Earl Boykins Eduardo Najera Jeff Bzdelik John Stockton Jon Barry Karl Malone Marcus Camby Nick Van Exel Pepsi Center Raef Lafrentz Steve Hess Tariq Abdul-Wahad Utah Jazz Yao Ming