Chris Andersen, the illustrated man

Birdman spent his first half hour being photographed with fans on the back of a personal watercraft. The line was mostly children, scores of them. "Do you see the Birdman, honey? Do you see him?" A new fan hopped on and off every 15 seconds for a souvenir photo taken against a green screen in a cloud of special effects and liquid nitrogen vapor. High-five, low-five, forearm, dap. He scowled that Birdman scowl. The scowl is a mask the children see right through. They love him the way they love dinosaurs and steam shovels.

The tents smell like hot plastic and kebabs and drugstore perfume, and the bass line from the DJ's dance mix rumbles up through the sand and the soles of your shoes. "There he is, there he is." In the next tent they line up for video flipbooks, this time in cowboy hats and feather boas and strumming inflatable guitars. "He's so cool." Sports stars as rock stars and lines 200 people long. Bosh and Battier ham it up as Birdman sneers and everyone smiles and someone in another tent is singing terrible karaoke and someone asks, "Did you see Chris Andersen go by?" And someone answers, "How could you miss him?"

That's the crazy part. You can't miss him. But because he's wrapped in a kind of camouflage, you wonder whether anyone can really see him, either. Or whether he even wants to be seen. Especially when the interviews so often go like this. And who can blame him? There's nothing less necessary than another jock sound bite, than another uplifting profile. Who he is on the court is who he is. The end. One day he'll retire to the mountains without saying goodbye and disappear entirely.

He's been reading up on the Buddha, so he is unsentimental about the stories, about his family, about himself. "Life is pain, man," he says. This is surely true, but it is also in the nature of people and of sports profiles that what's been written about him so far is likely only half true. Which half? Depends on who's talking.

Here are the fragments and mythic figments of his origin story: Abandoned by his father in an unfinished house in the Texas greasewood, he and his sisters are raised by his hard-working mother. They live in the barn for a year, shower with a garden hose. Mom holds three jobs. The kids wind up in and out of the group home. Mother never gives up. Son never gives in. Grows tall. Learns basketball. Jumps fences on the way to school. Promises to buy Mom a house one day. Smart, but grades that only get him into a junior college no one outside Washington County, Texas, has ever heard of. Tours semi-pro, then pro, winds up somehow in China, "picture that if you can," then New Mexico, North Dakota, North Carolina. First man ever taken in the NBA developmental draft, 2001. Goes to Denver. Tattoos begin in earnest. Parties. Cars. Girls. Trusts too much. Trusts the wrong people. Falls out with Mom over whom he trusts. Buys her no house. Then New Orleans. That dunk contest. Hurricane Katrina and the move to OKC. Then the two-year "drugs of abuse" suspension from the NBA, and to this day only he and the NBA know for sure which drug(s) it was. He won't say. It's a safe bet something hard and very scary to the suits and the straights, because what else could frighten the league that way?

He was trying to ease the pain of a bad breakup, a broken engagement, but he made no excuses. He told the NBA arbitrator, "I did it. I messed up."

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