Chris Andersen, the illustrated man

Out of the league. More tattoos. Cars. Girls. Plays 1,000 hours of "Call of Duty." Works out. Spends time alone in the mountains. Hunts and fishes up there in the high turpentine. Hikes. Reads. Thinks. Reinstated. Is he chastened? Remade? Only he knows. Back to New Orleans. Back to Denver.

Then, May 2012, and this: The Douglas County Sheriff comes to his door and carries away what's left of his reputation. He lives under the worst kind of suspicion -- computers confiscated, feds coming and going in those navy windbreakers, rumors and bad whispers of hard drives and the age of consent -- until September 2013, when he's completely cleared of wrongdoing and it's revealed he's been the target of an elaborate online extortion plot engineered by a woman in rural Manitoba, Shelly Lynn Chartier. Catfished. The case is so complex even the lawyers don't know exactly what happened or how or why. Chartier is free on bail, and was due back in court the week of the conference semifinals.

Even an iconoclast passes the point of caring what you think. "I just don't care if people understand or misunderstand me. I had to live that whole year and half proving my innocence every day, day in and day out," he'll tell you. "For me to get back into the public was probably the hardest thing. So I've already had my image tarnished. The damage has been done. Those are the darkest days of my life, man."

Then Miami. Then an NBA championship. It reads like a fairy tale, a fable. Saved by the grace, maybe, of a second chance, or a third, but no one reconciles and the moral is unclear. He gets engaged again. He gets disengaged again. "Skip that part." OK.

Burned and burned again, unable to trust, do you become untrustworthy? "He fit right in as soon as he got here. He's a great guy. His exterior is a little unique. But he's just an at-home, down-South kind of guy. He just likes to have fun." This is Chris Bosh one afternoon talking about Chris Andersen. "He loves playing basketball. He's always been a good fit, and he'll continue to be a good fit while he's here." His teammates trust him like a brother, but even his teammates get lost in the ink and the art. Man, those wings!

The tattoos are reminders, cues and prompts right out of "Memento." But the ink is also a way to hide in plain sight. A disguise. A body double. Armor. As much an erasure as a declaration, Birdman is a fiction. A character. He tells his story at the same time he edits it at the very moment he hides inside it. New ink covers old. Life is pain.

The Mohawk is cropped this year. Now he's growing out a blond beard, Viking-style. Straight-up mead hall. You half expect it to be matted with blood. The effect is jarring. Where he was goofy before, he's badass handsome and dangerous-looking now, a blue-eyed Berserker with a double-bladed axe, a broadsword and the second-highest true shooting percentage in the NBA. Off the court he's a puzzle he can't quite solve. To the rest of us, he's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a Dodge Challenger.

On the court, inside the lines, he thrives. He's safe. He's whole. And this is his last best chance to set things right. By the numbers and not by the numbers, he might be the best seventh man in basketball.

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