Chris Andersen, the illustrated man

He lasts a few more minutes, reddening now and sweating, then the team publicists lead him to the tent backstage. Whole thing like a carnival. Right this way to the Illustrated Man.

* * *

Maybe what the tattoos disguise is how good Chris Andersen is at basketball. At 35, he's one of the most productive players per minute in the NBA.

What was once transgressive is now ordinary. Get into the fifth or sixth season of the fifth or sixth reality show about skin art; make tattoo a suburban fashion accessory; make it impermanent; realize half the planet is inked -- and it doesn't feel much like rebellion any more. It feels like conformity -- in the Heat locker room and every other. The league is swimming in ink. Besides, all skin art in the NBA is a footnote to Allen Iverson.

Still, there's no denying Chris Andersen is a canvas on whom every one of us paints. And like every other American, he lives in a constant state of personal reinvention. His is just easier to see. So the people who questioned his acquisition in 2012 are the same ones now saying what a great contribution he makes; what a coup it was to get him, at any price.

He doesn't want your attention, even as the art demands it. With the press, Chris Andersen is personable and funny and cooperative until he stops talking and cooperating entirely. He is unsentimental about himself. "I have no regrets. I love my life."

Is choosing not to explain yourself the same as being unable to explain yourself? For better and for worse, he is his own man, imprisoned by the character he created. The fans know this. They trust him on those terms. He seems nice, and without knowing exactly why, you feel a deep affection for him. Outside the tent, they're chanting, "Let's go Heat! Let's go Heat!"

Maybe they see themselves in Chris Andersen; or what they believe about fire and giant wings and reinvention. Hard work. Or disguise. Possibility. Failure. Success. Persistence. Forgiveness. Appetite. Love. Some or none of those. It's not important. Not where he's from or what he's done or even where he's going. Forward or back, time reveals nothing. He's here right now. Cutting to the basket. Blocking a shot. Running end to end to end to end. Without belonging to any of them he belongs to them all. Maybe that's the trick to stardom in America. That you see him, unmistakably, without ever knowing who or what he is. The known unknown.

The key to the art? Or to understanding him? "I would definitely have to say my Free Bird on my neck, you know, basically just illustrating that no matter what kind of hard times you go through and the downs that you have, the negative vibes that are around you, what people think about you -- that you'll always be free. I'm free-minded, free-spirited. Free." And when he says, "I really don't care if nobody understands me," you believe him.

The sun stares down and the palms rattle and across the water the cruise ships tower white as snow and the turkey vultures wheel and turn above the five-star hotels.

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