In a league full of freakishly tall dudes covered in tattoos, Chris “Birdman” Andersen still sticks out. Andersen earns his nickname every night, flying through the air to collect a nasty array of dunks for the Denver Nuggets. A 6´10´´ mix of energy, elbows, and ink, the nine-year NBA vet doesn’t just play like a rock star, he looks like one too. ¶ Fans love the Birdman’s sense of style as much as his game—the home crowd is always peppered with kids rocking mohawk wigs in tribute to his signature game-time ’do. It’s all pretty lofty stuff considering Andersen’s long and winding road to the NBA, which included trips to the NBA’s Development League and China, as well as a two-year suspension for violating the league’s drug policy. ¶ Off the court and out of the tattoo shop Andersen has gotten heavy into hunting. The self-proclaimed redneck unwinds by tracking down wild hogs with a crossbow and is now developing a reality TV show about his adventures in the woods. Andersen met up with INKED during the NBA lockout to discuss his extended off-season, bouncing from topic to topic almost as frantically as he flies around on the basketball court.
INKED: Are you getting bored during this lockout?
Chris Andersen: Hell yes. I work out on the court for about an hour. I lift weights at the house for another hour and a half. Then I go run around Red Rocks for about 45 minutes to an hour. Then I go get tatted up or shoot my bow or clean my house. I just keep myself busy so I don’t go out and do dumb stuff.
You’re also working on the creation of a reality TV show about hunting. Do you really think you can make hog hunting into must-see TV?
Hogs are fast, dude. I shot one out of a tree stand, and then on the way from the tree stand, like 100 yards in, I heard snorting. So I picked up my bow and looked and there were, like, 30 eyes looking back at us from the pitch black in the middle of the night. You have the light on them, and all you see is the green reflecting in their eyes and they’re just looking right at you. Hogs will charge you, especially a pack of hogs. So I aimed, got the yardage down with my range finder, saw it was 44 yards, found one and snuffed it. Shot right through it. It felt good, because it scared the rest of them away. They just hit the bayou and the swamp.
Like American Hoggers but with a tall dude wielding a crossbow.
It’s me and my boy Willie B. [a DJ on Denver’s 106.7 KBPI]. We want to do hunting, but also tons of crazy shit. As you can see, I don’t just look the part, I play the part—two celebrity rednecks that do some crazy country-boy bullshit. We want it to be over-the-top. The networks will have no choice but to say okay.
So when did you get your first tattoo?
Back in 2000, I had just gotten back from China and I wanted to get a tattoo. I did the piercing thing, but it just wasn’t my style, so I got out of that and jumped into tattoos. The first two tattoos I got were Chinese symbols on my left and right forearms, representing the good and the bad.
What was playing in China like?
China really toughened me up. When I played there, they could actually still smoke in the arena as you’re playing. Some of them didn’t even have heat. You’d have a cold sweat going, you could see your breath, then you look up at the ceiling and there’s a cloud of smoke. I saw this one guy just burn one down in three or four puffs, then just whip out another one and light it up right there. That definitely made it tougher as a player, playing in those conditions.
When you got back to the States, how did you decide where to go for your first tattoo?
I went to a shop in Bryan College Station [TX]. My mother actually was friends with the guy because they rode bikes together, so that’s where we went.
Now that you have collected a lot of tattoos, who’s your go-to artist?
I come up with the ideas, then I tell my guy, John Slaughter from Tribe Tattoo in Denver, “This is my idea, lay it on me.” He sometimes freehands it, like this one [lifts up his shirt to show a fresh outline of a topless woman on the left side of his torso]. That’s my angel. Just got it yesterday. It’s not like I walk up to a picture on a wall and tell him I want that. He just drew it without looking at a picture and right after that, he just inked it up.
Sounds like you guys have a good artist-client relationship.
I am a perfectionist to a T. It’s got to look perfect—clean, tight-looking, and ready to go. That’s why our collaboration works so well. He also knows I’ll punch him in the face if he screws up. You tell [Slaughter] I said that, “I’ll punch him in his face.” [Laughs.]
So tell us about that insane “Free Bird” tattoo across your neck.
I’m a free bird, man. I’m always going to be free. Simple as that.
You never worried about the needle on your neck?
Think about it: You shave all the time, man. It didn’t really hurt. The jaw line kind of got my attention because of the bone. When he hit that, it kinda went zzz. You kinda go, “Ooh, yeah, that feels great.” But with all that pain I go through running and gunning on the court and all that crazy stuff I do in my personal life, it ain’t no problem.
What about the wings you have under each arm?
Those hurt, but that mainly came from Birdman, my nickname. Flying high, taking over the sky.
Which of your tattoos has been the most painful?
The rib area hurts, but the stomach hurts the worst. [When I get tattooed] I don’t do any kind of pills, I don’t get drunk, I just do it straight up. That’s the only way to do it.
Which tattoo means the most to you?
Every single one of them; not one has more meaning than the other. They all relate. They all involve my personal life and the positions I’ve been in, as far as being on a roller coaster ride. I’m always gonna be back at the top. No matter how hard you get knocked down, you always get yourself back up. That’s where I get my ideas. The thoughts on what kind of tattoo I’m gonna get to represent those hardships and to celebrate those good times. It’s basically like saying, “I wear my heart out on my sleeve.” Literally.
One of those lows hit when you got a two-year ban from the NBA in 2006 for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. What was your first thought when you found out?
Just devastation. Here I had been working so hard as a kid and a teenager to get to this point—sleep, eat, dream basketball—and at that moment, I truly fucked up. I lost my dream. It was really devastating. I got knocked back into that same situation where I was drinking and doing cocaine. Just like, “Fuck it. I’ve lost everything, fuck it.” It was “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd—when I heard the lyrics to that song, it really changed me around. I went and poured all the alcohol in the toilet and dumped out all the drugs. Fuck it. I’m gonna get back on that right track. I went to rehab, straightened up, and here I am.
Why didn’t you try to make an excuse or fight the ruling in court like a lot of other busted athletes?
If you made that decision and you didn’t think about the consequences, then there ain’t nowhere to point the finger at but yourself. I had to change myself because if I stayed on that same path I probably wouldn’t be here today—I’d probably be dead.
Do you have any tattoos from those two years away from basketball?
Once I got suspended, I had a lot of free time on my hands. I was in the shop all the time. I just got tatted up. That’s when it blew up. About 80 percent of [my tattoos] are all from that time. This whole torso is from then. I was in that situation and I wanted to remind myself on a daily basis that this is what happened. That keeps pushing me in the gym. It encourages me to stay on the right track. If something bad happens, you can’t let it deter you, you just got to keep moving forward. Sometimes it all comes at once and you really feel like giving up. But you have to reenergize yourself and refuel yourself and that really motivates you to move forward.
You play on the Nuggets, where a lot of guys on the team have some serious ink. Do you guys ever talk about your art with each other?
Swish [Nuggets guard J.R. Smith] will go get tatted up and you’re like, “Man, that’s cool.” Then you start thinking about that idea for that next tattoo you want. Then I call up [Slaughter], “Hey, can I come in?” Then the next thing you know, I’m heading off after practice to go get tatted up. Then the next day, I’m like, “Hey J.R., check this shit out.” Then [Nuggets forward] Al Harrington goes and gets tatted up and it starts all over again. When you see someone else’s art or they see mine, everyone just influences everyone to go get tatted up. Sometimes when we’re sitting around bullshitting on the bench, we’ll just start brainstorming ideas for our next tats. “What are you gonna get?” “I don’t know, what are you thinking?”
The NBA is full of players covered in ink. What type of impact do you think that has on the fans?
Any young kid, or college kid, sees us in the NBA with however many tattoos we got and it definitely makes it acceptable for them. Then they want to get tattoos too because they know it’s okay.
You’ve built a solid relationship with your younger fans through community service. Why is that?
I think it’s because I lived in a children’s home and that experience really rubbed off on me. My mother wasn’t around, my father rarely came around, so I was just sitting there in the home thinking, “I just gotta keep moving forward.” There was one Christmas where the alumni from Northeast Texas brought us into this big conference room full of gifts and trees and big presents stacked, like, seven feet high. So I’ve been there, I’ve gone through what they’re going through. They understand what I’m talking about. I try to give them inspiration to never give up and keep fighting.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen from your older fans since your career took off in the NBA?
People dress up like me for Halloween. I don’t know if I should take that as a cool thing, or is that an insult, because I’m a scary motherfucker, you know what I mean? My friends will send me pics from everywhere. They’ll be in Vegas, or Texas, and they’ll send me pics of people dressed like me, like, “Ha ha ha, check this shit out.” And I’ll be like, “Yeah, I’m one scary motherfucker.”
So what’s next for the scary motherfucker?
I’m looking to get tatted up by Chris Nuñez from Miami Ink. He’s gonna tat me up. I think he’s actually opening up a new shop down in Miami. I told him, “Let me know when you’re opening up a new shop and I’ll come down.” I’m probably going to fill up the rest of my back, shade that. When I’m done with my torso, I’m gonna be done. That’s it. I’m gonna take a break.
In a league full of freakishly tall dudes covered in tattoos, Chris “Birdman” Andersen still sticks out. Andersen earns his nickname every night, flying through the air to collect a nasty array of dunks for […]