x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Bird is the word for Miami Heat

Chris Andersen, or 'Birdman', is no LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. But he has become a game-changer for the reigning NBA champions, writes Mike Tierney.

Chris Andersen could be part of an NBA championship-winning team this season. Andy Lyons / Getty Images / AFP
Chris Andersen could be part of an NBA championship-winning team this season. Andy Lyons / Getty Images / AFP

You cannot take your eyes off him, even if you want to. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade may be doing their otherwordly ball-on-a-string thing, but your attention is diverted to a Miami Heat teammate, the flashing neon sign of humanity known as Birdman.

The announcers rarely identify him by his given name, as they might with Melo, J-Kidd or Z-Bo, among active players, or Magic, Dr J or Pistol Pete from the past. The difference is, those gents have been all-stars. Birdman, whose birth certificate reads "Chris Andersen", is a bench guy whose contributions on some nights would not fill a thimble. (Tuesday's statistics: 19 minutes, zero points, two rebounds, four fouls).

But if Miami soon slips on NBA championship rings, Birdman will have earned his. So what if he gets it welded to his tongue?

The dude whose background is as colourful as his skin has capably filled one of the NBA's most challenging roles: supporting-cast member to King James and slightly lesser royalty, Wade and Chris Bosh.

To thrive in the vast shadow that they cast, one must subjugate the ego, deflect praise in their direction, play every defensive possession to the death and be willing to thumb-twiddle on offence.

That makes the super-charged Birdman a paradox of sorts. While his head-to-toes tattoos suggest a look-at-me mindset, he blends in seamlessly during Heat possessions with ball movement and old-school screen-setting. He warrants no mention, by his human or fowl handle, on the Heat's play chart.

But when James motors to the basket, drawing the attention of defenders and spectators, Birdman cuts toward the same destination along the baseline – a process that the ink-stained oddball who once disdained his nickname describes as breaking out of the bird box.

Birdman's astonishing play-offs shooting percentage speaks less to his accuracy than to his propensity for getting open, then catching and converting fastball passes while on the run. (Though, judging from his free-throw rate of 76 per cent through Tuesday's game, he shoots well for the proverbial big man – and the less proverbial bird man.)

He was 13-for-13 from the floor after four games against Indiana, 35-for-41 (85 per cent) in this season's play-offs. Not so amazing given that all but six of those were attempted while he hovered at the rim.

Yet somewhat amazing in that, because Birdman's paint-by-numbers epidermis would make him stand out in a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium, how could he go undetected by the defence?

But enough with solo statistics. What matters is, since the Heat handed him their No 11 jersey, they were 49-7 entering Thursday's game.

Miami's initial commitment to Birdman was not exactly whole-hearted. He was granted a 10-day contract, the minimum allowed, in January. When it expired, he was awarded another.

Their reservations were justified. Birdman served two years in the NBA jail after a positive drug test, a sentence so lengthy that it suggests serious substance abuse. He was not re-signed by the Nuggets for this season in the wake of a police investigation that involved his home computer being confiscated. (No charges were filed.)

And while the league grants a wide berth regarding bizarre appearances – it not only accommodated Dennis Rodman but welcomed him into its Hall of Fame – he would give any team pause for thoughts.

An Internet posting displays a montage of Birdman portraits that chronicles his impulsive nature. It provides a visual time line of his evolving looks, from shaggy-haired boy-next-door to pierced, Mohawk-coiffed, colourfully tatted flake from another planet.

And what is with the ears-covering headband?

You might want to avert your eyes, but you should resist. The man is worth watching, at least until you spot him on the streets in his occasional cold-weather garb – a mink coat.

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