Spreading His Wings
The Birdman phenomenon transcends age, gender and religion.
How else to explain why Sister Roberta, a nun who has been on staff at the Mount Saint Vincent home for 40 years, spent an entire school day wearing a Chris Andersen-inspired faux-hawk.
"Yep, I had my hair spiked one day so I could look just like 'Bird Man' back when we went into the playoffs!" she wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. "I got to actually meet the man (in October) and shake his huge 'paw' . . . I don't think I have REALLY scrubbed my 'paw' since!!!"
The Birdman influence at Mount Saint Vincent began when he would visit in the early part of the decade, but it went to another level about two years ago when the popular Nuggets forward was serving a suspension for violating the NBA’s substance abuse policy. Seeking a place to make a positive impact during his exile, Mount Saint Vincent seemed to be a good fit for Andersen, who spent part of his childhood living in an orphanage near Denton, Texas.
"Chris gave me a call and he asked me if we needed some help with our basketball program," said Mount Saint Vincent chief operating officer Bill Roth. "I said, 'Absolutely.' We walked the campus and I introduced him to some of the kids. It was just a great combination from Day 1. Chris was his high-energy, enthusiastic, optimistic self. The kids just fed off that."
Mount Saint Vincent, which houses 50 troubled and abused children ages 3 to 16, quickly became a part of Andersen's daily routine. Working with boys and girls on the junior varsity and varsity co-ed basketball teams, he connected with the kids on a level that few people could. His 6-foot-10 frame, neck-to-ankle tattoos and wild haircut were irrelevant. Andersen was fallible and friendly, traits that resonated with the children.
"Sometimes those kids get down, and it's good to be able to put some light in their life," Andersen said. "They know I've been in that situation, and I came out on top. It's inspiring to see the kids, see their faces and see them get all excited and pumped up."
Andersen, in turn, was inspired by his new friends. When basketball season ended, he took part in other programs, such as flag football and horseback riding. He attended birthday parties and brought gifts to postseason team banquets.
"He's a real legend around here," Roth said. "If you walk around Mount Saint Vincent now, we've got Birdboys and Birdgirls walking around campus. … He was not only a coach but a cheerleader for the kids. A great mentor."
Like Andersen's popularity in the Denver area, his relationship with Mount Saint Vincent continues to grow. He was honored during the home's annual Silver Bell Ball on Nov. 20, and a dinner with Andersen raised $18,000 at auction. Memorabilia such as autographed balls and jerseys netted another $2,000.
"We’re going to have a good dinner – steaks and pheasant," Andersen joked. "It's definitely for a good cause. Anything I can do to help."
In addition to his work with Mount Saint Vincent, Andersen is actively involved with the Alliance for Choice in Education (ACE), which provides scholarship money for low-income families who can't afford private schools.
Arby's and Andersen have teamed up to sell Birdman drinking glasses, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting ACE. Andersen, whose middle name is Claus, also plans to play Santa Claus to raise money for ACE at the JW Marriott in Cherry Creek on Dec. 13.
In January, Andersen will hold a "town meeting" at the Greenwood Athletic Club. No pictures, no autographs. Just straight talk from a guy who’s experienced just about every peak and valley life has to offer.
"Your ticket in is you have trouble," said Mark Bryant, Andersen's longtime friend and business manager. "We're going to put him in the middle of the floor. There's not going to be autographs or pictures. We're just going to try to reach out and talk, and hopefully he gets his story out and touches some other people."
In addition, Andersen is donating hundreds of tickets to underprivileged youth this season.
Andersen didn't fully embrace his status as a role model until he completed his comeback season with the Nuggets in 2008-09. He wanted to enjoy success on the court before advising impressionable and vulnerable kids how to avoid the pitfalls off of it.
"At first, I basically didn't really want to play that role because I always looked at it like, 'How are they going to follow someone who really hasn’t produced anything?'" Andersen explained. “I really wanted to come out and make a statement and prove to everybody I could come back and evolve into the person and player I am today. Now I’m more comfortable playing that role."
Rewarded last summer with a new five-year contract, Andersen is in a comfort zone in Denver. He lives with his fiancée in the quiet town of Larkspur and continues to provide energy and effort off the bench for the Nuggets.
He will continue to serve as a mentor for troubled kids and as an advocate for lost souls seeking to find their way. That might mean a periodic visit to a soup kitchen or a counseling session in a residential cottage at Mount Saint Vincent.
"We're not just a drive-by-night thing," Bryant said. "We don’t go to the pretty places. We do the hard places."
Birdman wouldn’t have it any other way.