The tall guy with the tattoos bounced into the gym and flashed an immediate smile of recognition.
“Good to see you again, man,” he said, extending his hand for a fist bump.
Paul Bartch returned the smile and rapped knuckles with Chris Andersen in a greeting between two men who appear to have little in common.
Known for his colorful tattoos, trademark mohawk and Birdman persona, Andersen is the Nuggets’ high-flying, shot-blocking center who also happens to be one of Denver’s most popular athletes.
Standing at his side is Bartch, a vertically challenged 60-year-old Kroenke Sports Enterprises employee whose well-tanned arms and face signify his Asian and Hispanic roots. Despite more than 20 years of military service, he has no tattoos.
As families gather during the holiday season, Andersen and Bartch can serve as a reminder that connections between people aren’t always skin deep.
For the past several years, Andersen has been actively involved with the Mount Saint Vincent Home, which houses about 50 troubled and abused children. The relationship holds personal meaning for Andersen, who spent part of his childhood at an orphanage near Denton, Texas.
It was only recently that Andersen learned of his common bond with Bartch.
The two came together last month during a charity dinner that raised $18,000 for Mount Saint Vincent. Before dining in the auditorium, Bartch walked over to a picture on the wall and started naming the kids standing behind him in the black-and-white photograph.
“He was singing in the choir,” Andersen said.
Bartch was just a year old when he arrived at Mount Saint Vincent in 1951. His mother didn’t have the means to support him and thought he would be better off with the state.
Being so young, Bartch didn’t know any different. Growing up at Mount Saint Vincent, he considered himself part of a big family.
“We had roughly around 250 boys,” he said. “They were considered my brothers. The nuns were the parents. I learned a lot from the orphanage that I still carry today. They taught me how to treat people for who they are. You treat them as you would want to be treated – with respect and dignity.”
Andersen was about 10 years old when he was placed in an orphanage. He spent about four years developing friendships and going through the same life lessons that Bartch experienced decades earlier.
“When you’re in the home, you’ve got a lot of friends and you consider them family,” Andersen said. “If you see one of your friends having problems, you want to try to help them get through their struggles. It’s a big family.”
During a two-year suspension from the NBA from 2006-08, Andersen increased his involvement with Mount Saint Vincent, coaching the basketball teams, attending birthday parties and providing gifts for postseason team banquets.
Andersen’s commitment and generosity did not go unnoticed by Bartch.
“I’m happy to see a professional athlete participate in orphanages,” he said. “Bird learned what I learned. He carries it in a different way, but in true mind and spirit he has the love for his orphanage. It gave me more respect for Bird for what he is doing.”
Because of his own experience, Andersen knows that his message to the children at Mount Saint Vincent resonates more than if it was delivered by another athlete who grew up in a traditional household.
“Once I tell them that I grew up in a children’s home for four years and they see that I’m in the NBA, it’s a big difference for them,” Andersen said. “Instead of being a negative, it’s an inspiration. ‘If Birdman did it, I can do it.’ It’s a motivation to those kids.”
Sue Jackson, who puchased the November dinner at Mount Saint Vincent for her son and grandkids, said Andersen’s personality is infectious and his impact on the children immeasurable.
“We just had a marvelous time,” Jackson said. “Chris is a great asset to our community. He gives the boys a real good perspective of what can be accomplished even when you feel that you’re down and out.”
Bartch also can be considered an inspiration.
He found a loving foster mother, Marian Bartch, when he was teenager, but Catholic Charities would not let her adopt Bartch – then known as Paul Fernandez – because it wasn’t a two-parent household.
Bartch bounced around from several other foster homes but returned to live with Marian Bartch and her three sons when he turned 18.
“I went back to her and I said, ‘I believe I’m still part of the family,’ ” Bartch said . “She said, ‘By all mean, you are. There’s no difference between my biological kids and you.’ ”
Bartch was 47 years old when Marian Bartch officially adopted him in 1997. By then, he was a Navy veteran who served his country from 1972-75 and reaffiliated with the Naval reserves in 1985. Marian Bartch has since passed away, but Paul still sees his younger brothers David, Jerry and Doug on a regular basis.
“Without them, I wouldn’t even be around,” Paul said.
Bartch goes about his behind-the-scenes duties at the Pepsi Center with the same can-do attitude that was instilled at Mount Saint Vincent years ago.
Rain, sleet or snow, he is a courier extraordinaire, traveling thousands of miles per year to deliver gifts for corporate clients and suiteholder throughout Colorado. He also works closely with executive assistants to fulfill the needs of senior executives.
“You don’t mind doing little things if it improves the success of the business that he has,” Bartch said. “What better person than me? There’s no job too small.”
Bartch still folds his clothes and makes his bed the same way he was taught at the orphanage. They are the small details that often get lost in the chaos of day-to-day life.
“I love the orphanage,” he said. “If there’s a way that I can help them in any way, I would be more than happy to do it. In my heart, in my mind, they will always be No. 1. Mount Saint Vincent has done so much. I will never forget them.”