[7 July 2009]
A look back at this year’s NBA playoffs reveals very little of the unexpected. Perhaps the biggest plot twist was that LeBron James failed to meet Kobe Bryant in the championship round. That matchup was widely anticipated by the press (and by a series of Nike puppet ads) as soon as the Boston Celtics’ Kevin Garnett was sidelined with an injury. Still, it was no great shock to see the Lakers, the most talented team in the league and the odds-on favorites to win before the season began, capture their 15th title.
No wonder, then, that in lieu of dissecting the mismatch that would see the Lakers beat the Orlando Magic in four of five games, the press initially focused on the behavior of the vanquished James, who refused to shake hands with the victorious Magic players after they had cut short his Cleveland Cavaliers’ run to the league finals. He also skipped out on interviews with the press, who repaid his snub by rabidly speculating about where to place the blame for his lack of good sportsmanship. His youth? An overblown sense of entitlement? His fiery, competitive nature?
While this maelstrom churned, the Lakers regrouped and prepared to claim their crown. In the meantime, the team they beat in the Western Conference finals, the Denver Nuggets, faded into the recesses; with them went arguably the most compelling figure of the playoffs. Kobe’s dominance and LeBron’s petulance aside, one of the most fascinating players to emerge from the games was the Nuggets’ back-up center, Chris “the Birdman” Andersen.
Andersen’s profile was raised by his appearance in the conference finals, a feat that his team had failed to achieve since 1985. As he and the Nuggets progressed successfully through the playoffs, his backstory became more familiar to fans, retold in vignette form and via announcer commentary. Uniquely, Andersen had returned to the NBA after a two-year suspension for testing positive for (undisclosed) drug use.
Generally, such a long sentence may as well be a lifetime ban, particularly for journeymen like Anderson, who was averaging around five points and as many rebounds at the time that he was kicked out. Nuggets coach, George Karl, however, gave Andersen a rare second chance after the suspension was served, and was promptly repaid by the player’s defensive prowess and on-court “hustle”.
Andersen’s remarkable turnaround was ready-made stuff for the commentators, who leapt at the chance to point out an “immature” player who had “learned his lesson” and, as a consequence, found success in life. By this token, the Birdman was a walking advertisement for those socially conservative aspects of sport which stress selflessness, humility, and adherence to the rules.
Invariably, discussion of Andersen would add to this message a sense of the context that lead him to make this “poor decisions” early on in life. We were told that he came from a broken home and faced a peripatetic career that took him from junior college to minor league basketball and to China before he made the NBA. In some sense, his journey made his destination all the more incredible. Subtly, but importantly, though, it also sought to frame his drug use as a condition of his upbringing and not a fault of character, now that he had been properly punished for his sins and had successfully made his way back into the league.
A closer look at Andersen, in fact, reveals a rare bird indeed. He is that unique pro athlete whose transgressions seem to be wholly forgiven, even excused, as part of a troubled past that has made him a stronger, better person—indeed, a role model for America’s youth. Rather than occasion the usual excoriation, Andersen’s history of drug use seems to have been brushed aside in favor of his inspirational tale of dedication. In a day and age where mere rumor is enough to cancel a player’s endorsement deals and invite censure, how has Andersen managed such a public relations coup? The short answer is: he’s white.
This is not to say that Andersen has not shown grit and determination in rebounding from his suspension. But his popularity in making that return has been buoyed undeniably by the fact that he’s a white player—both in terms of his game as well as his image. As far as his on-court performance, Andersen displays the stereotypical “hustle” that is generally reserved for white players.
The implication is that black players, being naturally gifted athletes, don’t need to work as hard as their white counterparts, and can instead play with effortless flash and pizzazz while white players dive ungainly after loose balls. Andersen, for his part, does go after loose balls, and he plays a committed brand of defense that results in blocked shots.
Here though, is where the Birdman’s game becomes interesting. His nickname was given to him for his tendency to play above the rim, a style of athletic jumping and dunking that is stereotypically reserved for black players. To wit, Andersen has entered (without much success) some of the NBA’s Slam Dunk contests.
By this token then, Andersen’s game is a hybrid of stereotypically white hustle plays punctuated with athletically spectacular (read black) rebounds, blocks, and put-backs. Andersen has even gone so far as to trademark a signature bird dance to celebrate his more rousing, on-court feats.
And so his image, too, evokes the same sense of racial hybridization. Often spiking his shaggy, blonde hair into a faux-hawk, Anderson inspired a legion of (predominantly white, if interior shots of the Denver Pepsi Center are any indication) fans to put their own hair gel to use in similar fashion. His arms though, are covered from wrists to shoulders in an array of tattoos, markings that borrow the fashion sensibility of the league’s black players. The comparatively few white NBA players that do have tattoos certainly don’t sport them in colorful sleeves.
Except Andersen—a player whose exceptionalism stems largely from the ways in which he straddles raced-based stereotypes, assimilating their positive aspects while somehow avoiding their negative associations. He gains favor with conservative fans who see his on-court hustle and humility as proof of character. At the same time, he’s edgy enough to attract a following of younger fans, who see him as a dynamic and stylish player.
In one sense, Andersen projects images associated with both black and white players. His stereotypical black projections (dunking, blocking shots, celebrating big plays) are nevertheless made palatable by his white skin. He doesn’t evoke the kind of menace, for example, that his equally tattooed teammate Kenyon Martin does. (Just ask Kenyon’s mom, who was yelled at by no less than the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, during a playoff game with the Nuggets. Reportedly, Cuban called him a “thug”.)
Indeed, what a specimen we have in Chris Andersen. His game is white enough to satisfy those fans who discount black athleticism as a natural, unearned gift. Yet, it’s also black enough to attract a young, energetic following. But yet again, it’s still white enough so that this same following can be encouraged to emulate Andersen without any of the attending menace that fans and media members tend to associate with overtly demonstrative black players.
The upshot for Andersen, personally, is very good news. Not only does he seem to have finally made a name for himself in the NBA, he’s managed to do so without any of the “baggage” that fans tend to attach to players who have been accused of past wrongdoing.
Andersen’s person, however, has very little to do with it. His story is more important for what it says about the continued relevance of race in professional athletics. As categories grow more fluid, and stereotypes more flexible, the complexities surrounding race and sports will continue to become increasingly complex. The case of Chris Andersen reveals a central, persistent, though unfortunate tenant, however: birds of a feather, even in the most convoluted ways, really do prefer each other’s company.