What do you call a 6-foot-10 man with a spiked Mohawk and flashing neon tats of every known color over his arms and upper body and rising to his earlobes?
If he's Chris "Birdman" Andersen, you marvel how he's blending in and not clashing at all, not one bit, with the Heat.
Here in the stretch run toward a second straight championship, he's precisely what the Heat needs, a hyper rebounder and court hustler who's stuck around the rim like the ink beneath his skin. As loaded as Miami is, in terms of star power and franchise players, not until now has anyone come off the bench to be a presence in the paint, which, come to think of it, seems a natural spot for someone covered in it.
In fact, this Eastern Conference title series with the Pacers could very well hinge on an X-factor big man who's not Roy Hibbert. Andersen, all of a sudden, means plenty to the Heat because he gives them what they've never had in the Big Three era. LeBron James can finally throw the ball inside to a big man other than Chris Bosh without worrying whether it'll be caught or put where it belongs. That's progress.
They only need 10 to 15 quality minutes from Andersen, and that's what they've been getting from someone who came from nowhere to land a permanent place in the rotation in almost no time.
"He's been a big help as soon as he got here," said Dwyane Wade.
It's a mutual arrangement, then, because Miami was exactly the basketball life preserver Birdman needed, too. He was trying to reclaim a career cut short partly by legal issues when the Heat signed him to a 10-day contract on Jan. 20. Since then, Miami has lost only three games in which he's seen action, and in Game 1 against the Pacers he was the Heat's second-best player on the floor. The team and a 34-year-old are soaring together and perhaps wondering what took them so long to find each other.
"I'm having fun," Andersen said. "This feels right."
You can make the case Birdman is the best addition, from a value standpoint, in the NBA this season. He's costing the Heat roughly only $700,000, and Miami didn't surrender anyone to get him. With LeBron, Wade and Bosh commanding lots of payroll space, and owner Micky Arison unwilling to deal with luxury tax issues by expanding the payroll, Birdman is truly an unexpected surprise gift.
It's hard to imagine someone who looks like him managing to hide, but Birdman was out of sight and somewhat out of mind in the eight months prior to signing with Miami. He was released last summer by Denver, where he became an established and popular player off the bench, because the Nuggets wanted playing time and money for JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried, both younger and just touching their prime. The timing was also curious in another respect: Anderson was under investigation for possible internet crimes involving a minor. He was never charged or arrested, and his attorneys say Andersen was a target of extortion involving a woman claiming to be legal age and her mother.
It was the latest in a bizarre journey for Andersen, a late-bloomer who was never on anyone's radar, who played briefly at junior college, then China. When he finally got his break in the NBA with the Hornets, he was soon socked with a two-year suspension in 2006 for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Evidently, Birdman lived a lifestyle in full color, too. The NBA doesn't levy that big a penalty for marijuana.
He discovered what he missed during his time away, and when he resurfaced with the Nuggets, it finally happened and all came together: the respectable performances, the hair, the tattoos, the nickname. A cartoon character and decent player was born. When age and a troublesome knee pushed Andersen out the door in Denver, Pat Riley was pestered immediately by his coach.
"Get him," Erik Spoelstra told Riley, almost daily. "We need him."
Once the legal issues were cleared up, Spoelstra had his man. This was just before the Heat went on a 27-game winning streak. Spoelstra was worried about Miami being beaten up inside by the likes of Joakim Noah and Tyson Chandler and Hibbert when the playoffs began. Joel Anthony remains raw and limited who couldn't be trusted anymore. Udonis Haslem is undersized and well past his prime. Miami's best "center" after Bosh, actually, was LeBron, who improved his post moves last summer. But what was Miami going to do, play LeBron at all five spots on the floor?
No. There was no need for that. Andersen stole the show not long after arriving by flapping his arms and being the opening character in the "Harlem Shake" video that became a viral sensation. His numbers during the regular season were nothing special on the surface: 4.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, one block in 15 minutes a night. Andersen isn't someone you want on the floor for more than 20 minutes, not at his age, with his knee and limitations that would surface with increased playing time. But he has a presence, which says plenty about the Heat's depth at center before he signed. Plus, the energy he brings off the bench gives Miami a sense of confidence, knowing he'll make something happen and won't be a liability.
"We didn't know too much about him in Denver and what he did, but we knew he was going to bring energy and hustle," said Wade. "He fit right in, like he's been here the whole three years."
In the playoffs prior to the East finals, Birdman was 22 of 28 from the floor, getting most of those on tip-ins and layups off inside feeds from Wade and LeBron, and played Noah to a standstill at times. Then he went seven-for-seven in Game 1 against the Pacers for 16 points and three blocks, his biggest night in a Miami uniform.
"I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do," he said. "This is a good spot for me."
He gives Miami another big man besides Bosh who will make the defense think twice before rushing to provide weak-side help on LeBron. He'll force Hibbert to stay home more often than not. With soft hands and a touch to match around the basket, Andersen is willing and able to catch passes and turn them into layups, or float around the rim for put-backs. Finally, Miami can breathe easy when Bosh takes a rest.
"He runs the floor and does what you want from someone with his size," said Bosh.
Almost in unison, the folks at American Airlines Arena are doing more than clapping these days. They're flapping. It's the rage whenever Birdman does something. You might say it fits.