There will never be another Birdman in Miami, and there will never be another fan base that means as much to Chris Andersen as this one did.
He has been popular everywhere he’s played, but the seasons he spent with the Heat were a resurgence. He was out of the league and mired in a fabricated scandal when the team signed him in January 2013 as reinforcement for a championship run, and he was an instant hit. The hair, tattoos, nicknames, high-flying dunks and emphatic blocks made this man one of the most endearing players the team has ever had. And that love is reciprocated.
“Miami’s always gonna be in my heart, man,” Andersen said by phone this week. “The whole situation of me coming into Miami during one of the worst times of my life and the way they embraced me down there and welcomed me with open arms, they just made me feel wanted and made me feel like I was a part of their culture and their city. Winning a championship down there and being a part of that, it’s priceless. I will never forget that.
“All I can say is thank you. Thank you for all the good times and all the support. The greatest thank you I could give to them was helping their team win a championship. It was a great time. I wish it would’ve been longer, but it is what it is. I’ll always be down in Miami.”
The Heat dealt Andersen to Memphis in a cost-cutting move two weeks ago, a move that he saw coming since the summer. He doesn’t know if the reason he stayed glued to the bench this season was to preserve him for a trade, but he knew all along they wanted to deal him.
And he was fine with that. Andersen, 37, would have preferred to stay with the Heat and remain in the rotation, but he never voiced a complaint — either publicly or privately. He went through the routine of practices, shootarounds, bus rides and flights knowing there was little chance of getting on the court and he did all of it with the utmost professionalism. No one on the team would argue otherwise.
“I tried to be there for my teammates and my brothers in the locker room and help support them and what they’re doing on the floor,” he said. “If that’s the way I’ve gotta contribute, then that’s the way I gotta contribute.
“It’s difficult, especially when you know you still have something in the tank to give. But you can’t let that get into your feelings and you can’t let everybody see that. You can’t be a cancer to the team. You have to support your brothers.”
Andersen was vital to the Heat’s championship in 2013, coming off the bench to give them a much-needed injection of energy and muscle. He averaged 6.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game in the playoffs, including 16 points on 7-for-7 shooting in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Indiana.
He was even better his second season in Miami, when the Heat reached the NBA Finals but fell to San Antonio. When LeBron James left shortly after, Andersen re-upped on a two-year, $10 million deal thinking he might finish his career here.
He endured countless injuries for Miami last year even when it was clear this team had no shot at competing. Andersen played 60 games, including 20 starts, and averaged 5.3 points, five rebounds and one block in 18.9 minutes.
“Man, he was a great teammate,” Heat forward Luol Deng said. “I didn’t know Chris before I got here, but he’s funny, he’s always looking out for players, he’s always sharing stories with everybody. He definitely takes his job very seriously and that’s the kind of teammate you want to have.”
Fortunately for Andersen, the Heat shipped him to a contender. The Grizzlies are fifth in the Western Conference at 36-24 and had minutes for him after center Marc Gasol broke a bone in his right foot.
In two weeks, Andersen has already played as many games in Memphis (seven) as he did in three and a half months with the Heat this season. He started the past two games, totaling 17 points and 10 rebounds in 49 minutes.
His newest fans are glad to have him, too, and he quickly modified his nickname as a sign of goodwill. After going from Birdman to Bird to Birdzilla (as well as some monikers unfit for print) in Miami, he now goes by Grizzzilla in Memphis.
“All one word: Grizzzilla,” he said. “There’s three Zs. You got it?”
There was plenty of snickering throughout the internet when Andersen joined a team that had Zach Randolph, Matt Barnes and Lance Stephenson, but his reputation in Miami is the opposite of what that implies. Andersen rarely lost control of his emotion on the court and was accepted in a serious, veteran locker room inhabited by guys like Ray Allen and Shane Battier.
“To be honest with you, I couldn’t care less about someone commenting about me being a knucklehead or these other guys being knuckleheads,” Andersen said. “Whoever says that hasn’t competed at this high level. Everybody comes from different backgrounds. Not everybody was raised with a silver spoon in their mouth. Everybody has a personality, and a lot of people are different.
“For someone to perceive that just because of how we look, they’re wrong…. This knucklehead has a good head on his shoulders and he knows what he’s doing.”