LeBron James is one of the world’s most gifted and influential people. On his back, etched in black ink, is a constant reminder to himself of how seriously he must take that responsibility.
“Chosen1” reads the tattoo.
Among the dozens of tattoos that adorn James’ body, it’s the one that has always received the most attention. When James burst onto the scene as a high school basketball wunderkind, Sports Illustrated put James on its cover along with the words “The Chosen One.” He later put the message across his upper back.
For James, that controversial and misunderstood tattoo is about more than basketball. It’s a message to himself: “Things that I abide by every day.”
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At a basic level, the sleeveless uniforms of basketball players provide the perfect vehicle for self-expression through tattoos, and several of the Heat’s players, including James, take full advantage of their work attire to display personal messages of love and motivation. As players like Chris Andersen, who calls himself the “Birdman” and asks everyone around him to do the same, fly up and down the court during the NBA playoffs, tattoos will paint a canvas of individuality and creative expression on a worldwide stage.
“We get to express ourselves without saying too much,” James said.
But the most powerful messages, sometimes, are unspoken.
Take for instance Game 1 of the Heat’s first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks. When Andersen, following a powerful dunk, raised his arms like a bird to display his feathered wings, an entire arena of Heat fans understood the call. Suddenly, all of AmericanAirlines Arena was flapping in unison. And with that, the Heat’s 2013 playoff run took flight.
“Chris’ personalityfans love him,” said Heat President Pat Riley. “I think some of the people who work in our organization, I think their children love [Andersen] even better, because they want to go and get a body painter and paint themselves.”
Andersen impersonators have been spotted during games, including one child who had his neck painted to resemble Andersen’s colorful “Free Bird” tattoo. Andersen later joked that the boy’s artwork was better than his own.
“I didn’t think those were fake,” Andersen said. “I thought those were real. I need to go talk to his artist. They were pretty clean.”
About half of Andersen’s body is covered in ink. (And, for years, people have been dressing up as “Birdman” for Halloween.) The majority of Andersen’s work, including the neck tattoo, was done in Denver while he played for the Nuggets.
As a general rule, the vast majority of living creatures on this earth have an intense aversion to sharp objects such as needles sticking into their necks. Not so Andersen, whose neck tattoo took three all-day sessions.
What do you do while someone’s tattooing your neck all day long?
“Well, when you’re getting tattooed on your throat you really can’t read nothing,” Andersen said. “You just let them do it and think about basketball.”
And, of course, remain very, very still.
Ask Andersen how many tattoos he has on his body and he’ll tell you, with a straight face, “One, it’s all connected.”
A murder of crows (yes, that’s the collective noun for a group of them) fly along both sides of his legs. The words “Honky-Tonk” make an arch above his stomach. A pit bull stands sentry on one pectoral muscle and a bulldog dunking a basketball is flying through the air on the opposite side of his chest. Eagles, with talons at the ready, flank his shoulders. A thick gold chain is tattooed around his neck with the golden numbers “303” — the area code for Denver — affixed like a pendant around his sternum. His knuckles, from right to left, read “SCRE on one hand, WYOU” on the other.
What does the “Free Bird” tattoo mean?
“What do you think it means?” Andersen said. “It means ‘free bird.’”
Since joining the Heat, Andersen has been reticent to talk at length about his tattoos. He doesn’t want to get into his past and he doesn’t want to be a distraction to his team. Andersen received many of his tattoos during the time he was suspended from the NBA for violating its substance abuse policy, and some of his artwork is a reminder of what he has overcome. He tested positive for a banned substance in 2006 and was away from the game for two years.
“Of course, every tattoo I have has a meaning,” Andersen said. “It has been some point in my life where I came across a barrier or where I’ve been or what I like, so every tattoo has a meaning. I didn’t just go get koi fish or something like that.”
In an interview with Inked magazine during the 2011 NBA lockout, Andersen said the song Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd ( “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?...”) turned his life around during his suspension.
“When I heard the lyrics to that song, it really changed me around,” Andersen told Inked. “I went and poured all the alcohol in the toilet and dumped out all the drugs. [Expletive] it. I’m gonna get back on that right track. I went to rehab, straightened up, and here I am.”
Since joining the Heat midseason, Andersen has provided a measure of energy and muscle to the Heat’s second unit that it lacked in 2012. The Heat is 43-3 with Andersen in the lineup and Miami has won 41 of its last 43 games, including a sweep of the Bucks in the first round. The Heat begins the second round, the Eastern Conference semifinals, on Monday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Andersen is one of eight players on the Heat’s roster with at least one tattoo. Other than the “Birdman,” the players with the most ink include James, Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis and Chris Bosh.
Shane Battier, one of six Heat players without tattoos, says he enjoys the stories behind his teammates’ ink but says he’s never had the itch to get a tattoo himself.
“Everyone’s tattoos mean something about their life journey and that’s cool, but for me it’s Plain Shane, that’s my life story,” Battier said. “But historically what’s cool in the NBA becomes cool in pop culturePopular culture followed suit and tattoos are pretty mainstream now.”
James, now the face of the NBA, sat down in the chair for his first tattoo when he was 15 years old. A vague-looking lion was scratched on his right arm and it has undergone some modifications over the years. What was the inspiration for James’ first tattoo? He might be the league’s trendsetter now, but once upon a time he was just a young kid who wanted to be like Allen Iverson, who was the NBA’s first star with an overabundance of tattoos.
“When I was a kid, why did I want to wear an elbow sleeve or why did I want to get tattoos? Because of Allen Iverson,” James said. “When I was a kid, I saw him and he was amazing out on the floor and he wore a headband, he had an arm sleeve and he had tattoos. He was doing it his way and as a kid, you say figure out, ‘Ah, man. That’s awesome.’ And that’s part of the reason why I first got a tattoo, and then I kind of fell in love with them.”
From Iverson to the James, society’s acceptance of tattoos has followed in lockstep with the proliferation of ink in the NBA. Iverson was drafted in 1996 and as his star rose in the league, so did his number of tattoos. In December of 1999, the NBA received blowback when HOOP Magazine, an official publication of the league, airbrushed away some of Iverson’s tattoos for its cover. Since then, the league has embraced tattoos, says NBA Commissioner David Stern, who called players’ ink “a matter of personal expression.”
“Different people will have a different reaction to it,” Stern said. “I view them on the spectrum of people who used to ask us how we felt about afros, because there was a significant fan base that was turned off by afros. And we’ve gone from afros to cornrows.
“Our players are very much who they are and they are encouraged to express themselves in all ways, and one of those ways in which they choose to express themselves is with tattoos. We’ll accept that on that basis. It’s fine.”
Watch closely when Miller checks into games and you’ll see him touch the tattoos on his chest: “Miller Time, against all odds” and “Truly Blessed.” Bosh’s entire back is a tattoo of a tree, which represents “family,” among other things.
“It was just something I was going through in my lifetime,” Bosh said. “It’s pretty personal but it was an adventurous time. I was kind of stepping outside of my norm, and I wanted something to remember it.”
Haslem, who attended Miami Senior High and the University of Florida, has the state map of Florida tattooed on his back. Along the left side of his torso is a Bible verse, which includes Galatians 6:9: “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”
Of course, Haslem’s tattooed fingers tell you all you need to know about him. “100% REAL,” declare his digits.
Heat players without tattoos include the oldest player on the team, Juwan Howard, and the youngest, Norris Cole. Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade and Joel Anthony are also inkless. A sign that the tattoo fad in the NBA might be fading, some of the most recognizable young stars in the game (John Wall, Brandon Knight, Kenneth Faried, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook) do not have tattoos.
“It’s a cycle,” Cole said. “It’s a fad like high socks and ankle socks. It comes and it goes.”
Miami Herald Executive Sports Editor Jorge Rojas contributed to this report.