David J. Neal

David J. Neal: Chris ‘Birdman’ Andersen nesting with Miami Heat

The Heat’s new kid fits. That’s not always a lock, either in a school or in the schoolyard of a professional sports locker room.

But everybody loves center Chris Andersen. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra loves what Andersen brings to the floor.

“He’s given us a presence in the paint,” Spoelstra said. “He’s not your prototypical center, but the areas where he’s strong are the areas we value centers. He’s a defender. He brings toughness, he defends the rim. Offensively, he gives us an element of keeping teams honest when they put two on the ball.

“In Denver, he was beloved. When we were doing research about him, we found that out pretty quickly.”

Spoelstra pointed out that Andersen has scored in double digits without the Heat running a single play for him and without taking a number of shots. That whole “smart” and “efficient” thing is warm evening toddy for coaches.

Fans love Andersen. They can’t help it. He has a Mohawk of varying styles — Monday, it looked less cockatoo than a strip of a pompadour — and body art covering almost every visible speck of anatomy. It’s a look that runs counter to NBA stereotype on a body bounding about, doing helpful little things and the occasional big thing, like the rebound dunk that ignited AmericanAirlines Arena near the end of Sunday’s third quarter.

Two weeks ago, when the arena’s overhead screen showed a young boy with a Mohawk and decorated arms flexing at the camera, the crowd howled in appreciation.

“I don’t think those were fake,” Andersen joked about the boy’s arms. “I thought they were real. I need to go talk to his artist because they looked pretty clean.”

Oh, the Heat bench howled, too. That’s the last part — the Heat players love Andersen.

“He just has that aura about himself,” Heat center Chris Bosh said. “From the moment he came [into the league], even when he was in Denver, people love the Birdman. For one, we call him ‘Birdman,’ we don’t call him by his real name, so that’s a thing in itself. He’s very exciting to be around, people are drawn to him and he can play some ball, too.”

Like the Jordan-Pippen Bulls teams, the Heat doesn’t need a Hall of Famer inside on offense or defense. Joel Anthony coming off the bench with four rebounds, three points and a block or two per game got the Heat by the past two seasons.

But give the Heat someone a little more athletic, a little more finish around the hoop, who can even shoot from three when needed … oh, mama. There’s a reason the Heat has lost only three games since Andersen’s debut Jan. 25.

Still, a team remains interlocking parts, even basketball, the team sport most easily swung by a single great individual or two. Sneers at intangibles like “chemistry” ignore failures such as the 2003-04 Lakers: Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant joined by Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Even past their prime … The Mailman? And The Glove? Detroit stole their mail and slapped the Lakers in the face with a glove before dumping them 4-1 in the NBA Finals.

“We don’t judge books by covers around here,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “We all have personalities. We’re all different.”

Besides, here’s what the fogeys don’t get: they all have tats, the Heat’s backup point guard works a “Word Up” flattop, and the best player’s hairline has been in a French Army retreat since before he got here. Cool, let’s play.

As Wade said earlier this season, the Heat locker room houses many an alpha dog. It’s also a locker room of those who have matured from extended childhood to being responsible fathers and uncles. And, at times, they can sound like the grown folks room at the family gathering.

“We didn’t necessarily need another guy to keep it light,” Spoelstra said. “We have quite a few of those guys in our locker room. The key point with Chris is he’s able to fit into a complex locker room. You have to have a confidence about you. It’s not the easiest locker room to step into. You can get torn apart if you don’t have the right personality. It’s a blend of professionalism and personality. He’s a fun guy to be around. He’s got an engaging personality. He’s a worker. He’s diligent.”

Said Andersen: “You’ve definitely got to be yourself and a little bit of craziness, too.”

He came in knowing Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis and Juwan Howard. As noted by Shane Battier, another veteran closer to the end of his career than the start, that’s easier to do when you’re a veteran secure enough to be a role player.

“Now, if we brought in a bunch of 25-year-old guys who were trying to spread their wings and trying to make a name for themselves in the league, this probably isn’t the best place for them,” Battier said. “I think Norris [Cole] and Rio [Mario Chalmers] have done a great job being young guys, establishing their roles and still building NBA cachet.”

Also, Battier said, “We have a pretty good group of guys. We don’t really have any jerks. You have to have your game at all times on and off the court or you’ll hear about it. So you’ve got to have a thick skin to be in this locker room. Everyone dishes it out, and everyone takes it.”

Though the Birdman looks like he flies his own way — and he does — it’s the Heat’s way. And he’s a big part of the flock flying toward what looks like another NBA championship.

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