MIAMI — It all started in 2000 at Route 66 Tattoo in Albuquerque, N.M.
Chris Andersen had grown up in tiny Iola, Texas, the son of Linda Holubec. She rode a Harley-Davidson and had a number of tattoos.
When Andersen was in high school in the late 1990s, Holubec had gotten flowers, vines and butterflies inked on her ankles, legs and back. Her son liked what he saw.
“He thought they were cool and he wanted to get a tattoo, so I said I would pay for it,’’ Holubec said. “But he wanted to take his time before he got one.’’
The time arrived at age 21, when the 6-foot-10 Andersen joined the minor-league New Mexico Slam after playing hoops in China. Holubec had ridden her Harley 800 miles from Iola, population 430, to Albuquerque to see her son play. The two then went to Route 66 Tattoo on Central Avenue, which really is part of the historic highway.
Andersen had Chinese symbols inked on the insides of his forearms. The one on the left stands for “good’’ and the one on the right for “evil.’’
Since then, Andersen’s tattoos have increased at a brisk pace. It’s gotten to point that Denver-based John Slaughter, his regular tattoo artist, estimates he has them on 75 percent of his body.
To say the Miami Heat backup center is now the most famous heavily tattooed person in the world might not be a stretch. Many millions are looking on as the Heat face the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals, and the man nicknamed Birdman has become a key cog for Miami after signing with the team in January.
“Is Tommy Lee more famous than the Birdman?’’ Heat forward Shane Battier pondered. “Birdman might be more famous because the dude’s 6-foot-(10) and has got a mohawk, so he really can’t hide in a crowd. So he’s pretty famous. And he’s current. So Birdman might get the nod over Tommy Lee.’’
After getting his initial tattoos in Albuquerque, Andersen soon got two more at Tattoo Consortium in Bryan, Texas, just down the road from Iola. He had inked on his left arm a basketball player hanging from a rim and on his chest a bulldog with the inscription “Good Old Boys.’’
Holubec said she paid several hundred dollars for those early tattoos while Andersen was making next to nothing playing in the minor leagues. After Andersen was called up from the D-League to join the Denver Nuggets in November 2001, his tattoos really began to multiply. Andersen was at a restaurant that first season in Denver when he was spotted by Slaughter.
“I introduced myself and we started talking, and I said to come on down to the shop,’’ Slaughter said.
Slaughter runs Tribe Tattoo. He has a great appreciation for Native American and other tribes, so the shop is filled with many artifacts. Andersen visited, and it wasn’t long before Slaughter gave him his first tattoo. It was before he was nicknamed Birdman, which happened at the Rocky Mountain Revue summer league in July 2002 when Nuggets teammates marveled at his leaping ability.
“The first one was a pit bull on his chest about the size of a softball,’’ Slaughter said. “He had always had pit bulls and he liked them. And we just became friends.’’
Andersen signed with New Orleans as a free agent in 2004, and his journey took him to Oklahoma City, where the Hornets played after Hurricane Katrina hit from 2004-06, back to New Orleans in 2007-08, back to Denver from 2008-12, and finally to Miami this season.
Andersen’s NBA journey also included a major detour, for turned out to be two years, when he was suspended for failing a drug test in January 2006.
But wherever Andersen has gone, there’s been only one man who does his tattoos. Slaughter has covered his body with what he calls the “brightest tattoos in the NBA.’’
“He’s very efficient and he’s got a steady hand and he’s very talented, so I stuck with him,’’ Andersen said. “If you get a tattoo, you better make sure the artist is good and check his portfolio. But I’ve obviously been with John Slaughter for 10 years plus, so he’s been doing something right. So we also became good friends in the process.’’
With Birdman’s popularity soaring due to his energetic play, tattoos and mohawk, it’s become chic for Internet sites to post slideshows of Andersen throughout the years. He’s gone from having few tattoos while with the D-League’s Fayetteville (N.C.) Patriots in 2001 to his current state, where about the only unmarked skin visible when he plays is on his face and parts of his legs.
Asked if he ever envisioned having so many tattoos after he began getting them, Andersen simply said he’s gotten “what I wanted.’’
“I like all of them, man,’’ Andersen said. “It ain’t something I regretted. It wasn’t like I got drunk and went and got a tattoo.’’
Andersen said all his tattoos have meanings, although he often won’t got into specifics when talking about them. He got a number of them, including wings on the inside of each arm, while serving his drug suspension.
“Some points in my life, I came across a barrier where I’d been been,’’ Andersen said. “So every tattoo has a meaning. I didn’t just go get a koi fish or something like that.’’
In the summer of 2009, Andersen had “Free Bird’’ tattooed across his neck in bright yellow lettering. He’s a fan of that song by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and it had meaning to him when listening to it regularly during his suspension. He also said in 2009 that the tattoo had something to do with having just broken off an engagement.
“The one on his neck,’’ Heat forward Udonis Haslem, who has a number of tattoos, said of what jumps out on the Birdman. “I’m a tattoo guy; that one right there is impressive even to me. … He’s a fan favorite. The media loves him, the fans love him, the ladies love him.’’
When Andersen asked for the “Free Bird’’ tattoo, Slaughter said that’s the only time he’s really double checked to make sure he really knew what he was doing.
“I was like, ‘Tattoo your neck. Yeah, right, you’re crazy,’ ’’ said Slaughter, 41, who is heavily tattooed himself. “With the ‘Free Bird’ one, as far as I was concerned, I was thinking of his career. But he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ’’
So Slaughter did it. He said it took three or four sessions and about 10 to 12 hours to complete the work.
“He tells me how much he hates me (due to the needles),’’ Slaughter said when asked what Andersen says while sitting in the chair for so many hours.
Slaughter does all of his drawings freehand on Andersen’s skin. Then the Birdman makes the call on whether he wants that tattoo.
Slaughter also has inked a gold chain around Andersen’s neck with the numbers “303”, the area code for Denver. He’s written the words “Honky-Tonk’’ on Andersen’s stomach. Andersen has tattoos of both a bull and a bulldozer on his arms.
Obviously, birds are prominent on the Birdman. There’s a thunderbird on his chest, eagles on his shoulders and crows flying along both sides of his legs.
“I like to keep the consistency,’’ Andersen said of Slaughter’s work. “He makes all my tattoos blend in with each other.’’
One wonders if they can be a distraction to opponents. Spurs center Tiago Splitter acknowledges he’s spent some time sizing up this human billboard.
“It’s really art,’’ Splitter said. “He has a lot. Sometimes I even look at them to figure out what it is.’’
If the Heat can overcome San Antonio in the Finals, Slaughter knows exactly what he’s going to propose to Andersen when he returns to Denver during the offseason.
“The (Larry O’Brien) Trophy on fire with wings coming out,’’ Slaughter said.
Slaughter said a typical tattoo at his shop costs $300 to $400. He said if a regular customer were paying, the “Free Bird’’ tattoo would cost a “couple of thousand’’ dollars and the wings on Andersen’s arms “five to eight thousand.’’ But Slaughter never charges the Birdman.
“He takes care of me,’’ Slaughter said. “He’s very generous. He gave me a $600 tip once. He’s gotten me rims for my car. I had a Hummer like he did. He got me a car stereo once.’’
Slaughter said Andersen has been great for his business. During his years with the Nuggets, teammates Andersen sent to Tribe Tattoo included J.R. Smith, Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, Al Harrington and Gary Forbes. There are photos of Andersen on the walls of the shop. And now Andersen is on display around the world to millions while playing in his first Finals.
“It’s just awesome,’’ Slaughter said. “Now, my art work has gone international. It’s really amazing. Chris has become hugely popular on that team and that’s the best team in the NBA. Chris is the No. 3 guy on the Heat (in popularity behind LeBron James and Dwyane Wade).’’
Judging by the roar of the crowd when Andersen checks in, it seems sometimes as if he’s No. 1. AmericanAirlines Arena is full of fans flapping wings, and kids can be found sporting mohawks and fake tattoos.
“I’m happy for him,’’ said Holubec, 58, who watches the games on television. She says she hasn’t seen her son since 2005 and no longer has a relationship with him. She says she doesn’t know why, and Andersen won’t discuss the subject.
“I wouldn’t do that myself (getting all those tattoos),” she says, “but I’m happy for him if that’s what he wants.”