After leading Oak Ridge (Conroe, Texas) to three-straight playoff appearances, coach Rob Stewart knows he’s facing a challenging year with six sophomores on the roster.
But Stewart is hoping that his ex-star and current NBA veteran Chris "Birdman" Andersen made a lasting impression on his guys over the summer, something they’ll be able to translate to success this season.
The 6-foot-10 Denver Nuggets power forward practiced with the War Eagles.
“It was definitely exciting,” Stewart said. “I think we worked more enthusiastically because obviously they were just fired up to have Chris around. I know that it made an impact, but I’m sure it will make more of an impact later on as they stop and think about, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he said that and we did that.'”
During several previous summers, Stewart would work out Andersen, whom he coached at Iola (Texas) in the late 1990s, for two or three days. But this summer, with the NBA lockout in effect, Andersen had more time on his hands and he ended up spending two weeks with Stewart and his team.
At first when Anderson arrived on campus, he was able to sneak into the gym without being noticed. But two days later, he was already prompting a student frenzy.
“We have these windows that go along the back part of our gym,” said Dylan Tacconi, a senior. “You’d look out and there was probably 20, 30 people sitting out there, going ‘Oh my goodness, it’s Birdman.'”
While participating in full-court and fastbreak drills, scrimmages and even suicides, Andersen taught the players how to do a move he does on the pro level: running the short corner when opposing defenses go zone. Throughout every exercise, Andersen stressed to be aggressive “like bulldogs.”
Stewart himself stirred up that mentality in Andersen when he played under him for three years at Iola, in which his career stat line was a triple-double (21 points, 17 rebounds and 11 blocks per game).
“He’s definitely been a big inspiration in my professional career,” said Anderson, who’s averaged 5.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in nine NBA seasons. “My style of play came from him -- playing hard, never giving up, all out every time you get on the floor no matter win or lose.”
Of course, that’s not to say Andersen didn’t express his typical light-hearted side with the young fellas. On one occasion, Andersen’s joking around with the team actually led him to improve his focus at the foul line.
“The funniest moment was when we were rebounding for him while he's shooting free throws,” Tacconi said. “He's like, 'Ya'll gotta talk or do something because it's too quiet and I'm used to noise while I'm shooting free throws.' He's got his shirt off, he's got tattoos all over the place. One of my other teammates, Bradley, and our friend, Joey, is in there with us, and Joey goes, 'Go get another tattoo you freak.' And my friend Bradley goes, 'Hey, Chris, you missed a spot.’ He still made like every shot.”
In the past, Stewart customized a drill for Andersen to help him withstand the contact on his long arms. He would place different dummies around him to force him to go harder to the hole. This time, with the players there, Stewart had them body up Andersen to push him around in the post to make it harder for him to score.
While Andersen was still unguardable, he said all the bumping, slapping and swatting helped him make stronger back-to-the-basket moves.
“Those guys helped me a lot,” said Andersen, who hooked the team up with sneakers, warmup pants and shooting shirts. “And I tried to help them as well because they got the advantage of playing against an NBA guy.”
While Stewart says that Andersen sometimes gets a poor reputation for his full-body tattoos and for having been suspended from the NBA from 2006 to 2008 for substance abuse, many people don’t get to see how likeable he is. Stewart knows his players will always remember that during their experience of a lifetime.
“I’ve seen him where he’s talking to people who own multi-billion dollar businesses and he’s at ease with them,” Stewart said. “And he was at ease with a bunch of goofy, little 15 and 16-year-old kids. I think that’s part of what they took away from it, is that he’s just normal. They probably said that to me more than any other reaction. ‘He’s just cool. He’s just so average.”
The War Eagles hope to play above average this season, just like the Birdman does above the rim.