By Frank Pingue
TORONTO (Reuters) - It is hard for a reserve player to stand out alongside freakishly tall and more talented athletes, but Chris Andersen, the Miami Heat's heavily-tattooed and mohawked big man, is doing just that on the NBA's best team.
Despite having much higher-profile teammates like four-time league most valuable player LeBron James and nine-time All-Star Dwyane Wade, eyes are often locked on Andersen when he steps onto the court with his rock-star looks.
But the brightly colored tattoos that cover his arms, chest, neck, back, hands and legs along with his signature game-time hairdo are not all Andersen brings to the Heat.
"He's brought a lot of energy to the team, something that we needed, somebody that could bring a spark off the bench," Heat point guard Mario Chalmers said before Miami's 104-95 road win against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday.
"A great finisher around the rim and an excellent shot blocker. Birdman is constant energy."
Andersen earned the Birdman nickname for his tenacious playing style, which often finds the 6-foot-10 forward flying through the lane to block shots and leaping to the basket for ferocious slam dunks.
He has even embraced his bird-like persona by tattooing a series of feathers across his back and performing a celebratory arm flap after a good play.
But the radical look pales in comparison to the unlikely path Andersen, 35, took before earning a place on the Heat's roster midway through the 2012-13 season, which culminated with a win over the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals.
Andersen's career included stints in the NBA's Development League and China before finally breaking into the league with the Denver Nuggets in 2001. He joined the New Orleans Hornets in 2004 but his career fell apart when he received a two-year ban for violating the NBA's drug policy in 2006.
He made a case for reinstatement and mounted a successful comeback in 2008, playing briefly with New Orleans before signing with Denver.
But Andersen's career was put in jeopardy again when Denver excused him from all team-related activities late in the 2011-12 season when he became the center of an investigation by the Internet Crimes Against Children unit.
He was cut soon after but the 15-month ordeal that nearly cost him his career came to an end two months ago when it was revealed that not only was Andersen not guilty of a crime, but he was the victim of a complex Internet catfishing scheme.
Andersen ended up being out of work for about six months until the Heat signed him to consecutive 10-day contracts last January before signing him for the remainder of the season.
He quickly became a fan favorite in Miami and his performance last season earned him a one-year contract with the Heat, who consider him a key player in their bid to capture a third consecutive NBA championship.
"We are ecstatic that Chris Andersen has decided to stay with the Miami Heat," Pat Riley, the team's president, said after Andersen's contract was announced in July. "We would not have won the championship without him and we are looking forward to him having an even better season next year."
The Heat went 39-3 during the 2012-13 regular season in games in which Andersen appeared, a .929 winning percentage that is the highest by any player in NBA history appearing in at least 40 games during a single season.
"The Birdman is always ready to go," said Heat forward Shane Battier. "And for a team that's not the highest energy team he brings something that we were missing."
Andersen averaged 4.9 points and 4.1 rebounds per game last season and, after a vigorous offseason workout regimen, arrived at training camp 10 pounds lighter.
Through the first five games of the 2013-14 NBA season, he is averaging about 4.8 points and 3.4 rebounds in under 16 minutes per game.
While his playing time pales in comparison to the team's starters the energy he delivers is exactly what the team was looking for when they took a chance on him.
"His energy, his defense, that's why we recruited him so hard. He fits the fabric of who we are, defensive minded first. Covers a lot of ground, he's got great athleticism," said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra.
"He fits the mould of all our centers ... and we like those type of defensive minded players."
(Editing by Gene Cherry)