Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Back from the Brink

By Samuel Berman
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Two years, one month, and twenty-five days ago, “The Birdman” Chris Andersen was a high-flying NBA superstar, a crowd favorite, and the proud owner of a $14 million contract.  One day later it was all gone.

 

That day, Andersen was suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy for testing positive for what the league terms “drugs of abuse”.  In so doing, he became the first player in seven years for such a violation, earning the required indefinite ban from the sport as a result.

 

Though it took him a few days to recuperate from the stunning news, Andersen eventually checked himself into a California treatment center, intent on cleaning up himself and his life.  One can only imagine how difficult a decision it had to be for the former cult icon to look ahead rather than dwell in his self-made unfortunate circumstance.

 

You see, that’s the troubling part about drug abuse; it perpetuates itself.  To violate the league’s sanction on “drugs of abuse”, Andersen had to have been using something more dangerous than mere marijuana.  Not to diminish the deleterious effects of marijuana on our society, but the truth remains that the NBA’s policy regarding its use is something of a slap on the wrist when compared to the punishment for using amphetamines, cocaine, LSD, or opiates.  And rightly so.

 

Drug use is an epidemic amongst young people today, and the fact that their idols and role models in professional sports often flaunt their own abuse so liberally is both a shame and a crisis.  Ironically, the best role model in the league today might just be the one man who over the past two years has been staring down the barrel of a lifetime away from the sport he loves.

 

And that’s because Chris Andersen has spent the past two years, one month, and twenty-four days putting his life back together.  He got himself clean of his addictions, began to do volunteer work as a basketball coach and counselor, and worked hard to keep himself in game shape, hoping that one day he would be able to return to the NBA and prove that he had conquered his demons.

 

That day was twelve days ago.  After applying for reinstatement in late-January, Andersen’s suspension was eventually lifted by the league, and the New Orleans Hornets, the team with whom he had last played, resigned Andersen to a prorated $3.5 million contract.  The team has put its faith in Andersen that he has moved past his troubles, and they most certainly should be applauded for doing so.  Their willingness to give “The Birdman” a second chance to prove himself shows that in a business that is all too often about the bottom line, that there is a place for redemption for those who have erred.  The league deserves just as much credit, both for its zero-tolerance policy for such violations and for granting reprieve to a man who put in the effort to move past his missteps.

 

But the most credit by far should go to Andersen himself.  It cannot be easy to go from the pampered NBA lifestyle to the doldrums of getting oneself free of addiction.  We so often look at athletes as supermen, but the fact of the matter is they deal with the same issues as everyone else, only their highs and lows are elevated in profile and importance because the world gets to watch them on television.

 

Don’t misunderstand me; Andersen deserved his suspension, as well as the infamy that came with it.  But as fans and as people, we should put the same effort into welcoming Andersen back as he did working his way back from the brink.  I hope fans both in New Orleans and elsewhere will applaud him, both literally and figuratively, for seeing that there was a better way for him to live his life.

 

Further information on drug abuse and addiction can be found at the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s website at www.nida.nih.gov.  If you or someone you know is struggling with drugs, you can get help by calling the National Alcohol and Drug Treatment Information Center toll-free and 24 hours a day at 1-800-784-6776.

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