Chris "Birdman" Andersen, one would suggest, earned his wings -- but, truth is, he bought them. A dude named John Slaughter, a local tattoo artist whom Andersen trusts like one of his Nuggets teammates, is responsible for the flame-colored wings under Birdman's biceps, arguably the coolest tattoos on a team coated with them.
Slaughter inks "his heart and his soul" into each tattoo, Andersen said, as if the process were a spiritual ritual.
In a way, it is.
Slaughter is spellbound by tribes; his shop in Denver is filled with artifacts from Alaska to Peru to Indonesia. And annually, the white man drives seven hours to the South Dakota land of the Lakota Sioux, who historically tattooed themselves for entrance into the afterlife.
On the reservation, Slaughter immerses himself in their four-day Sundance ceremony of praying, dancing, meditating, fasting and body-piercing. Slaughter understands the link of tribes and tattoos. Sure enough, his shop is called Tribe Tattoo.
"Tattoos, for thousands of years, have been associated with tribes of people," the 37-year-old Slaughter said. "And throughout the NBA, we are the most-tattooed team. It says that they're pretty self-expressive. It's almost like every single tattoo is a stage or a level in life that you've accomplished or gotten through -- and where you're headed next."
Slaughter's favorite team is in the Western Conference finals, for the first time since 1985. The Nuggets got there by embodying what is tattooed on their bodies.
"I think tattoos are a little bit from a culture of warriors," said Nuggets coach George Karl, who has considered but not taken the plunge of getting tattoos that match what his adult daughter and son wear. "I'm not comparing basketball players to warriors, but there's nature of competition that's always been compared to warriors. And I like symbolism."
"My family," Chauncey Billups said, "is my backbone."
Then, he took off his practice jersey, and on his back were those very words. The point guard carries this mantra on his back, where he carries his basketball family, as well. "With my basketball family -- togetherness is key to everything," said Billups, playing in his seventh consecutive conference finals. "Being cohesive as a unit, brotherhood, those things that mean something to you."
In a way, Billups has 13 younger brothers. He is Denver's big bro, the guy every guy looks up to, the leader who makes the team a team.
That's what is so special about the Nuggets this season. A year ago, there was an array of disarray in the locker room, a lack of leadership. Now, they have a captain.
It shows on the court.
"The players trust each other, man," center Nene said. "When we believe in each other, it gives confidence and it's exciting. When you shoot, you think you're going to make it. It's a great feeling."
A couple of seasons ago, Carmelo Anthony was suffocating in the struggle to become the best player he could. There was a brawl against New York, when he sucker-punched a Knick and was suspended for 15 games. He was scoring at will but not defending well. Young buddies LeBron James and Dwyane Wade had already been to the NBA Finals; Melo hadn't even been to the second round.
"I was just thinking -- man, one day, this is all going to be over with, smooth sailing for me," Anthony said. "But if I don't go through this, I won't see the green grass on the other side. No struggle, no progress."
So he got those four words tattooed on his chest. And the progress is the present. He has been potent this postseason, coming up with clutch shots on offense and big stops on defense.
"I've matured a lot," said Anthony. "I've learned to be patient, settle down and trust your teammates. That's something over the years that I've gotten better at. I couldn't trust my teammates any more than I'm trusting them right now, and that's everyone -- not just Chauncey, Nene and J.R. (Smith)."
Melo's not the only player with trial-by-fire tattoo. Billups' left arm says: "No pain." His right arm: "No fame."
And Kenyon Martin has the famous theatrical masks -- one frowning, one smiling -- on each wrist, to symbolize "agony and bliss."
From a broken leg before the NCAA Tournament in college to consecutive NBA Finals failures to consecutive microfracture knee surgeries, Martin has endured agony. And from going No. 1 in the NBA draft to becoming the first player to return from two microfractures to his emotional about-face this season en route to the conference finals, there has been bliss.
This season, Birdman said with a smirk, "We might not lead the league in stats, but we do in tats." Indeed, the Nuggets are linked by ink. But asked if this is a special situation, guard Anthony Carter said: "I don't know if it's special, because a lot of people think it's 'thug' -- they have a different interpretation of tattoos. And it's by how (physical) we play, too."
The word "thug" fittingly has four letters, and opposing fans -- and one opposing owner, Dallas' Mark Cuban -- have used the word as an insult for the Denver Nuggets, or, as one sign read, the "Denver Thuggets."
And during one timeout at the Mavericks' arena, the big screen featured a phony television commercial, in the spirit of those, "Here's to you, Mr. . . ." Bud Light ads. It was titled "Mr. Overly Tattooed NBA Player" and featured photos of the visitors from Denver. It came across as cutesy, but there was veiled condemnation.
"A lot of players do have meaningful tattoos, and a lot of people don't understand it," Carter said. "They think it's for fashion and trying to look tough and stuff like that. But everybody has meaningful tattoos."
Those tattoos that make fans think the Nuggets seem "thuggish" and hard-core? Some are actually tattoos that make them seem like softies.
Smith proudly proclaims himself "Mama's boy" with a tattoo on his chest; he said Ida Smith "is my best friend. I can say anything to her. She always gives me good advice. And that helps me on the basketball court, because then I'm more free at mind."
Carter and Martin also have maternal marks. Martin has red lips on his neck, those being the smackers of his girlfriend, rap artist Trina.
Martin came to camp with a new attitude and new tattoos, and he spent media day talking proudly about both. It was Sept. 30, the team's first official gathering. During the summer, after another first-round playoff failure, Karl decided the team's attitude and attributes had to change. Denver would now be a positive-thinking, defensive-minded team. Martin, once perpetually moody, was on board.
That day, he talked about uniting with teammates in an unlikely locale.
"A lot of idle time is spent in the tattoo parlor," he said. "Me, J.R. and Dahntay (Jones) got some the same time not long ago.
"But I'd never get the same tattoo as the next guy, because mine mean something to me. I don't expect somebody else to get something that means something to me unless we win the NBA championship, and we all get that trophy tattooed on us."
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