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The Ongoing Education of Wilson Chandler

Wilson Chandler spent 2015 recovering from surgery, developing a social conscience, and changing his eating habits. Now he's playing the best ball of his career.

by Louis Keene
Jan 25 2017, 1:30pm

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Two stories decorate the chiseled six foot eight frame of Wilson Chandler, who is quietly vibing in the visitors' locker room at Staples Center after a Denver Nuggets win. (Yes, Wilson Chandler vibes.) One, inscribed in scar tissue, gives an accounting of pain and lost time over the forward's ten-year, six-surgery NBA career. The other, a pastiche of pop-culture iconography and family portraits, crawls from his eyes to his ankles in tattoo ink, an anthology of one man's hobbies, heroes, and history. Chandler's daughter peers out from his throat. On his back, the Unstoppable Juggernaut palms a basketball.

Chandler's performance that night against the Lakers aptly described his value to the team. He scored, he defended multiple positions, and he played the entire fourth quarter; late in the game, he head-faked a defender off his feet on the perimeter, rushed into space, then dunked on a late-helping Ivica Zubac with two hands. After a season spent recovering from hip surgery, Chandler is playing healthy, finally; as of this writing, the Nuggets are a playoff team in the Western Conference, and his career-best productivity is a major reason why.

Read More: Where do the Chicago Bulls Go From Here?

But basketball has never been his only love—a quick look at him reveals his passion for body art, for one thing—and if a year away from the game renewed his purpose on the court, it also revealed an immense curiosity for the world outside it. It has certainly left his body, as a visual narrative, awaiting a new chapter: the Chandler breaking out this year is also a vegan, and a Jill Stein supporter, and an ancient Africa aficionado. Beyond that, he is a professional athlete whose social consciousness is dramatically—perhaps uncomfortably—awakening, and who is searching for his place in the knowledge he has acquired.

Before the game I asked Chandler why his teammate Mike Miller, who I'd interviewed earlier, called him a legend. (Why? His numbers, Miller says.) He's not seriously buying into his own mythology, but Chandler did make a long story short: "My mom dropped me off and never came and picked me up. And I'm here."

Now, he elaborates as he dresses. Disenfranchisement and economic despair were facts of life for Chandler as he grew up in the poor, predominantly African-American town of Benton Harbor, Michigan. Sixty percent of Benton Harbor's population lived beneath the federal poverty line; across the river, the median income in neighboring, mostly white St. Joseph was nearly three times Benton Harbor's. He was raised by his grandparents, who lived through the Civil Rights era and who were fighting to keep their home.

He pulls a white shirt off its hanger. It will cover the Tupac lyric that blazes across his chest: God Bless The Child That Can Hold His Own. Segregation permeated every aspect of Chandler's upbringing, from education to food to police surveillance. He grew up on cartoons—to this day, he'll go for almost anything if its animated, from Dragonball Z to Space Ghost to Family Guy—and West Coast rap.

In 2003, Chandler was a rising high school junior with a budding basketball future when the city's racial tension snapped. A young black man on a motorcycle was run off the highway by police in a high-speed pursuit as they attempted to cite him for speeding; the fatal crash set off riots in the city. "It was fucked up," he remembers. "The whole situation."

Hundreds took to the streets, and a few vacant buildings were burned down before the National Guard was called in. Later that year, he got his first tattoo at a guy named Twisted's house, a cross with a basketball in the center, on his right arm that he is now planning on covering. He'd get more tattoos in a teammate's basement. After being named Michigan's Mr. Basketball as a high school senior, the kid nicknamed Ill Wil played two years at DePaul, then was drafted in the first round by the New York Knicks.

Reflecting on it now, he admits that the systemic violence plaguing in his hometown did not weigh on him once he had made it out. "It's different," he says. "When you're young, and you ain't never had any money, that [perspective] kinda go out the window a little bit. You never had any money before, so you do all the shit you wished you could do when you were younger. So you don't think about all that [other] shit until you get a little bit older. I mean, I didn't."

On the Knicks, Chandler was part of a nucleus of homegrown talent that seemed capable of rescuing the franchise from the lingering dysfunction of the Isiah Thomas era. His career was taking off under Mike D'Antoni, who promoted him to the starting lineup early in his second season. His future seemed limited only by health—he missed time with knee and ankle injuries, and went under the knife to repair both.

Then the Knicks started cashing in their chips. Donnie Walsh signed Amar'e Stoudemire to a $100 million deal in the 2010 off-season, and at the 2011 trade deadline, with the team above .500 at the All-Star break for the first time in a decade, the Knicks sent Chandler—along with Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, and Timofey Mozgov, the rest of the young core—to Denver in exchange for Carmelo Anthony.

Looking around at the young teammates buzzing in the afterglow of victory, Chandler sees an echo of the Knicks group he was traded from. Like those Knicks, this year's Nuggets are just beginning to prove themselves. But the franchise is still determining which players figure in its long-term plans. Neither the fact that Chandler likes playing in Denver nor that he has signed two contract extensions with the team has kept him from being a walking trade rumor. The Nuggets' roster is deep, and if management decides it needs consolidation, Chandler could soon once again be on the move.

The Brooklyn Nets admire Wilson Chandler up close and personal. Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

That would be a letdown for Chandler, who considers himself a leader in this group. His teammates see him the same way. "He's quiet," says rookie guard Jamal Murray, "but when he talks, when he gets mad, we all listen, because we know he means it, he's not faking it. He's got a quiet voice, but don't let that fool you."

The intervening years—and the tattoos marking their passage—have added up quickly. During the 2011 NBA lockout, Chandler played in China, where he put up per-game numbers reminiscent of Anthony Davis in a destructive mood. (The food wasn't so bad in his home city of Hangzhou, he said. KFC delivers!) He returned to America and promptly suffered a labral tear in his left hip that ended his NBA campaign after just eight games. He became a father.

For most of that time, his intellectual curiosity was still latent, his arms and legs sleeved with assorted talismans and callbacks to childhood—Eazy E, He-Man, Michigan, his grandmother's name. It was after his other hip tore in the 2015 preseason—ending his tenth season in the league before it even began—that his perspective on life began to transform. Looking to devote himself to physical and mental well-being, he picked up a book on Kemetism, a contemporary revival of ancient Egyptian religion that promotes a balance of body and spirit. Beginning there, Chandler descended into a rabbit hole of history, philosophy, spirituality, and politics.

"When I started to sit down, having the surgeries, sit down and think about your family situation, I started to read," he says. He devoured books about the environment, ancient Africa, and American political history, and watched documentaries on GMOs, civil rights, and the evils of capitalism. He changed up his diet and picked up yoga.

But nothing he read or watched could give him the feeling of being on the court. As he went through hours of hip rehab every day, basketball went on without him. "You go through so much in life, sometimes the politics and the business side of basketball have you down a little bit," he says. "But after a year it's like man, you miss the game. It's the craziest thing. You're just sitting there watching everyone have fun, playing basketball and you're sitting there—can't move, gotta do rehab, can't play. It's tough."

Chandler's reintegration on the court this year has been an unqualified success, and the plant-based diet only gives him trouble in cities like Memphis and New Orleans. But when Chandler considers the personal implications of some of the other material he's digested in the last year, he seems ambivalent, and maybe a little overwhelmed. He has learned a lot in a short time, but he is still an NBA player; he is still one foot in, one foot out on the commitment to stay woke. He sold his sneaker collection but kept his Gucci jacket.

"This shit be hard though," he says. "Enjoy your life, live your life, and do that at the same time. I was talking to this guy—he told me, you can't be conscious and materialistic at the same time. It's hard in this lifestyle not to be materialistic.

"The value system, it's kinda fucked up. The cars, the clothes, the shoes ... I might not need the $300,000 car."

His next three tattoos—he has yet to find a place for them—reflect an inchoate activist. A canvas that includes the likes of Quagmire and Homer Simpson will soon also bear Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, and Assata Shakur, faces of the Black Panther movement. He will also be covering up the cross.

He's wearing three gold-encrusted necklaces as he heads for the team bus. One bears a pendant in the shape of Africa. Another piece reads "50 Niggaz" over an AK-47—a tattoo Tupac had, representing the rapper's idea that if one black man from each state stepped up to lead, the black people would be stronger than any weapon.

I asked Chandler if he might be that leader, perhaps representing Colorado or Michigan. "I don't know," he said. "That's a big task. I've never thought about it. Right now I'm knowledgeable, but I haven't actually stepped in that world yet, to start to make a difference." He doesn't try to impose his politics onto his teammates; he is by nature soft-spoken and laid-back. But he recognizes that his power and visibility puts him in a unique position to effect change, whenever and wherever he decides to dedicate his resources.

One idea he's been toying with has been a program to get nutritional aid to poor communities. "Especially from where I come from," he says, "I never met a person with healthy food at all. Not even close." He's still in the brainstorming stages, using team flights to jot down business plans or charity endeavors. He may not know now how far his self-education will go, or where it will take him. But he has a clear motivation for pursuing it. "I want to help people," he says.

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