Birdman's redemption bittersweet for his mother
Linda Holubec was there that November night in 2001, when the Denver Nuggets called her son with the news that they were signing him to a deal that would end his vagabond lifestyle. They were sitting in a hotel lobby in Fayetteville, N.C., about to board a van bound for some minor-league outpost. She would never have to lend him money for groceries or co-sign for another car again. They had made it.
For almost his entire life they had been inseparable. She held him for hours and wiped his tears the day his father walked out on them. She sat beside him as he got his first tattoo on his 18th birthday. She scraped together tip money to travel to the far side of the world to watch him play basketball in gyms so smoky her glasses would fog up.
Now they were bound for Denver, and she couldn't wait to hug Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe. They didn't know much about pro basketball, but they knew they'd be rich. And they had done it together. An improbable journey from the backwoods of Texas, where kids are more likely to get hooked on meth than play AAU ball, had reached its end point.
But four years later, Linda's world collapsed.
One of Linda's friends called her after seeing the words that would change her life forever slowly crawl along the bottom of the television screen.
"Something happened with Chris," the voice said over the phone. Andersen had been disqualified from the NBA on Jan. 25, 2006, for violating the league's anti-drug policy by testing positive for a banned substance. He didn't have the courage to call his mother and break the news. It was the spectacular finale to a downward spiral that began the moment Andersen scribbled his name on an official contract.
But the door to redemption swung wide open two years later. On March 4, the NBA reinstated Andersen, and his former team, the New Orleans Hornets, signed him to a contract for the remainder of the season. Linda cried both tears of joy and pain. She was happy her boy had made it. Again. But there was something else that made the news of his reinstatement almost as hard to take as his expulsion: the fact that Linda Holubec and her son have not spoken in almost three years.
During his first four seasons in the NBA, Andersen was known for his wildly athletic dunks and reckless intensity. He hadn't developed any real moves to speak of, and even a 10-foot pull-up jumper was ill-advised for him. But what he lacked in skill he made up for with a floor burn-inducing style of play and an arsenal of eccentricities that won over fans leaguewide. The decibel level at home games soared when he checked his human-wrecking-ball act into the game.
Fans wore shaggy blonde wigs and imitated his signature Birdman hand gesture by interlocking their thumbs and flapping their fingers whenever Andersen threw down one of his high-flying yet lovably clumsy dunks. He never averaged more than seven points or six rebounds in a season, but seeing that toothy grin after he crashed into the stands trying to save a ball he had no shot at was worth the price of admission.
And Linda loved it just as much as anyone. But when the game was over and he disappeared into the tunnel, fans couldn't see what she could. That Andersen was unable to turn off who he was. That the circle of unscrupulous characters entering his world was bleeding him dry. That an NBA paycheck was like nitroglycerin in his pocket. She may have raised him to raise hell, but she also taught him to say when.
But Andersen had passed his breaking point. For the first time, his mother couldn't save him. And they would pay the price equally.
Jan. 25, 2006:
Hornets coach Byron Scott blew his whistle signaling the end of practice. Players broke off into pairs to shoot the customary postpractice free throws. Shooting 47 percent from the line, this was a daily drill Andersen couldn't afford to miss.
general manager Jeff Bower had sat through practice that day. He came down out of the stands and motioned for Scott, then whispered in his ear. Scott, in turn, called Andersen over to the sideline. The results of his recent drug test had come back from the league. Bower didn't have to say a word; Andersen knew he had tested positive. They spoke for three or four minutes. Andersen slouched a bit and looked to the floor. Then he immediately left the gym and cleaned out his locker.
Scott had started to suspect something when Andersen regularly began missing practices and shootarounds. He thought he'd looked pale but chalked it up to harmless late-night partying. All the trainers would tell him was that he had "flu-like symptoms." Scott had planned to talk to him, but now it was too late.
The story of Chris "Birdman" Andersen, the NBA's wild child who pushed himself over the edge, cannot be separated from that of the woman who raised him as an extension of herself.
A former basketball player in high school, now on the other side of 50 and standing a hair over 6 feet, her oval face is accented by soft features and a warm, dawdling Southern drawl. Her two-dozen tattoos, including permanent cherry red lips and black eyeliner, are a product of her days running with the notorious Bandidos biker gang. Though polite and maternalistic -- "Can I get you some tea?" she often asks -- her charmingly rough edges and tough-girl disposition served her well amongst the double crossers and miscreants that tend to populate a hardscrabble life.
Linda Ogle was raised in the shadow of the mist in the Smoky Mountains of Gatlinburg, Tenn., by parents who were also Harley Davidson-riding free spirits -- Jack, a carpenter, and Kate, a waitress at a local diner.
When she was 8, her father put her behind the wheel of his '54 Chevy and taught her to navigate winding mountain roads. He would sit on the back of his Hog and let Linda work the clutch and throttle as they burned up the interstate. At 10, she fired her first gun. The recoil of the .45 put her on her behind.
When the carpentering dried up, Linda's father enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to a base in Long Beach, Calif. She adjusted to California easily, learning to surf after buying a board at a garage sale for $25. When her father left for a tour in Vietnam, she decided on a career in the armed forces, hoping to become a registered nurse and see combat. She got a job at Port Hueneme, just north of Malibu, serving food in the mess hall.
One day a tall, smooth-talking corrections officer named Claus Andersen came through her line. Andersen, who had emigrated from Denmark, often would talk about his faraway adventures and persuaded Linda to move in with him. Three months later, they were married.
Dec. 12, 2005:
The first thing you notice about Chris Andersen is the hair. As soon as he emerges from the locker room at the Sawyer Center, the Hornets' temporary practice facility on the campus of Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma City, it overtakes you. The rowdy, shoulder-length blond locks cover his face, Cousin Itt-style.
"Whassup, pimp?" he says with a crooked smile, holding out a fist. That's the second thing you notice, the jolting-but-refreshing blend of unpolished Southern charm, blue-collar ethos and childlike enthusiasm that has endeared him to everyone from his hip-hop-loving teammates to the workaday, F-150-driving sports fan.
He's instructed by a team official that he's next up to sign a stack of Christmas ornaments. He uncaps a silver Sharpie and scribbles his signature on 71 orange and purple ornaments in 90 seconds. The 72nd is smashed to bits in one of the boxes.
"What happened, Bird?" says teammate Desmond Mason, taking the pen from him.
"I tried to eat it," says Andersen. "I thought it was an orange."
In a flash, the Birdman makes for the door. Little-used Lithuanian rookie guard Arvydas Macijauskas pushes past Andersen at the same time and mumbles farewell in English.
"What the hell did he say?" asks Andersen. "I don't speak that language."
We're off to a middle-school appearance, where he'll teach kids how to do his signature Birdman sign. In the parking lot he jumps in the black 2006 Ford Expedition he's owned for less than a month. He mashes the gas when he drove through a shallow puddle, causing the rear end of the car to pitch sideways as a mushroom cloud of smoke rises from the pavement.
Iola, Texas, is a place you've probably never heard of until now. This is nowhere. But to Linda Holubec, this is home.
In 1982, she and Claus moved to Texas with their three children, April, Chris and Tamie. With a loan from the Texas Veterans Land Board, they bought a 10-acre plot in unincorporated Iola (population: 236), about 100 miles north of Houston. Down a dirt road off County Road 170 that was used more by wild boars than humans, the Andersens raised their children. They were the only family for two miles. Linda hammered together a makeshift wooden street sign on which she painted the words Bluebonnet Lane, named after the Texas state flower.
Linda says Claus promised to build her and the kids a house, and said maybe they'd raise some cattle. In the middle of the property, which sloped gently to the west, the frame of the two-story, three-bedroom house went up. A week later, Claus was gone.
He had decided family living wasn't for him. At least not in godforsaken Grimes County. He was off to peddle his artwork -- landscape oil paintings were his new passion -- in more cosmopolitan places like New York City, taking with him the remainder of the loan money.
Then it dawned on Linda what had just happened: Claus moved the family to rural Texas to escape California's strict alimony and child-support laws, she says.
"How could you do that to your own kids?" Linda asks with tears in her eyes. "All they did was love you, and you walked away from them."
The man she loved, for whom she had picked up her life and moved halfway across the country, had deserted her. Chris was numb. He would sit for hours in the barn with his knees pulled up to his chest, rocking back and forth. For weeks when Linda left to run errands, Tamie, the youngest, would scream, "Don't leave me."
Linda fell into a deep depression. Feeling she couldn't cope with it alone, she took the children to therapy but pulled out after a few weeks because they had to save money.
"We had a half a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread," she says. "We had nothing."
She was unemployed, had no savings and begged Claus for child support. Fortunately, they did have the support of neighbors Betty and Wesley Crenshaw, who dropped by with milk, sugar, butter and whatever else they could spare. But mostly, they lived off the land. Linda would trap copperheads, skin them and make belts or cook what little meat they had.
When it came to the bills, Linda could no longer even tread water. Though she found work as a short order cook, a janitor and a door-to-door "Avon lady," she couldn't keep up. She was tapped both emotionally and physically. Linda sent the children to a group home in Dallas during Andersen's middle school years so that they wouldn't go without food or a warm bed.
"Not being with the kids was the most painful time of my life," she says. "You think about them every day and wonder if they're all right." The children remained in the home for nearly three years before returning to Iola.
Linda's brother, James Ogle, a Navy supply boat captain, left his job in California and emptied his savings to help them finish the house. He arrived in Texas with a stove in the back of his pickup truck. He dug a hole for the septic tank with a shovel. He built a tree swing for the girls and put a basketball goal on the barn where Chris and his mom would shoot around. He bought a cow trough and filled it with water so the kids could have a swimming pool because the small pond was occupied by water moccasins. And with leftover tin from the roof, he hammered out a sliding board.
One day Claus drove down Bluebonnet Lane in his shiny new Mercedes with his latest girlfriend in the passenger seat. Chris spotted him and began to run toward the car. When he saw Chris running, his father gunned the car and took off.
"My daddy wanted to shoot him," says Linda, "and I shoulda let him done it."
After 26 years, the pain from the memory still smolders beneath the surface. It took her years to accept the fact that Claus didn't want his children. She's never been able to fully explain to her son why his father didn't love him.
Until the house was completed, the family sought shelter in a Depression Era barn that was already on the property. It was like a lost page out of a John Steinbeck novel. They set up a makeshift, one-room apartment amid the hay and horseflies, across from the stalls and chicken coops. Wesley Crenshaw rigged the barn with electricity to power space heaters so they wouldn't freeze on those cold Texas nights. Outside, a garden hose and spigot made showering possible. Scrawny coyotes in search of food would make bold trips up to the barn, scaring the kids. Crowing roosters woke them every morning at dawn.
After she put the kids to bed, Linda would walk the fence line with a .38 tucked in her waistband, "looking for sidewinders, the kind that slither or walk on two legs." Linda was big on protection. Her brother gave her a .357, which she would use for target practice during the day. She wanted people to hear the gunshots so they knew not to mess with her.
Dec. 27, 2004:
Fifteen minutes after practice, Andersen pulls up to Hooters, his regular hangout in Oklahoma City. Once inside, a waitress named Shasta with prerequisite 36Cs and the standard-issue Hooters uniform -- shimmery orange short shorts and a white, one-size-too-small, low-cut T-shirt -- sidles over to take his order.
"What would you like to drink?" she asks Andersen.
"Uh," he replies slowly. "Water."
She heads to the back for our refreshments.
"All I could think about was milk," quips Andersen. "Freshly squeezed."
Hooters is as good a place as any for Andersen to recall the unlikely story of a self-proclaimed redneck who never had much of a plan yet still ended up the league's most eccentric cult figure of a ramblin' man.
From his unfiltered running dialogues to his oh-no-he-didn't wardrobe (think Clyde Frazier meets Kevin Federline), he's the latest bud on the Dawkins/Walton/Rodman family tree.
His mink coat is legendary among teammates, as is his penchant to rock it with jeans and a trucker hat.
"It doesn't matter," says Hornets forward David West. "He'll wear it with anything, but that's just Bird."
In his first go-round in the league, his spiky hair got more attention than anything his teams did on the court. Jack Nicholson once pointed to the 'do and gave him a thumbs-up from his courtside seat at the Staples Center.
"I told him to put me in a movie," Andersen says. "The next 'Batman.'"
Andersen's earliest foray into athletics was jumping over an electric fence that was meant to keep the cows from getting out. His idea of motorsports was playing car tag in the Navasota River bottom.
In his early teens he played baseball, but his Texas-sized strike zone limited his effectiveness. He tried football, too. Every year the coach put him at defensive end and wide receiver because of his 4.7 speed in the 40-yard dash. And every year he ended up quitting after a week or two.
My head got so big I thought I could do anything.
Finally, the varsity basketball coach convinced him that if he focused on basketball, he had a chance at a college scholarship. On winter nights in Iola, the entire town packed itself into a gym that seated 300 to watch its tallest citizen transform himself into a 198-pound flyswatter.
Despite his human eraser act, few colleges came calling because he wasn't cutting it in the classroom. Andersen committed to play for Clyde Drexler at the University of Houston but couldn't make the grades he needed. Linda apologized to Drexler profusely.
But his high school coach's father happened to be the head coach at Blinn Junior College in Brenham, so he took Andersen. He played one season at Blinn, averaging 10.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.7 blocked shots in just 21.3 minutes per game, leading all college players in blocks. On weekends, Andersen brought half the team back to Iola for barbecues. Linda always sent them off with blueberry cobbler made from fresh berries she picked in the pasture behind the house.
People told him he could make tons of money in the pros, that his wild game could lead him out of his backwoods corner of the world.
"My head got so big I thought I could do anything," he says.
Anything except get drafted. He didn't know you had to officially apply for the draft, not just declare.
"When I left Blinn I really didn't know what I was doing," he says. "I didn't have a plan."
His high school coach arranged for him to play a series of exhibition games with the Texas Ambassadors, a semipro traveling team made up of former college players. One of their exhibitions took them to China, where Andersen caught the eye of a Chinese professional coach when he blocked several shots into the stands. He was made an offer to join the Jiangsu Nangang Dragons.
"I didn't really like working, so I took the offer," he says.
He left in December 2000 for Beijing and lived in a hotel for the entire 4½ months he was with the team. "Imagine taking a guy who had only ever been out of Texas twice and putting him in the middle of China," says Andersen with a grin. "Just try and picture that."
Oct. 20, 2001:
On the first day of the inaugural training camp for the NBA's new minor league called the D-League, hopefuls sat quietly in a cavernous gym in Suwanee, Ga. Nearly 200 players had been invited to compete for 88 spots on eight teams. Some fiddled with their shoelaces. Others tried their best not to look nervous.
When Keith Booth, possessor of two championship rings as a member of the Chicago Bulls, swaggered in, one player said, "Only 87 spots left."
Later, former Kentucky point guard Saul Smith arrived. A low, rumbling chatter rolled down from the top of the bleachers.
Next in was UNLV's Greedy Daniels. "Oh, he's quick," offered another. And this went on all afternoon.
Finally, Andersen sauntered in. A player reclining back on the bleachers chuckled dismissively and wondered aloud, "Where'd they find this guy?"
Just two games into the inaugural season, Andersen became the first-ever D-League call-up when the Nuggets signed him to a one-year, $289,747 contract on Nov. 21, 2001. The first complete NBA game he saw was from the Nuggets' bench two days later.
But the transition wasn't exactly storybook. Comic-book, maybe. Once on the road in Memphis, he bought a pit bull puppy he named Red Sonja. He didn't take into consideration that the team still had two more stops before returning to Denver. The coaches discovered the pup on the team bus on the way to the airport.
There was the time, when on injured reserve, he showed up on the bench in shorts and a T-shirt, and Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik made him watch the game from the locker room. With fans he was an instant hit, but not everyone was smitten by his eccentricities. Bzdelik hated them. When he saw Andersen's gel-supported, inch-high spikes, he made him wash them out. Another time, he fumed when Andersen curled his hair like Little Orphan Annie for a playoff game.
"You were never really sure what he would do next," says former teammate Marcus Camby.
But Andersen didn't care, because he was in the NBA and the money was flowing. This was promising news for Linda and her husband, Norm, who needed Andersen to make good on his promise to strike it rich. When the stock market had crashed after Sept. 11, they lost 90 percent of the nearly $200,000 they had saved for retirement.
But Andersen would soon part with his money for all too different reasons.
That 289K was like sand through his fingers. He began to develop a rep as a hard partier. He inhaled Jack & Cokes like a wet vac and could make a case of Bud Light disappear by himself. At first, Linda, who understood that boys will be boys, gently warned her son.
"I've partied with the best of them myself," she says. "But you don't let it affect your work."
Andersen would nod and say he had everything under control, but Linda could see otherwise.
"I could tell what he was doing by the way he was running up and down the court," she says. "His lips would be all white and he would be sucking air. If I could see it from the stands, I know his coaches could."
Linda felt if she were closer to him she could help curtail his recklessness. So she, Norm, Tamie and her 1-year-old daughter Kassie moved to Denver. And since Andersen's new home wasn't equipped with a washer and dryer, she loaded hers in a horse trailer and hitched it to their truck. Norm drove the truck, and Linda followed on her Harley despite subfreezing temperatures.
"That's just a mother's love," she says. "I had to get to my son."
She put on several pairs of wool socks, lined her leather jacket with newspapers and wrapped freezer bags over her riding gloves. When she stopped at a gas station to clean her windshield just outside the Texas panhandle, she pulled the squeegee out of the bucket, only to find it connected to a block of ice. Later, the Harley broke down because of condensation in the carburetor. After 400 miles, Linda's frostbitten fingers could no longer work the clutch. They stopped at a Motel 6 for the night, where Linda promptly rolled the Harley into the room.
When she got to Denver, she found Andersen's finances in a mess. There was no discernible pattern to his spending, except that it was full tilt. Andersen had never received any formal money-management training from the league.
He lacked both the skill and desire to balance his own checkbook. As long as his ATM card worked, he was fine. Linda sat down with a pile of his bills and statements and tried to make sense of it. She noticed a meal he had in New York was charged three times for the same amount. Then she saw the thousands of dollars in shoes he bought for his ever-ballooning circle of new friends. There was a bar bill for $900. He would regularly hire limos to take his friends out on the town.
"Stay in, order food, play video games," Linda urged him. "You don't have to go out every night."
When she searched the Internet for his name, she would find signed Nuggets gear he gave to his friends on auction Web sites. Meanwhile, he stopped making the payments on the Expedition she had co-signed for, and her credit was destroyed.
After a while Andersen began giving her $500 a month for her diabetes medicine and painkillers for the two cracked vertebrae she suffered during a training exercise in the Army. But he made good on little else.
The house he promised her seemed only a pipe dream. She bit her tongue when she found a receipt for a $5,000 designer purse he bought one of his girlfriends. "I had a $10 denim purse and made my own clothes," scoffs Linda. When he bought another girl a Jaguar, she was hurt and confused. This wasn't her son.
But Andersen was a magnet for hangers-on. There was the pretty schoolteacher from Dallas with a penchant for expensive clothes. ("She just loved Gucci," says Linda.) And the bellhop he met while partying at a downtown Denver hotel. ("He left when the money dried up.")
Then there were his pals from Iola. He often wrote checks to cover their bail when they ran afoul of the law. Once he dropped four grand on tickets when the Nuggets played in Houston. When Andersen bought his first house just southwest of Denver, his friends would show up to play video games and drink beer. Linda was miffed when one of them got the idea to drive one state over to buy illegal fireworks one summer.
Andersen was drinking more than ever. She felt like a stranger in her son's home. Then one day Linda reached her breaking point. One of Andersen's friends was playing a little too roughly with Andersen's girlfriend and began choking her with a scarf. Adrenaline surged through Linda's veins. Her protective maternal instincts took over. She grabbed the guy and put him in a headlock.
"I told him I ride Harleys and I tote guns and you don't want to be messin' with me," she says. At that point she decided that she'd had enough.
Linda and her son were fighting all the time. If Andersen was going to drown in a destructive lifestyle, she wasn't going to watch him do it. The next day she told her husband and the kids they were going back to Texas.
The three-day trek back home was a sad and arduous journey. The seismic change in the mother/son bond had left her drained. She felt powerless. All she wanted to do was cry.
When they got home, the little house looked sadder than ever. She half hoped it would just fall over. It took them all day to hack down the 6-foot-high weeds that had sprung up. Venomous brown recluse spiders hovered in the corners of every room. Termites had decimated the siding. The black mold upstairs was like wallpaper. A family of rattlesnakes had taken up residence in the cupboard next to some dried-out pasta. They fed on the droves of field mice -- the ones that lived in the walls and dared venture onto the counters.
Jan. 21, 2006:
The Hornets milled about in the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden. After dismantling the Knicks 109-98 for their 20th win of the season, spirits were high.
Andersen emerged from a back room and ran a towel through his floppy hair. In his right hand was a can of Bud Light. He chugged half the can, then belched.
"Now that's what I call an energy drink," he said.
Despite the off-court difficulties he had managed to keep quiet for so long, Andersen had played his way into his biggest payday ever, signing a four-year, $14 million deal with the Hornets in the summer of 2005. He had developed such a following that the team used his likeness on billboards to sell season-ticket packages, even though he was the team's seventh-leading scorer.
Andersen continued to mask his partying. He went through a painful breakup with a longtime girlfriend and turned to illegal drugs to help him escape the funk.
Then came the drug test.
He says he didn't shed a single tear after his banishment.
"When I look back at everything that happened, I don't regret it," he says. "This whole thing saved my life. I needed this to happen. I don't know where I'd be today if I didn't change my ways."
Shortly after his expulsion, he entered a rehab clinic and jettisoned his destructive friends. By the summer of 2007, Andersen was fully focused on returning to the NBA. He was working out in Las Vegas with trainer Joe Abunassar and playing in highly competitive pickup games featuring Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal and Al Harrington. He got down to a svelte 228 pounds, began to extend his shooting range and developed a reliable jump hook. His outlook on life also got a makeover.
"I know this doesn't last forever. I'm not going to throw away what I have over something stupid," he says. "But I haven't changed a bit. I'm still the same person I always was. I just don't do the things I used to. I'm smarter now."
He pauses for a bit.
"And my 3-point shot is deadly."
The subject of his mother is not easily broached by Andersen. During a recent interview at the Hornets' practice facility when her name is brought up, Andersen shuts down. His bounce disappears, and he begins to rock almost involuntarily back and forth, no longer offering the courtesy of eye contact.
When asked if he shared his ordeal with his mother, he drifts off and quickly tries to redirect the conversation.
"Uh, I've been back home a time or two since I was suspended," he says without confidence, "you know, to see everybody.
"Everything's cool. Yup, no place like Iola. Mom's good."
(Two days later Linda would say they haven't seen each other since he lived in Denver.)
When a team PR official drifts by to check on him, it's Andersen's perfect escape. He quickly transitions to community work he's interested in doing. He starts to boil his answers down to a few words, leaving uncomfortable gaps in the conversation. He bids farewell moments later.
The sting of their fractured relationship is too much, but not enough for him to give you Linda's phone number long after they stopped speaking.
March 26, 2008:
In the players' lounge at the Hornets' practice facility just outside of New Orleans, Andersen is involved in a spirited game of pingpong with David West. After he loses, Anderson jokes with Morris Peterson about West's form and vows revenge.
Only three players remain on the roster since Andersen last suited up, but after just a month he has worked himself back into the fabric of the team.
And he still loves Hooters.
"I went to one the other day in New Orleans," he says. "The food was terrible, but the menu wasn't bad, if you know what I mean."
Then he summons his best Borat impression to make the point, "Niiice!"
The tired Texas sun finally dips behind the horizon. The cattle over on Betty and Wesley Crenshaw's old farm settle in for the night. The incessant clinking from dime-sized June bugs that recklessly ricochet off the patio's tin roof make it sound like it's hailing.
Linda sits on the enclosed patio talking about her only son. She slowly thumbs through a stack of fuzzy pictures taken with a disposable camera from a time when Chris would knock you out of the way for her banana pudding, green bean casserole and homemade biscuits.
There's one of him back in juco. It's been so long since he had a buzz cut. Mom and son in China. Look at the way he has his arm around me.
A mother's love is tireless. She has to believe this is the year he will call on her birthday.
And she holds out hope that her son will buy her the house he once promised. On the patio her eyes well up with tears. But it's obvious it's not the house that's making her cry.
"I'm always hopeful that he'll come around," she says in a soft, wavering voice. "He's busy right now, I know. I'll give him time. I'll let him do his thing and pray he's doing well. I know he can turn his life around. I'll never stop worrying about him no matter how old he gets."
Chris Palmer is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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