The Heat Begin to Write Their Story
by Tracy Weissenberg
Here’s the great irony surrounding a championship. Winning one should be pure joy—the culmination of a season of hard work, sacrifice, commitment and dominance. It should be a pleasure, not a burden. A ring should be the tangible representation of the work of an organization—not only the guys on the floor, but the front office that put them there and the countless coaches and employees behind the scenes. But some have made winning a ring a testament to a player’s value—a frustrating concept as individual superstars only have so much control over the organization they play for and the teammates that surround them.
So the players that joined the Heat as free agents decided to take some of this control back. Whether or not they end up with a ring, at least they can say they tried together, on their own terms, in a shared spotlight.
And don’t forget, plenty of other players besides LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined the Heat this summer, forming a melting pot of career paths that makes the roster so intriguing. Miami, despite projections and historical implications, is certainly not a finished product. They’ll be the first ones to tell you that.
Dealing with the absence of Dwyane Wade (due to a hamstring injury and an ongoing court case) and a freak injury to Mike Miller are two curveballs the team had to swing at this preseason. The Heat signed veteran Jerry Stackhouse with hopes that he can fill the void left by Miller’s absence, as he becomes a new addition on a roster filled with new faces. And everyone—including the team’s three superstars—will have to learn and embrace their roles. So while the expectations of others may have the Heat at the top, the players know that their competition will never concede anything based on résumés and hype. The Heat drew up a perfect outline. All that’s left is to play out the chapters.
So let’s call preseason the prologue. And let’s start the story with Juwan Howard, the Heat member with the most NBA experience at 16 seasons. In a way, there’s probably an aspect of his career that resonates with each of his teammates. “I’ve had a lot of experience throughout my years—I’ve been on really good teams, I’ve been on average teams, I’ve been on bad teams—so you do the math,” he says.
Howard talks about the mentality of the team when he says, “We of course have instilled early that sacrifice, commitment, teamwork, dedication, hard work is a part of our trend and that’s how we’re gonna start it off and that’s how we’re gonna continue throughout the season.”
If someone told Howard during his college days how it would all end up for him as well as other members of Michigan’s legendary Fab 5, what would he say? “I would think they would be kidding me, but no one ever told me that I’d have an opportunity to play with a guy like Chris Webber…during my first four years in the NBA. I would never believe that and it happened. So there are a lot of surprises and you know, I’m just gonna welcome it with open arms.”
And welcoming the opportunity is something a lot of his teammates relate to this season. Asked about his aggressive preseason play, LeBron James says, “For me, I don’t like to waste opportunities and I just try to get better, help our team get better every night.”
Udonis Haslem, who has spent all seven of his seasons with the Heat, knows that this situation does not come without sacrifice. “I think the sacrifice was made from day one…we understood that we’re not all gonna be able to go out and do it on our own. We’ve been there before, these guys have been there before, they’ve put teams on their back, and it hasn’t quite gone the way that everybody’s wanted it to go. This is a situation where we understand that we need each other, collectively, and we gotta be all in one accord to get it done,” he says.
What’s it like to be part of such an up-and-down trajectory for a franchise that won a championship in 2006, only 15 games in 2007-08, and is now back in talks to contend for a title? “As a competitor, you hate to go through the down seasons, you hate to go through the rebuilding stages,” Haslem says, “but make no mistake about it, every team that we’ve been a part of here, we’ve had confidence in the guys, we’ve had confidence in the players and the coaching staff. Things haven’t always worked out the way we wanted but this is another situation where it’s a lot of hype around us, but within us, we still understand we got a lot of work to do and a lot of ground to make up to even be able to compete with the Lakers, and the Magics and the Bostons.”
Haslem says his role will be “the same role I’ve always had. Be a leader on and off the floor, play hard, set the tone defensively, hit the boards, and knock down open shots.”
While Haslem’s game may not change, the skill sets of those around him will. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade ranked one and two last season, respectively, in single games in which a player led his team in both points and assists (58 games for James, 45 for Wade). On playing with such elite playmakers, Haslem says, “It’s very special. You got two guys that demand so much attention and not just those two guys, you got Chris Bosh in the post who demands a lot of attention as well. We got a lot of guys that demand double teams, and sometimes even triple teams, and as a role player, you gotta be prepared to knock down shots and help those guys out.”
Haslem says the key to going deep in the playoffs and potentially contending for a title is defense. “We have a pretty solid team, where we’re going to be able to put up points. We gotta be able to defend and rebound without fouling,” he says.
And part of good defense is getting on the same page, something James says will be an easier adjustment due to the amount of experience on the club. “We’re a veteran ball club here and we have a lot of guys that know how to play the game and don’t need much time to implement a system,” he says, “defensively is the easiest thing, it’s offense that kind of takes a little bit longer because you have to understand guys’ tendencies, pros and cons and things like that, but defensively, we can figure out on the fly.”
Chris Bosh emphasizes the importance of an adjustment period when asked about the team’s chemistry. “Well obviously it’s not already there, it takes a long time,” he says, “People are expecting us to just I guess magically come in the locker room and have the greatest team on earth and it never happens like that. We have to work hard, we have to play a lot of games and we have to see the same situations over and over and kind of learn each other.”
On whether players understand their roles now and going forward, Bosh says, “Yeah, we’re getting there. Like I said, that comes along with chemistry. The more we play together, the more roles will be defined.”
With Wade back after playing only one preseason game and Miller expected out until January, the Heat have a glimpse of what their team will look like to start the season. While many have called attention to sacrifice, the season is more about promise. The promise to merge such varied career paths into one goal, as winning a championship can provide closure to some, an answer for others and a new beginning, collectively, for all those involved.