- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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MIAMI -- Rashard Lewis stands nearly seven feet tall, especially now that he's rediscovered health and the healing powers of a place in the Miami Heat's playing rotation.
But at his lowest point, when bouts with debilitating, acute tendinitis literally buckled Lewis to his knees two years ago, the 6-10 veteran forward took inventory of his career as he was on the verge of retiring from the game.
At that time, Lewis had played 13 seasons in the NBA, had earned one of the most lucrative contracts in league history and had once reached the Finals with the Orlando Magic before he was dealt to the rebuilding Washington Wizards.
The Wizards traded Lewis in 2012 to New Orleans, which bought him out of the final year of a $118-million contract he signed as a free agent to go to Orlando in 2007. Even with the hefty paycheck in his account, Lewis was out of work and ailing. This was virtually his rock bottom.
“It was to a point where we didn't know what was going on,” Lewis said of a tumultuous two-year period when knee pain essentially halted his career. “We talked about having surgery, got different opinions from doctors in New York and doctors in Houston. It just came to a point where if it continued to feel like this and gets worse and worse, then maybe it might be time for me to hang it up.”
After preparing relatives and friends for that possibility, something inside Lewis just wouldn't allow it to happen.
“I wanted to retire on my terms and not because of an injury,” Lewis said. “I knew for some reason I had a lot of basketball left in me. I kept saying in the back of my mind that there's got to be light at the end of the tunnel.”
That light has been rekindled this season in Miami for Lewis, who is the healthiest he's been in three years after spending last season and the summer working to improve his condition. Now in his second season with the Heat, Lewis is among a group of reserves providing a needed spark at a time when injuries, illnesses and a suspension have forced nightly tweaks to coach Erik Spoelstra's lineup.
Lewis has seen his career come full circle this week, with the Heat in the midst of a home-and-home set against the Magic. He played his 1,000th career game during the Heat's 120-92 victory in Orlando on Wednesday and will try to help extend a five-game winning streak when the team's meet again Saturday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Lewis jokes that years of knee soreness no longer allow him to dunk much, but he can still deliver shooting and versatility when his number is called. He is shooting a career-high 41.7 percent on 3-pointers this season and averages 5.2 points and 2.5 rebounds in 19 minutes.
A recent increase in playing time has resulted in Lewis contributing in a variety of ways during the Heat's winning streak. He made all three of his shots and had two steals against Milwaukee at the start of the streak. Lewis then made three 3-pointers and scored 11 points in the win over Dallas. There were his nine points and nine rebounds to help get the Heat past Charlotte, his five steals Tuesday against Atlanta and three assists Wednesday in Orlando.
Heat forward LeBron James said Lewis is showing why the team had so much faith to sign him last summer at a time when it appeared he didn't have much game left.
“When we signed him, I thought it was a steal,” James said. “I thought he would have a bigger role last year. But he was still recovering from the injuries he had. He just waited his turn, and the time is now. He's showing how productive he can be, how important he is to our team. We love him out on the floor. He's back to playing the game like he did when he was wearing a Magic uniform.”
Conventional wisdom might suggest that Lewis wants nothing more than to forget about that frustrating stretch of his career between Orlando's loss to the Lakers in the 2009 Finals and his signing with the Heat in 2012. But Lewis said those dark years reminded him how to persevere through a level of adversity he hadn't experienced since he was passed over in the 1998 lottery out of high school and was taken by Seattle in the second round of the draft.
“I wasn't guaranteed nothing in Seattle,” Lewis said as he reflected on his early years in the league. “I made the team, and it pretty much kind of took off from there when I started getting confidence in myself. It was an uphill climb. I most definitely worked for everything -- to get minutes, to get contracts. It's something I had to work for. It wasn't given to me when I first got in. It's not given to me now.”
Lewis, 34, is determined to make up for the time knee pain robbed from him along his recent turbulent path to Miami.
“When I was in D.C., I went from going to the Finals to a team that can't even make the playoffs,” Lewis said. “For some reason, those were the hardest times of my career, just not happy. Basketball is supposed to be fun, and I just wasn't happy. Playing unhealthy is not good. If anything, it made it worse off for me and I kept injuring myself.”
To get to this point, Lewis committed himself to a workout regimen over the summer that including losing 10 pounds to relieve some of the pressure on his knees. Spoelstra noticed the difference from the start of training camp. Actually, Spoelstra said the turnaround began midway through last season, but the Heat already had an established rotation on the way to their second straight title.
Lewis is now benefiting from the extra playing time that initially resulted from the Heat's decision to amnesty Mike Miller's contract. Back spasms that kept Udonis Haslem out of action for a week and Dwyane Wade missing the past two games with knee soreness also created opportunities.
“It's been a long time,” Spoelstra said of Lewis' progress. “Last year was about getting him back on the court, feeling good about his body and joining an organization he felt comfortable with that was playing for something significant. This summer was about taking the next step. He can into camp in excellent shape and basketball ready, so he's been able to really perform much better.”
Lewis played 55 games for the Heat last season, which included nine starts, but wasn't a factor in the playoff rotation. So in some ways, he feels like his first championship ring was a gift. He was with the right team at an opportune time. Now, a return to health means a return to helping as a consistently contributing rotation player.
“I'm just happy the Heat, their staff, pretty much knew what they could do for me as soon as I came here,” Lewis said. “This is the best I've felt since Orlando. I feel great. I can dunk, but I won't give you nothing freaky now. It's icing on the cake, especially if we win that championship.”