Heat at Home
Written by Dan Le Batard / Illustration by David Le Batard
The Miami Heat, you may have heard, had a grandiose plan. Three Heat players -- not the three you've read most about -- have quite an uncommon link to that plan.
But it hasn't worked out exactly as they imagined back when they were merely dreaming, back before things like losses and ligaments got in the way. One was injured. One was benched. And one was sent away.
That has made the climate around the Heat feel, all at once, very warm and very cold. Being at home in Miami? That part is cool. Having so little control over the thermostat in your own house? That part burns.
When the Toronto Raptors visited Miami, they had players from Brazil, Rome, Australia, Russia, Nigeria, Croatia and Spain. There was no one on the team from the entire country of Canada, never mind from the city of Toronto.
"What we have here is so unique," the Miami Heat's James Jones says. "We're into something special. This just doesn't happen. You never, ever see this."
Basketball is such a global game. The world is scoured for talent -- 30 teams, only 15 jobs on each, every player on the planet elbowing his way up the survival-of-the-fittest ecosystem to fight for that pile of money. Given how much competition there is for so few positions, and given how precious little basketball talent comes out of Miami, it is as likely that you'll find a player from Turkey on the Miami Heat roster as it is that you'll find one who is homegrown.
Three Heat players who developed their dreams as kids in streets near the arena?
Three Miami guys who get to be a part of the most insane and interesting Heat season ever?
"There are no words to express how truly blessed I feel," guard Carlos Arroyo said, "to be a part of something like this."
Of course, he said this just before he no longer was.
Miami produces football players, not basketball players. Lakers guard Steve Blake grew up here. And Utah's Raja Bell and Milwaukee's John Salmons went to college at Florida International University and the University of Miami, respectively. In other words, the Heat had as many Miami guys on its roster most of this season as all other NBA teams combined (not counting Gilbert Arenas and Trevor Ariza, who were born in Miami but left as infants).
"When the guys in the barbershop tell me to 'Bring it home,' it isn't just a saying," Heat forward Udonis Haslem says. "This really is my home. This is personal. It is bigger than basketball."
There are times, after making a 3-pointer, that James Jones will scan the crowd for a particular face. He is looking for someone inside this dream who helped make it happen, "It blows you away, to see the excitement in the face of family members and friends, to see their joy in seeing you be successful," James says. "They had something to do with me being here. And now they get to share in my delight, in my light."
The best part isn't merely climbing the mountain, toward that light.
The best part isn't even the exhilaration or accomplishment in arriving atop it.
No, the best part is bringing so many people with you to enjoy that view.
"That sharing," Jones says, "is indescribable."
What's it worth?
Playing at home?
Well, no, actually, it has a price.
For Haslem, it was exactly $24 million.
His first big Miami contract was $10 million less than he was offered by Atlanta. He chose to stay home. Last offseason, while Denver and Dallas offered him $34 million, he accepted $20 million to stay in Miami.
"My family needs me here," he says. "I can send money from another state. But they need more than money. They need all of me to be here."
His mother passed away last summer. She was on her deathbed when he informed her that he would be taking $14 million less to remain in Miami. He says it was the last time he ever saw her smile.
James Jones says he once hit 115 straight 3-pointers in practice. That's his record, and that's his niche -- shooting from distance. It is how he beat Ray Allen in the 3-point contest at the All-Star game. Having sharing slashers like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James is obviously very good for business in his limited line of work. Trevor Ariza predicted before the season that no one in the league would have more wide-open 3s than Jones.
Weird season for him though -- from starting to benched to now being the Heat's most consistent long-range playoff threat again. Mike Miller can do more, and is a $30 million investment, but he keeps getting hurt. So Jones hit more 3s in the first half of this season than he had in the last two years combined. Then, in the entire month after winning the 3-point contest, he took as many shots as he did in the season's second game alone (nine).
Jones can't create his own shot. No player in the league has required an assist on a higher percentage of his shots.
So which would you choose if you had to pick, James?
Would you play with this rock-star team in another city, with slashers who get you open, or would you play with a lesser NBA team and less help in your hometown?
"That's a good question," Jones says. "But my choice would be to play in Miami."
How many tickets you need?
"I can fill the upper bowl," Haslem says.
Haslem turns to a media relations employee.
"How many season tickets I have?" he asks.
Twelve is the answer.
"But I have to get four or five more for each game," he says. "Sometimes more."
Says Arroyo: "I put an end to that mess. I don't answer my phone."
Jones has 10 tickets per game.
"Not enough," he says.
The worst part of playing at home?
No, from family.
"Family is always the worst critic," Jones says.
"Family always wants more," Arroyo says.
"They don't mean any harm," Jones says.
"But it's always what you could have done better," Arroyo says.
"How'd you let that fool block your shot?" James says.
Comforts Of Home
Haslem is asked for his favorite spot in all of Miami.
The nightclubs where he is a VIP? The noisy, swaying arena where he has hit game-winners? The beach where LeBron James promised to take his talents?
"Auntie's house," he says without a hiccup of hesitation.
He's a Liberty City baby. That's where the riots were when he was a kid. It is one of the most dangerous places in a dangerous Miami, but Haslem goes back all the time. The flea market. Church. Food at Snapper's and Conch House. He's got so much family within a two-block radius in the projects. His expensive car is safe wherever he parks it. Everyone just seems to know to protect the fruit this cruel asphalt garden helped grow.
You hear athletes talk a lot about brotherhood and the team as a family, but Haslem feels it more than most. This hard, hard man has rarely been as moved as he was that brutal night in the neighborhood, at his mother's wake, when, one by one, he saw his Heat teammates and Pat Riley and the entire Miami public-relations department walk into the room.
Haslem was supposed to be the team's enforcer. The reason James and Wade and Chris Bosh took millions less to make room for him, even though James and Bosh didn't really know him, is because they knew they needed a rugged man to do the less famous things when the fouls got harder. Haslem scowls a lot, and he has these sleepy eyes that have seen a lifetime's worth of sadness. His late mother was an addict. Asked how many places he lived as a kid, he shrugs his giant shoulders.
"Five? Six? Seven?" he says.
But now he's talking about the courts behind grandma's house. The low rims. The first he dunked on. And then, as he grew up, the higher ones for the bigger kids. He always stares at them when he goes back to grandma's for those biscuits and cakes made from scratch, watching the new dreamers play.
"It was just yesterday," he says. "So innocent."
I've interviewed him since he was in high school.
This is the first time I can remember asking him about something that actually made him smile.
Arroyo is a proud little dude. He left his family in Puerto Rico to live with strangers in Georgia as a high schooler because that gave him the best shot at a basketball scholarship and future. From there, it was off to Florida International University, where the food was Latin-fried and the coaches spoke Spanish and the mall felt more like Puerto Rico than anything in the 50 states. While in college, he was offered tickets to Heat games and his coach even arranged for him to meet Pat Riley. Arroyo declined.
"I didn't want to go to an NBA game," he says, "until I was playing in one."
Miami is Arroyo's sixth NBA team. It is Jones' fourth. Haslem, 70 pounds lighter, arrived here from the Chalon-Sur-Saone team in France.
"We've taken a lot of different paths," Jones says, "to end up back at our roots."
This may be why Haslem's injury hurts more than most. He has traveled so far to get here. But he tore a foot ligament in the 13th game, when the Heat were 8-5. He had been out ever since, until his return in the Boston series. How did it feel to sit and watch?
"It feels terrible," he says.
The worst part?
Not being able to protect Dwyane Wade and LeBron James when someone fouls them hard.
"I don't have words for how much that bothers me," he says.
Pride On The Line
Haslem is so proud to be Miami. He doesn't even mind being hated. LeBron joked, after the Heat were called thugs on the road in Philadelphia, that Miami should travel in fatigues like those despised University of Miami Hurricane football teams did two decades ago. Haslem loved those rebellious Hurricanes. He was distracted during play early in the season, awed that Michael Irvin was sitting courtside to see Haslem's hated team.
"In my house on Saturdays," he says, "you were a Hurricane or you were homeless."
But, Udonis, you went to college at the rival University of Florida....
Haslem stares at you with those sleepy eyes.
"Business decision," he spits.
Arroyo is asked what he likes best about Miami.
He responds in Spanish.
"Climate," he says. "Food. Language. And the people."
"El calor of the Latin people," he says in Spanglish.
Calor is Spanish for heat.
He has bounced around the NBA. He has played in a lot of American cities. Canada, too.
"Detroit and Utah are cold cities," he says.
"Not just the climate," he says.
Ah, but Miami can go cold, too. And fast. Arroyo was shooting a career-high 44 percent from 3. He was one of the few players on this herky-jerky team who can point to an empirical statistic proving that he was made better by the Big Three. But then Mike Bibby became available. He, too, was shooting 44 percent from 3 in Atlanta. And so, between autograph appearances in stores near his college, Arroyo was waived as Bibby was introduced to a standing ovation. From starting point guard to replaced and then forgotten, just like that.
"I felt a bit disappointed," Arroyo says. "I really felt a part of that team. My family and friends were upset because they all thought it was an unfair situation. But I have a better understanding of the business than they do. All my memories from playing in Miami are great memories. I will always be grateful for that opportunity."
The smallest things disrupt when you don't feel like home.
"Playing in Portland, the time change meant I wasn't talking to Mom and Dad after games," Jones says.
"Now I'm walking down the street, and I run into someone every day that I don't recognize but I kind of do -- and he has been following me for 20 years," he says.
When you play away from home?
"You press a pause button for six months," Jones says. "You create as few ripples as possible for your kids and wife. You keep everything in a box."
And when you are at home?
"I stop by my parents' house unannounced for barbeque," he says. "They still live in the same house I grew up in. I bring them the kids to babysit regularly. No nannies. No aunts. Gigi and Papa make the kids that incredible mac and cheese over. That wasn't happening in Portland."
"What was it like?" Arroyo asks Haslem.
They are talking about the Heat championship parade in 2006. Wade and Haslem are the only members of that champion who remain on the team.
"It's unexplainable," Haslem says.
"You gotta see it and feel it, huh?" Arroyo asks.
"You don't understand," Haslem says. "I've been to a bunch of parades. But nothing like that. Ever. It's all love in the neighborhood."
Nobody was crying the way Haslem was in the championship locker room.
He was sobbing, shoulders shaking.
"There's nothing," he says, "like winning close to your roots."
Brothers Dan and David Le Batard collaborated on this project. They've lived in South Florida all their lives. Dan is a writer and radio host. David is an artist and illustrator for lebostudios.
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