Miami Heat: Before they were pros
The players of the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder have reached the summit of their professional careers: the NBA Finals. But what did it take to get to the pros? Our writers and analysts share their memories of covering the high school and college days of the players who now share the greatest stage in basketball.
Reggie Rankin: I recruited Joel Anthony out of Pensacola Junior College when I was an assistant coach at Nebraska. On his official visit to Lincoln, we even had a great jerk chicken meal at my house. We had an excellent weekend, but there was one problem -- the next week he committed to UNLV.
Andy Katz: He was always a go-to quote in the Duke locker room. A stand-up player who didn't hide if something went wrong.
Dave Telep: Want to know why Bosh is so comfortable as the No. 3 player on his own team? That's because he was no better than the fourth-best player in his own class of 2002. Bosh was the encore act behind top-rated player Amare Stoudemire, who was followed closely by Carmelo Anthony and then Raymond Felton. Heck, going to Miami actually meant moving up a rung in the pecking order!
Telep: You're going to make some mistakes in this business. Ranking Greg Paulus one spot ahead of Chalmers is definitely one of them. It takes a big man to bring that one up. Let me leave you with this. At the Beach Ball Classic during Chalmers' senior year, he went up for a dunk and instead of fouling Chalmers, the kid tried to rip his shorts off. Seriously, that happened. A photographer gave me the photo, but it's long been lost.
Bardo: I'm surprised he's had this much success this early in the league. He was a terrific defender at Kansas, but his offense was inconsistent. He could always get to the rim but was hesitant at times on his jumper. He has really worked hard to round out his game, though, and the results speak for themselves.
Katz: The Shot. It still ranks as one of the most memorable moments in my 20 years of covering a Final Four. Chalmers didn't hesitate to take the 3-pointer that sent the 2008 title game against Memphis into overtime.
Jason King: One month deep into his freshman year at Kansas, Mario wanted to transfer. He was the No. 1-ranked point guard in America, but there were times when he could hardly get the ball up the court -- and he played zero defense because he was so stubborn. Ironically, the player starting ahead of Chalmers (Jeff Hawkins) is the one who talked him into staying at KU. By January, the light had come on for Chalmers, and he helped lead Kansas to a Big 12 title after an 0-2 start.
He certainly can't compete with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in terms of popularity in Miami, but in the state of Kansas, there may not be a sports star as revered as Chalmers. I wrote a book on KU's 2008 title and traveled the state with Chalmers for a series of autograph signings. In every town, lines were wrapped around buildings, with 400-500 people waiting in the 100-degree August heat just to be in his presence for 30 seconds. There were grown men who struggled to photograph Chalmers with their wives because their hands were shaking so bad. It's still like that today. Even Paul Pierce isn't as adored here as Chalmers. That shot changed his life.
My favorite quote from Chalmers regarding The Shot is in my book "Beyond the Phog": "Somehow [Sherron Collins] tapped the ball to me as he was falling and I got it in my sweet spot. I had perfect form on the shot. It felt good from the time the pass hit me in my hands. I could've turned around and thrown the ball between my legs and it would've gone in. That's how confident I was feeling at that moment. It's a great feeling to have. So, no, I wasn't surprised when it went in. I had known the whole time that I was going to make it."
Dana O'Neil: I was working my first Final Four for ESPN.com when Chalmers hit The Shot -- the 3-point dagger that forced overtime against Memphis in the national championship game. I was sitting on press row between my new colleague, Andy Katz, and my mentor, Dick Jerardi of the Philadelphia Daily News. The game was a reporter's nightmare, an epic Memphis collapse combined with an unreal Kansas rally all unraveling with deadline fast approaching. Normally I would have been in a panic, but I was now at ESPN.com, unsaddled with troublesome deadlines. Since this was pre-Twitter, I'm pretty sure I didn't even have my laptop courtside. So when Chalmers' shot went in, I looked at Jerardi, who had been feverishly typing his "Memphis wins" column, and said, "You're done." He smirked and replied, "You stink." We still talk about it today.
Rankin: As an assistant coach at the University of Dayton, I drove about a mile to watch Norris Cole play at local Dunbar High School. I really liked Cole and liked him even better when I found out what type of person and student he was. We offered him an opportunity to walk on and earn a scholarship the following season because we didn't have a scholarship available at the time. Cole committed to Division II Walsh University and later to Cleveland State, where he had a tremendous career and became the Horizon League's first player to be named both player of the year and defensive player of the year. The rest is history.
Katz: Cole's numbers were something to behold throughout his final season at Cleveland State. If I could do it again, I would get to a Horizon League game to see him stuff the stat box.
Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller
Doug Gottlieb: My last college game at Oklahoma State was against Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller. Miller was really athletic as a shooting wing and Haslem was twice the size he is now. That Florida team was really talented and young around those guys, but they led it very well. It is kind of sad to see Miller run around now as banged up as he is, and equally weird to see Haslem return to being a center with the Heat going small all the time. Keep in mind UF had Donnell Harvey, Brett Nelson, Teddy Dupay, Justin Hamilton, Matt Bonner, Haslem and Miller. Great team.
Mike LaPlante: Back when I was an assistant at Auburn in the late '90s, we had to compete against Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller from Florida. As part of a highly acclaimed 1998 recruiting class, both players were tremendous talents who helped a young Billy Donovan establish UF as a national program. I remember playing them twice during the 1999-2000 season over about a two-week span. We had just lost one of our top players (Chris Porter) and had to go to Gainesville for an afternoon CBS game, and Florida showed no mercy in front of a wild crowd that has now become commonplace.
They provided a tough 1-2 punch for the Gators. Haslem was a beast inside with a great motor, while Miller was a matchup nightmare on the perimeter with his ability to shoot it from long range. Fortunately, we got them back by beating them in the SEC tournament, but that would be the last time they would lose until falling to Michigan State in the national title game.
Telep on Haslem: Here's a walk down memory lane. The most highly regarded player on Udonis' Miami high school team as a junior was Steve Blake, now of the LA Lakers. The coach of the team: Frank Martin, now head coach at South Carolina.
Telep on Miller: Another one of the cornerstone recruits who helped launch the Donovan era at Florida. Miller is from South Dakota and played high school basketball in "The Corn Palace" for the Mitchell High Kernels. You can't make this stuff up. As an AAU player, he did a tour with current Drake assistant Brett Nelson for the Dakota Schoolers. John Pelphrey, who was then an up-and-coming assistant coach, helped land Miller.
John Gasaway on Miller: I will never forget how then-Florida sophomore Mike Miller broke Butler's heart in the 2000 round of 64. The Bulldogs were just another mid-major back then, and as a No. 12 seed they had a golden opportunity to defeat the fifth-seeded Gators. (It would have been just the third NCAA tournament win in the school's history.) With eight seconds remaining in overtime and Butler holding a one-point lead, the Bulldogs had 83 percent free throw shooter LaVall Jordan at the line with two shots. But Jordan missed both attempts, and off a pass from Teddy Dupay, Miller drove into the lane from the left wing and banked in the game-winner for Florida. The Gators never looked back, making it all the way to the national title game before falling to Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State. Butler's loss to UF was the last game Barry Collier ever coached for the Bulldogs. Since 2006 he's been the athletic director at Butler and is known to today's young people simply as The Guy Who Hired Brad Stevens.
Katz: I'm dating myself, but it's amazing that he's the last Fab Five player still competing. I still remember watching that '93 title game from behind the Michigan bench in the infamous timeout game against North Carolina.
Paul Biancardi: As an assistant coach at Ohio State, I watched LeBron James play as a freshman at St. Vincent-St. Mary's in Akron, Ohio. After just one evaluation, it was easy to see he had the makings of a Division I player. He stood just over 6-2 and possessed a slight frame, but his skills and feel for the flow of the game were evident. Scoring was his forte, but what was even more impressive is that James contributed in other ways on the floor. His desire to rebound and ability to distribute the ball stood out at a young age. I remember his unselfishness and passing abilities. He was quick to find an open teammate or drive the ball, draw a crowd of defenders and then deliver an assist. He could also certainly lead a transition break or finish one.
His team won the Division III state championship as a freshman, and his performances were eye-catching, which led us to invite him down to campus. His coach at that time was Keith Dambroth, who now is the successful head coach at Akron. He brought up James, and we showed him our facilities and had a brief discussion. I remember his big smile and being impressed with how polite and respectful he was. After his sophomore year, his team repeated as state champions and he was named Ohio's Mr. Basketball and selected all-first team by USA Today, becoming the first sophomore ever to do either. Shortly after his sophomore season, I ran into a friend of mine, longtime NBA scout Kenny Williamson (now the assistant GM of the Memphis Grizzlies), who told me "Save the postage and gas -- he is going right to the league."
Joel Francisco: During the April evaluation period in 2000, I received a phone call from longtime friend and scouting guru Frank Burlison. He said he was conversing with some NBA-types earlier in the day and they were buzzing about a 6-foot-6 ultratalented ninth-grader out of Akron, Ohio. His name? Well, you know. We made our way up the 405 freeway to witness James' act as he was suiting up for the Oakland Soldiers, a renowned club team from northern California. From the moment the ball was tipped, James put his stamp on a number of possessions at both ends of the floor. Believe it or not, James was a rather sleek wing-type back in the day who had very long arms, catapult-like explosiveness and an uncanny ability to find teammates ala Magic Johnson.
Katz: I was one of the first to interview him on camera. We were in a Durango High school classroom in the Las Vegas heat of July. LeBron was humble, a bit shy at the time and appreciative of the coverage.
Rankin: As a college assistant coach, I watched LeBron James in numerous AAU/ travel team events. He was a man among boys, and there were more pro scouts than college coaches at his games. After one of James' elite performances, an NBA scout stood up in front of about 10 marquee college coaches and said. "Quit wasting your phone calls, mail and travel budget on James. He ain't never ever, ever going to college."
Telep: Yes, LeBron James was a superhuman in high school. He's the greatest high school player since Kobe Bryant, but that doesn't explain James' stature. LeBron was the ringmaster of a traveling circus the final two years of his high school career. His impact on the grassroots game was undeniable. In my opinion, James singlehandedly altered the landscape of high school basketball. He made high school basketball the business that it is today. ESPN brought in Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale to broadcast one of his high school games. Routinely, 10,000 people a night would watch him play in high school as his team created a circus-like atmosphere.
There are a few moments that stand out. He showed up but didn't play at ABCD Camp as a senior; he was injured. That same year James attended Nike Camp as a spectator. To the best of my knowledge, he's the only person to ever attend those two camps the same year. Adidas created the first "King James" T-shirt, which he wore at a special press conference as a senior at ABCD. Two years before, James stroked a jump shot over Lenny Cooke at ABCD, which is one of the biggest shots in grassroots history. He also tangled with Carmelo Anthony when LeBron was a junior. But my favorite story about LeBron is when his high school team received a police escort from its hotel to the Slam Dunk to the Beach. It was December, at the beach in Lewes, Delaware. The whole town came that night.
Katz: He was one of the few players who emerged from a Miami program that seemed to have talent but never quite reached its potential.
Rankin: As a Nebraska assistant, I went to Terry High School in Houston to see a big fella named Dexter Pittman who had soft hands and touch around the basket. At the time, Pittman weighed at least 380 pounds. He ended up at the University of Texas, where he lost close to 100 pounds and played himself into a second-round draft pick.
Bardo: His size was imposing, but he never dominated the Big 12 like I thought he would. Good hands and pretty good footwork, Dexter's motor just didn't run high in college. Big men take longer to grow into their potential. I just wonder if he ever will.
Myron Medcalf: Texas played Minnesota in the first round of the 2009 NCAA tournament. The Longhorns were just in a different league physically. I just remember the bruises and cuts Gophers players had suffered by the end of the game. The culprit? Dexter Pittman. I remember one vicious elbow that put Ralph Sampson III on the ground. Pittman used his size to bully that entire roster. And he had that semi-wicked smile on his face the entire night.
O'Neil: Plenty of athletes talk about being role models. Dexter Pittman showed me that he was. When he was at Texas, Pittman changed the life of one preteen boy. Silas Connolly was embarrassed about his size -- he was taller and heavier than most boys his age -- and lacked confidence in himself because of it. Pittman was the same way and when he heard from Connolly's dad, he reached out. He didn't have to help, but as Pittman told me, "Why did I want to help? Because I was him. I was that kid." With Pittman's encouragement, Connolly burst out of his shell, becoming not only a football player but a star in his school's play. I've written a lot of stories. Pittman's is one that will stay with me always -- real proof that a role model can make a difference.
Katz: Turiaf was the ultimate Zag. He always played with such emotion. Whenever I covered a Gonzaga game, I had to get to Turiaf for a quote. I remember calling him the year before he arrived while he was in France, and he was just as engaging then as he is now.
Telep: Two years ago, Matt Lottich was playing in a professional league in Japan. Brett Melton played at Illinois, and according to Facebook, his last known location is San Diego. Why do I bring them up? They were the guards who started for the Illinois Warriors IN FRONT of D-Wade. That's right, meet the sixth man of the Illinois Warriors. The star of the team was Darius Miles, a top-10 prospect in the 2000 class and widely regarded as a mega-talent. Anyone seen him lately?
Wade did not qualify directly out of high school and only Marquette, Illinois State and DePaul chased him. Then-MU coach Tom Crean and assistant Darrin Horn would often call to tell tales of his exploits that year when he sat out. At that point, as a nonqualifier, Marquette knew it had something on its hands. One year later, the Golden Eagles unleashed him on college basketball and a Hall of Fame career was born.
Bardo: Covering Conference USA, I saw him dominate opposing guards in that league while at Marquette. He had an uncanny poise in tight situations that really stuck out. He was a late bloomer in the Chicago area high school scene. But leading his team to a Final Four showed how gifted he is at lifting others to another level.
Katz: I remember talking to Wade after Marquette lost in the Final Four. I got criticized a bit for sounding too much like I was the one who lost the game, not Wade. Learned a good lesson on that interview.