- Tom Haberstroh
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It is late September 2013 and a Chihuahua in a pink floral dress prances over to Chris Bosh's size-15 black leather oxfords, flips over and squirms on its back on the carpet. Bosh is wearing a James Bond-meets-Miami black suit. No tie, the top two buttons of his shirt undone, white pocket square peeking out of his breast pocket. Sitting on a stiff, angular orange couch on the vibrant set of "Despierta América," Univision's national morning talk show in Miami, the 6-foot-11, two-time NBA champion looks like a grand piano in the middle of a Chuck E. Cheese. The Chihuahua is the show's mascot, Honey Berry.
Bosh is here for a televised Spanish interview because of a bet he made with himself after the Miami Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs for the 2013 title. He read that the quickest way to learn a language is to set a goal. Lounging around one morning in late June watching "Despierta America" -- a mainstay in his Miami home thanks to his Venezuelan wife, Adrienne -- Bosh made a decision. He would pick out a day on the calendar to appear on a Spanish TV show to test his linguistic skills. He circled Sept. 26. Then three months flew by.
The live audience doesn't see the nerves that made his skin crawl just a few minutes ago backstage. Bosh says preparing for Game 7 of last year's NBA Finals was a breeze compared to this. The jovial host asks Bosh why he learned Spanish. The sprawling Chihuahua allows Bosh to laugh off the anxiety.
"Cuando era un niño," Bosh says cleanly and calmly, "siempre quería a aprender un otro idioma y es muy importante para mí porque la gente que habla más que solo una idioma es muy inteligente. Quiero estar inteligente."
In English: Ever since he was a kid, he wanted to learn multiple languages because smart people speak multiple languages. And he wanted to be smart.
Bosh nails the six-minute interview, but not without showing his insecurities. That's how he is -- uncommonly candid and contemplative in the face of scrutiny. At one point in the interview, he pauses midsentence to ask the host, in Spanish, whether he is using the correct tense for a phrase.
The host nods in confirmation. "Perfecto."
Bosh carries on with confidence, his hands telegraphing his words as he speaks. The host asks him why he seems like a different person here on set than when he is on the court.
"Siempre cuando estoy en el piso, tú tienes que ser otra persona," Bosh says. "Necesito a cambiar porque es muy importante que ganemos."
Translation: "When I'm on the floor, you have to be another person. I need to change because it's essential for us to win."
EVERYONE'S A CRITIC
Bosh has a confession: He read the criticism.
On Twitter, the comment sections online, in the local papers. After games, before games, in the car, at dinner, hanging out with his kids.
He was in a dark place that first season in Miami. The whole team was. Dissected under a worldwide microscope, every word scrutinized and every move treated like a referendum on their careers. But he still pulled up the commentary and took in each line. He couldn't help himself.
"I read it all," Bosh says.
"I just came here to play basketball. And they're like, 'Oh, he's not a real superstar.' I never cared about being a superstar."Chris Bosh
The ones that cut the deepest? The barbs that called him soft, often cloaked in veiled misogyny and homophobia.
"That's the venom," Bosh says. "For a while, they were questioning my sexuality. They still do. They were questioning my sexuality, questioning my game. And I'm like, 'Why are they all messing with me?' I didn't do anything to anybody. I didn't do nothing. I just came here to play basketball. And they're like, 'Oh, he's not a real superstar.' I never cared about being a superstar."
When he doesn't come down with a rebound, "Christina Bosh" floods his Twitter mentions. He was nicknamed "Bosh Spice." Someone dunked on him? What a woman.
"What am I supposed to do?" Bosh says. "You want me to have cornrows and tats on my neck and just punch somebody in the face when they score on me? It's crazy. It's impossible. I can't do that and play. That's never been who I am."
Bosh cares. Sometimes too much. He has spent much of his career trying to prove his doubters wrong, but it often only made things worse. Bosh rose to stardom in his third year with the Toronto Raptors, putting up gaudy scoring and rebounding totals that young players strive for, the kind that made him a permanent fixture on the Eastern Conference's All-Star roster. But playing for teams that hovered around the .500 mark left the big man without LeBron-level flair to his game in relative obscurity north of the border. To appease critics ahead of a contract year in 2010, he bulked up and became the only NBA player that season to average 24 points and 10 rebounds.
"Nobody cared," Bosh says. "Even when I lived in the paint. I put up 24 and 10 in Toronto and lost and people complained. I put up 18 and 8 here and win and people still complain."
"Everybody's like, 'We need CB4.' And I'm like, that's dead. He's dead. ... Because I'm much better now."Chris Bosh
The pain from the 2010-11 season forced Bosh to come to grips with a sober realization: He was never going to be a fan favorite. No matter what he did, he was never going to win the adoration of the average NBA viewer. So he opted for a more fulfilling lifestyle, one in which he could revel in his differences.
"After that, it changed me," Bosh says. "Man, I'm just going to be myself. I shouldn't have to apologize for that. If people don't understand that, then they don't understand it. I'm not going to try to be somebody I'm not."
Bosh gave up the fight. Instead, he dedicated himself to winning over those closest to him: his family, his team and his friends. After the first season, he blocked out the noise and stopped watching the sports pundits, and the only NBA articles he read were ones that his father or wife forwarded his way. Winning over his team meant playing defense, stretching the floor, doing the little plays that don't show up in the box score, only in scouting reports and advanced stats.
It meant saying goodbye to the "CB4" identity that made him an All-Star in Toronto and fully embracing "CB1," which made him a champion in Miami.
"Now it's different," Bosh says. "Everybody's like, 'We need CB4.' And I'm like, that's dead. He's dead. He's not coming back. This is me. I can't hold on to the past and think I'm going to be who I was back then. It's impossible. Because I'm much better now."
EXERCISING THE MIND
Chris Bosh is coding.
He is leaning back in a deck chair, arms outstretched on his patio table that faces a sea of turquoise. From here, it's hard to tell where Bosh's infinity pool ends and the dancing waters of Biscayne Bay begin. He tries to stay focused, but a splash in the distance distracts him.
"Oh," Bosh says. "A dolphin."
On the table are his MacBook Air, his iPhone 5 and a sweating pint glass filled with a dark microbrew. This month's batch is Abita Turbodog, which he picked up while in New Orleans. He ordered a keg after a preseason game and the brew has been on tap in his kitchen ever since.
"This is the good stuff," Bosh says.
It is an off day for the Heat as the 2013-14 season enters its final stretch. It is 85 degrees outside Bosh's waterfront home, and his gray denim short-sleeved shirt is dotted with sweat at his sides. The denim is winning.
The Georgia Tech product is unwinding with some computer code, teaching me the basics of HTML computer language.
"Let's say you want to put a rectangle on the screen," Bosh says. "Type in R-E-C-T. Then open parentheses. X-axis, y-axis, width and height. Don't forget the close parentheses."
Bosh smacks the return button on his keyboard with his right pinkie.
He wipes the sweat off his forehead and types out a fresh line. Earlier this year, Bosh appeared alongside Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg in a PSA for code.org, encouraging students to learn code. He also wrote an op-ed for Wired.com to promote coding as the language of the future.
"I put up 24 and 10 in Toronto and lost and people complained. I put up 18 and 8 here and win and people still complain."Chris Bosh
At Lincoln High School in Dallas, there were only two gyms for six basketball teams, which meant Bosh's varsity practice wouldn't start until 5:30 p.m., an hour and 45 minutes after school let out. Every day before practice, the All-State big man would sneak out to a computer graphics club called "Whiz Kids" for an hour, learning to code and discovering the tricks of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. His teammates knew he liked playing around with computers, but Whiz Kids? That was kept a secret.
"It was so funny because I was in both worlds," Bosh says. "That's back when everybody wasn't using Macs. We had the zip drives and everything."
Digital networks just made sense. His mother was a longtime employee at Texas Instruments. His father made a living as a plumbing engineer. He got serious about computer graphics in high school because of the girl he hung out with after class. As Bosh left for practice, she'd skip off to her job designing album covers for local rappers. Her Photoshop skills lured Bosh to join Whiz Kids.
His senior year, when he was a McDonald's All American, he joined the Association of Minority Engineers and NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers). Though he was already a National Honor Society member, his calculus teacher pushed him to broaden his academic horizons.
The double life he was leading caught up to him one Saturday morning. His school took part in a statewide competition that his teacher urged him to attend. One of the events called for drawing and measuring a robot using AutoCAD, the engineering standard in design software.
He knew AutoCAD. His father spent most of his days working in AutoCAD and Bosh picked it up as a kid, "just from fooling around with it." So Bosh agreed to participate even though it required a 6 a.m. wake-up call and a trek up to North Dallas.
Bosh had AAU practice later that morning. He arranged for his AAU coach to pick him up at the event under one condition: call from the parking lot and Bosh would meet him outside. Do not walk in.
The coach walked in. His star big man was drawing robots in front of hundreds of students.
"He was like, 'What the hell?'" Bosh says. "He ragged on me so much."
To this day, Bosh still finds time for his intellectual interests amid his basketball schedule. Before home games, while his teammates blast hip-hop in their headphones, Bosh can be found sprawled out on the couch in the players' lounge reading a book -- he had just finished Michio Kaku's "The Future of the Mind," a national bestseller about nanotechnology -- in silence.
"It's part of my normal life, part of my routine," Bosh says. "I don't need to get psyched. The game is the game. I want to get away."
When people find out he's an avid reader and ask which book he's reading, he likes to tell them he just finished "The Cat In The Hat." He takes the glossy cover off of each book he reads.
"I don't like people to know what I'm reading," Bosh says.
THE NUMBERS TELL THE STORY
For years, Bosh cared deeply about two numbers: 20 and 10.
Twenty points and 10 rebounds -- the barometer for being an elite big man.
"20 and 10, 20 and 10," Bosh says. "People make a big deal about it and nothing happens. They talk about all the 20-and-10 guys, and I say this with all due respect, but when it's time to play for a championship, they'll forget about you."
Now Bosh cares about two different numbers.
"Efficiency and plus-minus," he says. "Everything else, I don't care."
It shows in the data. Bosh posted a career best in shot efficiency this season, registering a 55.5 percent effective field goal percentage, which incorporates the extra value of the 3-pointer. His true shooting percentage, which adds free throws into the mix, was also a career high this season, topping his previous best in Toronto in 2009-10. He has never been more efficient.
"The average fan doesn't appreciate what he does for us. But we do. He's sacrificed and changed his identity from when he first got here."Erik Spoelstra
And his plus-minus? Consider this: The Heat outscored opponents by 9.8 points every 100 possessions when Bosh was on the floor. When he hit the bench, the scoreboard went the other way; the Heat were outscored by 0.4 points. That 10.2-point net differential was the largest of any Heat regular, according to NBA.com data.
After separating the two sides of himself for so long, he's begun applying that same thirst for knowledge he displays in his nonathletic interests to advance his game past what conventional wisdom often dictates.
"I just know how to play basketball on a higher level now," he says.
Bosh had built an All-Star career as a fairly traditional post player with the Toronto Raptors. Now in his fourth season with the Heat, and 11th overall, Bosh has found a new habitat beyond the 19-by-12-foot painted area. The NBA is now placing a premium on 3-pointers in this age of analytical insight, and Bosh has made more 3s this season than in his seven seasons in Toronto combined.
His 3-point shot has even become one of the Heat's top late-game weapons. Bosh did not make a 3-pointer the entire 2013 NBA Finals, but his dagger from the corner with 1:17 left in Game 2 of this year's championship series hushed the San Antonio crowd and sealed a series-tying victory.
"I've always said from day one, CB is our most important player," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says. "And that's not because I'm trying to build him up. The average fan doesn't appreciate what he does for us. But we do. He's sacrificed and changed his identity from when he first got here. He's a completely different player and we're better for it."
Bosh wasn't always on board with it. Shane Battier, his stat-savvy teammate, pulled him aside one practice last season and showed him that taking one step back from Bosh's hot spot in the midrange could add more efficiency. Three is greater than two, and the payoff of a 50 percent 2-point shooter is equivalent to a 33 percent 3-point shooter. "He struggled with the spacing early on, because the footwork and the feel of the game is different," Battier says. "But he got the math. There are only a few players in the league that can understand the math behind it and trust the numbers. He's one of them."
Still, big men are known for a smashmouth style of play. It takes time to adapt to a new on-court identity, even for a longtime outsider like Bosh. "People confuse intellect for softness," Battier says. "It's just smart basketball. You have to let people know, 'I'm smart, but I have some sharp elbows as well.'"
At 30 years old, Bosh takes the time to look around the league. He sees younger versions of himself. The 20-and-10 guys. He brings up Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love, who has never made it to the playoffs despite eye-popping numbers. He sympathizes with Love's situation. Because it was his situation in Toronto.
"I'm sure he's to the point, give me 18 points every time," Bosh says. "But it'll be a learning curve when he has to do it. It'll be very, very, very hard on him because you're used to scoring 25 a night. A seven-point drop? That's a lot. When you give up something like that, it's like, 'I can do more.'"
Bosh grew tired of short seasons in Toronto and leaving his reputation to management decisions that left him with feeble supporting casts. He decided to take matters in his own hands and joined up with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
"Twenty and 10 is easy, I think," Bosh says. "You give me enough shots, I'll average 20. You give me a particular system where I stick close to the basket, I'll average 10 rebounds. But it's different here. We're competing for a championship, and that's what it's all about."
Bosh used to not care about defense. But the Heat staff had seen flashes of defensive brilliance from Bosh during his time with Team USA. He put his 7-foot-4 wingspan to good use and showed a keen ability to be in the right spot at the right time. Upon arrival in Miami, Bosh dedicated his time to learning the intricacies of Spoelstra's defense.
"All this bulls--- people talking. 'Oh, he's this and this.' Man, I'm the third scorer. I'm the third option, dummy. There's only so many points you can score."Chris Bosh
Nowadays, opposing coaches often talk about him as one of the best defenders in the NBA. They have to cope with his agility. This past season, Synergy Sports data ranked him as the single best pick-and-roll defender in the NBA, holding big-man opponents to just 0.53 points per play. In his final season in Toronto, few were worse. He ranked in the bottom 20 percent of the league in the same category.
In the Eastern Conference finals, Bosh completely flummoxed the Indiana Pacers in the pick-and-roll with his length and ability to beat the Pacers to spots. He averaged 23.3 points in the final three games and limited the 7-2 Roy Hibbert to just six points per game on 5-of-18 shooting. Bosh is more proud of the latter.
"That's one thing I pride myself a lot more now, playing defense," Bosh says, "I do what the team needs me to do. If we need a stop, I'll do it. That's a major, major part of my game now."
Bosh brings up another 20-and-10 guy, LaMarcus Aldridge. Both Texas-grown basketball prodigies with similar reserved personalities, Bosh considers the 28-year-old Aldridge a good friend.
"I've wanted him for years, just straight up," Bosh says. "But I haven't gotten it yet. Because, you know, they have him conserving his energy for offense."
Bosh didn't dream of these defensive challenges in Toronto. Still, he understands that Miami affords him little opportunity to go at guys. He has lowered his expectations.
"I let LeBron and Dwyane do that because they have mismatches," Bosh says. "I don't really have mismatches too much. And I'm not going to back you down for two points. That's CB4. That's a long time ago.
"It's turned into something else down here. Playing with LeBron and Dwyane, I'm like, all right, I'm going to have to fall back a little bit. And I'm going to be OK with it. All this bulls--- people talking. 'Oh, he's this and this.' Man, I'm the third scorer. I'm the third option. There's only so many points you can score. I'm going to be 16, 17 and 18 points at the most. And that's like, 'Whoa boy, he's putting it in the hole.'
"Put yourself in my shoes," Bosh says. "But people aren't going to empathize. You won't understand."
HOW WILL THE JOURNEY END?
The Heat are in the midst of a fourth straight NBA Finals, with a chance to go on a third straight championship parade, but some can't help looking ahead.
They want to know if this is the last hurrah for the Big Three, whether the team will be broken up after the season. James, Wade and Bosh can all be free agents this summer if they opt out of the contracts they signed with the team four years ago.
James has remained mum, but Bosh has openly talked about staying put, even if it means taking a pay cut. Wade recently told ESPN.com's Michael Wallace that he doesn't feel obligated to do the same. "It's the job of others around to figure out how to make it work. If I want to be a part of that, then I'll be a part of that. But if I don't, I won't," Wade said.
Bosh is at home in Miami. He never thought he'd live here, much less as a married man.
"You don't beat this," Bosh says. "Everywhere you go is what you make it. Ah, 'Miami is so fake,' people say. Man, everywhere is fake. Any big city you live in is fake. I live on South Beach. Everywhere you go in the world, they say, 'Oh, Miami? I want to go there.' I feel lucky being here."
"Everywhere you go is what you make it. Ah, 'Miami is so fake,' people say. Man, everywhere is fake."Chris Bosh
And that's where he says his focus remains.
"We can't think about this summer," Bosh says. "We've been there before in 2010. What, we're going to think about it again? What's there to think about? Where we're going to go? I'm not doing that again. I've been there."
This regular season has been a long, exhausting one for the Heat. Four straight years of playing into June has taken its toll.
"It's hard," Bosh says. "Just to have to get back on track to do the same thing again for the fourth time. You know what's ahead. You know it's a hell of a mountain to climb. It's like, man, I don't want to do this, not yet. Your body is telling you that you can't do it. You have every reason not to do it. That's what makes it really tough. There's a reason why not many teams have three-peated, let alone won a championship. It's really hard."
Bosh takes another sip of his Abita.
"When the playoffs actually happen, people don't know, but you do some soul-searching," Bosh says. "It's a spiritual experience when you're down. I don't care who you are. Every team that wins it, you're going to have a moment when you're like, 'Man, I don't know. I don't think I can overcome this.' It happens every time. And you have no choice. You can listen to it, or not listen to it. You said you wanted it? Boom -- take this."
In Bosh's eyes, the low point of this season came in late March, when the Heat lost by double digits to the New Orleans Pelicans during a road-heavy stretch of the schedule. The Heat gave a listless effort and allowed 105 points to a team that ultimately lost 48 games. It was the team's seventh loss in 11 games and Wade was a last-minute scratch.
Afterward, some heated words were exchanged in the locker room. Bosh, normally the quiet one, unleashed a fiery tirade that teammates say ended all discussion.
"We've been there before in 2010. What, we're going to think about it again? ... Where we're going to go? I'm not doing that again."Chris Bosh
"CB knows when to talk, and it's not often," Spoelstra says. "He knows when to push the button."
"I'm a firm believer in giving you the rope and you hang yourself with it," Bosh says. "It got to the point where we were complaining, like, 'Man, it's so hard, so hard playing the way we play.'"
Playing small and losing Wade for 28 games caused internal friction, and frustrations started to mount at the tail end of the regular season. The Heat finished outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency for the first time since 2010. Doubt crept in whether the switch even existed.
"You think this was going to be easy?" Bosh says. "What, they're just going to hand us a championship? That's not going to happen. Of course that's not going to happen. We forgot. We probably shouldn't even say we're back-to-back champs. Would we feel different about it, would we have a different hunger if Kawhi Leonard makes a free throw? If Manu [Ginobili] boxes me out?"
Bosh is a man of science, a devotee of the TV show "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," and finds comfort in logic and order. But he also appreciates that fortune can be fickle.
"We're talking about a lifetime of habit-building coming down to one play," he says. "Are we going to be that team this year that misses a boxout? We want to be like those guys? No offense to them -- great team, best team I've ever played against -- but they came up short. You could easily say the same about us. That's not going to be me."
Miami's oft-criticized big man has found peace in South Beach, writes Tom Haberstroh.