Commentary

Chris Bosh's toughest obstacle yet

Originally Published: May 28, 2012
By Tom Haberstroh | ESPN.com

Chris BoshGreg M. Cooper/US Presswire
MIAMI -- When LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were making basketball music to clinch the Eastern Conference semifinals, Chris Bosh was nowhere to be found.

He was not seated on the bench with his teammates. He was not in the locker room watching on a flat screen. He was not in the trainer's room getting treatment for the strained abdominal muscle he suffered during Game 1.

From the confines of his waterfront home on Miami Beach, Bosh was surrounded by his family and friends on the sprawling couch of his living room as he watched his team play.

"I watch the team now like I'm on the outside looking in," Bosh says. "You become disconnected."

This is Chris Bosh's current reality. Saddled with a debilitating muscle strain, he has been reduced to an observer from his sofa, detached from his teammates and the life he once knew. There, he tunes into the big game just like the average NBA viewer.

And that's the thing about Bosh. Despite being a near 7-foot giant and world-class athlete, he is human just like you. And that's precisely why so many have a problem with him.

Chris Bosh is too much like us.

The jinx

Like many expectant young married couples, Bosh and his wife Adrienne spent much of their free time in front of the tube while Adrienne was pregnant with their son, Jackson. Over the past season, a staple of their viewing is a show called "NBA Journey," a series of NBA-produced documentaries that tell the story of title teams and their star players.

During these other kinds of film sessions, Bosh noticed a pattern: Each champion faced a stretch of adversity that pushed the team to the edge as things looked irreversibly bleak.

So just before the playoff series against the Knicks, Bosh took his wife aside and braced her for the inevitable turbulence ahead.

"Look, we're going into the playoffs and there's going to be a time when it's going to look bad," Bosh recalls telling her. "Don't worry, we're going to get through it."

Adrienne nodded and shortly thereafter the Heat sailed through the opening series against the Knicks in five games that coincided with the successful birth of their healthy son.

Things were good. Things were looking up.

And suddenly, they weren't anymore. Just days after that pep talk with his wife, Bosh limped off the court with a strained abdominal muscle in his first game in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The injury would jeopardize his season and his team's hopes for a championship.

You could say Bosh saw this coming.

"But I didn't think this was going to happen," Bosh said, revealing a grin of irony. "It's one of those things where it looks bad."

A world bullish on Bosh

While Bosh might have seen a setback on the horizon, he didn't expect what came next: a wave of praise from the critics.

In the first game without their All-Star forward, the Heat's dynamic duo of James and Wade choked away Game 2 while the Heat's third-leading scorer in the game mustered just five points, the first time in team history that ever happened. Then the team got blown out on the road in Game 3 by a whopping 19 points.

Funny how that happens. I've never heard my name so much since I've been out. It's funny to me, all the guys who were killing me, just to hear everything now that I'm a huge part of the team.

-- Chris Bosh

Suddenly, without Bosh's presence, the Heat appeared top-heavy and vulnerable. Perhaps fatally so. And then the panic set in.

And for the first time Bosh can remember, his harshest critics began to change their tune. Bosh was vital to the Heat's pursuit of a championship again. The national media began to echo LeBron James' and Erik Spoelstra's assertions that Bosh was the Heat's most irreplaceable player.

"Funny how that happens," Bosh says. "I've never heard my name so much since I've been out. It's funny to me, all the guys who were killing me, just to hear everything now that I'm a huge part of the team."

The flash flood of praise was certainly welcome, but he still wishes it came on different terms. Being temporarily separated from the team, he has no choice but living vicariously through the team.

"It is weird and very, very difficult," Bosh says. "I really realize how disconnected I've been and I have to be. Since I've been hurt, it's OK, well, they're on the road, they're in shootaround, they're practicing. And I have to rehab. It's a hell of a process."

This is unfamiliar ground for Bosh and most NBA stars. Rarely has a player been so harshly mocked, yet also deemed essential to a team's championship hopes.

A shot at redemption

Bosh gets it. He understands the criticism. The "soft" label, the dinosaur jokes, Emo-Bosh, the tag of being the third wheel, all of it.

And he maintains that he's OK with it, too.

"I'm an easy target," Bosh said. "I'm not as boisterous and flamboyant as other players. I don't jump as high and I'm not as fast as Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. I don't have many highlight plays, but I can play this game."

He can still play, but the days of averaging 24 points like he did in his final season in Toronto are in the past. Bosh expected his numbers to take a hit when he joined forces with two other ball-dominant superstars. And, in turn, he knew he'd be showered with criticism.

Yet when Wade battled injuries for much of the season, Bosh turned a moment of adversity into an opportunity. No one wants to see a teammate fall to injury, but in Bosh's eyes, the consequences of Wade's absence came with an unintended benefit: It presented Bosh with a chance to remind the doubters that, yes, he can still play. And play he did. When Wade sat this season, Bosh averaged 23.8 points on 57 percent shooting and the team went 12-1 in those games.

"If they need me to score 30, I can go do it," Bosh said. "If they need me to just rebound and defend, I can do that. I can play this game, just in case people forgot. You just carry that chip on your shoulder and you go out there and do what I was put on this Earth to do."

Did Bosh miss the days of being a go-to scorer?

"Yeah, you miss it," Bosh says. "I do."

Still?

"I did," Bosh corrects himself. "It was a lot of fun being back in that situation. It was a challenge and I love a challenge."

Chris Bosh AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeAfter the Heat lost to Dallas in the Finals in 2011, Bosh cried for all the world to see ... and criticize.

A crying shame

The past two seasons in Miami have been just that for Bosh, a challenge. Bosh believes he has grown up more in the past year than he has during his entire life "by far." Not many people will feel sorry for a man who gets his paychecks for playing a child's game and resides in a $12.5 million mansion that overlooks the turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay.

But Bosh is still human, and often a punching bag for the national public. And it still gets to him.

"The media attention, the negative in particular, it makes you a different person," Bosh says.

Reporters have likened Bosh's news conference to church confessionals. He is more cerebral and reads more than your average jock. Bosh's acute self-awareness and candor proves rare in an industry in which athletes are programmed to spew clichés and sugarcoat the more provocative truth.

Bosh doesn't hide much. He speaks to the media with rare sincerity and isn't shy about his emotions. Sometimes that transparency gets him in trouble, such as the time he told a sideline reporter on national television that he preferred to "chill" on an off-day instead of practice.

Athletes are supposed to be superheroes. Even though we want our players to appear authentic and genuine, the tone of Bosh's candor only seems to substantiate his supposed lack of machismo.

And then, Bosh sobbed uncontrollably for the world to see.

In what has perhaps become the most memorable image of Bosh's nine-year career, cameras captured Bosh crying as he stumbled toward the Heat locker room after losing in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Completely consumed by disappointment and failure, Bosh crumbled to the floor in exasperation. What a wimp, a nation grumbled.

Bosh, as you might imagine, sees it differently. To Bosh, that Finals series represented the culmination of his entire life's work. That game mattered. He worked for decades to achieve that moment, reaching the pinnacle of sport as an NBA champion and it was ripped away in an instant.

"To people who made fun of it, I thought it was messed up," Bosh says of his tearful meltdown. "It meant that much to me. ... What are your dreams? What do you want the most out of anything in this world? Dangle it in front of you, work hard as hell to get it, and then take it away. Gone."

-- Chris Bosh

"To people who made fun of it, I thought it was messed up," Bosh says of his tearful meltdown. "It meant that much to me.

"What are your dreams?" Bosh asks. "What do you want the most out of anything in this world? Dangle it in front of you, work hard as hell to get it, and then take it away. Gone."

To demonstrate, Bosh raises his left arm high and holds an imaginary carrot in the air.

To Bosh's credit, his dreams weren't exactly taken away because of his own undoing.

He convincingly outplayed Kevin Garnett in the Eastern Conference semifinals last spring, then scored more points than Dwyane Wade in the Eastern Conference finals and scored more points than LeBron James in the NBA Finals. He was the team's most consistent player in the playoffs, despite loud nation-wide skepticism he lacked the toughness or experience to compete in the biggest moments.

"It doesn't have anything with being tough or being soft," Bosh says. "I truly believed that we were going to win it. And in that moment, I just thought about everything, all those things we went through, you're very vulnerable. I gave everything I had. All your feelings, all your energy, you put everything out there. And you come up short. It was a hell of an experience just to be hurt."

It's not the first time Bosh has cried about a basketball outcome. As a junior at Lincoln High School in Dallas, he broke down in front of local TV cameras in Texas after he lost in the state semifinals. Same scenario as this past June.

"We were supposed to win it that year," Bosh remembers. "I was walking off, and I'm, like, man it's over. There's a moment when it hits you.

"As soon as the camera was in my face," Bosh says while cupping his hands over his face. "You get it all out. I was good after that. And I know one thing, I came back stronger and that was the most important thing."

The next season, Bosh won state.

A perception contradiction

Bosh maintains he couldn't care less about his image and public perception.

"I've always known I've been a very good basketball player," Bosh says. "I never needed reassurance from any outside group to know that. I don't regret it all, because that's who I am. I'm an easy target. If people don't like it, I don't really care. People can say what they want, but it's helped me develop thick skin. I really don't really care anymore."

His actions might say otherwise. After watching critics denigrate him on national television, Bosh decided to make a trip to Bristol, Conn., to confront ESPN's Skip Bayless on the TV personality's own show. Not something you see everyday from a player with Bosh's résumé.

"I'm happy I did it," Bosh says. "If you want to tell me I'm terrible, that's fine. Name-calling, that's a little different."

Bosh seems conflicted about his public persona. In one breath, he'll insist he is indifferent about the criticism. In the next, he admits that it has molded him as a person. There's a sense that Bosh seeks public acceptance in the aftermath of his decision to play in Miami, perhaps in effort to set the record straight about who he is and who he is not.

SuperFriends with James and Wade? In fact, Bosh rarely associates with James and Wade off the court. From the postgame podium to LIV nightclub in Miami Beach, James and Wade are nearly inseparable. Bosh? His ideal Friday night in Miami is going on a late-night meal with his wife and trying a tasting menu from a renowned chef.

"It's just different," Bosh says. "We're teammates, that's great. But people think I'm supposed to act a certain way or walk hand-in-hand together everywhere. We come together, we do our job, we have a great time when we're around each other, but I might just be sitting right here and they might be over there."

A different kind of hurt

The separation from James and Wade couldn't be more obvious these days, as Bosh waits out his injury. The Heat blitzed past the Pacers behind three brilliant games from James and Wade. Suddenly, it appeared the Heat didn't need Bosh to win, at least against the Pacers.

On the other hand, while the common assumption is that the Heat should be able to survive in the Eastern Conference finals without Bosh, the Heat presumably need him to return against the mighty San Antonio Spurs or surging Oklahoma City Thunder.

But what if the Heat win it all without Bosh? What if Bosh finally gets a ring, but as a bystander? Will this injury strip him of his dream for the second year in a row?

Those questions may be premature. After all, the Heat have yet to play a minute of the Eastern Conference finals and the championship series stands weeks away. Bosh remains hopeful that if the Heat can extend the season long enough, he can get back out on the court again. The Heat still list him as out indefinitely, and Erik Spoelstra operates under the assumption Bosh won't be back soon.

"I'm just hoping there's a chance that I get back," Bosh said. "All I think about is when I'm back out there, because it's going to happen."

Bosh wants nothing more than to get back out on the floor with his teammates and reunite with his team, but at this point his body won't let him. Playing a hand in a championship would mean everything to Bosh. Maybe then the constant mocking would end. Maybe then the tears of joy would replace the tears of despair. Maybe then he could move forward.

He may be inching closer. Bosh performed some basketball-related drills Sunday with Heat assistant coach Keith Askins that included catching, turning and shooting; making lateral movements across the court; and shooting free throws.

Otherwise, Bosh spends his time riding a stationary bike that goes nowhere, watching his team march along without him and hoping they can play long enough for him to join them.

For now, that's all Bosh can do when it's time for the game.

Watch and hope.