There are two things sports fans love to hate, and the first is the epidemic of selfishness and greed: ball-hogging superstars who care only about their stats and their paychecks, teams that don't play defense and don't play like teams, owners with no commitment to winning and no sense of loyalty.
Fortunately, the National Basketball Association has a team that defies those stereotypes. Its superstars as well as its role players took pay cuts to pursue championships, and they have all embraced its team-first, defense-oriented, hardworking, unselfish style of play. The organization considers itself a family, which is part of what attracted the superstars in the first place. I am talking, of course, about the Miami Heat.
You know, the other thing sports fans love to hate.
You know, the team that just advanced to the NBA finals in spectacular fashion.
And speaking as an objective journalist, now that the Heat and its Big Three have defied all the predictions about inevitable ego clashes and inevitable coaching shake-ups, now that the critics who wrote morality-tale obituaries after the Heat's pitiful 9-8 start have eaten a bit of crow, I think it's fair to say: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
O.K., maybe I'm not totally objective. I've been a Heat fan ever since I moved to Miami in the fall of 2003, right when Dwyane Wade moved to Miami. And the May 26 comeback from 12 points down with three minutes to go against Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls is now my second-favorite Heat memory, even ahead of the 2006 championship. (No. 1 is still a meaningless regular-season game I watched in a daze with my half-day-old son in March 2008. I remember explaining to him that we actually wanted the Heat to lose so the team would have a better chance of drafting Rose. He seemed very confused.)
I had mixed feelings about LeBron James' joining Wade in Miami even before that cheesy ESPN show on which he announced he was taking his talents to South Beach. A season of watching LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh and hearing America gripe about them has unmixed my feelings. These guys all left millions of dollars on the table to join forces, and they all play the right way: passing out of the double team, trusting their teammates, committing all-in to the team's intense defensive ethic. LeBron and Wade were both used to having the ball in their hands all the time, and conventional wisdom said two alpha dogs on one team was one too many, but they've both made adjustments to accommodate each other's game. Bosh had also spent his career as a No. 1 option, but except for one whiny outburst that actually helped get the Heat on track, he's been content as the league's best No. 3.
Still, LeBron did a bad TV show, so everybody hates the Heat. Hey, George Clooney did Facts of Life. Why doesn't everybody hate him?
Look, I get it. The Big Three are still getting paid boatloads of money, even if they're all making less than stiffs like Rashard Lewis, Michael Redd, Gilbert Arenas, Andrei Kirilenko and Kenyon Martin. The financial sacrifices of Heat role players like Mike Miller, the gritty Udonis Haslem and Mike Bibby are not exactly putting them in the poorhouse either. I can see why other teams got jealous when the Big Three all went to Miami have I mentioned that it's nice here? Would you stay in Cleveland if you had a better offer to join your friends in Miami? but hey, the Bulls, the Knicks, the Nets and the Clippers were all trying to hit similar trifectas. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised at all the ridicule when Heat players cried in the locker room after a tough loss in March, but isn't the problem with modern athletes supposed to be their lack of emotional investment?
Go ahead and hate, but the Heat players do all the things sports-radio talkers are always saying they want to see. The Heat pursues high-character players who don't get arrested or yell ugly slurs at fans. Then they play smothering defense in a system based on trust. They dive into the stands for loose balls and sacrifice their bodies to take charges. They take high-percentage shots. They know their roles. They make one another better. Their bench players cheer like maniacs and always stay ready for their moment. Eddie House and Jamaal Magloire probably won't play in the finals, but when the Big Three sat out the Heat's seemingly meaningless regular-season finale, House's 35 points and Magloire's 19 rebounds produced a victory that is now guaranteeing the Heat home-court advantage against the Dallas Mavericks.
The Heat is also an extremely well-managed franchise. Its payroll is around the league's average. Owner Micky Arison does not blog or whine about the referees the way certain NBA owners who are about to endure crushing disappointments do. (You know who else makes more than either LeBron, Wade or Bosh? Mavericks scrub Peja Stojakovic!) Arison not only stays out of the press; he stays out of team operations, letting Pat Riley run the team while he runs Carnival Cruise Lines. It's worked out pretty well. Arison did join Riley in the fateful meeting that persuaded LeBron to move South; their pitch, corny as it sounds, focused on the Heat's family feel. It's no coincidence that so many Heat employees have been around since the franchise was born in 1988 or that the team's excellent young coach Eric Spoelstra got his start as a video coordinator. (Or that Spoelstra wasn't kicked to the curb after the Heat's slow start, as the sports yakkers said he would be.) Like many other owners, Arison got a sweet deal for his downtown arena, but whose fault is it that Arison against MiamiDade County in a negotiating session is like LeBron against Kyle Korver on a fast break?
There is one serious argument to make against what the Heat has done. It would concede that Riley achieved through smart salary-cap management and effective salesmanship what every other team wanted to achieve and that the Heat has boosted the league's TV ratings into the stratosphere. It would also concede that by building the team around three superstars, the Heat was forced to skimp on its supporting cast the main reason so few analysts expected them to make the finals. But it would still make the case that the Heat are inexorably pushing the NBA further into the cult of superstardom, forcing other big-market teams to try to assemble their own Big Threes. Sure, the Heat has flourished with frenetic defense and unselfish play, but in the final minutes last night, LeBron and Wade won the series by hitting ridiculous clutch threes.
There is also a serious response to this argument: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!