Undervalued Distinction: The Key to the Miami Heat's Title Hopes Rests in the Heart of a Champion Named Udonis Haslem

Distinction is a synonym for an “asset” and Udonis Haslem certainly epitomizes an underrated or undervalued asset or distinction for Miami. He is, in my view, one of the main reasons the Heat are likely to win a title this coming year, and not just another player riding the coattails of the “Three Kings” to a ring.

When many look at Miami Heat power forward, Udonis Haslem, they probably only see the cornrows, the tattoo-covered arms and body, and the “scowl.”

That scowl has both instilled fear in Miami Heat opponents who’ve had to shoulder the burden of trying to score on Haslem (and trying to stop his very efficient and consistent offensive onslaught), and has made many wrongly look upon him as nothing more than another thuggish basketball player.

While “UD,” as he’s known to Heat fans, had a troubled childhood (his mother battled drug abuse while he was growing up), he also was surrounded by people who loved him and instilled a sense of purpose and discipline in him.

That purpose and sense of discipline has served him well throughout his adult life, as he’s become a lynchpin for the Miami Heat, a veteran presence on the team second only to Dwyane Wade in instilling the values of hard work and unity in the young players the Heat have had playing for them over the last four years such as Dorrell Wright, Daequan Cook, Michael Beasley, Joel Anthony, and Mario Chalmers.

Only Anthony and Chalmers remain on the team from among those five players, but I’m sure that Wright, Cook, and Beasley will all carry the lessons they learned from Udonis on to their new teams. Haslem helped mold those young players into a playoff-caliber team; despite the fact the Miami Heat lacked a great deal of talent beyond Dwyane Wade during those years.

Haslem knows a thing or two about helping to mold a team into a champion, as he was probably the key player in helping to turn the season around for Miami during their title-run of 2006. While Shaquille O’Neal and Wade got most of the press from that season, it was Haslem who helped Riley to shape the team’s focus and develop the “15 Strong” message that was a cornerstone for their incredible chemistry that year.

Miami had entered that championship season coached by Stan Van Gundy, who’d taken the Heat to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons the previous year. In that Conference Finals, Miami had accounted themselves well, but had fallen just shy of achieving what they’d wanted; a title, or at least a shot at one and a berth in the NBA Finals.

This was mainly due to the rib injury Dwyane Wade sustained in game 5 of that series. Unable to play in Game 6, which the Heat lost, Wade was a shell of his normal self in Game 7, and although he and his teammates battled valiantly, they eventually lost a thriller to the Pistons in the fourth quarter of the game.

The following year, Heat President and General Manager, Pat Riley shook the Heat roster up, adding veterans Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, Jason Williams, and James Posey. However, immediate results of this offseason shake-up were mixed, and Riley saw himself questioned by the media and fans over the moves.

With problems plaguing the team, Stan Van Gundy resigned as the head coach in December, setting the stage for Riley’s return to coaching after a two-and-a-half year hiatus. Yet, even Riley couldn’t immediately work miracles with the squad he’d assembled, as the disparate parts, all great to some degree in their own right, seemed unable to gel and perform as one unit.

These problems culminated in an embarrassing 112-76 loss on national television to the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday, Feb. 9 2006.

Following the game, the Heat seemed in total disarray, and most in the media were beginning to wonder if Riley or “Riles” as he’s known to fans, still had it (it being the ability to work his magic in motivating a team to succeed). The players decided to call a players-only meeting to discuss what was going wrong with their talent-laden team.

Enter Udonis Haslem.

Although he had, until that point, rarely spoken-up in team meetings, being a quiet player who leads by example, Udonis decided it was time for him to speak. As he put it in describing his fiery speech:

“That was one of the times I felt like it was time to be vocal,” Haslem said. “I just felt like it was a situation where we weren’t playing as well as the talent on this team…We weren’t trusting each other. We weren’t playing for each other. We weren’t laying out on the floor for each other.”

The emotional discussion that followed Haslem’s speech sparked a huge turnaround with the Heat. Miami won 15 of its next 16 games, including 10 in-a-row, and gave the Miami players a sense that they could beat anyone.

It erased all the doubts they held in their minds, and helped mold them into a cohesive unit whose mantra, “15 Strong,” created by Riley, but shaped by the vision and teamwork of the entire Miami squad, launched them into the playoffs on a mission; a mission they would accomplish when Dwyane Wade became a superhero during the Finals that year.

Yet, while Wade’s contributions were undoubtedly what brought Miami a title that year, his teammates, all of them, were part of that championship run, and helped and contributed in their own ways. Is there any doubt that without the defensive ferocity of Alonzo Mourning the Miami Heat would have succumbed to the Mavericks in the Finals?

Is there anyone who watched them who doesn’t understand the key moments and games that Shaquille O’Neal played his heart out and helped shoulder the load for the Heat in those playoffs? Can anyone doubt that without the spectacular play of Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, Gary Payton, James Posey, and others, Wade’s heroics would have been for naught?

In the same way, is there anyone who doesn’t understand the importance of Haslem’s behind-the-scenes leadership in that speech he gave? Without his speech, Miami doesn’t reach the Finals to allow Wade to mimic his comic-book namesake, the Flash. Without that speech Miami might not have even made the playoffs.

The Heat won fewer regular season games that championship year than they had the year before, 2004-05, but that speech had turned the team around near the end of the year, and was clearly responsible for Miami becoming a team.

And that’s pretty much what Haslem has always done, throughout his career, is help the squads he plays for become teams. The old cliché is, there’s no “I” in team, and Haslem embodies that principle at his core. There is not a player on any team around the NBA who works harder than Haslem, night in and night out.

Born Udonis Johneal Haslem on June 9, 1980 in Miami, FL, he attended Miami Senior High School and has been a huge fan of Miami sports ever since he was a child. As he once put it in describing his love for Miami and the opportunity he got to be a part of the Heat’s first championship run:

“It’s sentimental to me. It’s about my city, my people, my family and my friends. Even though I went to the University of Florida, I’m still a [University of Miami] Hurricanes fan. I’m still a Dolphins fan. I bleed Miami.”

A four-year starter at Florida, Haslem was the first player in Gators’ history to play on four consecutive NCAA Tournament teams. He was also only the second player in UF history to be named to one of the first three Associated Press All-America teams (the first was Neal Walk). Add to that he was the first player in school history to be named All-Southeastern Conference by the leagued coaches four consecutive times (First Team in 2002 and 2001, Third Team in 2000 and 1999).

Haslem also ranks in the top 10 in University of Florida history in 11 career categories, didn’t miss a single game in his college career (seeing action in 130 games total and finishing his career with 99 consecutive starts), and is one of only two players in school history to score 1,700 points and grab 800 rebounds. More than all that, he was a winner, taking part in 97 Gators victories; more than any player in the school’s history.

A wide body with great post moves and a soft touch, Haslem, even since his college days, has been a presence on the teams he’s been on. Quiet and unassuming at times, he’s led by doing most of the time, not by talking. Yet, his ability to seal defenders makes him very tough to stop one-on-one in the post, and his tenacious play on defense makes him a player most would rather not have defending them.

He played like that in college, averaging 13.7 points and 6.4 rebounds over a four-year college career with the Gators. In his junior year he averaged 16.8 PPG and 7.5 RPG, and while his scoring in his senior year dipped to 16.0 PPG, his rebounds increased to 8.3 RPG.

Starting at center all four years he played for Florida, he was part of the squad playing for Billy Donovan that put Gators’ basketball back on the map. A huge fan favorite while in college, every time he would make a big play the fans would yell the letter “U” in unison.

Coming out of college in 2002 his weight ballooned to above 300 pounds. Not being drafted, he managed to get an invite to the Atlanta Hawks training camp, but was a late cut by them, opting to play overseas in France for Chalon-Sur-Saone.

During his time in France he transformed his body, and how the NBA, and Pat Riley in particular, viewed him. Losing 70 pounds during that year, he averaged 16.1 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, which got him a spot in the NBA summer leagues.

Pat Riley and Miami took a chance on him and signed him as an undrafted rookie in 2003, placing him behind the veteran power forward Brian Grant. Serving as Grant’s primary backup, Haslem provided great rebounding and defense that rookie year and was named to the All-NBA rookie second team.

That was just a harbinger for what he’d do for the heat over the following six years.

In 2004 the Miami Heat sent Brian Grant, along with Lamar Odom and Caron Butler to the Los Angeles Lakers in order to bring Shaquille O’Neal to Miami. Udonis Haslem slipped right into the role of starting power forward, acting as a perfect complement to the Diesel’s game.

He developed a nice jumper, and even though the acquisition of Antoine Walker the following year, was able to retain his starting position through sheer determination and hard work.

Even when the Heat drafted Michael Beasley, and the experiment with the young forward necessitated Haslem playing a reserve role in order to give Beasley a chance to blossom, Udonis never balked. Instead, he simply set himself to the task with gusto, letting his play on the court dictate his minutes.

In truth, some have criticized Erik Spoelstra for using him so much in the fourth quarters of games last year, to the detriment of Beasley, but the simple fact was, Udonis was a double-double machine that the Heat could hardly do without, while Michael was a brilliant talent one night and a total bust the next.

Going into this offseason there is not a player on the Heat I was more worried about losing (other than Dwyane Wade, of course, but I wasn’t worried much that he would leave) than Haslem.

I felt for sure (as I was proven correct), that he would get numerous offers from other teams for a lot more money than the Miami Heat would be able to pay him.

When Pat Riley and the Heat pulled off the miracle I’d foretold in getting the “Three Kings” to play in South Beach, I was all but certain Udonis would be a casualty of those acquisitions.

And truthfully, I felt nothing but happiness for Haslem himself. He deserves the money. He has earned it beyond measure, and I could never begrudge him if he had taken a huge contract with another team.

But that’s not Udonis. As he’s said above, he bleeds Miami, and although the Heat weren’t able to offer him nearly as much as other franchises, there was no real hesitation in him accepting what they could give him, which gave me a thrill I can’t even begin to explain.

Not only is he fiercely loyal, though, he’s also precisely what the Miami Heat needed at the position he plays.

Having traded away Michael Beasley in order to secure the cap room needed to sign Mike Miller (and Haslem), the Heat were in desperate need of a backup power forward with all the ability and defensive versatility Udonis brings to the table.

They needed someone coming off the bench who could give them the production of a starter, yet the humble mindset of someone not willing to make waves.

Haslem gives them all that and more, and when you consider he’s just suffered through the loss of his mother this summer (Debra Haslem died of cancer at the age of 53 this past month), from a disease she’d battled for nearly two years, it’s easy to see the fortitude and discipline he brings, and to admire not just what a great player he is, but what a great man he’s become.

Not once over the last two years has he allowed his personal tragedy to affect his play on the court. As Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had to say, “He’s a rock, he really is. But in those quiet moments, behind the scenes, he’s human. He has tremendous love for his family and he’s been there for them in ways no one even knows.”

While the “Three Kings” will garner most of the press this coming season, I have no doubt in my mind that “UD” will be one of the main cogs that allows the Miami Heat to reach the heights I believe they will.

While one or the other between Wade and LeBron may lead the team in scoring and assists, and Bosh may lead the team in rebounding, I would wager my soul that Haslem will lead the team in gutty, gritty, heartfelt plays that, while not something that will make the highlights of SportsCenter, will win Miami numerous games.

I thank God “UD” is going to be a part of the titles to come, for he is truly a champion.

You can read more of Hotnuke’s work as well as the work of many award-winning writers at his blogsite, “The Fallout Shelter

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