Once upon a time, Miami Heat fans couldn’t understand what it felt like to win a championship. As much fun as the last four years were, one magical run holds a special place in the hearts of the Heat Nation.
Anytime I go to the American Airlines Arena, I always catch myself looking at that banner. It’s almost like it’s reminding me of how it came to be. There’s a lot to be said about going through heartbreak and agony before achieving glory. Of course every fan wants to have that immediate satisfaction that comes with their team winning a championship. However, when you’ve come close so many times or believed that “This is the year” and fallen short on numerous occasions, finally grabbing hold of a title can feel so much sweeter. Or maybe that’s the hopeless fan in me.
Believe it or not, the Heat existed before 2010. They actually have been playing this basketball stuff for 22 years before that year. It’s true! But there seems to be those across the country that completely forgot the Heat won the championship in 2006. Maybe it was the fact that it was a Finals between two teams - Heat/Mavericks- that had never been there before, or the first Finals that didn’t have the Bulls, Spurs, or Lakers involved since 1995. More than likely, it was the uninspired way the Heat approached the following season – first with a 42 point loss to the Bulls on Opening Night, then ending the season in a first round sweep to that same Chicago team.
No matter what, that season will never be dismissed in the eyes of Heat fans. Sure, South Florida had seen championship runs prior to 2006 – the Marlins had recently won two World Series titles in 1997 and 2003 – yet there’s a special connection to Heat. Fans had gone through a lot with them. Those Marlins teams felt like they were an experiment put hastily together (1997) or a miracle run that would never be allowed to last (2003). Even the Panthers gave South Florida fans an exciting little run in 1996, before vanishing to the Everglades.
I’ve always believed that my generation had the Dolphins handed down to us. The Dolphins had a stranglehold on the local sports scene since the sixties, but it wasn’t until 1988 that the Heat were born. It’s a bit different being able to embrace an expansion team. Like a younger sibling, you watch it grow and get to go through the growing pains together.
In the 17 seasons prior, the Heat had their fair share of pitfalls. 1997 saw them make the Eastern Conference Finals, only to lose to Michael Jordan and the Bulls. The 1998-2000 seasons saw top-2 seeded Heat teams make early exits to the hated Knicks. That was followed by Alonzo Mourning’s kidney ailment and the Heat would spiral out from the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
Then came June 30, 2003.
What’s the importance of that date? That would be the day that Anthony Carter’s agent forgot to inform the Miami Heat that he was exercising his player option for the 2003-04 season, therefore freeing up an additional $4 million to spend in that summer’s free agency. Pat Riley used that additional money to offer the Clippers’ Lamar Odom a six-year, $65 million contract. The Heat would bounce back, like they normally do. The emergence of Dwyane Wade, along with Odom and Caron Butler, gave fans the amazing run of 2004.
But after only one season in Miami, Odom, Butler, and Brian Grant would be traded the Los Angeles Lakers. What they got in return would make the Heat an instant title contender.
The Heat bringing in O’Neal to pair up with the rising superstar Wade gave the team a one-two punch that surpassed that of Mourning and Tim Hardaway. In 2005, the top-seeded Heat a 3-2 series lead going into Detroit for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, when Wade was forced to sit out with an injury. The Pistons would blow the Heat out of the gym and force a Game 7 back in Miami. That last game saw a wounded Wade try to battle through injury, but it wasn’t enough, as the Pistons won the game and the series.
Would the Heat ever win?
The aftermath saw Riley complete a blockbuster trade that brought Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, and James Posey to Miami, which was effectively the Heat stepping up to the poker table and pushing all their chips to the center.
Sadly, the Heat got dealt a shaky hand.
The rocky start saw the Heat’s record at 11-10 after 21 games, which was followed by coach Stan Van Gundy stepping down to save his family from doom be with his family and allowing Riley to return to the bench. The Heat would respond by going 41-20 the rest of the season, leading to a rematch with the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat would find redemption, as they dismissed Detroit in six games, culminating in a beatdown at home to finish the series off. During the series, Wade even included this shot that still is amazing to watch. The Heat had finally climbed over the hump and fans had their chance to taste victory.
But the road only got more difficult, as the Mavericks looked to be in complete control of the Finals, taking a 2-0 lead in the series, as they looked to close the Heat out in Game 3. Down by 13 in the fourth quarter, Wade led the comeback, finishing the night with 42 points. But it was an unlikely hero stepping up with the big shot, as Gary Payton reached back to his SuperSonics days and tied the game late in the fourth with a jumper. Heat fans were probably thinking something along the lines of “No, not Payton! OH MY GOD!!! He did it!”
Game 4 saw the Heat tie the series with a blowout, which was then followed by the epic of Game 5. This was my first Finals game and I can say it was the best basketball game I’d ever seen live. I remember the back and forth of that overtime, then that runner by Payton hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh off the glass to give Miami the lead late. That shot was then followed by Dirk Nowitzki hitting a jumper with less than 10 seconds in OT that brought horror to the crowd.
Except Wade was playing on a level that few can ever comprehend. He weaved his way through the Dallas defense and was able to draw a foul as he was heading to the basket. He would hit the biggest free throws in Heat hit history to give the Heat the final 101-100 win, with a chance to win the title in Dallas.
Could this really be happening?
Game 6 felt like holding on to the edge of a cliff, as the Heat kept trying to fend off every Mavericks run. The Heat held a watch party at the AAA and we felt like we were there in Dallas doing everything we could to lift the Heat. The most symbolic moment of that game had to have been Mourning’s block that saw him hit the floor and celebrate like it was the biggest one of his career. If Miami was going to put this off, it was only fitting that Mourning was in the center of it all.
Of course, in true Heat fashion, they brought the game down to the wire. Wade would miss both would-be clinching free throws and allow the Mavs one last chance to tie the game. I don’t think I took a breath in those final few seconds as Jason Terry took a three that just missed.
Then there was bedlam.
Goodbye, Michael Jordan.
Goodbye, Allan Houston.
Goodbye, Richard Hamilton.
All those years of being close or “good on paper, but not good enough” had been washed away. Now they were just memories on a long journey. The team I saw grow from nothing had become champion. The thought of Wade holding the Finals MVP trophy is a fitting image, as Heat fans had also watch Wade grow from the beginning of his career. It was like we all grew up together.
And it’s perfect that Wade is still growing with the Heat.
Staring at the banner is still something that I do at Heat games, even though there are two other banners alongside it. It was the moment when Heat fans had suffered through tough times just so they could be a part of the championship party.
The 2006 Heat helped us walk through the door.