Udonis Haslem, Miami Heat reflect on rare 20-year NBA career

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This story would never have been told if Udonis Haslem’s mother had not moved from Miami to Jacksonville, Florida. Or if his half-brother hadn’t been so clever with an air ball. Or if Atlanta signed him in 2002. Or if San Antonio did in 2003.

Any of these things happen differently, everything changes. He probably wouldn’t be with the Miami Heat right now. maybe never

Haslem, the NBA’s oldest active player at 42 and a three-time champion, is in his final days with his hometown team. He is the third player to spend a two-decade career with a franchise, joining Dirk Nowitzki of Dallas and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers.

“All I’ve tried to do is take care of my people, take care of my city,” Haslem said. “I think that’s why I can sit with the mayor and the commissioners, or the people in the ‘hood, and be comfortable either way. It’s because of the sacrifices I’ve made for this city.”

Heat president Pat Riley is more successful.

“Udonis is Miami,” Riley said.

Haslem made the NBA All-Rookie team in 2003-04. He was never an All-Star, never All-NBA, never even a Player of the Week out of 438 possible chances. The last time he averaged double figures in a season was 2009.

But ask anyone with the Heat, and they insist that Haslem, the team captain who will retire his No. 40 jersey next season, has been vital for two decades.

“He’s the poster child for a guy who was supposed to be average and yet he became great,” said Chet Kammerer, who has spent 27 years in Miami’s player personnel department. “And how did he do it? Hard work. Great spirit. Great attitude. Never ‘I can’t do this,’ never ‘I can’t do that.’ than people know.”

Take the night Miami won its first NBA title in Dallas in 2006. Haslem played with a separated shoulder. He had to guard Nowitzki, the Mavericks’ best player. Nowitzki had no field goals in the fourth quarter; Miami won 95-92, Haslem had 17 points, 10 rebounds and a nice shout afterwards.

“The champagne has got me,” he said. Everyone knows otherwise; they were tears

Other players made headlines that night; Dwyane Wade was NBA Finals MVP, Shaquille O’Neal won his fourth ring. But without Haslem, there would be no title.

“He’s always had tremendous courage,” Riley said. “Whatever the effort is, it takes it to another level. And you need that. He was genuine. He was that type of guy, someone who has tremendous pride in being from Miami.”

Many Miami kids grow up with football dreams. Haslem was one of them. But when his mother took a job in Jacksonville when he was nine, the focus began to turn to basketball. (“Football isn’t that big there,” Haslem said.) When he was about 12, Haslem was on the track with his older half-brother, Sam Wooten. Haslem threw a fly ball. Wooten took the ball and scored.

“Nice pass,” Wooten said, sincerely. He, and that moment, had a tremendous impact on Haslem; Wooten died in 1999 of cancer, and Haslem has a “RIP Sam” tattoo on his neck to honor his mentor.

Haslem had breakout dunks as a high school freshman, starred at Miami High, then starred at Florida, but struggled with weight and NBA teams stopped drafting him in 2002. Atlanta took him to a camp that summer, but signed Ira Newble last on the roster.

So Haslem played in France, shedding the extra weight by eating only turkey sandwiches. The following summer, Spurs offered him a one-year contract.

“We couldn’t lose him,” Kammerer said.

The Heat offered two years. Haslem signed. He never left. He had multiple opportunities, often for more money. But he stayed and will remain with the organization in a role to be determined; Haslem wants the opportunity to join the ownership group.

“He’s very important to our organization and our locker room,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He embodies everything that we believe in. And he has a way, because of the level of respect, that he’s able to influence and guide literally every player in the locker room.”

There are many stories of Haslem’s toughness. In practice he would dislocate his fingers and put them back on like nothing. People still talk about his hard foul on Indiana’s Tyler Hansbrough in the 2012 playoffs, after the Pacers held him to eight points the game before and Hansbrough had just sent Wade flying. He’s often the one making impassioned speeches in the locker room at halftime, even before Spoelstra gets a chance. The wall outside Miami’s locker room is now a tribute to Haslem’s moments.

He’s not Miami’s best player. It could be argued that no one wanted to say more.

“There’s nobody else like him,” Spoelstra said.

Report from The Associated Press.

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