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Never Tell Udonis Haslem the Odds

The Heat lifer has seen it all — Shaq, the Big Three, the championship parades. Now, at the end of his career, he’s mentoring a young, unformed Miami team.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is Squad Goals Week. We’re looking at a bunch of teams and asking one question: What constitutes success for this franchise?

Alonzo Mourning remembers when he realized Udonis Haslem was “for real.” It was in the practice gym, back in 2004. Bodied up between two future Hall of Famers, the then-24-year-old Haslem labored his way to the net, taking blows and embracing contact every time a rebound was up for grabs.

“He was in there with me and all these other big guys,” Mourning, now an executive with the team, told me. “You know, Shaq, and all these other big guys in there, banging. He was giving up inches and pounds, and he was extremely determined, regardless of what he was confronted with,” which, in this case, was 7 feet, 1 inch, and 325 pounds.

Little did Mourning know he was witnessing the making of a Miami legend — one who had a long way to go back in 2004. Undrafted and undersized, Haslem has seen an entire career of confrontations with long odds. Now, nearing the end of his time as a player, he’s facing a final obstacle that, scrimmages against Shaq and Zo aside, might be his biggest challenge yet: maintaining Heat standards and mentoring a suddenly very different team.

Change hit Miami fast. Just last May, team president Pat Riley grouped Haslem, Dwyane Wade, and Mourning as his “forever guys,” due to their years of service and the pay cuts they took. It helped the Heat seem like the ultimate family organization, a spend-your-career-here destination. Wade and Haslem, aligned since their ’03 rookie seasons, exemplified that as members of Miami’s most exclusive club: the only players to have been on all three championship rosters.

Much like building a statue for someone living, calling an active player a “forever guy” comes with risks. There were shock waves through the NBA when Wade departed to Chicago in free agency this summer. And just as the team was coping with that exit, Chris Bosh’s issues with blood clots crept up again, this time in a preseason physical.

There have been reports that the team is refusing to release Bosh until 25 games before the playoffs — which would make him ineligible to play on another team that season and allow Miami $25 million in salary-cap relief for 2017 free agency. It would make for a bitter end to Bosh’s time in South Beach. On top of that, the team is in the middle of adjusting to a new, up-tempo style of play to revamp its offense and cater to point guard Goran Dragic … who, after a flurry of trade rumors, might not even spend the 2016 season in Miami.

Projections for this year’s team aren’t glamorous; the worst-case scenario is a season of tanking, and perhaps the best case (a 48 percent chance at the playoffs) depends on a very weak Eastern Conference.

And still, Haslem is unwavering. Over the summer, the 36-year-old became the only remaining true Heat lifer on the roster. He re-signed, despite reported interest (and probably more money) from Denver and Minnesota. When prompted about how Wade’s move affected the team, Haslem told me, “I’ve always been a leader and a mentor. [The] only thing that’s different is that Dwyane’s not here.”

As crazy as it might seem to be confident about the Heat right now, Haslem has experience fighting against the doubts of others. Before the rings, the boards, the speeches, and occasionally, the baskets, Haslem was not a guy who was supposed to make it in the NBA.

“This is a place where you can find a home,” he said. Haslem is persuasive, telling his story with both the tenderness of someone who tried to make it in this league and the pride of someone who did. “I preach to guys how I came here 14 years ago feeling like I was overlooked. The NBA didn’t take me. I felt like I should have been drafted. There were just a lot of things I felt 14 years ago, and look at me 14 years later, three-time champion, leading an organization. You can have a home here. You can stake your claim here. Start to create your legacy here.”

When Mourning rejoined Miami for the ’04-’05 season, Haslem was working to establish himself with the club. The Florida graduate was a year removed from his stint overseas, where he says he lost nearly 60 pounds in the hopes of finding an opportunity in the NBA. “As soon as the door cracked, he basically kicked it down and ripped off the hinges,” Mourning said. “[He] realized that you only get one chance at this.”

Haslem has held down a roster spot for 14 years and counting, good for the second-highest number of Heat games played. He owns the team’s all-time rebounding record — a feat no other undrafted player in league history has achieved. Mourning said rebounding is what defines Haslem. He argued that of all the skills in basketball, grabbing boards requires the most pure effort. Haslem is also second in all-time minutes for Miami, especially impressive considering he has averaged only 15.1 minutes per game over the last four seasons. At the end of the bench, his full-time job is to echo Erik Spoelstra and his coaching staff.

“If you want to be a part of this game, you’ve got to be able to adapt. … You either adapt, or you die,” Haslem said. And who better than a guy who won with O’Neal and LeBron James, only for both to leave shortly after their respective final championship parades, to know how to reset a team?

Billy Donovan, who coached Haslem for four years at Florida, told The Palm Beach Post in 2015 that being able to evolve was Haslem’s best quality. “He’s always been willing to do things that other people are not willing to do. … He’s capable of evolving because he’s smart and knows how to impact a team.”

Haslem played a distinct role in each of the championship teams he’s been a part of. In the 2006 Finals, as the third youngest on a roster that included debatably the greatest big man of his generation, Haslem claimed both the team’s highest offensive rebound count with 17 and the top offensive rebound rate with 10.7 percent.

Six seasons later, in the 2012 postseason, Haslem had to accept a lesser role, partially due to not one, not two, but three players who had ideas about how the team was going to be run.

Still, he led the team in offensive rebound rate with 12.2 percent and put on a performance in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals that kept the Heat in the series against the Pacers, scoring 14 points and notching a plus-15 plus/minus rating. In the next game, he wailed a flagrant on Tyler Hansbrough in retaliation for an earlier foul on Wade. (Have I mentioned Haslem also leads the Heat in all-time player fouls?)

Some called it dirty. But for Wade, who tallied 28 points in the following game, it was something to rally behind. He gave his basketball bodyguard the game ball, and the Heat went on to win the title.

The next season, Haslem, 32 at the time, again helped Miami oust the Pacers in the playoffs, scoring 17 points in Game 3 of the conference finals, and 16 points in Game 5. Coming off a regular-season average of 3.9 points per game, these were remarkable and incredibly timely aberrations.

In the Finals, his hot hand cooled, so much so that Spoelstra eventually replaced him with Mike Miller in the starting lineup. Haslem’s renaissance was over, and though he touted the highest defensive rebounding and the second-highest total rebounding percentages in the series, he saw only 64 minutes total.

Four seasons later, Haslem finds himself and the Heat far from title contention. This time around, it’s not so much about changing his game as it is changing and improving the games of those around him.

He’s taken on the less-visible roles that Wade and Bosh used to fill, like organizing workouts through the summer. In Miami’s sweltering seasonal weather, Haslem orchestrated sprints on a football field. It wasn’t even to improve conditioning. Rather, he wanted the bonding process that comes with being fatigued together.

“[We’re] just pushing each other to different limits and seeing how hard we can go,” Haslem said. “Everybody encouraging each other. … You still have to build up that wall, because everybody’s pushing for each other.”

Face adversity early and grub together after. Haslem has been called “warrior,” “rugged,” and “fierce” by former teammates, but the vet knows part of his role now is getting players to know each other better, Scoutmaster-style.

Haslem’s biggest mentoring project is Heat center Hassan Whiteside, who in his two seasons in Miami has developed a reputation as a hothead. Last year, Whiteside was ejected for a nasty shove to the back of Kelly Olynyk’s head. Haslem promptly followed him into the locker room. The two have some parallels: Whiteside also spent time overseas, after not finding immediate success in the NBA on his first go-round after being drafted in 2010.

During a scrimmage last Friday in Houston, Haslem was in Whiteside’s ear. He was talking shit the way a guy almost a decade older can, pushing and bumping into him a little harder than usual. Whiteside was aggravated, and it showed: Haslem got a stop against him on the inbound play.

Upset, Whiteside demanded a foul and, when he didn’t get it, channeled his focus to the next play. Even with Haslem playing tight defense, Whiteside rebutted with a 15-foot turnaround jumper over his mentor and, afterward, a lingering look. The young gun was riled. Haslem pulled Whiteside back at the end of practice and challenged him to a one-on-one. A couple of guys gathered to watch, but Haslem didn’t care about the crowd or the outcome. It was about molding the player in front of him and not letting anyone get in his head.

He checked Whiteside the ball. Up against the best center in the gym, Haslem was right where he wanted to be.