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In Appreciation of Udonis Haslem, Miami Heat Legend

Dwyane Wade’s return to Miami means a reunion with a longtime running mate who never left: a selfless, unsung hero who’s played his entire 15-year career in his hometown

Udonis Haslem Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This article is three things about Udonis Haslem, a player who’s been in the league for 15 seasons now and has never received the (national) adoration he deserves. He’s the first person I thought about when Dwyane Wade was traded back to the Miami Heat last week, which makes sense because that’s how Udonis Haslem has existed in the NBA universe; as a complementary piece to bigger names and grander stories.

I. “My work ethic I learned at Miami High, and I have taken that with me. And no doubt in my mind without the work ethic that I have today I wouldn’t be here.” —Udonis Haslem, talking on a morning radio show in 2011 about how the University of Miami should interview his high school coach (Frank Martin) for a coaching opportunity

Per, there have been only 11 players in NBA history who have spent an entire career of 15-plus years with a single franchise. Four of the players on that list are in the NBA right now. It’s Udonis in Miami, Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in San Antonio. So if nothing else comes from this article, you absolutely can take it to mean that Udonis Haslem is as significant a part of the history of the Miami Heat as Dirk is for the Mavericks and Tony and Manu are for the Spurs.

And a bonus kicker: Haslem is the only one of those 11 players to do it for a team in his hometown, and playing your entire career for the professional team in the city where you were born and raised is a thing that’s almost too incredible to be believed.

II. “Whenever I have the opportunity to help my team win and go out there and do my job, I try to do it.” —Udonis Haslem, talking to the Inside the NBA cast after the Heat took a 3-2 lead over the Pacers in the 2013 playoffs. Less than a month later, he would win his third championship with the Heat.

Here’s the second thing, and it’s a neat thing that’s also very appropriate: Across the entirety of YouTube, there is only one video celebrating Udonis Haslem’s career highlights. That’s it. One. Literally only one. There are videos of his dunks, and even a couple of his individual game highlights. But only one career highlight video. And it’s not even an official NBA video; it’s a fan-made video. It’s 10 plays long, and they are as such:

No. 10: The Heat are up by one on the Hawks with fewer than 20 seconds to play. Dwyane Wade is dribbling around a bit, burning seconds off the clock and also probing for weaknesses in the defense. Everyone is watching him because they know he’s about to do something incredible, which is why Haslem is able to sneak in behind the defense for an alley-oop. Wade throws it to him and Haslem dunks it.

No. 9: Haslem, running toward the rim, catches a pass from Mike Bibby and then dunks it on Keith Bogans as he’s fouled. Steve Kerr was one of the people calling the game and as they showed replays of the dunks he remarked, “Look at his teammates. They’re so excited. They know how important Udonis Haslem is.”

No. 8: During the second quarter of a Heat-Cavs game, Udonis sets a pick for Wade out at the 3-point line. Wade, seeing that Udonis has slipped to the rim undetected, zips a pass to him. Udonis catches it, then dunks it plainly.

No. 7: With 13 seconds left in a game between the Heat and the Pistons and Miami down by one, the Heat run a play that’s supposed to start with the ball being inbounded to Jermaine O’Neal. When the ball gets tossed in, though, it squirts through O’Neal’s hands, landing with Mario Chalmers. Chalmers immediately drives to the basket for the potential game-winning layup (Mario Chalmers does not lack confidence), but he misses it (he has more confidence than skill, it’s always seemed). The ball gets batted out, and this time it hits Udonis in the hands. He immediately shoots it. The ball splashes in, giving the Heat a one-point lead.

No. 6: In the final seconds of a tie game between the Heat and the Sixers, Wade drives to the rim. The defense collapses on him, and so guess who’s open. Udonis receives the pass, then puts up a 15-footer. It swishes in perfectly.

No. 5: With five seconds left in a game where the Heat are trailing the Nets by two, Wade drives to the rim. He’s double-teamed, and so guess who he throws it to. Udonis bobbles the pass a bit (just enough for a defender to get all the way into his jersey), then picks the ball up and shoots it over him. Basket good. Overtime.

No. 4: With seven seconds left and the Heat trailing the Warriors by two, Wade dribbles into the lane, drawing a double-team. He passes it out to Michael Beasley. (My guess is that, at a glance, he thought that he was throwing it to Udonis.) Beasley shoots it and misses and it seems like the game is over. But then, an angel: Udonis’s gravity draws the ball to him, and so he takes it and, as three defenders try to stop him, he puts it in the rim, which is where he knows it to belong.

No. 3: With 10 seconds left and the Heat down by two to the Wizards, Chalmers zips down the court and drives in and tries to lay it up past three Wizards. He misses the shot, but it doesn’t matter, because Haslem has sprinted his way into the play. He jumps, grabs the ball, then dunks it, tying the game with four seconds left.

No. 2: With three seconds left of a tied game between the Wizards and the Heat, the Heat inbound the ball to Udonis. He catches it, turns, then lofts up a 10-footer. It drops in with 0.3 seconds left, winning the game for the Heat.

No. 1: It’s a short clip of him grabbing an ordinary rebound during a Bucks-Heat game in 2012. It was chosen as his no. 1 play because it was the rebound that made him the Heat’s all-time franchise leader in rebounds. He passed the iconic Alonzo Mourning to do so. And here seems like a good time for me to tell you that Alonzo was the second pick of the 1992 draft, and that Udonis never got picked at all during any draft. He’s literally the only player ever to not get drafted and then go on to become an NBA team’s leader in rebounds.

There are six things that need to be pointed out about that collection of plays chosen as the 10 best of his career:

  • Six of those 10 include Dwyane Wade and, as I mentioned earlier, that’s pretty perfect because they have been linked together for what feels like forever. The most representative one is the rebound that broke the franchise record. Haslem grabbed it—and everyone knew he’d just broken the record because that’s all anyone was talking about beforehand—but so he grabbed it and then, same as he’d done several thousand times before then, immediately flipped it out ahead to Wade to try to start a fast break. He didn’t even bother to take one single second to celebrate himself. It was a perfectly Haslem play. He had just made very significant history and was like, “Doesn’t matter. Hurry up. If we attack right now we might be able to score.”
  • (A sidebar: There are three burnt-in memories I have from the Heat’s first championship run in 2006. Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem have the first two, because Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem should always be the first two names you think of when talking about the Miami Heat. The first one is Wade becoming all-the-way unstoppable when he realized that the refs were really enforcing the new No Hand-Checking rule. The second is Haslem crying while being interviewed after the Heat won the title, talking about how he’d come from nothing and nowhere. It’s probably my favorite Haslem moment of all. And same with everything else that Haslem is involved with, it’s rife with symbolism. In this case, it’s Wade collecting his assumed stardom while Haslem, happy and profoundly proud, absorbs everything on a smaller scale in the background.)
  • (The third 2006 memory, by the way, is Josh Howard accidentally calling a timeout that [probably] cost the Mavericks Game 5 in the Finals, which [probably] cost them the title. That was the year that Dirk hit the and-one against my beloved Spurs in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals so I was just watching the Mavericks turn to ash in the Finals laughing and laughing and laughing.)
  • Out of all 10 of the plays, Haslem dribbles only one time. Mario Chalmers dribbles more in the Udonis Haslem career highlights video than Udonis does, and I think that might secretly be the best Udonis stat of all the Udonis stats.
  • There’s no play where Udonis holds the ball for longer than three seconds, and in eight of them he has it in his hands for fewer than two seconds.
  • Only one of the 10 plays is a play that was drawn up for him. The other nine are just him being where he’s supposed to be as a safety valve or reacting to a situation that suddenly needs a safety valve. Udonis is a wonderful safety valve.
  • Seven of the 10 plays are either icing a game, winning a game, or forcing a game into overtime.

III. “Nobody never gave me a chance. Nobody never gave me nothing.” —Udonis Haslem, crying, talking to a reporter after the Heat won the championship in 2006

In all likelihood, there never has been a time in history when someone said something like, “Hey, everyone! Gather ’round! Come look at this compilation highlight video of these sick rebounds!” There’s just not really anything especially Basketball Cool about rebounds, is all. They lack the flamboyance of a crossover, or the violence of a big dunk, or the calculation of an assist, or the cruelty of blocking a shot into the third row, or even the second row, or even the first row, for that matter.

Mind you, that’s not to say that rebounds are not important, because they absolutely are, and the phrase that comes to mind is that one about how no defensive stand is truly complete until the rebound has been secured. And so they are important, and essential, and vital, and indispensable, absolutely. But it’s just that, I mean, even the most stylistic rebound—like when someone skies into the atmosphere and snatches it with one hand as Donovan Mitchell did recently, or when someone grabs it while shouting curse words at the other people trying to grab it like Carmelo Anthony does always—it’s still … I mean … it’s still just … a rebound, you know what I’m saying? It’s a thing that’s needed, but not a thing that’s cool, same as brushing your teeth or wearing a seatbelt.

Now, I don’t know if this analogy matches up perfectly. I don’t know if I’d want to say something like, “Udonis Haslem is like if a rebound was a human.” (The main issue is that I think Udonis is cool, though I’m willing to admit that might be because I think pragmatism is cool, and Udonis is as pragmatic a player as has ever existed in the NBA.) But the bones of it are true: Udonis Haslem is important, and essential, and vital, and indispensable.

That might be the only part that matters anyway.