The vast majority of sports legends are so successful that their place in history is almost self-explanatory. There are others, though, who resonate for reasons that are harder to articulate. They’re known less for what they did than how they did it. These athletes generally won’t make the Hall of Fame, but they’re remembered forever by anyone who happened to be paying attention.
Udonis Haslem is in that second category. A Miami native, he’s spent each of his 17 NBA seasons with the Heat. He began his career as an undrafted tweener who lost 50 pounds on his way into the league. A few years later, he was a starter on a title team. A few years after that, he was the glue guy for the most infamous dynasty in sports. Today the three-time NBA champion almost never leaves the bench, but talk to anyone associated with the Heat, and they’ll use reverential tones to describe the man known as “UD” throughout South Florida. “He’s Mr. 305, man,” says Heat president Pat Riley. “He’s Liberty City. He’s Miami.”
“The pro he is,” says Chris Bosh. “The man he is. I mean, hell, he’s from the town. Nobody gave him a shot, nobody gave him anything. He came in and he kicked enough ass to earn a spot, and now he’s one of the greatest athletes that Florida has ever seen.”
“The biggest thing,” Dwyane Wade says, “is that he’s all about the organization. He’s all about the city. And even now, his voice is just as big as it’s ever been. It’s crazy. Most guys that don’t play, they don’t have that kind of impact. But he has that respect. He has that impact on everyone. If you don’t like UD, something’s wrong with you.”
As you may have heard, the Heat are having a moment. Fresh off a five-game upset of the top-seeded Bucks and six games against the Celtics, Miami is on the way to its first NBA Finals appearance since 2014. But even as the team has been revitalized by Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and a new generation of stars, Haslem remains central as a connection to the past. “He’s not playing,” Goran Dragic said recently. “But he’s here to give his knowledge to young players. Like Kendrick Nunn, and Bam [Adebayo], and Tyler [Herro]. And I mean, he could already go to the, how you say? Sunset? He won championship rings. But he’s still here, man. He’s here for others. And for me, to be next to him and to watch, I want to be the same.”
When the NBA shut down on March 11, the Heat were one of the few teams that kept the majority of its players at home in Miami. Throughout those weeks and months, Haslem was one of the players who made sure the team stayed connected. “Bam was at my house every day,” he says. “I spent time with my guys. I had time to pull up on Herro. Duncan [Robinson] was over at my house. D-Jones. So maybe I broke the [social distancing] rules a little bit, but I’m the older guy, and I just wanted to stay connected. A lot of these guys are just starting their careers, they’re away from their families. It can be a lonely time.” Plus, Haslem adds: “Can’t nothing happen in Miami without me knowing about it. So whatever they’re doing out there, I’m going to hear about it.”
In Orlando, before the Heat took a 3-0 lead to stun the Bucks in the second round, the team was down 12 points entering the fourth quarter of Game 3. “UD was the one controlling the huddles,” Erik Spoelstra said of that stretch. Adebayo added, “UD pulled me and Jimmy [Butler] aside and said we need to be the best players on the court.” The scene repeated itself against Boston in Game 5, when ESPN cameras caught Haslem coaching up his teammates midway through the second half.
As Haslem explains: “These guys trust me. Not just because of what I’ve done in the past, but because they see me in the gym with ‘em. I don’t just sit around and expect to be listened to. I’m going to earn these guys’ respect with the way I approach practice, the way I approach film sessions, the way I approach weight room workouts. That’s the difference between me and a coach. And it’s not that they don’t trust the coaching staff, but it’s different when you’re sweating with these guys, diving on the floor, and feeling what they’re feeling. It tends to build a trust.”
Throughout Miami’s playoff run, there has been steady discussion of “Heat culture” and the mystique that comes with it. How real is any of this? What makes Miami different from any other team? Riley has often explained his organization’s values by saying he wants to cultivate “the hardest working, best conditioned, most professional, most unselfish, toughest, nastiest, most disliked team in the league.” But those ideals will take you only so far. For anyone curious about what “Heat culture” looks like in practice, understanding Haslem’s story is a good place to start.
“He’s the embodiment,” Spoelstra says. “Years on from here, when we’ll say, ‘What’s the Miami Heat culture?’ We can describe it and say, ‘Hardest working team, most professional, best conditioned, and so forth.’ Or we can just pull up a picture of Udonis Haslem.”
Udonis “UD” Haslem is the son of John “Deke” Haslem. His father starred at Miami Northwestern High School and was a fixture in summer leagues at Miami-Dade North Community College back in the late ’70s. Udonis grew up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, and like every other kid who was alive in that city in the ’80s and ’90s, he idolized the University of Miami football team. He would watch the Hurricanes play at the Orange Bowl, and by the time he was in high school, he’d occasionally work games selling concessions. During Dolphins games at the height of Marino era, he’d sometimes head down to Joe Robbie Stadium, sit on a wall across the street, and watch the games via Jumbotron.
Haslem’s mother, Debra, became an important presence in his adult life, but she battled addiction through his childhood. He spent the majority of his childhood with his father and stepmom, Barbara Wooten. They had to “fight and scrap and claw” in the words of a high school coach, but their house was always warm and welcoming. And after the family had relocated to Jacksonville midway through his childhood, it was that same coach—Frank Martin, now the head coach at South Carolina—who welcomed Haslem back home to play at Miami Senior High School.
In the middle of high school basketball games, Haslem looked something like Shaq. He was 6-foot-8 and 280 pounds as a senior. He broke a backboard when he was in the ninth grade. But halfway through his high school career, when he transferred to Miami High, his game began to plateau. Martin coached Miami High from 1995 to 1998. In Haslem he inherited a high school junior with great feet, soft hands, and bad habits. “He was so much bigger and stronger than everybody,” Martin says. “Because of that, he had developed lazy tendencies.”
To solve that problem, Martin recruited a star from the football team—Mark Thurston, who would go on to play three years as a linebacker at West Virginia—to practice with the basketball team. Haslem laughs about this now: “He hacked the shit out of me every day. At that time, I thought basketball was fun. I learned quickly when I got to Miami High that if I wanted to be great, it wouldn’t always be fun. Coach Frank wasn’t gonna call no fouls. It was like, ‘OK, the chips are stacked against you. What you gonna do?’”
When Haslem enrolled, those Miami High teams were in the middle of a run that rivaled what the Hurricanes were doing to college football. The school won eight state championships across 13 years in the ’80s and ’90s. During Haslem’s two years, the team went 71-2, winning state titles in each season. His senior year, fans wore shirts that read “Been there. Won that. Back for more.” (Furthering the Hurricanes parallels: Miami High was later ensnared in a recruiting scandal that forced the 1998 state championship to be vacated.)
Anthony Grant, now the head coach at Dayton, was an assistant coach for Billy Donovan’s Florida program when Haslem’s teams were dominating Miami. Before that, Grant played at Miami High himself. “We had guys that had a passion for the game,” he says, “and had a passion for Miami High. We had a culture. Didn’t know that’s what it was called back then, but that’s what it was. It was highly competitive. Every person that came into that gym, either they were a part of it, or they got dominated by it.”
Haslem’s teams featured several other D-I prospects, including 16-year NBA veteran Steve Blake and local legends Brent Wright, Antonio Latimer, and Sylbrin Robinson. With that much talent, practices were incredibly competitive, and once the games began, everyone on the team had to sacrifice minutes and shots. Not every player who came to Miami High wound up staying four years. “We were a brotherhood,” Haslem says. “And we weren’t for everybody.”
Says Martin: “If you weren’t playing and you transferred to another school? They were cool with it. But if you tried to come back? They’d punch you in your face and throw you out of the gym. The players, they took pride in their gym and who was part of that.”
As for Haslem and his work ethic, Martin tells a story: “His junior year, we were getting ready for the state tournament, and he was not having a good practice. I’m not happy. So I made them run. We finish and I’m talking to the team, and [Haslem] is just throwing up. And I said, ‘Now we’re ready to go win.’ We ended practice right on the spot. We got Udonis to push himself to exhaustion, and everyone knew that was the challenge with him. But he took it like a champ and went out the next day and we destroyed the opponent. That had a lot to do with the mindset we were trying to create.”
By Haslem’s senior year, Miami High was nationally ranked, but given the talent all over the roster, Haslem averaged only about 13 points and six rebounds per game. He flew under the radar of most recruiting services. After he graduated, he was the least heralded member of a Florida recruiting class that was headlined by McDonald’s All Americans Mike Miller and Teddy Dupay.
Once in Gainesville, Haslem made an impression even before fall classes began. “I’d just gotten down there,” says Miller, “and we played pickup. I went to go dunk and he took me out of the air. I landed and he said there’s a no dunking rule.” Haslem grins at the memory. “No dumping,” he says. “There was a no dumping rule. And I was about 275 back then. He was about 190. So you can imagine, he got the short end of that stick.”
Shortly after that lesson, a mutual respect emerged. Haslem remembers thinking of Miller, “This motherfucker is cold. I’ve never seen a white boy like this. You hear about ’em, but you never see ’em. This is like a unicorn.”
Haslem, from Liberty City, and Miller, from Mitchell, South Dakota, were roommates at Florida. They quickly became best friends. “Me and UD got along off rip,” Miller says. “We didn’t have similar backgrounds, but we had similar visions moving forward. We both care about people, we both care about the game, and we both worked hard. You tend to gravitate to those type of people.”
Miller entered the NBA after his sophomore season. Haslem stayed through his senior year. He says his time in Gainesville was the best four years of his life. He made the NCAA tournament every year and was named All-SEC in three of his four seasons. He went to the school’s second-ever Final Four. He left as the winningest basketball player in school history. He met the woman who would become his wife, Faith, who ran track and field for the Gators. And in general, his worldview expanded.
“I’m not being funny,” Haslem says. “I’d never really had any white friends. In Miami it’s all Black people, Hispanic, Cuban, Dominican. … You think everybody lives like you until you meet other people. Then it becomes ‘Really? That’s how you live? None of your friends ever got arrested? None of your friends ever got killed?’ You think that’s the norm, because that’s how you grew up. Then you realize there’s a whole world you never even knew about.”
But then it was time for yet another world. Coming out of Florida, Haslem was the exactly the sort of doughy, undersized project that the league didn’t have room for at the time. He wasn’t picked in either round of the 2002 draft. Meanwhile, he had a young son to provide for at home. As the months passed after June, it became clear that his best option would be going overseas.
During a stint with the Atlanta Hawks at the 2002 Shaw’s Pro Summer League in Boston, Haslem met up with Frank Martin again. Martin had left Miami High to become an assistant at Northeastern. “He was miserable,” Martin says. Haslem had struggled to even make it into workouts for most teams. Among the handful who gave him an opportunity, he could see he wasn’t being seriously considered.
Sitting at lunch in Boston, he told his old coach that he’d done everything right, he’d won at every level, and he knew he was better than almost all the draft picks playing that week. “I know you’re better,” Martin told him. “But I don’t work in the NBA. And the reality is, the guys that do work in the NBA, they obviously don’t think you’re better.”
Spoelstra was an assistant with the Heat in 2003. His first impression of Haslem came during a free-agent mini-camp before summer league, a year after Haslem had gone undrafted, and a few months after he’d caught the eye of Heat scout Chet Kammerer. During a workout that also happened to feature All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez, Miami coaches couldn’t take their eyes off Haslem. “His level of intensity and desperation far exceeded what should be normal,” Spoelstra says. “It was borderline dangerous. We were saying, ‘This guy is a Miami Heat player. We can’t let him out of this gym.’ Then the next day, the conversation turned into, ‘We may have to shut this guy down. He’s going to hurt people.’”
Spoelstra tells the story with half-pride, half-awe: “It was like a cage fight to him. It was, ‘We want this guy, and we may have to sit him out of some of the contact practices. Because he’s going to fuck some people up. People are going to walk out in body bags.’”
Haslem had spent much of the previous year in Chalon-sur-Saône, a small city in eastern France, where he averaged 16.1 points and 9.4 rebounds playing for a team called Élan Chalon. His season was a success, but that didn’t mean Haslem enjoyed it. “I gave myself one night to feel sorry for myself,” he says. “I had a one-night pity party. I had a bottle of Hennessy and I sat on my back porch. ‘Why am I here? I did everything right.’ Some of the guys that got drafted, I’d done really well against. I really didn’t understand. So I just gave myself one night.”
But even that night, his mindset began to change. “Part of my pity party was, ‘What can I do differently?’ It’s so easy to blame the NBA, blame the coaches. It’s easy to say they made a mistake. But in the end, I don’t think that gets you anywhere. So for me, part of that bottle of Hennessy was, ‘What do I need to do?’”
He says that he stayed on American time throughout his stay in France, staying up all night and sleeping during the day. The schedule was Haslem’s way of reminding himself that he wasn’t going to be in Europe for the rest of his career. He didn’t like the food, either, so he ate one turkey sandwich per day, occasionally sprinkling in some McDonald’s in emergencies. And when he wasn’t sleeping or playing in the French league, where he battled the likes of Mickaël Piétrus and Boris Diaw, Haslem spent most of his time working out at a nearby gym he’d joined. In the end, after one season in France, he lost about 50 pounds and rendered himself nearly unrecognizable. David Thorpe, a development coach in Central Florida, saw Haslem’s new frame and worried he might be sick.
After the season finished, Thorpe would be in charge of prepping Haslem for another round of NBA auditions. Along with fellow NBA hopefuls Kevin Martin and Josh Powell, Haslem woke up early every day for morning workouts and gym work. After lunch and an afternoon nap, Haslem would return to the gym for another round of drills at night. He didn’t read the news or even watch TV, and the routine continued day after day. “I didn’t know what the hell was going on in the world,” Haslem says of those weeks.
Thorpe’s message was simple: “Just rebound your ass off.” It had been the biggest hole in Haslem’s game at Florida, where he finished his career averaging just six boards per game. So they did drills to improve his agility chasing loose balls outside the paint. When they weren’t working on rebounding, they focused on 18-foot jumpers that would allow him to space the floor for everyone else. “We’re going to make the league with rebounding,” Thorpe told him, “but you’re going to get paid by learning how to shoot.”
The return on investment was almost immediate. Haslem led the Heat in rebounding at the Orlando Summer League and then went to Boston and did the same for an undefeated Spurs team at the Shaw’s Pro Summer League. “In high school,” Martin says, “he averaged six rebounds per game. That was my biggest fight with him: Go rebound the ball. He wouldn’t do it. Then in college, he was a 6.5-, maybe seven-rebound-per-game guy. It’s just not something he did. Well, the day the Miami Heat gave him a chance, he became their leading rebounder. That’s just who he is. He listens, and when things don’t go his way, he doesn’t pout. He fixes ’em.”
Haslem, for the record, went on to become the all-time leading rebounder in Heat history. But in 2003, it was all about those two summer league performances. Sensing interest from San Antonio in the wake of that undefeated Spurs run, Miami felt pressure to act. On August 6, the Heat offered Haslem a guaranteed contract that paid him $366,931 for the 2003-04 season. The deal came about six weeks after Miami had used a top-five pick on a 6-foot-4 shooting guard from Marquette.
By the time they made it to the Heat, both Haslem and Dwyane Wade had become young fathers, both had mothers who had battled addiction, and both had made it out of neighborhoods that had swallowed many of their friends. There was an instant bond. “You’re talking about two kids from so far away,” Haslem says, “but we’d walked pretty much the same line.”
In the summer of 2003, they were inseparable. They went to the track together to run in the morning, headed to the Heat arena for skill work, hit the weight room, played pickup at Alonzo Mourning’s Overtown Youth Center, and then went out to eat before returning for one more workout at night. This process repeated itself almost every day, all summer long. Plus, Miami was Haslem’s city. “He took me around,” Wade says. “He opened the doors for me. He introduced me to the right people.”
Throughout that first season together, Heat players would place bets on 3-point shooting contests after practices. Most teammates would alternate partners throughout the year, but Wade and Haslem always chose each other. They never won. “Like, ever,” former Heat coach Stan Van Gundy says. As Wade notes 16 years later, “That’s because we were monsters of the midrange!”
According to team president Pat Riley: “The guy that took all their money, all the time, was [Heat assistant coach] Bob McAdoo. Mac was one of the great scorers in the history of the NBA, and he would hang right in there with those guys. He’d get involved in those shooting contests and he’d win all their per diem. I would see [Heat trainer] Ron Culp handing out per diem envelopes on the road and when he’d go to UD, he’d say, ‘Just give it to McAdoo.’ And then Dwyane, ‘Just give it to McAdoo.’”
Finally, after one practice near the end of the year, Van Gundy announced that the shooting contests that day would be double or nothing. And this time, of all times, Wade and Haslem won. After that, Van Gundy says, “They were going around claiming they’d been hustling people all year.”
“Those are the things that are fun about a team,” Riley says. “They would get into games with Damon Jones and Eddie Jones and all the other guys that could really stick it, and they’d lose all the time. But they had fun. That’s how they would create camaraderie.”
Van Gundy, who was Miami’s head coach from 2003 to 2006, still smiles at how much fun that first season was. “The team grew,” he says. “We started 0-7. Then we got to 5-15, and then in March we were 11 games under .500. I think we were 25-36. And then we won 17 of our last 21.”
“We were too young to know we were supposed to tank,” says Caron Butler, a swingman on that team. “We were just like, ‘OK, I guess we gotta win 20 in a row.’ And we had a group of guys willing to outwork everyone.”
Haslem would make a beeline for Riley after almost every practice that year. As Riley tells it, “He would come up to me and say, ‘Coach, what do you need from me? What do you want?’ I’d say, ‘Well, you’re a defender, you’re a rebounder, you’re gonna get every loose ball. You’re our enforcer. You’re our leader. That’s what I’m looking for you to grow into. You need to make a medium-range jumper. Be our best post defender. All of those things. If you do those things, you’ll start for me.’ And he did! He gave me exactly what I asked for.”
Of course, in between those fireside chats, there were also the infamous Heat conditioning tests. Butler remembers hiding out with Haslem during that first year, hoping to avoid Riley. “We were the chubby boys,” Butler says.
“You can’t be a world-class anything,” Riley says, “unless you’re in world-class condition. So we would come up with what we felt was that world-class number—body weight and body fat. And it wasn’t me just coming up with a random number. We did this scientifically over a period of time and had nutritionists and people who understood body mass and lean muscle mass and all of that stuff.”
If Heat players missed their target weight, they’d be fined. If they continued to flunk the tests, they could be suspended. “I used to like to random-test them,” Riley continues. “Because when you do it every Monday, then you have guys going to the sauna right before. Lose 7 or 8 pounds, make their weight, and then go right back. You could weigh in at 240 pounds and live a 250-pound life. So I used to do a random test. Like on a Friday or a Wednesday. I would bring the scale to half court, they’d walk up from the gym, and I’d say, ‘OK, OK. … Let’s get on the scale, let’s find out who’s been lying.’ We had fun with it.”
Haslem can laugh about this now, but he was careful back then. “I didn’t have any money,” he says, “so I ain’t trying to spend money on fines. And at the same time, I’ve never been intimidated by anybody in my life. Never scared of anybody. But Pat Riley. … It took me a little while. The last thing I wanted to do was piss him off.”
Haslem avoided fines and suspensions. The Heat’s GM at the time, Randy Pfund, had warned Haslem’s agent that even with a contract, the rookie probably wouldn’t play in his first season. He wound up starting on opening night. He made the Rookie-Sophomore Game at All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles. By year’s end, it was clear that Wade was a budding superstar, while his undrafted teammate had vastly exceeded even the most optimistic expectations.
After the aforementioned run through the regular season, Miami survived a first-round series against Baron Davis and the Charlotte Hornets before going six games with the top-seeded Pacers in Round 2. No one would confuse that Heat team with any of the title rosters that would come later—Miami assistant Keith Askins called Haslem and Brian Grant the “itty bitty committee” when they started in the frontcourt—but the energy of those players helped revitalize the franchise.
And then everything changed. In 2004, the Heat traded Lamar Odom, Butler, Grant, and a first-round pick to the Lakers for Shaquille O’Neal. Thorpe remembers a car ride with Haslem after the trade was finalized, when the coach asked whether UD had a good relationship with Shaq. “I don’t know,” Haslem told him. “We were playing him last year. Shaq was bitching up a storm about not getting calls. I just turned to him and said, ‘Shut the fuck up, you’re the biggest motherfucker on the court.’” Shaq, according to Haslem, was too stunned to respond.
One night early in Shaq’s Miami tenure, there were more officiating complaints. “Big Fella,” the 24-year-old Haslem told him, “they don’t want to give you a foul? Put everybody in the fucking rim then.”
“After that,” Haslem says, “he was just pulverizing people.”
As Haslem explains: “I was one of the guys who would hold Big Fella accountable. Not too many did it, but I was one. Only because sometimes I ended up having to do a lot of my job and his, defensively. When it got a little rough I would pull him to the side. But it was mutual. He would hold me accountable as well. He would get on me. He wouldn’t let up. I love him for that.”
This is one of the riddles from Haslem’s time in Miami—how does an undrafted player in his second season command the respect of a perennial MVP candidate and one of the most famous humans on the planet? Beyond Shaq and Wade, the Heat teams of that era also featured Alonzo Mourning, Antoine Walker, and Gary Payton. All of them looked at Haslem as a peer. “He had it right away,” Wade says. “When a guy plays the way he plays, that’s automatic respect. And [it was] the way he carried himself, as well. He’s a tough guy.”
“You have to be the truth,” Riley says. “And UD was that. When you’re that, night in and night out, and you see people who might not be giving that same kind of effort, on the court or off the court, you can call ’em out. He was not intimidated by anybody. Shaquille or Zo or Dwyane or anybody. If somebody was cutting slack here and not getting the job done, he would call ’em out.”
On the court, Haslem was ahead of his time. Ten years later, his defensive versatility, floor-spacing jumpers, and elite intelligence would have made him a cult hero among today’s nerdier basketball fans. He also might have doubled his career $60 million earnings along the way. “He was our best defender,” Riley says of Haslem on those Shaq teams. “He was a scorer at that time. Offensive rebounds. He’d do all the dirty work. But he was a very high-IQ player. Any situation we were in, any scheme we played defensively, he was on top of it. He would take the challenge against the best scorers at his position and he would fight tooth and nail.”
When the Heat went to the Finals for the first time in 2006, Haslem was largely responsible for guarding Dirk Nowitzki. “Fronting him,” Riley says. “Fighting him, contesting him. Just making it hard.” Dirk, too, was ahead of his time, and Haslem shakes his head thinking about the matchup. “I was watching what he did to San Antonio, what he was doing to other power forwards. … There were no power forwards running off double screens on the baseline shooting 3s.”
Haslem admits he was worried throughout the series: “I gotta go back home to Miami, and if I get fried, my boys are gonna let me know about it. What fueled me was fear. Not a fear, like afraid, or scared. But fear of not being able to be there for my guys when they needed me. That’s the only thing I was ever afraid of in the game of basketball. I don’t know if it’s a shot I need to make, a defensive stop I need to make, a rebound I need to get. But the only fear I ever played with was the fear of not being able to be there when my guys need me.”
Ultimately, he held his own. The Heat came back from a 2-0 deficit to win the Finals, and while Nowitzki put up numbers, Haslem slowed him down enough to give Miami a chance. Wade averaged 34.7 points per game and won Finals MVP. Haslem’s per-game numbers were ordinary (6.5 points, 6.2 rebounds), but in Game 6 he buried three crucial jumpers in the fourth quarter to help seal the series win. He finished that game with 17 points, 10 rebounds, and his first NBA title.
As the celebrations began, and the reality sank in, Haslem finally broke down. In the visitor’s locker room in Dallas, Haslem was in tears as he gave interviews explaining his role. He chuckles about the scene now, saying, “There was a lot of champagne squirting around, man. Me and Dwyane didn’t know that we needed goggles. We were young.” Still, he admits that night was a turning point in his life and career.
“It’s emotional even thinking about it,” he says. “I still remember one of the local writers in Miami. Really praised me in high school. Praised me in college. Then when I got to the Heat it was, ‘Oh, he’s not good enough. Shaq’s never won with a 6-8 power forward.’ Like, what? [Shaq] played with guys like Travis Knight. I’d kill those guys. So it was those kinds of things. It was being undrafted. It was the Orlando Magic not even giving me a workout, and I’m the best player in the state at the time. It’s like, it wouldn’t hurt you to bring me in. I’m right here in Gainesville. They wouldn’t even open the doors for me. So there were a lot of those kinds of emotions. Being a young father, with a kid depending on you. Those pressures. It was a lot that I was able to let go of in that moment. I was able to take that chip off my shoulder.”
During the offseason before that first Heat title, Haslem turned down a contract offer from the Cavaliers that would have paid him $10 million more than the five-year, $20 million deal he eventually accepted in Miami. By July 2010, when LeBron James was on stage with Bosh and Wade in front of the whole world at American Airlines Arena, Haslem was watching the scene from his couch. “I’m sitting at home,” he says, “Like, Wow. We got a chance. But there’s part of you thinking, ‘OK. Where do I fit in?’”
Haslem was a 30-year-old free agent. Both the Mavericks and Nuggets were reportedly offering five-year deals worth about $34 million. Meanwhile, the entire sports world had just watched Miami use all its cap space on three superstars. “Plus,” says Riley, “we made a deal with Mike Miller. In order to get Mike, we had to get rid of Michael Beasley. There wasn’t any more room.” So a few days after that welcome party, Haslem called Wade to tell him that he loved him, but he had to leave. “I hung up,” Haslem says, “and I’m taking the exit to head downtown to meet with Pat to tell him the same thing: ‘Thank you for the opportunity, Coach. Nobody ever gave me a chance but you. I love you guys. But I’m moving on.’”
Five minutes later, Haslem’s agent, the late Henry Thomas, told him to wait on a meeting with Riley. Thomas also represented Wade, and the latter was organizing an emergency conference call with his new teammates. Within hours, the Miami superstars agreed to sacrifice portions of their max salary to free up enough room for Haslem. The deal he accepted in Miami—five years, $20 million—was $14 million less than what he’d been offered elsewhere, but that was fine with Haslem. “Dwyane taking less,” he says. “LeBron taking less. Chris taking less. Everybody was sacrificing for a common goal.”
“Of course we want X, Y, Z players,” Wade had told his new teammates. “But we need this player.” Plus, as Bosh notes: “We’re signing, we’re doing all these things, and then it’s like, Damn! It’s five of us [under contract]. We gotta get a team.”
Bosh uses an anecdote to explain Haslem’s role in Miami. “I believe in competition to the fullest,” he says. “After the game, I’ll help you out, I’ll babysit for you, it’s all good. But during the game? I don’t know you. If you fall on the floor and you’re wearing another jersey, I don’t help you. But specifically, I remember one time I helped somebody up. Not even thinking about it.”
Bosh had been with the Heat for only a few weeks at that point. “So halftime hits,” he says. “And UD makes a beeline for me. Like, ‘Yo, CB. Don’t help that man up. Don’t do that again.’”
Bosh chuckles. “I couldn’t even say anything. He was just one of those guys—he would check you, but not in a way that’s crazy. He challenged you. It’s like, ‘Damn, you right, bro.’ He was just a constant presence where it was like, ‘Nah, you do it like this. This is the way to win.’”
Because of the way that team was built, because of LeBron’s presence at the center, and because of the specific era of media they inhabited, the energy around the Heat during those seasons was as wild as anything the NBA has seen before or since. When the team struggled, the mood was tense. Early on, Riley called Wade, James, and Bosh into his office and joked, “Hey we’re 9-8. Barely above .500. Great start!”
“I heard some stories,” Riley says now, “of some real down-and-out meetings. Where there was a lot of truth coming out about what some guys were doing or not doing. They went after the coach. The coach went after them. But at the end of the day, what you have to do is just let the team grow and build together. We had some very, very strong personalities. So [it was about] the suppression of the ego and accepting of your role, getting on with what your life is, with what sphere you’re in, in this bubble called the NBA. There’s a pecking order. And sometimes the pecking order can get really twisted. You can’t get around that. LeBron was the greatest player in the game at the time. And we had two other guys in Dwyane and Chris who were equal to him, to some extent, as far as what they were on their other teams. So it takes a mature team. It takes growth. There were some very loud, profane locker-room sessions. Guys really went after each other verbally. And when it was over with, it was over with. They’d go out and they’d play.”
No one in Miami ever gets specific about the substance of those conversations, but everyone agrees that Haslem served as an anchor throughout those meetings. “He set the tone in the locker room,” says Miller. “Whether you were right or wrong, if somebody said something in the locker room—even if UD thought it was right, if it wasn’t for the best of the team, he corrected you.”
“You need the Haslems,” Riley says, “the Mike Millers, guys who might not be superstars, to sort of keep it all together. It does get unwieldy and out of sorts in the media, and that can bleed into the locker room.”
“Understand this,” Miller continues, “the whole world was watching. And there’s five or six of us that are used to playing a certain way, and then people are like, ‘Oh, he’s not playing great, he’s not doing this, he’s not doing that.’ It all washes away when you win a championship, but when things are going bad, there’s guys that need to straighten it back up.”
Spoelstra remembers one night when the Heat were struggling and Haslem interrupted a timeout huddle. “I was diagramming something,” the coach says, “and he smacked [the whiteboard] out of my hands and said, ‘It ain’t about the fucking schematics. Compete harder!’”
Spoelstra laughs. “I just looked at everybody and said, ‘Check.’”
Fallen whiteboards aside, the chemistry between Haslem and his new superstar teammates came naturally. Bosh had always liked Haslem from afar. They first met when Bosh was in high school on a recruiting visit to Florida, where Haslem and Matt Bonner were his hosts for the weekend. As for LeBron, Riley says, “Udonis will accept anybody who’s a true competitor. At that time LeBron was probably the greatest player in the world, but LeBron was a competitor. So it was easy for UD and Dwyane to continue to have a real, deep brotherhood, and then LeBron came in, and he almost got married to the two of ’em. They were inseparable.”
On the court, Haslem likens those Heat teams to a bus. LeBron and Wade were the drivers, he says, “but if the oil ain’t changed, and the tires ain’t changed, the bus can’t go nowhere.” Haslem would change the oil.
When Bosh missed extended time during the 2012 playoffs because of a muscle strain, it was Haslem who played the lion’s share of minutes as his replacement. At that point, after losing to the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals, the Heat were down 2-1 to the Pacers in the second round. This was back when various corners of the basketball world were convinced that the Heat were mentally and physically weak. There were very real questions about what might happen if they came away from a second playoff run without a title. “You’re losing games,” Miller says, “and we know what the ramifications are.”
Then came a moment that’s become part of Heat lore. With the Pacers series tied at 2-2 and becoming increasingly physical, Tyler Hansbrough fouled Wade hard in the second quarter of Game 5. Haslem had seen enough. “I’d just got hit the game before,” he says. “Took some stitches. And I’ll take mine like a man. Because I can dish it and I can take it. There was no issue there. But when I saw Dwyane [get hit], I felt a little different about that. I saw Hansbrough and another guy on their team, they gave each other five. And I was like, ‘Ehhhhhhh. Now I’m mad.’ Anytime I’ve ever hit somebody, I never celebrated it. I never gave my teammates five like, ‘Yeah, I got him.’”
Haslem stood up from the bench before Spoelstra could even turn around. Says Haslem, “Spo was like, ‘No …’ And I was like, ‘Spo, stay out of this one. It’s gotta happen.’”
As soon as Hansbrough passed up an open jumper to attack the rim, Wade knew what was coming. “That’s who UD was,” Wade says. “Especially with me. He was always protecting me. He’d say, ‘I got it. You go be you. I’ll handle this. I’ll be that guy.’”
Sixty seconds after his foul on Wade, Hansbrough was met in midair and body-checked to the floor. Steve Kerr, who was doing the broadcast for TNT, argued that Haslem should be ejected for a flagrant-2. Haslem would later be suspended by the NBA for Game 6.
No one in Miami has any regrets. “It was a turning point for us,” Spoelstra says. “Really. In that series, the one perceived advantage they had on us was their physicality and their size. And UD, in one moment, basically said”—Spoelstra slams a fist into his open hand—“‘That is not an advantage over the Miami Heat.’”
The Heat outscored the Pacers 86-58 after Haslem’s foul. They finished the series 48 hours later in Indiana. Haslem was suspended for the elimination game, but Wade finished with 41 points and 10 rebounds in one of the best games of his career. After the elimination game, on the team plane in Indianapolis, Wade presented the game ball to Haslem in front of the entire team. “Those are the memories that we’ll all take with us,” Spoelstra says. “Twenty years from now, when we’re thinking about those championship runs, we’ll be thinking about those times.”
A month later, after a seven-game war with the Celtics, an all-time performance from LeBron in Game 6 of that series, and five games with the Thunder that were closer than most remember, the Heat were champions. Critics were silenced and trade rumors dissipated. But as for that Pacers series, it’s not the foul or the game ball that Haslem remembers most fondly. The night before the elimination game, Haslem went to Wade’s hotel room and gave him a book. “I won’t say what book,” he says, “that’s between me and him. But he’ll always remember it. He was going through a lot that year. I gave him the book and said, ‘Hey, this is something I read when I’m going through a lot. Read it.’”
“So Dwyane gave me that basketball,” he says, “but I don’t think it was for the foul. I think it was for the book. Sometimes in this game, you just need peace of mind.”
Almost 10 years later, Haslem is the godfather to Wade’s youngest daughter. He says that Wade is like a brother, while LeBron remains one of his closest friends in the NBA. The three of them get dinner any time they’re in the same city, swapping war stories and telling inside jokes. Most of that Heat team stays connected, regardless of where their careers have taken them. Riley says it’s unlike anything he experienced in L.A., or even with that first Heat team. “In 2005, when everybody got an iPhone,” Riley says, “the world changed. With Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat and all these other platforms, always texting each other, always sending pictures. The NBA has become a big brotherhood. And players that have the opportunity to play together like these guys did, on a special team—that’s a forever relationship. It never stops.”
After our interview for this story, Miller followed with a text that read, “Tell UD I love him please! He will shake his head, he hates when I get all soft with him.” When conveyed to Haslem, the power forward grinned and said, “I love him too. He should’ve played you the voice note I sent him on his birthday.”
Individually, Haslem’s success is now more of a Miami story than a Heat story. Married with three sons, he owns businesses all over the city—Starbucks franchises, a pizza restaurant, two bagel franchises, Auntie Anne’s pretzels franchises, Subway franchises, and a restaurant that he co-owns with Wade. For many of those businesses, he works with an outside firm to hire employees who might not pass a traditional background check. Meanwhile, his Udonis Haslem’s Children’s Foundation works to provide school uniforms, school supplies, and after-school programs for area youth. In October, he announced a real estate venture that will offer affordable housing in the increasingly gentrified Wynwood neighborhood of Miami.
For now, a full-time career in business can wait. Spoelstra cites Haslem’s “corporate knowledge” as the reason he remains invaluable to the Heat, and the coach publicly pushed for his return at the end of last season. “Basically,” Spoelstra says, “he’s going to have a lifetime contract with our franchise. And he should.” No longer a title team’s starter or the glue guy among superstars, today Haslem is the player who stays an hour after practice to work with Adebayo on post defense, work with Nunn on finishing drives, and then make sure that when Miami’s young wings are shooting, they’re doing it with a purpose, not just chucking up shots.
But if habits like that are why Haslem has come to personify Heat culture, it’s worth remembering that so much of who he’s become began before he ever got to the NBA. It began with Miami High, where Frank Martin kept his gym open day and night to keep his players out of trouble. Workouts didn’t end until someone vomited, there were fights, and every player in the gym had to sacrifice to be part of something great. It was an environment that could break some players and breed intense loyalty in others.
Understanding that history helps explain why Haslem is 40 years old, still maintaining 6 percent body fat, and now living in the Orlando bubble to help the next generation chase one more title. “I believe in cultures,” he says. “I’ve seen them work and I’ve seen them win. And I also believe in the older guys passing that to the next generation. The guys who came before me—Devin Davis at Miami High, Steve Edwards, Brent Wright. It’s the same thing here with the Heat. The Brian Grants passing it, Eddie Jones, Alonzo Mourning passing it to me and Dwyane. Those guys beat it into us every day, mentally and physically. On the court, off the court. They made sure.”
“We’ve done a lot behind the scenes that not a lot of people know about,” says Derrick Jones Jr. when asked about Haslem’s impact. “Not even just from a basketball standpoint. He’s taken me under his wing. He owns businesses. Just sitting down and talking to him, seeing his perspective on life, it’s helped me out a lot. I’m still a young kid, but you have to have something to do after basketball. Him being able to take time out of his day to help me. … It’s something I hold dear to my heart.”
“He’s seen everything,” says Adebayo. “So just listening to his stories, him and D-Wade, you learn a lot. From D-Wade, I learned how to be patient. You got the ball in your hands, you’re in control. And from UD, he wanted me to be aggressive. It started out, I just wanted to get in where I fit in. UD was like, ‘Nah. You gotta make people guard you.’ And I take pride in that now. I’m starting to be an aggressor and it’s working out for me.” Asked for an example of Haslem intervention, Adebayo laughs and says, “Today. I passed up an open shot and he looks at me [in the huddle] and says, ‘You gon’ shoot the ball?’”
All of the above is a coda to a career that’s unlike just about any other in NBA history. In the middle of one more playoff run, Haslem is a living testament to the wide variety of ways that a basketball player can win. Regardless of whether this season ends with a title, and whenever he finally retires, his story will always be amazing to a generation of basketball fans who remember watching him when he was 50 pounds heavier at Florida. And in Miami, it will always be more than that.
“Miami is home,” Haslem says. “It’s my city. It’s my town. You got Haitians, you got Cubans, you got Dominicans, you got Blacks. Everybody’s scratching, clawing every day just to make a living. There’s violence, you got kids playing football, trying to make it out the inner cities. And as much as people might be afraid of that, I embrace that. I want to be part of it in a positive way. All those kids know is what they see. That’s all I knew. I didn’t know there was a whole other world out there. I hadn’t been to South Beach until I got to the NBA. So for me, I had a chance to be the example for those kids. It’s a lot of examples in football coming out of Miami, but there’s not too many in basketball. And not just playing basketball, but to be a champion. To be a business owner. To be a good husband. To be a good father. I want those kids to see all those things.
“It took me a while,” he says, “to see that vision. I had to go to Europe and do all those things. Just to come right back to Miami.”
Andrew Sharp is a lawyer and writer living in Washington, D.C. Previously, he’s written for Sports Illustrated, Grantland, and SB Nation. He hosts a twice-weekly NBA podcast.