Udonis Haslem restlessly stalks the sideline.
During a timeout, he walks onto the court and takes a teammate aside to correct a mistake he noticed on the last possession. Pointing and gesturing, he spends most of the game coaching warmups. After all, playing time these days is scarce. But tonight is different.
As starting center Hassan Whiteside sits out a late-February matchup against the Golden State Warriors with a hip injury, head coach Erik Spoelstra calls Haslem’s name. With a zip, Haslem frees himself from those warmups to check in for a key six-minute stretch bridging the third and fourth quarters. He airballs his only shot attempt — a corner 3 to knock the rust off — but manages to grab a pair of rebounds, connect on a few screens and add some new bite marks to his mouth guard in his first minutes since Dec. 8.
The Miami Heat won, 126-125, thanks to Dwyane Wade’s storybook buzzer beater to KO the defending champs. Haslem’s final plus-minus? Plus-one.
Wade’s last dance fronts the playbill for this Heat season. While Wade performs on the illuminated stage, Haslem’s twilight will largely be spent on the bench. After a handful of years collecting DNP-CDs, Haslem has played fewer than 30 minutes altogether this season. Nevertheless, Haslem is as important to the team’s history as any, even if his contributions were always more understated than Wade’s. Like Wade, he is the only player to be a part of all three of the Heat’s championship teams. Unlike Wade, who continues to play an outsized role, Haslem may not go out on his ideal terms.
Many have speculated — even assumed — that he will ride off into the South Beach sunset with Wade after this season. Assume at your own peril.
“I never came out and said I’m retiring.” Haslem asserted to The Step Back after a late February practice. “I said I have nothing else to prove. You know, going from there, people sort of took what they want from it.”
Coaches and teammates praise Haslem’s professionalism. He doesn’t cause a ruckus over minutes. Only when prodded does Haslem say anything, but he offers it openly.
“Of course I want to play. Especially when you can still play. It’s not like I can’t play the game so of course, I want to play,” Haslem said. “But knowing I can contribute and impact this game positively in other areas, that’s just what I try to focus on.”
Haslem keeps retirement at an arm’s length. Still, he has laid plans for his life after basketball. “You can’t wait until it’s over to start the process,” he said.
He’s invested in several franchise restaurant locations in South Florida — including several Subways and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels — and recently designed and launched his own “Prince of Miami” clothing line, an idea he got from his longtime fashion-forward teammate.
“Being homegrown, people are always asking me like ‘When are you coming out with stuff, we want to buy your stuff,’” Haslem said.
Haslem’s roots in Miami predate his Heat tenure. He was born in Miami and played at Miami Senior High School for current South Carolina head coach Frank Martin, where he helped win a pair of state championships. As Martin says, Miami Senior High School was, and is, a “safe haven” for kids from Little Havana.
“That school helped educate us, helped teach us and helped us move forward in life,” Martin said in a phone interview with The Step Back. “Udonis, that’s why he’s gone back to give to the school — his time, his money, his efforts — because of what that school did for all of us.”
After high school, Haslem was recruited to the University of Florida by Billy Donovan, where he played for four years and helped elevate the program to national prominence. After going undrafted in the 2002 NBA Draft, Haslem spent a year playing in France. In 2003, he signed a training camp deal with the Heat and made such an impression on coaches that not only did they keep him on the roster, but they also made him the day-one starter along with fellow rookie Wade.
He hasn’t left Miami since. Even when he’s on the road, the Sunshine State is with him — a tattoo of Florida decorates his back. The businesses he’s built help employ people in the neighborhoods spliced in between the glitz of the Magic City, like the one he grew up in.
As he mogulizes with outside investments, Haslem isn’t planning on a life without the Heat. Though the job description hasn’t yet been ironed out, the expectation is that he’ll be on the payroll in some capacity after he retires from chewing mouthguards. This summer, as he does every summer, Haslem will meet with Heat CEO Nick Arison to discuss his future: a front office job, a Tim Duncan role, a 17th season. All will be on the table.
Until then, the Heat are in the midst of a playoff push and could miss the postseason for just the fourth time in 16 years. Haslem has work to do.
“I never lose that chip on my shoulder,” Haslem said. “I always find a way to be motivated, I always find a way to turn everything into a competition and try to figure out a way to come out on top.”
Perched on a throne somewhere in Charlotte during the All-Star break, Wade told guests at a party that he plans to go out shooting. Wade has been forthright, confident and unwavering throughout his tightly-scripted Hollywood ending, despite several hoopers remarking he can still play.
“It seems like he’s got a lot more in the tank,” said Warriors guard Stephen Curry following a February win over the Heat in Oakland. “That’s what I told him after the game. … Are you sure you don’t have a couple more years left in there?’”
A few weeks later, Wade buried Curry’s team and all the Warriors could do was respond in awe. As for the shot itself (a double-pump, straight-away 3 that banked in as time expired), it had no business going in, but Wade has been entrusted time after time to make those plays. He’s got the green light. He’s going out shooting, leaving it all out on the court.
While Wade adds to his highlight reel, Haslem’s impact is resigned to the locker room, where he nudges Miami’s younger players in the right direction. He pushed Josh Richardson to be a more vocal leader. He took fellow undraftees Rodney McGruder and Tyler Johnson under his wing. Haslem is a rare player who has the street cred to guide both undrafted players and champions.
“We got a similar story as far as undrafted players who had to, you know, nothing was given, everything had to be figured out on our own,” Johnson, now on the Phoenix Suns, told The Step Back. “And to go from where he went to a three-time champion, and not just a three-time champion, he was involved, like heavily involved, on those teams. You can go down the line on anybody and ask them about Udonis Haslem and they’ll say he’s one of their favorite teammates.”
When Whiteside whined about playing time last season, Haslem stepped in. He can relate. Like Whiteside, he is being lapped by the evolution of the game. Whiteside, 29, is managing to hold on thanks to his size and improving situational defense. Around the league, 7-footers like him are still making it work in Utah, Detroit and Portland.
It’s more difficult for 38-year-old Haslem. The skills he made a living with in the mid-2000s — the patented baseline jumper, an all-or-nothing approach to rebounding — are not as valued today as they once were.
Haslem is the franchise’s all-time leader in rebounding. The record is important to him (it’s the first accomplishment he mentions besides the three championships) but he’s more focused on adding to it than memorializing it.
“You know, I tell people all the time that when it’s all over, when it’s all said and done, I’ll sit and reflect and think about the records and the accolades and the accomplishments but, right now, I’m still working and moving forward.”
Haslem is asked about all of these things as the Heat face a daunting playoff push. It’s Feb. 25, a few days after the All-Star break. They are, at the time, on the outside looking in with the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic ahead of them in the race for the eighth seed, and face one of the toughest remaining schedules in the league. The website FiveThirtyEight gives them a one-in-four chance of making the postseason.
“Yeah, it’s go-time, man. With 25 games left down the stretch I let the guys know that I’m not gonna be as patient, I’m not gonna be as nice,” Haslem said. “We have to figure out a way to get the most out of our guys on a consistent basis every single night. If we do that, there’s no reason why we couldn’t get to the playoffs, but it has to start now.”
The Heat that night dropped a crucial home game to Detroit. A few days later, they lost to the Suns, who at that point had been the losers of 17 straight. However, after a string of wins, Miami finds themselves in the thick of the playoff grouping.
For many reasons, the Heat would be better off missing the playoffs or even tanking for stronger draft lottery position. Miami needs a talent upgrade more than it needs another first-round-and-out. However, that sort of excel-spreadsheet thinking doesn’t fly with Spoelstra.
“We’re not playing for ping pong balls,” Spoelstra said. “That would be misery.”
In Wade’s final season, the Heat won’t roll over. Spoelstra will lean on the veteran leadership of the franchise’s career leaders in games played to guide an otherwise young team during this final stretch.
“UD, he just brings a level of urgency every single day to work, and he’s doing this in his 16th year in a totally different role than before, but you would never guess it coming in to a shootaround or a practice or a film session. It is the most important thing in his life,” Spoelstra laughed.
“You can’t make that up! 98 percent of the league just don’t have that kind of makeup, to be able to have that approach every single day. Well, that’s more powerful than anything I can bring to a team.
“Then you add Dwyane who’s, that’s his brother, who has the same type of blood running through his veins,” Spoelstra said. “And then the context of ‘These are his last 26,’ there’s an instant, inherent, built in level or urgency with our group right now. I love it because I wouldn’t be able to manufacture anything that would come near to that.”
The intensity with which Spoelstra talks about Haslem and Wade is palpable, and can only be matched by the subjects themselves. A bond has been forged through the years that makes these next few weeks even more poignant.
No matter what Haslem decides this summer, this will be the last season he shares the court with Wade. They’ll savor the few moments they play together. A six minute stretch here or there in which Wade will come off a Haslem screen, shaking the cartridge on the most accomplished duo in Heat history.
When they aren’t reliving their glory days, Haslem will continue to dole out the wisdom of Heat Culture from the sideline and offer Wade guidance whenever the soon-to-be Hall of Famer needs it.
“I live through him, man, the way he’s playing basketball,” Haslem said. “When he scores 20, I just tell him ’That’s 10 for me and that’s 10 for you.’”