Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Redemption, Part III


PART THREE: FIFTEEN STRONG

Hope precedes redemption. Freedom is what follows redemption.

Redemption is a beautiful thing.

With Shaq now part of the team, the Heat seemed to be running on all cylinders. Shaq had become the major difference for a team that had gone from young and respectable, to a team that was going to be reckoned with.

As Wade continued to show his blossoming skills, thriving while playing alongside O’Neal, it seemed as if the Heat were destined to meet with the defending NBA Champion Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Heat played valiantly in the 2005 playoffs. And they set themselves up for a date with the Pistons in the seventh and deciding game of the Conference Finals. But just as it had happened so many times before, that dark ominous, cursed cloud reappeared. This time in the form of a strained rib cage injury to the team’s most talented player, Wade.

The Heat were a mere two minutes from being Eastern Conference Champions in 2005. That’s when everything collapsed. Again.

The Pistons won the game. The Heat, defeated and dejected, simply were not good enough to close it out. Injuries or not, the Pistons were the superior team.

Suddenly, the old nightmares of Allan Houston’s jumper and Clarence Weatherspoon’s missed shot came flooding back. The Heat were good. They were always good. They just were never good enough. It seemed to be this team’s fate. Always at the cusp, but never able to grasp the prize.

2005 was “the 19th nervous breakdown.”

Pat Riley had been chasing the elusive gold for 18 years. While he watched as Jordan’s Bulls and Hakeem Olajuwan’s Rockets and Shaq’s Lakers drank up championship glory after championship glory, Riley was always left wanting.

His life’s philosophy had always been “winning or misery.” Yet his world was drowning in misery. When the Heat lost that last series to the Knicks in 2000, the embattled coach had been so overwhelmed, so drained, so utterly spent, he literally could not find the strength to rise from his office chair to face the team for the post series/season address. What could he say? He had given his all. He had driven himself, and them, into the wall. But again, the fates handed them a cruel hand. A cruel bounce of the ball. And at the hands of his greatest nemesis at that. What do you tell your team after once again falling short of the promise?

But Alonzo Mourning, always driven by passion and furor, stormed into the office and grasped his coach’s shoulders and made him get up and address his defeated team.

That is the measure of men who care. That is the measure of an Alonzo Mourning. The soul of a warrior rests in that man. And the coach had always said the two were kindred spirits.

Fast forward five years into the future, and suddenly the two warriors were reunited again. Riley had taken over the coaching job again. He re-tooled the team again. And he re-focused the energy of the team on two men: Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade.

But there would also be a bonding nucleus there. One that had not been seen since the 90’s. A team unified in every way. The faces were different, but the initiative was the same: TEAM. The common denominators: Pat Riley and Alonzo Mourning.

The two were once again one.

They were back together. And they were about to take care of some unfinished business.

The Heat marched through the 2006 playoffs which led to the inevitable rematch with the Pistons. But this time, the East belonged to the Heat. This time, the Heat were the superior team. Unfinished business indeed.

Pat Riley once said, "In order to win a championship, you have to go through the fire."

This team, this franchise, this fan base, had been through the fire and back several dozen times in its 18 year history. It was in their nickname for petesake.

It was time.

Riley had always been a master motivator. Whether it was sticking his head into a bucket of water until he was near passing out, or having championship rings painted in the team’s locker room walls, Riley thrived on getting the most out of his players through unconventional means. So during the 2006 playoffs, he dreamed up what he considered a unifying idea. Fifteen strong.

It was a method made up of small yellow index cards thrown into a covered bowl inside the Heat dressing room. On those cards were words of wisdom, photographs of the team with their wives and children. Photographs of the team doing non-basketball things together: cookouts, birthdays, dinner parties. It was their secret bowl filled with images and words taken from their everyday lives together. The unifying message was clear: We are a family. No matter what. Everyone doubts us. It’s Us against Them. Fifteen strong.

It ultimately became the reason O’Neal declared this Heat team to the best team he had ever been a part of in his entire storied career.

It became the team’s mantra and it was slowly becoming the fans’ mantra as well. Even after all the familiar heartaches began reemerging. Even after falling 0-2 to the vastly talented Dallas Mavericks in the 2006 NBA Finals. Even after it seemed as if, once again, we were going to come close, but only so far. The cruel hand of fate would once again keep us from touching the void. The mantra echoed in our hearts.

Fifteen Strong.

So when the Mavericks’ Jason Terry, the same Jason Terry who scorched the Heat for 32 points in Game 1, threw up one last desperate shot to tie Game 6, and the ball rimed in and out again, it seemed as if the fates had finally been reversed.

All the old ghosts seemed to howl at once as they faded into nothing. Allan Houston’s bouncing jumper? Faded to black. Weatherspoon’s missed shot? Evaporated into oblivion. Zo’s health issues? Vanished.

In that split second when the ball rimmed up and into Dwyane Wade’s waiting arms and the clock struck double zeros, and the scoreboard read Miami 95-Dallas 92, all the baggage, all the nightmares, all the heartaches, all the anguish, all the misery, all the pain, was suddenly and swiftly vanquished. It was all washed away in the clear cool waters of redemption.

Never again would we be a laughing stock. Or a punch line. This fan base had suffered enough to deserve a championship. While the naysayers mocked us as we dressed all in white. While they said that we only cared for what was trendy. While they said we weren’t real fans (whatever that means or however that is supposed to be defined), we knew all along – Fifteen Strong. A Unified Front. White Hot Heat.

This championship is for you, Heat fans. For you who, like me, celebrated the fledgling team with Coach Rothstein back in 1988. Lived and died with every Michael Jordan jump shot in the ’97 Conference Finals. Anguished over each and every heart wrenching loss to the hated New York Knicks. Wept when Zo announced his ailment. Stood in awe of this new kid from Marquette. Thanked God for the arrival of Shaq. Thanked God again for the return of Riley. And stood with arms held high as Wade carried us through Games 3,4,5 and 6 of these Finals into what had been promised to us from the beginning.

From the hands of cruel fate, into the arms of sweet redemption.

Hope precedes redemption. Freedom is what follows redemption.

And FREEDOM is a beautiful thing.

They can never take this away from us, brothers. NEVER, EVER, EVER.

MIAMI HEAT 2006 NBA FINALS CHAMPIONS.





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Comments:
Dude,

I'm putting together an all-Deadspin posters league for fantasy football. Let me know if you are interested in playing with us. Mondaymorningpunter[at]gmail.com. Would love to have you in this.

MMP
 
I'm in. I'll e-mail you now.

Thanks MMP
 
I found your blog via Stuck On The Palmetto. This 3 piece column is the best article I've read on the Heat since they won the NBA title Tuesday. And I've read them all (locally). Very good recap of the team's painful history with great drama infused into it. You really captured the sense of the fans where as the Herald, Sun Sentinel, etc. really just sound like card board reporters with no heart.

I enjoyed it very much. Keep up the great work.

-Kerry
 
Good stuff, Dude.

Other people are just jealous because not only did their team NOT win the NBA Finals this year but they also DO NOT LIVE in Miami.

It has to suck living in a place where you freeze your ass off every winter AND your NBA team sucks.

So they gotta hate on us with their stupid comments.

PS -- Where are all the obnoxious Knicks fans today? Oh yea, that's right! They get to celebrate Isiah Thomas as their new head coach. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!!

GO HEAT!
 
This shit brought tears to my eyes.

I got Queen signing We Are The Champions while I read it all.

Good stuff.
 
Damn Dude. You put some serious time into this. Can't thank you enough it really brought back some great memories. Just shows you what we as fan have waited for and what we have been through. Really enjoyed reading this today bro your blog posts recently have been ace!
 
great read dude

i was a little kid when the heat came out in 88. but i do remember rony seikaly and those early years.

i fell in love with the team when they drafted glenn rice (my all time favorite heat player) and i remember all those issues we dealt with against the knicks in the 90's. that allan houston jumper was a killer...

redemption is the right word. i feels awesome!
 
Cool guestbook, interesting information... Keep it UP
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