Turkey sandwiches changed the life of Udonis Haslem. He might think about that today as he makes one with the leftovers of his family’s Thanksgiving feast.
The city of Chalon-sur-Saône in eastern France is where Haslem found himself after he went undrafted in 2002 and was later cut by the Atlanta Hawks in training camp. Chalon-sur-Saône is a beautiful place and old. Food, wine, art and photography: these are the things that attract tourists. For a kid from Liberty City with NBA dreams, it was a basketball outpost on the edge of the world, and the food, by Haslem’s standards, was terrible.
When Haslem arrived there, he weighed around 300 pounds. Always stocky at the University of Florida, Haslem (listed around 250 pounds his senior season) couldn’t cut enough weight before or after the NBA Draft. He then packed on a few extra pounds. Weight, combined with his lack of height, denied Haslem the NBA. He had two choices in life in that year in France — two roads. He chose the path of turkey sandwiches. For months, that’s all he ate.
“I would mix it up,” said Haslem, fondly remembering the year he transformed himself from an undersized and overweight center to the player that Wednesday night set the franchise rebounding record for the Miami Heat. “Sometimes I would eat turkey sandwiches plain, and sometimes I would grill them.”
Haslem reflects and calls Europe his great blessing. Teams play one, maybe two games per week. On off days, they train, and the legendarily tough coach of Élan Chalon, Greg Beugnot, ran Haslem ragged. Weight fell off Haslem like he could not believe. Of course, that tends to happen when you starve yourself. Haslem burned thousands of calories a day but tried to limit himself to only one small meal.
Isolated in a foreign country, introspection filled his days. He trained with his team, and he trained by himself. Early morning runs through the ancient streets of Chalon-sur-Saône were the foundations of a work ethic Haslem has carried throughout his career. Weight was the enemy, so he never lifted it. He just ran and ran. He has run so much throughout his career that it’s little surprise his feet have given him trouble.
“When I wasn’t drafted, I just asked myself what could I do to put myself in a better position,” Haslem said. “Instead of pointing a finger and saying this team messed up or these guys made a mistake, I took a look in the mirror and critiqued myself on what I could do differently.”
Haslem averaged 16.1 points and 9.4 rebounds in his one season with Élan Chalon. He dropped around 70 pounds from the time he arrived in France to the time he walked into the Heat’s practice facility hungry enough in mind and body to chew the paint off the walls. Haslem’s physical transformation was enough to earn a tryout for the Heat’s summer league team, nothing more. That was all the opportunity Haslem would need.
“Once you see the positive results of a lifestyle change, that’s enough motivation in itself,” Haslem said. “If you build off that, you’ll surprise even yourself how far it can take you.”
The unlikely journey of Udonis Haslem reached a milestone Wednesday no one, not even Haslem, thought possible. With eight rebounds against the Milwaukee Bucks, he became the only undrafted player to hold a franchise rebounding record for an NBA team. Entering Saturday’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Haslem has 4,814 rebounds for his career. Alonzo Mourning is second on the Heat’s all-time rebounding list with 4,807.