Haslem celebrated the record on the most appropriate of days, Thanksgiving. Seated with his family, Haslem gave thanks for everything he has and for the people who helped shape his life. After the meal, he saved room for his grandmother’s homemade caramel cake.
“Straight from Perry, Georgia, baby,” Haslem said. “Country folk.”
A new player
When Haslem left for France, he already knew he wasn’t going to be coming back to the United States as a better version of the same player he was in college. He left that player behind completely. To catch on with an NBA team, Haslem needed to completely transform his game. Scoring points didn’t matter anymore.
“To play in the NBA, I had to rebound and outwork everybody,” Haslem said. “There was no second guessing it. That was who I had to become.
“There was no thought process in it. It was just, this is what I needed to do, let’s do it.”
Haslem was a new man when he returned to the United States in 2003. His physical transformation was stunning. After a week in Miami spent catching up with family and friends, Haslem moved to Orlando to prepare for his tryout with the Heat. Mike Miller picked him up at the airport.
“I didn’t recognize him,” said Miller, who was Haslem’s roommate at the University of Florida. “He changed himself in everything — everything. He took the long road, but the best road possible for him.”
Haslem was a four-year starting center for the Gators and helped UF coach Billy Donovan transform that program into what it is today, a national power located in the swamplands of north central Florida. But for all Haslem accomplished in Gainesville — the Gators made the NCAA Tournament every year — he left underprepared for the NBA.
Haslem averaged 6.4 rebounds per game during his time at Florida. On the Gators’ all-time rebounding list, he is ranked merely 11th. Looking back, he blames only himself.
“I wasn’t a great rebounder in college, not nearly what I am now, so I really just put my mind to chasing the boards,” Haslem said. “If you can put your mind to it — and I know this is a cliché, but it’s true — if you can put your mind to it, you can do it.”
You know how football players — the good ones, anyway — sacrifice everything going after fumbles? That’s the same approach Haslem took to chasing after rebounds on the court. Rebounding is not about height so much as it is about willpower. Haslem learned that in the year he spent molding himself into a new player. And when it was time for Haslem to report to the Heat’s first summer-league practice, he had a new body to put that willpower into devastating action.
The Heat’s coaching staff needed to see Haslem only one time that summer to know it was inviting him to training camp.
“I still remember the first time he came in here for the first practice,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, an assistant at the time. “I’ll never forget it.
“He was so ferocious that we thought about sitting him for some of the scrimmages because we thought he was going to hurt people. He was that desperate and relentless to make an impression on us and he did.