Greg Cote: Third title in a row or not, let’s enjoy this Heat ride

WEB VOTE Which Heat player will be the biggest surprise this season?

The framework for this 26th Heat season and fourth of the LeBron James/Big 3 era seems to have hardened and set. By decree it will be about big things. About what’s next. It will be about whether this team can win a third consecutive championship to truly command the full attention of NBA history. And it will be about the looming, ever-closer summer of 2014 and whether Miami can re-sign LeBron and keep this magic ride going.

Those things are fine and true. No arguing they are the major brush strokes of the big picture as the new season opens here Tuesday night with the Chicago Bulls visiting and another banner rising in the bayside arena.

There is a small problem with that big picture, though.

It shows so much obsession with what’s next, with this team’s place in history and with The Decision Part II, that reflection and simple gratitude for what IS gets lost.

So I have two words for the Heat right now, and those two words do not depend how this season goes or what happens beyond it:

Thank you.

That’s all. Just thanks.

Not all may agree but, for me, what the Heat put together in 2010 qualifies as an unequivocal success not relying on a third consecutive title.

For me the Big 3 worked, without hesitation or asterisks, even if the troika of James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh does not remain intact.

Don’t get me wrong. There isn’t a Heat fan breathing who doesn’t want another championship parade next June, followed by LeBron announcing he’ll be KEEPING his talents in South Beach.

But neither should there be any Heat fan whose appreciation and gratitude are contingent on those things happening.

This has been a fun, wild, intoxicating, fascinating trip the past three years — a thrill ride ending in a slow crawl through ticker-tape — no matter what happens next.

What Heat impresario Pat Riley had the audacity to make happen in 2010 made Miami the epicenter of basketball and the Heat the biggest team in American sports.

What LeBron James gave us was the single biggest, greatest, most famous athlete we have ever had. (I covered Dan Marino, too; there is no comparison).

When I call the Big 3 Heat our greatest and most interesting team ever, I do not do so casually, or without perspective.

I was a kid, a fan, when the Dolphins won back-to-back Super Bowl championships in 1972-73. Don Shula, Larry Csonka and those fellows introduced Miami as a sports town to the rest of the country. To South Florida, those Dolphins were like the first love you never forget.

I was a young man, a reporter, covering those mid-to-late ‘80s Hurricanes football teams that lived at the top of the polls, delivered those first national titles and also played national villains for the battle fatigues, off-field controversies and blatant swagger. “The Best and the Baddest Team in America,” I coined those Canes.

This Heat era tops them both for that combination of excellence and excitement, of starpower and hip-hop flash.

In 2010-11 the rest of the country vilified LeBron for the manner in which he left Cleveland, booed the Heat viciously in every NBA arena but this one and howled with delight as Miami lost in the NBA Finals.

Finishing second amounted to failure. Chemistry issues involving LeBron and Wade sharing the ball invited immediate questions whether this grand experiment was doomed. And America was laughing.

Two championships later LeBron’s popularity has skyrocketed, and the Heat is cheered or at least respected wherever they go. The team went from being Drama Kings to NBA Kings, and the gold standard against which other teams measure themselves.

That’s why Chicago’s Derrick Rose, asked the other day about the Indiana Pacers, called the Heat “our only true rival.”

The Heat, once hated largely because of LeBron and “The Decision,” now is hated in a way that isn’t really hatred. It’s more the envy directed at all teams that are either great or famous or both.

The Heat is a national team the way the Yankees, Cowboys and Lakers once were, but still wearing enough of a black hat in general perception that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently likened the Heat to the heydays of the Oakland Raiders.

Polarizing: You either love the Heat, or love nothing better than to beat them.

“With two titles they’re still the bad guy,” Cuban suggested. “There’s a confidence bordering on arrogance that’s good for them as a team and good for us as a league because it also makes them the team that everybody wants to knock off.”

Having the biggest star, a two-time defending MVP, assures Miami that healthy arrogance, but there also is an underlying sense of brotherhood, camaraderie and fun. This is a family, and it plays like one in every sense, whether it is with cohesion on the floor or frivolity off it. (That Harlem Shake video last year was a hoot).

Now, as if to assure that things don’t get dull, the two-time champions’ biggest offseason additions were Greg Oden, of the history of knee surgeries, and Michael Beasley, of the history of enjoying marijuana way too much. Only if Miami had signed Lamar Odom, and gotten his wife Khloe Kardashian in the bargain, could the drama meter have spiked any higher.

Meantime doubting the Heat continues as a national pastime.

You read or hear that the Bulls or Pacers are ready to seize control in the East, or that it is Oklahoma City’s time in the Finals.

You read or hear that the Heat will be complacent, or got too old, or might be distracted by the attention on the summer of ’14.

Sports Illustrated in its NBA preview issue picks the Thunder to beat Miami for the championship, with the writer referring to the Heat as “enervated” — a $5 word that means weakened. (All teams should be as enervated as the one following LeBron James onto the floor).

Again, though, whether Miami collects its three-peat or falls short, and whether the Big 3 era remains intact or does not — those things are for down the road.

For now, no matter what, it’s been a wonderful ride, Heat.

Thank you.

Read more Greg Cote stories from the Miami Herald

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