SAN ANTONIO -- There have been $9,000 watches, commissioned works of art and boy-band posters handed out as gifts among members of the defending back-to-back NBA champions, but what has been the oddest gift of all? That’s easy.
Chris Andersen, the Birdman, once gave every member of the Miami Heat a hunting knife as a token of his friendship.
“That was pretty awesome and a poignant gift because every time I use that to dress my next deer or squirrel or whatever I shoot for the first time in my life, I’ll think of the Birdman,” Shane Battier said.
This week, the Heat is off on a hunting expedition in San Antonio. The quarry: the San Antonio Spurs. The prize: a third consecutive NBA championship. The not-so-secret weapon: LeBron James, the gift that keeps on giving.
The Heat has won the past two NBA championships, but the Spurs, according to Las Vegas, are actually the favorites to win the title in a rematch of last year’s championship round. The NBA Finals begin in San Antonio on Thursday. Game 2 is in San Antonio on Sunday before the series shifts to Miami for two games at AmericanAirlines Arena next Tuesday and Thursday.
The first team to play in four consecutive NBA championships since Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics, the Heat features a group of players bonded by a multiyear run of emotions that have created uncommon chemistry on the court and lifelong friendships off it. The glue that has strengthened all of these relationships and held everything together is James himself, a rare and special talent whose greatest gift might not be his world-class athleticism but his ability to bring out the best in those around him.
“We really just enjoy each other’s company,” center Udonis Haslem said. “We go out and we play and we work hard, but I think the bond that we share off the court helps the success on the court. It’s not like we just come to work and practice and play and then go our separate ways and never hear from each other.”
For the city of Miami, all that love has transformed these next two weeks in June into a holiday season. Unwrapping the NBA Finals has turned into an annual civic celebration.
For the Heat’s players, James’ unique leadership style has spawned a culture of giving, and one way that locker-room togetherness has manifested itself is through the literal act of showering each other with presents. For example, it would just be a normal day for the Heat’s players to show up for practice and find $400 headphones at each locker.
James keeps his team stocked with the latest Beats by Dre, and also the latest technology from Samsung. He once gave everyone on his team personalized chrome smartphones.
“LeBron is unbelievably generous, but we’re an unbelievably generous team,” Battier said. “Even if guys aren’t making the big dollars, they find ways to say, ‘Hey guys. I’m thinking of you.’ ”
Imagine coming into work every day with a new gift from some random employee, nothing outrageous, but just a simple token of appreciation. How much more smoothly would your office run? How much more would get accomplished? Now imagine if the person in the cubicle next to you surprised you with a custom-made leather duffel bag by Del Toro worth a few thousand dollars. Chris Bosh did that for every player on the team.
Battier, who is retiring after these Finals, recently had “Heatles” posters made for his teammates. The framed photo illustrations featured members of the team in suits with a narrow London-esque street in the background. Battier can’t claim coining the nickname — Shaquille O’Neal came up with the “Heatles” — but Battier’s karaoke charity event, “Battioke,” has given play on words new meaning.
“We have amazing connections and experiences with each other, and we want to share it with the guys on the team. It’s pretty awesome,” Battier said. “I think it adds to our team chemistry. Not that we’re superficial and materialistic.
“It just shows that guys care, and they put effort into thinking about the happiness of their teammates.”
The giving started, of course, long before even the first basketball game had been played. James and Dwyane Wade gave up millions of dollars in salary to make all of this possible. In the summer of 2010, the Heat used that extra cash to retain Udonis Haslem and sign Mike Miller.
That first season was a rough one — not many gifts, and no title. But the devastating loss in the 2011 NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks didn’t tear the team apart. It actually had the opposite effect. The collapse galvanized the team, and that collective pain made the individual relationships that much more special.
“There were a lot of haters out there, and we were all trying to put it together but still be who we are as basketball players,” Haslem said. “There was a lot going on that first season. We got battled tested early and got through it.”
So naturally, when the Heat redeemed itself and won the title the following year, the gifts were outrageous.
Wade surprised everyone, including upper management, with Hublot watches. Retail value: $9,000.
“I think the championship watches that Dwyane gave us after the first championships were special,” Battier said. “I’ve never had a teammate that spent that much money on me, which was very nice.”
Not to be outdone, Juwan Howard commissioned an artist in Chicago to create 15 individual and distinct paintings about each player on the team. That’s when things got a little crazy.
“It’s just something that took on a life of its own,” Haslem said. “Every year since we started doing it we’ve got Dwyane and LeBron and Chris and guys that make that max money, and we’re winning championships and they just take care of everybody.”
After the second championship, the gifts mutated toward the realm of the bizarre. Wade had custom championship leather shoes by Del Toro made for the team along with championship green blazers, a nod to professional golf’s prize for winning The Masters. The reason? Why not.
James followed suit, no pun intended, and had WWE championship wrestling belts made for his teammates.
“The green jackets and the championships belts were something different,” guard Mario Chalmers said. “I’ve probably worn both of them at the same time.”
Along with the Birdman’s hunting knife strapped to his waist, no doubt.
“We’re not talking Crocodile Dundee knife, but it’s a nice sharp blade,” Battier said.
“Bird’s crazy ass,” James quipped.
What’s next? Three championships in a row would up the ante for sure.
Crossbows, apparently, are being given serious thought.