Udonis Haslem takes unusual route to become Miami Heat’s rebounding leader

Liberty City’s Udonis Haslem couldn’t cut it in the NBA as an undersized center just out of college, so he went to France, transformed himself, and now is the Heat’s all-time leading rebounder.

11/23/2012 12:00 AM

09/23/2013 6:52 PM

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.

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.

“After that first practice, we said, this guy is coming to training camp. We don’t care about anything else, we got to hold on to this kid and we got to see what he can do with our main guys.”

The kid did pretty good. Heat president Pat Riley and former general manager Randy Pfund had found a gem.

A GREAT LISTENER

And when Haslem started the first NBA game he ever played in, there was no one more proud of him on the entire planet than Frank Martin.

To this day, Martin remains a father figure to Haslem. He calls Haslem from time to time and still gives him that same tough-love treatment he did back when he was coaching Miami Senior High.

“If you play for Frank Martin, he’ll either turn you into a man or you’ll realize you’re not a man at all,” Haslem said.

Martin turned Haslem into a man. It wasn’t Miami that made Haslem tough — not completely, anyway. Martin finished the task. Of course, he takes no credit.

“He wanted to be coached,” said Martin, now in his first season at the University of South Carolina. “He wasn’t one of these kids who thought he had all the answers.”

For every man who has had the pleasure of coaching Haslem, he has been the archetypal team-first player. Do you think Haslem walks through life without fear? Wrong. Haslem fears failure every time he steps onto the court. The fear of letting down his teammates drives him.

When Indiana Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough mauled Dwyane Wade in the face during the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals, Martin was watching the game on TV and knew in an instant what was going to happen next.

“Put it this way,” Martin said, “I new U.D. was going to come and have D-Wade’s back.”

Tasked with shaping a basketball player from clay, Riley probably would just recreate Haslem.

If Stan Van Gundy had to start a team from scratch, he would begin with Haslem and know he had a chance to win.

Think Spoelstra ever has to motivate his team? Nope. He has Haslem.

“He’s been our captain for so many years for a reason,” Spoelstra said.

But, above all, here’s the thing that has made Haslem one of the NBA’s best rebounders: He takes instruction. So simple; so vexing for coaches; so unattainable for some players.

“In high school, he wasn’t a great rebounder,” Martin said. “In college, he only averaged 6.5 rebounds per game. He was undersized. People told him, ‘You have to become a better rebounder.’ Well, there you go. Udonis listens.”

That an undrafted 6-7 1/2 center with average rebounding numbers in college has not only lasted 10 seasons in the NBA but also thrived is only a small part of Haslem’s unlikely career. To fully grasp the significance of Haslem’s rebounding record, you have to understand what he gave up to achieve it.

He gave up millions.

LOYALTY, FAMILY

Twice during Haslem’s career he could have left Miami for more money. In 2005, he gave up around $5 million to stay in his hometown. In 2010, he left roughly $14 million on the table.

“That loyalty he got from Pat Riley and the Heat, you can’t put a price on that,” Martin said. “In a day and age when everyone takes what they can get, he never lost sight of what he did get.”

You can’t put a price on loyalty just like you can’t attach a dollar amount to time spent with a loved one in the final years of their life. Giving up money has earned Haslem two NBA championships and the team’s all-time rebounding record, but those things are secondary to the time he enjoyed with his mom before she passed away.

Debra Haslem died of cancer at age 53 in July 2010. After overcoming so much in her life, she was and still is Haslem’s biggest inspiration.

“Just her strength for what she went through,” Haslem said. “She was able to come full circle after drug addiction and homelessness. To battle back and to make it back — you know, a lot of people get into that lifestyle and they just never come back. They fall into that lifestyle and that’s the end of them.

“But she came back, rehabilitated herself and got a job, cleaned herself up and really got involved with me and my sisters’ lives. She really created a bond with her kids and that’s big. She’s my hero for that.”

Debra was clean for 10 years before she passed away. It was the best 10 years of Haslem’s life and Debra got to watch her son play for the Heat. Of all the current franchise leaders in rebounding, only one has done it for the team in the city in which he grew up. Haslem’s teammates, coaches and the team’s executives attended Debra’s memorial service.

“I will never forget Coach Riley coming into Liberty City,” Haslem said. “That will never be forgotten. That will always be in the back of my mind. I was thankful he was there.”

Thanks cuts both ways.

“We’ve just worked out to be a pretty good fit for each other,” Haslem said.

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