Greg Cote: Hoop dreams bombard Florida’s sports world

03/26/2013 12:01 AM

03/26/2013 12:41 AM

Forty-plus years of tradition begun with the Dolphins’ 1972 Perfect Season installed Florida as a football state and Miami its capital. Ten college national championships by the Hurricanes, Gators or Seminoles between 1983 and 2008 solidified football as our state sport by acclaim — the title unofficial but uncontested.

Well, it isn’t uncontested any more.

Football staggers, beaten, winded, feeling like yesterday.

Basketball soars, breathes sparks, feels like right now.

Basketball here is Heat megastar LeBron James staring up into a hostile-turned-hushed crowd and slapping his own chest after a monster dunk.

Basketball here is Hurricanes coach Jim Larrañaga throwing shadow punches and doing a little rope-a-dope dance in homage to Muhammad Ali as his players roar approval in a winning postgame locker room.

The state of basketball in Florida has never been better, bigger, sexier or louder, with the Heat reigning over the NBA, and the Hurricanes, Florida Gators and Florida Gulf Coast — Florida Gulf Coast! — all in the men’s NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

It’s about time that football, resting on its laurels too long, taking our love for granted, was pushed to go rekindle our passion and re-earn its place.

How basketball is making us feel right now as a community doesn’t erase or rewrite all of that history, but it loosens football’s grip and makes us reconsider how we define ourselves, and why we limit ourselves.

“Florida is just a great sports state,” as Canes basketball player Julian Gamble rightly put it late Sunday night.

I am not sure football has ever made us feel quite like basketball is making us feel today — not in terms of the college and pro games intersecting to electrify the entire peninsula.

Consider that none of those 10 college football national titles by the Hurricanes (5), Gators (3) or Seminoles (2) happened the same season as any of our six Super Bowl appearances by the Dolphins (5) or Buccaneers (1).

Confined to South Florida, what the Heat and Hurricanes men are doing right now is like no feeling football has given us in almost 30 years. I’d trace it to that week when sensational rookie Dan Marino led the Dolphins into a playoff game on Dec. 31, 1983, and two nights later UM won its first national championship.

Three decades later it is the NBA champion Heat carrying a record-threatening 26-game winning streak into Monday night’s game, and the phenomenal Canes in the final 16 for only the second time in program history — and for the first time honestly thinking Final Four and national championship.

This is a statewide Sweet 16 party, though.

The Florida Gators in it is no surprise, but Florida Gulf Coast in it is one of sports’ all-time surprises. Not many outside of the state’s southwest coast even knew the school was in Fort Myers, or was nicknamed Eagles. TV sportscasters across the country have been miscalling it Florida “Golf” Coast.

Miami has some of the trappings of a Cinderella team even as a No. 2 seed, but FGCU is that in every way, as the first No. 15 seed ever to reach the Sweet 16. ESPN.com’s bracket contest spawned 8.1 million entries, and do you know how many of those correctly named all 16 surviving teams? Zero. And nobody was busting brackets like the school from Fort Myers.

Florida Gulf Coast faces the favored Gators next, and Miami faces Marquette — a dilemma for Heat star Dwyane Wade, who is a Canes fan but a Marquette alum.

“Hopefully, his allegiance ultimately stays in Miami,” UM’s Gamble said. Of the Heat’s and Canes’ equally stirring seasons, he added, “They’re doing great and we are, too. It’s been a magical, dream season.”

It’s as if the Heat’s championship and this year’s long winning streak have had some sort of trickle-down effect that has tossed magic dust over South Florida the way LeBron used to toss chalk, empowering the Hurricanes and not stopping there.

Broward’s Nova Southeastern is in the women’s Division II Elite Eight. Pompano Beach Ely and Miami Norland’s boys’ teams and Fort Lauderdale Dillard’s girls all won state high school titles.

Larrañaga, UM’s coach, said something to his Hurricanes after they’d beaten Illinois on Sunday night; this was just after his Ali-inspired jig. What he told his players sounded like pretty good advice for the rest of us, too, as we watch the mighty Heat aim for a repeat championship and the swaggering Canes try for their first:

“You gotta enjoy the heck out of this,” he said. “This is what fun is!”

Football might win us back, sure. We’re easy that way.

For now, though, we have a new love.

This is what it feels like when the rhythmic thump of a dribbled basketball begins to sound like a community’s heartbeat.

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