Udonis Haslem has always played the game of basketball with as much pride for the name on the front of his jersey as of the one on the back. He’s got the stitches and scars to prove it.
But the 14-year veteran and Heat captain is playing with a third name close to his heart this season: Army Lieutenant Colonel Edmundo A. Lluberes, a 28-year veteran of the United States Military who tragically passed away in 2015 leaving behind his wife and three young daughters only five months into his retirement from active service.
Haslem never met Lluberes. But as part of a new wrinkle to the Heat’s Home Strong initiative, which Pat Riley began in 2006 to honor service members and raise money for veterans, Haslem decided to buy Lluberes’ family season tickets for this season so they could sit near his own family for all 41 home games.
Monday night, when the Heat debut their special Home Strong uniforms for the first time this season against the Thunder, Haslem and each of his teammates will have the name of the local fallen Gold Star service member they were paired with stitched onto a patch on their jersey. Counting Riley, coach Erik Spoelstra and his three lead assistants, a total of 20 families have been paired with the Heat players and staff this season, creating a unique experience for both the basketball guys and the military families.
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“I bought [Lluberes family] season tickets so they know every time I step on the floor I'll be representing them," Haslem said. “It just continues to amaze me the sacrifices people make for us. That's why I consider this the greatest country in the world. The small things we can do for their family, I'm happy to be a part something like that. I consider his family to be a part of my family now.”
Following Monday’s game, the Heat will wear the uniform over its next four games including Thursday night when Dwyane Wade makes his homecoming to South Florida with the Chicago Bulls.
During the three Home Strong games played at AmericanAirlines Arena, the Heat will recognize the various Gold Star Families, who were identified by the U.S. Army Garrison–Miami Survivor Outreach Services. Videotaped tribute pieces will air during each game broadcast, on the big screens in the arena and through social media, and each fallen service member will have their story told via those segments.
Through it all, the experience of meeting the families has had a profound effect on players, point guard Goran Dragic said.
“It was really tough,” said Dragic, who was paired with the family of Army Captain Josh M. McClimans, a registered nurse who saved the lives of 86 soldiers and was tragically killed April 22, 2011 by a missile when he was 15 feet away from his job at a hospital overseas.
“I met a family who lost their father and I met the son. I think he was 10 years old. Just to see the reaction of the family when I walked in and they saw the name on my jersey. The little fella came and rubbed on that patch. You can see they are going through some tough times. But they appreciate what we did. It’s nice to do something.”
Center Hassan Whiteside was paired with the family of Private First Class Bruce W. Carter, who enlisted in the Marines straight out of high school to fight in Vietnam and was overseas for nine months when he covered a rocket grenade with his body before it detonated, saving the lives of four of his comrades. The Department of Veterans Affairs designated Allapatah's VA Hospital the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center back in 2008.
“I got to see all the awards, purple hearts. It was an amazing experience,” Whiteside said of meeting Carter’s family. “It puts in perspective what it really means to have a brother beside you and being able to sacrifice always.”
At Saturday’s game against the Utah Jazz, 20,000 commemorative posters featuring players and the names of each of the fallen heroes will be distributed at the arena.
The names of the fallen service members will also be represented alongside players on street banners outside the arena. A portion of the proceeds from all Home Strong retail merchandise will be donated to the Fisher House, an organization that provides free or low cost lodging to veterans and military families receiving treatment at military medical centers.
The Heat will present a check to the Fisher House from last year’s sales during Saturday’s game.
“It's just a very small part that we can play in this to let them know their lives have significance,” Spoelstra said of the roles of the Heat’s players and coaches in the program. “It gives incredible meaning when you see the families. That gives you a deeper understanding than just reading about it.”