There is no air conditioning inside the gymnasium where the Heat practiced in Rio de Janeiro for its game on Saturday against LeBron James.
It was just another reminder of how the Heat lost the best player in the world, and how Miami’s electrifying run atop the sports world came to a convincing and sudden end last summer.
What if the air conditioner didn’t die on that surreal and suffocating night in San Antonio?
What if James wasn’t felled by those debilitating cramps in the fourth quarter against the Spurs?
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What if the Heat won Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals?
The Heat is trying to move past the lingering memories of that bitter championship round when nothing went right, but first the team must play a preseason game against James in, of all places, Rio de Janeiro.
Once more, but not for the last time, the Heat has been revisiting all those what-if questions and all those feelings of shock when James announced he was leaving the team he led to the NBA Finals four consecutive seasons for his old club, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In many ways, losing James is still an open wound for the Heat.
“I’m not talking about that no more,” franchise cornerstone Dwyane Wade said when asked on Friday about last season. “I’m focusing on moving forward.”
And also avoiding James in Rio de Janeiro.
Wade said recently that his final season with James was short on the type of fun and team chemistry that made the Harlem Shake Heat so successful. For the first two days in Brazil, Wade and James, who remain close friends, kept their distance. But the two exchanged pleasantries at an NBA party that both teams were required to attend.
Chris Bosh said he hasn’t spoken with James since free agency, although he did clarify that comment here in Brazil. He spoke with James at Wade’s wedding but hasn’t since.
“We’ll see each other on the court,” Bosh said on Thursday. “That’s plenty of time to catch up.”
On Friday, James acknowledged the current emotional distance from his former Heat teammates.
“I know a lot of words have been coming out of their camp as of late, and some of it is surprising,” James said on Friday. “We’ve got so much history together. It doesn’t take away from what we accomplished, and I know that.’’
So the teams have crossed paths this week only at the practice gym.
The Heat and James’ new team both practiced at the multisports complex used by powerhouse Brazilian soccer club Flamengo in the days leading up to Saturday’s preseason game. Why is this game happening in Rio? Traveling abroad for preseason games is one of the ways the NBA has mushroomed into a worldwide success, and why basketball has become an international game.
Another way is by having some of the world’s most recognizable athletes. Michael Jordan became one of the game’s greatest ambassadors during his time with the Chicago Bulls, and James rose to international fame with the Heat.
His presence in the NBA has grown so large now that little else matters. The game’s biggest names — Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Carmelo Anthony, Wade — are watching the growth of the NBA’s new worldwide phenomenon like everyone else. That is where the Heat finds itself today, despite its recent run of greatness.
For the first time in more than four years, the Heat is on the outside staring into the LeBron fishbowl, and the view is humbling.
“We’ve got to learn every day,” Wade said. “We don’t have time to miss any opportunities to get better. There are a lot of teams that are so far ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Bookmakers in Las Vegas project the Heat to win around 40 games this season. James and the Cavaliers have been tabbed for about 20 more than that. Really, though, there is no accounting for the loss of a player like James. He not only helped the Heat become one of the NBA’s marquee franchises alongside the Lakers, Knicks, Bulls and Celtics, he also raised the profile of the entire city.
With no way to replace the greatest show in sports this season, the Heat has turned to pride and marketing slogans — “Heat Nation” and “Heat Lifer” — to sell its team.
“Like Dwyane said when he announced his return to the HEAT, I am a #HEATLifer,” Heat owner Micky Arison wrote in a letter to season-ticket holders this summer. “That’s how I want you to feel about your role as a Miami HEAT fan — that you are a #HEATLifer — ‘all in’ with us for what is sure to be an exciting 2014-15 season.”
“I am Heat Nation,” read the phrase on the front of a T-shirt worn by Heat rookie point guard Shabazz Napier on Friday.
“Heat nation” is printed on the cloth backdrop for coach Erik Spoelstra’s press conferences this season.
“Heat lifer” and “Heat nation” apparel is on sale in the team store.
Team president Pat Riley shot a video for fans this summer to sell the phrases, and a player-introduction video before games this season will include shots of Heat fans around town.
“So while the names on the back of the jersey may change from time to time, the constant presence of the name ‘Miami’ or ‘HEAT’ on the front guarantees that our goal remains the same: to put a competitive team on the floor capable of competing for the ultimate prize,” Arison wrote.
Reminders of losing James will be everywhere this season for the Heat and the city. It’s unavoidable, like the questions. There are so many questions about the Heat’s past and future.
Can a nation replace one man? Can pride replace the fall? Did the Spurs ever figure out who sabotaged the air conditioner?