How do you exhibit leadership in the NBA?
Is it simply being the guy who commands the ball in the fourth quarter when the game is on the line and sinks the winning shot?
Is it sacrificing your body and drawing a charge on defense or busting your lip or bloodying your forehead fighting for a rebound?
Is it delivering a fiery speech at halftime to get your teammates motivated?
Udonis Haslem has never been the guy to have the ball in his hands in the fourth quarter. That was Dwyane Wade’s job for the last 13 years. But Haslem has been that other guy, the one who made winning plays either with a screen, a rebound or a block. He delivered plenty of fiery, expletive-filled halftime speeches that woke the Heat up and prompted rallies.
As he enters his 14th season with the Heat at age 36, Haslem isn’t the physical presence he used to be on the court. After playing a career-low 260 minutes last year in the regular season and making a few spot appearances in the playoffs, he may not be on the floor again very much as the Heat transition into a new era with a younger roster and a faster, more uptempo style.
Still, his presence and leadership – in ways the public doesn’t often see – is very much needed and valued. It’s why coach Erik Spoelstra named Haslem the Heat’s lone team captain last week, and why the coach remarked Monday “if I announced somebody else they would say, ‘Coach are you sure?’ ”
“It means a lot,” Haslem said Tuesday of being captain, a title he shared with Wade and Chris Bosh last year. “I don’t take it lightly. I put just as much responsibility and pressure on myself as a coach or anybody else could to make sure I handle that position and honor that correctly and also bring guys along with me.
“I don’t just talk it, I walk it. I exemplify it,” Haslem said of his leadership. “You see it, you feel it, you know it’s pure when you’re around me. Everything that I say to these guys, they know I’ve either done or I’m willing to do myself.”
Tuesday, after the Heat wrapped up its final preseason practice and headed to Orlando for its season opener on Wednesday, Haslem was still on the practice court inside AmericanAirlines Arena, running sprints alongside injured second-year guard Josh Richardson.
Why? Because he wants Richardson to understand how badly the team needs him back. Haslem also knows Richardson is a big part of the Heat’s future, and leadership values have to be passed down the way they were to him by Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton and others.
“I don't know if he knows how much it means to me, but that’s the kind of captain I want to be,” Richardson said after he and Haslem finished a series of 10 sprints up and down the court Tuesday after practice. “When I get to be the captain of the team or it’s my team or some other young guy’s team, that's how I want to be. It just leaves an impression.”
The Heat, in the midst of a roster makeover with Wade now in Chicago and hris Bosh unlikely to ever play for the franchise again, is looking for its next round of leaders to emerge. Spoelstra is counting on Haslem to be both the bridge and the trail blazer to that point.
Center Hassan Whiteside is showing flashes of it this preseason Haslem said. So has Goran Dragic, Justise Winslow and Tyler Johnson. Even newcomer Dion Waiters has, Haslem said Tuesday.
Ultimately, Haslem said, Miami needs someone to emerge and not just show flashes. He’d like for it to be Whiteside.
“His numbers are going to be his numbers. He's going to put up his 20s and 20s. He's going to block his shots. But for him, the next step is to take that step leadership-wise, be that voice on the floor, set an example for these guys,” Haslem said at the start of camp.
“My minutes come few and far between. So we have to have a guy that’s going to have to be vocal on the floor. We don’t really understand Goran all the time. So, it's going to have to be Hassan. But we don't really understand him all the time either. We have to figure out -- it’s got to be one of these guys.”
For now at least, it’s Haslem’s voice that’s the loudest and most respected in the locker room.
“He's the most experienced guy in this team,” Dragic said. “He won three championship rings. He knows what it takes to be at this high level and compete. I feel like he's a box you need to open up and just learn from him because he has so much knowledge.”
At times this preseason, Haslem was spotted standing and yelling toward the court from the Heat bench. Although it may be perceived he’s shouting at his teammates, Whiteside said Haslem is “talking mostly to the other team.”
“He's not going to scream at you,” Whiteside said. “He's going to talk to you, help you out.”
Said Haslem: “When I yell at our guys it’s only at halftime. But I don't really yell at anybody. It’s more of a motivational thing.”
And getting guys motivated, Haslem said, hasn’t been a problem.
He hasn’t had to have a talk with Whiteside about staying calm or in control of his emotions once yet and doesn’t think he’ll need to. That’s something he had to do in the past.
“Hassan has been great, man,” Haslem said. “I think he understands how big a responsibility he has now and how important he is to our success and how much we value him as a player and as a person.”
Little by little, Haslem said, the Heat’s future leaders will emerge. For now, he’s going to be the front man and nobody has a problem with that.
“Right now he's the heart and the soul and we kind of move around him,” Winslow said. “It will be nice one day to have that role. But you've got to take steps.”