Heat’s Udonis Haslem admits hit on Pacers’ Hansbrough was to defend Dwyane Wade

Now the truth can be told, thanks to the freedom and relief that comes with winning. Hell, yes, Udonis Haslem meant to foul Tyler Hansbrough like that. Would do it again, too, if given the chance. He revealed as much after practice Saturday, stitches still on his face, right eye still dark red with blood. And damn if that wounded eye didn’t sting a little bit on this big, tough man from Miami’s meanest streets as he tried to articulate exactly what Dwyane Wade means to him. Ol’ Udonis isn’t going weak, not by a long shot, but age tends to bring perspective and appreciation, and those things can soften even a man as hard as Haslem.

“I can’t imagine anything I wouldn’t do for Dwyane,” he says.

Wade, bleeding, fell at Haslem’s feet after Hansbrough’s hard foul. The game and series were still close then, though Miami would outscore Indiana 86-58 immediately after Haslem’s retaliation on Hansbrough and would extinguish the Pacer season in Indiana the game after that, an angry Wade providing the 17-for-25 punctuation that will echo throughout Indiana’s offseason. Wade got on the team flight with game ball in hand after finishing Indiana with 41 points and 10 rebounds, and he asked his rowdy teammates to please quiet down as he handed that symbolic ball over to Haslem.

“For my brother,” Wade said for all to hear. “For his sacrifice. I don’t think we win this series without him.”

“Way to cook their asses,” Haslem told Wade.

There is so much emotional backstory here. Not once but twice Haslem has turned down contracts that would have paid him more than $10 million more than salary-cap-strapped Miami could afford. No one else in the NBA has literally given up so much to stay in one place. When the blueprint was being put together, Wade went to LeBron James and Chris Bosh and implored them to take millions less so the team would have room to keep Haslem’s toughness.

Wade knew they’d need a rugged man like that when the stakes and emotions escalated in the playoffs, so James and Bosh agreed, even though they didn’t know Haslem, which is how it comes to be that LeBron James, three-time MVP, earns many millions less than Joe Johnson. You know what Haslem says was the toughest part of last season for him? It wasn’t losing in the Finals. It was not being able to defend LeBron and Dwyane when they crumbled after hard fouls because he was injured and in a suit on the sidelines.

The last time Haslem saw his late mother smile? It was on her death bed, when he told her he was turning down the Dallas millions to stay with the Heat. And he has rarely been as moved as he was, in that rough neighborhood he calls home, when car after car pulled in to his mother’s wake and so many members of the Heat family emerged to be at his side in his weakest moment, Pat Riley included. So, yeah, when Wade fell at Haslem’s feet bleeding, back when that Indiana series was still close, somebody was going to pay for it.

“Like having a big brother going with you to school,” Wade said Saturday. “No one is going to mess with you.”

Haslem’s thought as Wade landed at his feet?

“OK,” he says. “That’s how it is going to be tonight? OK. Let’s do that then.”

He laughs.

“It is all fun and games to beat up the Heat in the media, to say the Heat are soft,” he says. “But as soon as the Heat take a stand and hit back, it’s not funny anymore. Rabbit hunting is fun. But it ain’t funny when the rabbit has the gun.”

Suspended for Game 6 and banned from the arena, Haslem had to watch from the hotel. He tried to nap beforehand but was too restless. He went downstairs and grabbed his game meal — a bag of popcorn, a bag of Cheetos, a Kit Kat and a Powerade. And this is how he felt in his own words:

“Lonely. Anxious. Helpless. Useless.”

He rushed to the airport immediately after the victory. Wade and Mario Chalmers were texting him pictures from the jubilant locker room, holding up “Free UD!” signs. He sat on the plane alone for 45 minutes until the team got there. And then Wade gave Haslem the game ball.

Asked to describe what that moment meant, Haslem pauses for a long time.

“Felt like family,” he finally says, succinctly enough. Then he adds, “Felt like they did all that for me. I knew Dwyane was going to have a game like that. I knew. I know that guy. No doubt. None. No doubt. His sister, his kids, they are my family. His mother and my mother used to be friends. They had similar journeys. Drug addiction. His mom is like my extended mom. I know that guy, and I knew what Dwyane was going to do to Indiana.”

Haslem’s jump shot has been broken all season, but he won Game 4 with so many fourth-quarter baskets that swung the series. He is asked which was the best feeling — making all those jumpers, fouling Hansbrough or getting the game ball.

“Game ball,” he says. “Most expensive basketball ever. That’s not going to be the ball the kids play with outside.”

He is asked which was the better feeling — hitting all those fourth-quarter jumpers in Game 4 or fouling Hansbrough in Game 5?

“Protecting my brother,” he says.

Haslem wasn’t paid for Game 6. That foul cost him more than $34,000 — or 1/110th of his annual salary (preseason and postseason included). Wade offered to pay half the fine, but Haslem refused, even though Wade earns a lot more than the $3.8 million Haslem does.

“No way,” says Haslem, proud and moved.

And then this so-rugged man from Miami’s meanest streets bows his head so you can no longer see that bloody, stitched eye or if it is stinging.

“That,” he says, “was out of love.”

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