Udonis Haslem will be the first to admit it’s getting a little harder for him to keep up with all the young guys around him these days.
But at 36, the Miami Heat’s elder statesman and only remaining piece from the Heat’s championship history is still savoring every moment, no matter how different the roster around him is.
Unlike any of his previous 13 seasons in the league when he served as the echo to Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton or Alonzo Mourning, Haslem’s voice is finally the loudest in the room.
It’s not necessarily something he craved or ever wanted. But it’s something he has accepted as the only franchise he’s ever sweat and bled for enters a new era without Wade, without Chris Bosh and without an established All-Star on the roster for the first time since Pat Riley began putting his fingerprints on the organization in 1995.
“It’s different when you weren’t drafted or when you’ve bounced around. These guys are hungry. They’re fired up,” Haslem said in a private moment Monday at Heat media day. “They’re excited about their opportunity. And I’m looking forward to leading a group of guys like that. If I had to choose a group to lead — I would lead these type of guys.”
Tuesday morning’s practice at Atlantis Paradise Island resort, the first of camp and the first of this new Heat season, was a reminder of how much things have changed in such a short amount of time. The last time the team held camp here, the Heat was coming off back-to-back NBA championships and on its way to a fourth consecutive Finals appearance.
That roster — filled with All-Stars and MVPs — was built to win big. The team that practiced Tuesday inside a converted ballroom at Atlantis — projected to win 36 1/2 games by Las Vegas odds makers — included a collection of journeymen with five players on one-year contracts and another six first- or second-year players playing for the league minimum.
“My message [Monday night in a team meeting] was ‘Guys, 14 years ago I felt the same way you guys felt,’ ” Haslem said after Tuesday morning’s practice. “I felt counted out. I felt neglected. I felt like people didn’t think I was good enough to help their team win.
“When I sat in that chair 14 years ago I wanted everything. I wanted the rings. I wanted respect. I wanted to prove people wrong. I wanted to be able to take care of my family. So I mentioned to the guys last night — this is your opportunity. Don’t settle, go get everything, go get your career, go get rings, take care of your family, set your legacy up. Don’t come here and try to make the team and try to be a part of the team. Go for everything.”
Tuesday morning’s practice, like nearly all of the others since Riley arrived, was focused primarily on defense. It was sloppy at times on the offensive end players admitted. But coach Erik Spoelstra didn’t care.
“Guys came in extremely well-conditioned,” Spoelstra said. “So we were able to really get into full contact in this first practice. We didn’t mess around or wait. We got right to it. I commend them for really spending the last seven, eight weeks putting in that time to get their bodies right.”
Haslem was as big a part of that as anyone. He said he sent out a group text message to everyone on the team, asking them to come down and begin participating in voluntary workouts at AmericanAirlines Arena. He coordinated outings and made things fun.
Forward Derrick Williams, a former No. 2 overall pick, said for about six to seven weeks a group of about 13 or 14 Heat players worked out together at the arena Monday through Thursday before some would join Haslem at a local park to go through sled pulling, cross-fit workouts and football-type drills.
“We definitely don’t have any quarterbacks on the team or receivers or tight ends,” Haslem said. “Between Justise [Winslow] and Briante [Weber] we couldn’t complete a 5-yard pass with no defense. That’s how bad it was.”
Williams said he had never shown up for voluntary workouts this early with any of his previous three teams before in his career. Guard Wayne Ellington, playing for his seventh NBA team, said the same.
“I’ve been on a few different teams prior to the Heat and I’ve never done some of the things we’ve done here, the bonding we have already is special,” Williams said last week. “I’ve been closer with some of these new guys than I have with other guys during a whole season on some of my other teams.
“That takes a toll on your team and how you respond when you’re down four with two minutes left and how you react with your teammates. I really feel like if we can keep this thing going and keep the chemistry going, we can surprise a lot of people.”
▪ Forward Josh McRoberts, who has missed a total of 88 games according to the team because of injury his first two seasons with the Heat, has been dealing with a foot and ankle injury for the past five weeks, Spoelstra said. He was a limited participant in Tuesday’s practice along with undrafted rookie Stevan Jankovich (ankle).