Greg Cote

It's Dolphins vs. Heat for South Florida's heart, and why one has earned your trust

Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade looks on during the second quarter of against the Brooklyn Nets at the AmericanAirlines Arena on March 31, 2018.
Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade looks on during the second quarter of against the Brooklyn Nets at the AmericanAirlines Arena on March 31, 2018.

With remarkably little cause, as it turned out, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was feeling very confident that day. As close to boastful as I've seen him. He saw an opening. He was a tiger ready to pounce. It was three years ago, one year after LeBron James had left Miami and the Heat were sub-.500 in his wake, and now Ross — as if making a claim of birthright — was declaring his Dolphins were about to reassert themselves as the region's flagship professional team.

In effect, he announced the Heat's temporary reign had ended, the Basketball Town phase was over and football was back, baby!

"Just look at our fans and the excitement," Ross said, on the eve of 2015 training camp. "The Heat is a different organization now that LeBron James isn't there. I think the Dolphins are a team that are capturing the imagination of the whole fan base here in South Florida."

In that same interview Ross posited that Ryan Tannehill had all of the talent and tools "to be an elite quarterback" — one miscalculation most certainly related to the other.

Three years later, the mythical title of which of our pro sports teams Owns This Town still is open to debate as long as we agree as a starting point that it's Dolphins vs. Heat, the order there purely alphabetical.

Losing LeBron and the national spotlight that left with him makes it a fair fight, at least. It's Tradition vs. Today, the Fins' 53 years of history and lore vs. the Heat's more current appeal to a fandom more diverse, more millennial. The Dolphins are Shula and Marino and halcyon days ever-distant. The Heat are now, in the moment, not reliant on the deep past as a crutch.

Only the Dolphins' historical heft, and America's broad though perhaps diminishing preference for football, keeps the Fins in this fight. And only the Heat's more recent and current success keeps them in this fight.

There is no question who the better team is right now. One is coming off a 6-10 season followed by a dispiriting offseason that saw the departure of stars Jarvis Landry, Ndamukong Suh and Mike Pouncey. The other is in the NBA playoffs, facing the 76ers in Game 1 of the first round Saturday night in Philadelphia -- the nostalgic, popular return of Dwyane Wade further moving the needle in the Heat's favor.

Ross, Mike Tannebaum and Adam Gase are asking you to have faith.

You know that Micky Arison, Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra deserve it.

LeBron leaving did open the door for a Dolphins revitalization, as Ross hoped, but A) his team has failed to capitalize, and B) the resilient Heat has proved resourceful enough to not let LeBron's departure send the franchise into a tailspin.

So the fight goes on, but not because the Dolphins have reasserted in a tsunami of winning as Ross imagined. They haven't. And not because the post-Big 3 Heat have recovered their powers and become championship contenders. They haven't.

No, it's still a two-team fight largely for the stunning lack of a worthy challenger.

The Marlins recuse themselves from any consideration as the honeymoon of enthusiasm over Derek Jeter's involvement in ownership lasted about a minute before crashing and burning like the Hindenburg in 1937. Jeter's goodwill dissolved in a fire sale that left the roster a low-talent shambles and attendance at record depths. Maybe check back in a few years to see if Jeter's plan of foundation-up, farm system-restocking actually paid dividends, or was just a handy ruse to gut payroll and increase profits. Honestly, though, winning won't be enough to bridge the massive gulf that separates the Marlins from the Dolphins and Heat. Too many years of Jeffrey Loria and what's going on now have fractured the community's trust in the baseball team to a degree beyond repair at least in the short term.

The Panthers keep telling us they have a great young nucleus ready to make a serious playoff run but keep ultimately failing to deliver, this season another example. Even with sustained winning, though, even with a reprise of that glorious 1996 run to the Stanley Cup Finals, I'm not sure hockey will ever be more than a niche sport playing for third place in South Florida's heart, a team passionately held by devout fans, but not broadly followed like football or basketball. Chances are you either know passionately the promise of Aleksander Barkov or could not care less.

David Beckham's Major League Soccer expansion team (if it ever gets here!) has a chance to make an immediate splash in Miami, but, this too may be a team fighting for third place as it establishes itself behind the decades-long head start and deeply entrenched fan bases of the Dolphins and Heat — the Immovable Object and Irresistible Force of Miami pro sports.

Most fans I know follow and care about both teams, but the month of April reminds which team has done more to earn support in the fight for South Florida's heart.

One team has gifted its fans with an NBA playoff run. The other is trafficking in the "maybe" that is the NFL draft.

One team spends a lot of time winning. The other spends a lot of time hoping to.

One team is asking for your trust. The other team has earned it.

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