Udonis Haslem went into Wednesday night’s regular season finale having not played in a game for the Miami Heat since Feb. 4 and having only played in a career-low 16 games this season.
That’s hardly the kind of impact a team captain is supposed to make. But ask his teammates and coaches how much Haslem has helped and they say the 36-year-old’s fingerprints are all over the team’s miraculous second half turnaround from an 11-30 start.
“U.D., I mean, he’s equivalent of the godfather of our culture right now,” coach Erik Spoelstra said Wednesday after shoot-around. “When guys look at him with that kind of reverence, he will produce and do it an extremely high level – the constant leadership. I think the average fan only sees that in huddles during games. He’ll take that seat and sit in my chair half the time. I trust his message and I know it’s in perfect alignment.
“Behind the scenes, it’s 10 times that as an example of work, of staying in incredible shape, professionalism, always being on time, tucking your shirt in, being prepared, pads, mouthguards, ankles being taped, braced for every single practice. If you want to know how to be a Miami Heat player, just look at U.D.”
Tyler Johnson said the reason the Heat didn’t fall apart after one of the worst first halves of a season in franchise history was Haslem’s leadership.
“I think UD could have packed it in as far as continuing to speak to the team and continuing trying to get guys motivated,” Johnson said. “When we talk about motivation, it’s not a rah-rah speech. He really holds people accountable in a way that other guys didn’t know how to at the time. He was basically having to do it for everybody every day until for whatever reason it just started clicking and we all held each other accountable, which is a big part of the reason we had this turnaround.
“We had some tough losses, man. But every time we came back in at practice we were still going at each other. At 11-30, human nature would tell you to give this one up, that it’s a rebuilding year. I mean, we didn't really have any expectations for this season. If we didn't make the playoffs, nobody expected us to make the playoffs anyway. If we let the season go, there’s no repercussion from the media, the fans. Everybody could just say ‘Dwyane [Wade] left, CB [Chris Bosh] is not here, that’s why.”
Haslem, though, never let his teammates buy into the excuses. He said he just kept asking them every day, “Why not us? Why can’t we be the team to have the best record in the second half of the season? Why can’t we be the team to make the playoffs?”
“We talk about it all the time: Can you enjoy someone else’s success?” Spoelstra said. “As a mentor, I think [Haslem] finds great joy in Hassan [Whiteside] playing well and playing well to his capabilities. Willie Reed, he’s taken him under his wing. Okaro [White], he’s taken him under his wing. [Tuesday], to help with the workout with Dion after everybody leaves and he’s just going to play one-on-one defense against him for 20 minutes and then run sprints with him. There aren’t many guys wired like that in this league. Four hundred fifty players in this league? He’s probably one of three guys. That’s why he’s more than a captain for us.
“If there was a Hall of Fame for teammates, he would be that guy. You talk to any of the star players, when they’re done they’ll say who their favorite teammates were and it’ll be exactly like Shaq said. They’ll mention U.D. and I think that’s the ultimate compliment.”
Haslem, who is making $4 million this season, will be a free agent this summer. He’s said repeatedly he feels like he can still play. If the Heat brings him back it will probably be at the league’s veteran minimum.
▪ As much as Spoelstra complimented Haslem for his leadership, he was equally effusive of assistant coach Juwan Howard on Wednesday.
“I don’t think we’d be able to have the stability without the village,” Spoelstra said. “The culture is U.D., No. 1. Juwan Howard is No. 1. Those two guys have championship rings to back it up. They live and breathe it by example. Also, the right communication skills to be able to connect with modern day players. Ultimate respect right out of the get go with those two guys.”