Linda Robertson

Heat’s Hassan Whiteside can be dynamic new hero for broken-hearted Miami

At a dark time in Miami, Hassan Whiteside is a beam of light.

Never in South Florida sports history has the news been so heartbreaking.

Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez is dead at age 24, killed when his boat crashed into a South Beach jetty at 3:15 a.m. Sunday. Fernandez was a local hero not just because he was building a Hall of Fame career, but also because he fled Cuba with nothing but his mother and his baseball dream, and held steadfastly to both. He lived every day, played every game with joyous gratitude.

Chris Bosh will probably never play another minute for the Miami Heat, team president Pat Riley said Monday. While Bosh still hopes to return to the basketball court, Riley’s words sounded like an epitaph on the career of the Heat’s most cerebral player. Bosh, whose past two seasons were cut short by blood clots, failed his physical exam last week when doctors found clotting in his lungs. The Heat will not take a risk on Bosh’s health. If he’s on blood thinners and takes an elbow to the head, he could die from a brain bleed.

Whiteside admired Fernandez and Bosh. He found it hard to believe one is gone forever and the other won’t wear a Heat uniform again.

“I was just floored,” Whiteside said Monday. “I sat beside Bosh in the locker room. With the passing of Fernandez, it’s been a crazy week. It’s very sad.”

Whiteside can play a prime role in the city’s healing process. Marlins players who were closest to Fernandez will do their part; they all wore No. 16 jerseys in his honor during Monday’s game.

But as baseball season winds down for the Marlins and basketball season commences for the next-generation Heat, Whiteside can continue to embody the spirit of the fiery ace. He can be the Heat’s new linchpin big man, as Bosh was. His smile, with its reach radiating from a 7-foot height, can make fans happy again. His dunks and blocks can be as emphatic as Fernandez’s sizzling Ks.

Whiteside, 27, is the local athlete who reminds us most of Fernandez. He’s like a “little kid” in his infectious love of playing — in the purest sense of the word — a simple game — in the purest sense of the word — as Marlins manager Don Mattingly described Fernandez. The two of them would play for free, anonymously, in some grubby playground, in front of no one but the neighbor walking his dog if they couldn’t play anywhere else. And if they won, they’d jump up and down like it was the World Series or NBA Finals.

Do you know what Whiteside did the morning after Riley confirmed his trust in the center’s potential by signing him to a four-year, $98 million max contract? He went to the Bronx Zoo. He filmed himself talking to the animals.

“Hey bison, how you guys doing?” said Whiteside, who is Miami’s funniest athlete since Shaquille O’Neal. “Hey reindeer, Merry Christmas!”

In scenes Dr. Doolittle or Zoo Miami’s Ron Magill would enjoy, Whiteside filmed polar bears, zebras, a gorilla.

“Hey, leopard, come over here, I got a selfie for you,” he said, such elation in his voice. “Bro, I don’t care what these giraffes say – I’ll meet ‘em at the rim.

“Hey, y’all, save the rhinos. Why you so big? Hey, you got to work out with me. I’ll get you right, rhino. Stop skipping leg days.”

Classic Whiteside. The man-child can make you laugh out loud. He’s what Miami needs right now.

As in Fernandez’s case, there’s a story behind the success. Whiteside came up the hard way, the back-roads way, and if not for his determination he might be home in Gastonia, Nprth Carolina, working at the Walmart.

Whiteside was an NBA reject who was cut by Sacramento, labeled a “head case,” relegated to the D-League Rio Grande Valley Vipers and bounced around teams in China and Lebanon before the Heat took a chance on him.

“This is the first time in my life I’ll be on the same team for more than two years,” he said.

Whiteside, who averaged 14.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and a NBA-best 3.7 blocks last season, wants to make the All-Star team, win the Defensive Player of the Year award (he was peeved he finished third in voting), develop his post moves, improve his passing, fuel guard Goran Dragic’s uptempo transition game with his rebounds.

“I’m looking to dominate,” he said. “We’ve got a lot to prove. It took me 27 years to get here. What would be the point if I stopped now? Since I was a 20-year-old rookie I wanted to be a Hall of Famer. People laughed at that. I would never give anyone the satisfaction of saying, ‘I told you so.’ ”

Whiteside realizes he has to elevate his game. The Big 3 era is over. The 2012 and 2013 championship banners are magnificent mementos of a fleeting alliance. LeBron James went home to the Cleveland Cavaliers two summers ago. Dwyane Wade, a Heat lifer, surprised everyone (even himself) and went home to the Chicago Bulls in July, a little hurt that the Heat went so hard after Kevin Durant and Whiteside and feeling he was taken for granted.

Whiteside is ready to rally a largely unknown roster of “hungry guys,” just like himself. Coach Erik Spoelstra is “invigorated” by the challenge of synthesizing this new group and counting on Whiteside’s growth as a leader. Udonis Haslem, the Heat’s sage sensei, is excited about inspiring players “carrying that chip I’ve carried on my shoulder my whole career,” including Whiteside.

“The next step is for him to be a voice on the floor,” Haslem said. “We can’t understand Goran all the time so it needs to be Hassan. But we can’t understand Hassan all the time either.”

Whiteside won’t get complacent. He still checks the price tag on everything. He’s still humble enough to admit he’s terrified of heights and can’t look over the balcony rail of his condo.

But he’s never lost faith in himself. It’s his moment to capture and help mend Miami’s broken heart.

“I came here from Day One thinking this could be my moment,” he said. “I want to keep the moments going.”

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