MIAMI—"So, they admitted it was me?"
"They snitched on me?"
This was Saturday, following the final practice prior to the start of the 2014 postseason, in which Udonis Haslem and the Miami Heat will pursue their third straight championship, starting with a first-round series against Charlotte. This was the day after I'd finally asked Haslem something that I'd wondered for weeks: Was he responsible for the overturned watercooler in the center of the visiting locker room in the United Center, back on March 9, after one of the Heat's more frustrating losses of a thoroughly frustrating regular season?
I had no such information. Just a suspicion.
Haslem, in response to my initial inquiry, didn't speak.
His smile was the snitch.
So, yes, afterward, I brought it to a few members of the organization, one after another reluctantly confirming the culprit.
"I never admitted it," Haslem insisted Saturday.
No, not with his words.
But he did it.
Oh, and one other thing.
"I loved it," Erik Spoelstra said. "Loved it."
As the real season opens, it's part of where they have been, which has made them who they are.
It's the want they need to help them become what they want to be.
And get them where they want to go.
The reporters never have the final say. The revisionists do. And so, in 20 years, if the Heat win another championship, they'll skip over so many of the sour moments of this regular season. They'll remember these six months as something the Heat enjoyed rather than endured. They'll spotlight LeBron James' 61 against Charlotte, Chris Bosh's game-winner in Portland, Dwyane Wade's career-best shooting percentage, Greg Oden's healthy steps on and off the court.
The end will entirely erase the means.
But this regular season was neither familiar nor fun for the Heat. It was not fun for Wade to miss 28 games with a variety of maladies, working night and day and night again, only to hear concerns and complaints from fans and media about his availability. It was not fun for James to adjust his approach when Wade and other teammates were absent, or to deal with annoyances ranging from his back to his mask to the sleeved jerseys. It was not fun for Bosh to bear down against opponents' best every night, after watching those same players scuffle against others. It was not all that much fun for others either, with Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen recently admitting this season felt longer than most, and Shane Battier stating that, to classify his final season, "fun is not the right word. You know, it's been a different year."
And then there's Haslem, the co-captain, the proudest of proud veterans, the man who has twice taken less to stay in his beloved South Florida, the true face of Heat sacrifice. His role has never fully recovered from the serious foot injury he suffered early in the first season of the "Big Three," but he had a shot at the start of the season, starting the first six contests. By sight and by stats, he struggled. He finally took a seat, to rest his aching back, and by the time he returned, Miami had moved on without him. First, Michael Beasley. Then, Greg Oden. He went several weeks without meaningful minutes, then got 31 in Charlotte on Jan. 18, playing perfect post defense against Al Jefferson in a victory. He played 12 minutes two nights later in Atlanta.
Then he played a total of 15 minutes in the next 48 days, seething privately, and even publicly pronouncing that "there's gonna come a point where they're gonna need me, because there always is."
As of March 9 in Chicago, that time hadn't yet come.
Haslem didn't play a minute, as the Heat lost 95-88 in overtime.
He was quite active afterward, however.
Haslem declined to elaborate on the extent of his outburst, only saying that "I messed my fingers up." But, no, it wasn't the just the watercooler that took the punishment.
"I think we offered to pay for the damages," Spoelstra told Bleacher Report on Saturday, with a smile.
It was that bad?
"Yeah," Spoelstra said, pausing. "Loved it."
So what got him going?
"Just frustration," Haslem said. "Watching a guy like Joakim (Noah) affect the game, and pretty much control the game with energy and effort, and that's an area that I thrive on. And if we're gonna get beat in the energy and effort areas, I want to get a chance to compete and try to help."
He certainly taught Bosh something.
"Don't put watercoolers around him," Bosh said, laughing.
Did it get teammates' attention?
"Yeah, you don't ignore it," Bosh said. "You don't ignore it. At the time, I was like, 'Damn, OK, he's mad, I get it, I understand, I'd be mad, too.' It was just passion. That's all it is. I don't like to say, anger, frustration, happiness, it's just passion. He's not gonna hurt anybody. You know, nothing flying by your head or anything. I just let dudes, just let them go, man. Just break it, do something, throw it again. Whatever you got to do to get it out."
Bosh got it out a different way in New Orleans two weeks later, telling the media that the team wasn't passionate enough. Haslem's outburst was an obvious exception.
"I was happy that he was able to show what he was feeling at the time, there was no mistake about it," Bosh said. "He didn't have to talk about it, he didn't have to describe anything. The description was all over the locker room."
Even if it wasn't something Bosh would do.
"I don't want to do all that work," he said. "I'll kick it, but not throw it."
Spoelstra has been around for Haslem's entire career and been his head coach since 2008. He fully understood why the latter was so worked up.
"The way we lost that game, up 11 in the fourth quarter," Spoelstra said. "And a lot of those plays in the fourth quarter were big muscle plays where he could certainly contribute."
So the anger was OK?
"I think it's pure," Spoelstra said. "I think all of it's pure. You know what, I have no problem with it. He was probably equally pissed about the loss, about how we lost, about the physical plays they made, about the fact that he wasn't in there. And there was probably equal anger at me, for not putting him in there. That's a competitor. That's what you want. As long as it doesn't carry over in a negative fashion the next day, and coming to work, and does it manifest itself in something that's negative for the team. And it never does with UD."
It hadn't before, and it wouldn't after. Spoelstra always knew that, even if Haslem was upset with him, he'd be right behind his shoulder in every huddle, "four feet in," as Haslem likes to say. Never whining. Never pouting. Never showing anyone up or bringing anyone down.
So, in the back, behind those doors, he was allowed to do some venting.
"That type of passion and anger also makes me rethink things, too," Spoelstra said.
Even after two titles. Even in March.
"Yeah, that it matters," Spoelstra said. "It's not just a game. Oh, 'we'll go back home and we'll get the next game.' No. That's probably been overlooked about this team, particularly because of our record and how we struggled the last six weeks..."
They were 11-14 in their final 25.
".... That there's a view that our guys didn't care. No. We were struggling to figure it out, through the adversity of injuries, and having a different team, and having to go through that. There's nothing wrong with going through a struggle, I don't think. It's when you try to be oblivious to the struggle, that's a problem. Our guys care. We had enough trashing-the-locker-room or yelling-at-each-other matches to let you know, 'OK, that's something we can build on.' Guys care."
They will care much more now, starting Sunday.
They will all care as much as Haslem—now again a valuable starter—always does.
Six months gone.
Eight weeks to three straight.
Watch your watercoolers.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.
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