MIAMI — It had been nearly a month since his downward spiral had finally stopped, only because the NBA season had cruelly ended. Even after enduring enough recrimination and ridicule to last any athlete a dozen lifetimes, Mario Chalmers continued piling on himself.
"I just needed to be by myself," Chalmers told Bleacher Report last week, following a morning workout at AmericanAirlines Arena. "I just needed to get away. That was the main thing."
Yet, for a while, the only place he went was deeper inside his own head.
"To be honest, I sat in the house and pouted," Chalmers said. "I felt like, for us to have the opportunity to accomplish a three-peat like that, and not being able to perform to the best of my ability, not being able to be there for my team. ... I just felt like I let people down. Especially with it being my contract year, I feel like I let myself down along with the Heat organization."
What Chalmers had done, after a solid regular season as the Miami Heat starting point guard, was stunningly come apart in the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, to the point that head coach Erik Spoelstra pulled him from the starting lineup for Game 5 in San Antonio.
That came after Chalmers had started in his last 280 regular-season or playoff appearances, dating back to Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals. That came after Chalmers had made his name, as a collegian and as a pro, for self-assurance that at times exceeded, but always enhanced, his abilities.
"You know, for the first time in my career, I felt like I wasn't...yeah, my confidence wasn't there," Chalmers said. "Going through that whole San Antonio series, I just felt like in the playoffs I kept getting worse and worse every round. I just couldn't figure it out."
Even as others—coaches, teammates, family, friends, reporters—had all the answers.
"Yeah, that's the worst thing, because you never know," Chalmers said. "Everybody in my ear, talking about, 'We need you, we need you to do this, we need you to do that.' And then when it comes to the game, I didn't feel involved. Like, you all talk about how y'all need me, but y'all didn't put me in position to do anything. In previous years, if I was in that position, I would make sure I would go get the ball, I would put myself in position to score. I felt like this year, we all just took too much of a back seat in the Finals."
And after it was over, after he'd averaged 4.4 points, 3.2 fouls and 2.0 turnovers while shooting 33.3 percent from the field in the Finals, he struggled to find anything or anyone to move him forward.
Then, at last, someone did.
"It was actually my son, really," Chalmers said. "He was with me that whole time. I would do some stuff with him, and then I would just go sit down somewhere. And he came to me and was, like, 'Dad, don't worry about it, let's go play basketball, I'll beat you.' Just being around your kids, that just brings a smile to your face. That triggered me in my mind, like, it's not the end of the world. You win some, you lose some. You've still got the bigger picture, and you've still got another year to come back and get better."
So did he let Zachiah win?
"Nah, I didn't," Chalmers said, laughing. "I think he only scored one point. I kind of took it out on him a little bit."
Still, even as Chalmers' psyche was recovering, his future remained uncertain. His contract had expired on June 30 and, after playing six seasons in Miami—the last three for a total of $12 million—he was hardly guaranteed to return. At the start of free agency, it actually seemed like a long shot, and not only to Heat fans who had seen first-round draft pick Shabazz Napier added to Norris Cole on the team's point guard depth chart.
"I didn't think I'd be back," Chalmers said. "I didn't think that at all. I didn't even think the Heat would want me back, to be honest. That's how I felt like my playoff performance was, that they didn't want me back, they wanted to go another direction. So that was in my mind, too, but I was like, if it happens, it happens."
He received some encouragement from Heat general manager Andy Elisburg, who called to say that the team still considered him part of the family and still had an interest in retaining him. They just needed to see how LeBron James' free agency played out, and they'd come back to him.
"I at least knew that one team wanted me right now," Chalmers said. "So that was a good thing."
Uplifted by that knowledge, Chalmers tried to show the world that he'd shaken off his stupor, posting Instagram video evidence of strength and fitness training, announcing he had "sat around long enough," and sharing his signature line for the summer: "Minor setback for a major comeback."
That was July 10.
That night, James flew back from Las Vegas to Miami with Dwyane Wade, still seemingly up in the air about whether he'd sign with the Heat or Cavaliers. Early the next afternoon, Sports Illustrated published James' "Coming Home" essay.
Two nights later, Chalmers agreed to a two-year, $8.3 million contract with the rapidly reworked Heat. Pat Riley added him back to a roster that—by week's end—would officially include Danny Granger, Josh McRoberts and Luol Deng to supplement the re-signed Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen.
And, after signing the contract, Chalmers' own workload intensified, chronicled by frequent Instagram posts that often referenced "the grind." They were for himself, and for the public.
"[I was] just saying that I didn't give up on myself," Chalmers said. "I didn't quit. A lot of people doubted me, a lot of people still doubt me. But I believe in myself. And I've got a good organization that believes in me too."
He hopes to reward that organization with stronger play from start to finish this season, due in part to a reshaped body. After initially joining James and Wade in trying to follow now-former teammate Ray Allen's paleo diet, Chalmers felt irritable without all of the carbohydrates, especially as he intensified his workouts.
But even after somewhat altering his eating regimen, he insists he's already close to "tip-top shape." Chalmers has been training at the P3 sports training complex in Santa Barbara and noted he was "getting back to the basics" with Wade, Cole, McRoberts, Haslem and others during three strenuous but enjoyable days at Indiana University.
Chalmers returned from California early so he could lead the Heat's young players in their team's practice gym.
He's also adopted a healthy attitude, as it relates to his reshaped role, one that he characterizes as a "jack of all trades."
Pat Riley, in a video address to fans, called Chalmers "a player that we feel very confident about, back at starting point guard." Still, Chalmers recognizes that—with two other point guards on the roster and no established backup for Wade—he might need to return to his Kansas roots, spending some time at both spots. Spoelstra and Riley have each told him separately that he will have the ball in his hands more, with more opportunities to score.
"I feel like I've finally got a chance to shine, show my real game," Chalmers said. "Me, CB, D-Wade and the rest of the guys, we're going to pick it up, we're still going to play Miami Heat basketball, and we're still gonna be a competitor."
He says confidence is no longer an issue.
"Fresh season," Chalmers said. "Fresh start. Got a fresh team. You know, everybody [is] forgetting about us right now. That's when we shine, when people forget about us."
He has made this point often on Instagram as well, urging the pundits to "keep sleepin on the Heat," promising fans that "we will b back heat nation," taunting the doubters with, "U want some come get some." He has even continued to use the #heatles hashtag, even though only six players remain from the 2013 champions, and though he recognizes the Heat aren't the NBA's most hunted team anymore.
They were for a while. Hunted and, by some, hated. Like few teams in NBA history.
"Four years," Chalmers said. "And now we're the forgotten team. So it's good. We all accept it. I've talked to D-Wade several times, I've talked to CB several times. We're ready."
Wade and Haslem have been with the Heat since 2003, Chalmers since 2008, Bosh since 2010. He references the song "Seen It All" by Jeezy and Jay Z, as consistent with their circumstances: "There's nothing new that we don't know, that we don't know what to expect and we don't know what to put in to get out. So we're ready for it."
And while he speaks of a "totally different energy" and acknowledges "there's a lot of emotions going around right now," he doesn't mean those as digs at the departed James. That probably needs to be made clear after some of his recent, cryptic Instagram posts have been interpreted that way.
Chalmers laughs at those assumptions.
"I mean, I've never, ever taken a shot at anybody on Twitter without saying their name," Chalmers said. "I'm the type of person, if I've got something to say, I'm going to say it to your face. So all this stuff that they're trying to break up between me and 'Bron or whatever—I mean, I've talked to 'Bron five or six times during the summer. That's still going to be my big brother. We're always going to be friends. On the court, we're going to go at each other, we're going to compete and we're going to try to draw blood. But off the court, we're still going to be friends, it's still going to be a brotherhood. It's just basketball stuff."
So, what about the post on Aug. 23, vaguely referencing loyalty and royalty?
"That wasn't even about him," Chalmers said. "He's from Cleveland, so that's his loyalty. It's nothing. None of my tweets, Instagram posts have been about anybody. I just like rattling people's brains, make them think something."
He smiles. But he is serious, and unambiguous, about something else:
How he'll respond from his playoff setback.
What does he say to those who don't expect a major comeback?
"Just watch," Chalmers said, smiling. "Just watch. I'm not gonna say nothing else. I'm not gonna toot my own horn or nothing. Just watch."
Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.
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