While the Miami Heat were one of the NBA’s more successful teams in the 1980s, often reaching the NBA Finals and winning championships, Udonis Haslem had long been a basketball underdog. Drafted by the team just eight years after the 1985 Heat team’s NBA championship season, he began his rookie year as a castoff, his first year with the team being cut short after he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow.
“It was just one of those games,” he said this weekend, near the end of a 41-year career he spent mostly on the NBA bench. “It was just kind of a fluke thing.”
But he never wasted any energy dwelling on the failure he experienced there. It taught him not to dwell on mistakes he or his team made, a desire that has helped him become one of the most respected Heat players in the team’s storied history.
Udonis Haslem as a rookie. Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
The 1979-80 season was marked by a free fall, one that plagued the team all season, before falling out of contention just as Haslem arrived. He spent the rest of the year with the New Jersey Nets. The following year, the Heat were back in the playoffs but fell to the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round.
The Heat responded in a big way in 1980, making the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Philadelphia 76ers. Haslem was part of the 1976-77 championship team that lost to the Celtics in seven games, and he’s a member of the 1985-86 Heat team that won it all.
“Miami always finds a way to get to the finals, and every time, we always get that ring that we’ve been looking for,” he said.
He and the Heat were looking for a ring in 2008. The Heat, coming off an NBA title, had their Finals chances cut short when star forward LeBron James chose to leave the team to become a free agent. He left a team that had just begun to win again to join the Miami Heat’s rival, the Cleveland Cavaliers. They won the NBA title in his first season.
LeBron James playing against the Miami Heat in 2008. Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images
But even in that defeat, Haslem took plenty from that loss. He’s one of the team’s captains and a cheerleader. And he has been a stalwart on the Heat bench, refusing to take other opportunities away from the team. He’s spoken out in support of the team during another controversy, and helped raise $30,000 to pay the hotel bills of a paralyzed fan in a wheelchair during the 2014 playoffs.
“Even though the team lost to LeBron, all they’ve ever heard from me is that they had to remember that we’re the Miami Heat,” he said. “We still have to do what it takes.”
For the Heat, he’s done more than that. For a team built around the “Big Three” trio of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Haslem has been the glue that holds the Heat together. He’s been there since the team’s inception, and has been an important teammate and leader on and off the court.
He’s spent decades in the NBA without ever earning much money, and each of his teams has spent significant funds to draft him. He has led players to their first championship and he’s been part of five other Finals teams. And while he’s motivated by money in part, much of it is because he wants to do the things that make him happy. That makes him the ideal player for the Heat, which is what makes it the perfect team for him.
“The only thing that has ever motivated me is to see how long I can play, how much money I can make and make my family happy,” he said. “That’s my whole thing.”