Posted May 20 2011 6:12PM
MIAMI -- It is with respect that Dan Marino's jersey hangs from the ceiling in the home of this city's NBA team, and also with deference, in case anyone wondered which sport rules here in Miami.
There's also another oddly retired jersey inside American Airlines Arena that speaks volumes, too, about basketball in this town. It will look familiar to the Bulls on Sunday in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. Michael Jordan never played for the Heat. But in 1992, when Miami excitedly hosted its first playoff game, Jordan played 36 holes of golf that afternoon, then suited up and dropped 56 points that night. Just for displaying so much arrogance and inspiring so much awe, what the hell, maybe Miami should raise his White Sox jersey, too.
Marino and Jordan? Immortalized by the Heat? Well, then. For several years following their birth in 1988, the Heat carried the Dolphins' water and also served as practice meat for much of the NBA. Basketball was little more than a curiosity.
Things are different now. The Dolphins are still searching for the next Marino, while LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have turned basketball from a second-rate sport into a can't-miss event. And that's a good thing, too, since Miami seems to care less about who's hooping and more about what's happening.
Anyone with a serious basketball jones would be as out-of-place in Miami as a snowmobile. This is not your typical hard-core basketball scene -- never has been, probably never will be. The downtown arena sits on the edge of Biscayne Bay with floor-to-ceiling windows on the side that faces water, almost encouraging fans to gaze away from the action inside.
Once inside, there's much happening to distract your attention from the court. Basketball by itself is not enough to entertain those who buy tickets. A plush, dimly lit lounge on the lower level stays busy even after tipoff. A DJ has his own makeshift booth a dozen rows from the court, flanked by sashaying female dancers who wiggle on cue. His music cranks before the game and during timeouts, often filling the place with the latest from two local hit-makers, Pitbull and Flo Rida.
"Make some noise," the DJ shrieks inside an arena that's often half-empty at the start, perhaps because fans haven't finished their martinis on the mezzanine yet.
The public address announcer, Mike Biamonte, is part carnival-barker, especially during the pre-game introductions. He encourages fans to "stand up" and "make some noise" for "your Miami Heat," although Biamonte takes about 15 seconds and much oxygen to finish "Miami" and "Heat."
And then there are the Latin percussionists who bang on their bongos from many rows up. And a group of about a dozen frisky senior citizens (this is Florida, by the way) who do a playful striptease followed by some dirty dancing on the floor during a timeout. And a smooth-talking and sharp-dressed man who walks through the stands and reminds fans that "the club" inside the arena will remain open to the public after the game. And another guy in a banana costume who goes, well, bananas when "Jump Around" is played over the loudspeakers in the fourth quarter.
Love it or leave it, the Heat have come a long way since the days of playing inconspicuously inside Miami Arena, a no-frills pastel-pink elephant that cost only $49 million and, turns out, was overpriced.
Rick Horrow, a local authority on sports business, was on the ground floor in bringing basketball to Miami in 1988. As a basketball fan growing up, Horrow followed the Miami Floridians of the ABA -- who played their games at the same auditorium where Jim Morrison was arrested for indecent exposure -- and thought the place was ripe for the NBA.
"The idea was, get the franchise first and worry about winning second," Horrow said.
South Florida was filled with people from other places. Therefore, Horrow reasoned, while Miami lacked the rich basketball history and passion of New York, enough transplants from traditional basketball cities would justify an expansion team.
Of course, for the first several years, all of those Knicks fans drowned out Heat fans, turning Miami Arena into Madison Square Garden South.
"Just having NBA basketball was enough for Miami at first," said Eric Reid, a Heat broadcaster from the start. "And then the middle years were when the Heat just became another mediocre team."
Clearly, the franchise changed for the better 16 years ago when Micky Arison assumed full control from his father, Ted (who never saw a basketball game before he bought the team). Arison hired Pat Riley, and good luck finding a more influential owner/president combo in basketball if not all of sports. Arison's billions and Riley's credibility quickly made the Heat a major player. Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway soon arrived and turned the Heat into a tough and respectable team, albeit one that couldn't get past Patrick Ewing or Jordan -- no crime there.
Then Riley got lucky when the Pistons fell in love with Darko Milicic in the 2003 draft, allowing Wade to fall. And again, when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal had a bitter dustup, allowing Riley to get Shaq for 50 cents on the dollar from the Lakers.
A championship followed for the Heat in 2006, although their time at the top would be brief, because Shaq grew old overnight. The rebuilding went meticulously, with the Heat gradually dumping contracts for enough flexibility to bring LeBron and Bosh to South Beach. Now here they are, the best show on surf.
"We went from a stage where nobody even knew basketball was here, to becoming the epicenter of the basketball world," Reid said.
One of the telling moments in this Big Three era came at the very start. When the three players were pep-rallied with smoke, risers and strobe lights last July during a raucous welcome inside the arena, it rubbed the basketball world the wrong way and seemed to suggest the Heat held a victory parade before they won anything. In truth, it was just Miami throwing a party for itself, something Miami does best and often.
"Miami has always been about the glamour and the hype," said Horrow. "That party made the people feel like they were part of what was going on. It also made South Florida look like an `us versus them' villain, which plays well in South Florida."
The way basketball is packaged and presented here isn't for everyone. Nor would it work everywhere. But Miami wouldn't have it any other way. A place that's all about fashion, exotica, beautiful people and lavish parties was made for a basketball team built around three All-Stars who arrived in a hurricane of hype, jealousy and controversy.
You know what's really the biggest fear in New York, Philly and Boston, the traditional basketball places that sneer at Miami? If the Heat win it all this summer, they'll have more championships in the last 25 years than those places combined.
That might even make the Dolphins sweat.
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