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The Q&A: Udonis Haslem a 'living, breathing example' of Heat culture

Miami native has spent his entire career with his hometown NBA team

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

Udonis Haslem is Miami.

The 17-year veteran has been a fixture on the roster of his hometown team for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t there.

From his days leading Miami Senior High to back-to-back championships to his All-American career at the University of Florida and then back to help the Miami Heat win three titles (2006, ’12, ’13), Haslem’s basketball life has always been centered on the Sunshine State.

He’s been the behind-the-scenes backbone in Miami’s locker room through the good times and the bad since the 2003-04 season (when he was an All-Rookie second teamer). The undrafted Haslem is the Heat’s all-time rebounding leader, the first player in NBA history with that specific distinction.

Haslem’s underdog grind always resonates with Heat fans. His fearlessness on the court has endeared him to generations of teammates and earned him respect from his NBA peers, too. For visiting players, Haslem is the best resource on how to move in Miami off the court. If it’s not “UD Certified” — as one player on an opposing team coined it — then it’s best to go elsewhere.

Haslem is the elder statesman for a Heat team that has been a surprise in 2019-20 and if anyone can navigate from humble beginnings, it’s him.

Haslem recently talked with NBA.com about all that and more.

(Editor’s Note: Portions of this conversation have been condensed and edited).

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NBA.com : You’ve been in this league a long time and to be associated with one team and one city like that, I can’t think of another player who is associated with his hometown like that.

Udonis Haslem: It’s definitely a blessing. It’s gift and it’s a curse, man. I mean being at home every day, every single day. I’ve lost friends I never thought I’d lose and I’ve made friends I never thought I’d make, been in situations and places I never thought I’d be in. It’s all a part of my growth and maturation, on and off the basketball court. But make no mistake about it, I’m still 10 toes down and affiliated with the other side, you know what I mean? And I keep my respect on that level. And I move in a way that I don’t separate myself from anybody. I mean, I’m always there. I’m always in the middle of the action, the good and the bad. And that’s not a bad thing, that’s just to say that I still engage with my people, man. I still engage with my people on every level.

This community has seen winning in your time here. What’s that like to see that, to be out in this community after you win championships and do that kind of stuff?

One thing I know about Miami is we got a lot of pride. We love to tell people we’re from Miami. We love to talk about what’s going on in this amazing, beautiful city. And that just adds to it, to be able to say we’re the best at something. Not too many people can say that they are the best at something. They can say we play this or we got here. But to say that you are the best in the entire world at one thing, not too many people can say that. So it gives the city a chance to say we have the best basketball team in the world right now. It’s an amazing accomplishment for us, [one] for the organization and [two] for the city as well, to add to the Miami bravado and the Miami swag and everything that comes with being in Miami.

To be in this league for this long, you’ve seen various guys come and go. What’s been the key to your longevity?

Evolution, man. Evolution. You’ve got to evolve or you won’t be around. Evolve or die is a quote that Coach Spo [Erik Spoelstra] gave me a long time ago. And at that time I wasn’t trying to hear it. But evolution doesn’t always mean on the basketball court. Sometimes it means off the court, as a leader, as a professional, as a father, as a parent and all those different things. I had to evolve. And for me, I always carried that chip on my shoulder. I was always looking for the next challenge, the next underdog opportunity to overcome and things like that, to continue to push myself. Over the years we accomplished so much, that now I have to turn the focus from myself to pushing other people, pushing the program, this organization, this culture. And that’s what I had to focus on.

In the last decade plus, you’ve been able to see the Heat go from down to back up again. This current team, you’re building it back up again with the same infrastructure … is there something about the consistency of the culture around here that facilitates all of that?

We believe in it. And we believe in it wholeheartedly. It might not be the only way to get it done, but it’s our way to get it done. It means having everyone on the same accord. Having foundation. Having rules and guidelines. Having guys like myself to implement those rules and guidelines. It’s one thing to have a coach give the message and do the things that coaches do. But it’s different to have someone in the locker room that’s a living, breathing example of the culture that you want to transfer to those guys, that you want to impart upon them.

I’m that living, breathing example. I’m living it every day. I’m putting in the work, whether I’m playing or not. And I’m showing you the results of what that culture can bring to you, that sacrifice and what it can bring to you if you do it the right way. The thing is, everybody wants to talk about sacrifice until it’s time for them to sacrifice. Then it’s like, ‘who me, what? Naw, let them do it.’ But everybody has to do it. Even Bron [LeBron James] had to do it a certain extent. D-Wade [Dwyane Wade] had to do it. And CB [Chris Bosh] had to do it. We all had to sacrifice to be champions. So it’s one thing to preach that and another thing to be somebody that’s about that life.

What are you preaching to these young guys that is consistent? You are the last person to speak in the pregame circle before the starters hit the floor. What’s your message?

We all we got, we all we need and nobody better than us. It’s always the last thing I say. Before that it’s a lot of other stuff. But I always end it with that. We all we got, we all we need and nobody better than us. And I truly believe that. The only thing that matters is the people in this organization overall, and, more importantly, the people in this locker room who put the hard hat on every day.

You talk about the sacrifice you, LeBron, Wade and Bosh had to make. What was it like picking up the pieces after that era?

Man, it was tough. It was humbling. But for me, I’ve been the bottom before. So my survival instincts kicked in, that’s who I am and what I am. So when I’m challenged and at the bottom, the last thing you’re going to hear me say is this is too hard. I’m never going to say it’s too hard. I’m never going to complain. I’m always going to find a way to overcome the odds. So going into those seasons when we had lost all of those guys and things weren’t looking well, I still believed in our group, I still believed in our coaching staff to push this culture and to get these guys to go to the next level. I’m always going to believe in and look for a challenge. And with that opportunity coming, to lose all those guys, I saw it as an opportunity to be even more of a leader and impart even more of my voice and this culture on guys, because that’s when we needed it the most.

Did you look at the opportunities to leave and weigh that against what you built here?

It’s always a part of the thought process. Because when you walk away from the game, you don’t get those years back. So everybody knows that my last few years have been more from a mentoring part. And you see guys that move on from places they’ve been for a long time for different roles and chances to play. Like, David West leaving Indiana when I never thought he would. You see Vince Carter playing on different teams after he left Toronto, obviously, when you never thought he would. And then you see Tony Parker leave San Antonio when you never thought he would.

And then you see guys like myself in situations where they’ve played for so many years, and you never think they’ll leave … and then they leave. I said to myself, ‘damn, I get it, I get it.’ Because we can still play and we still want to play, but sometimes organizations move in different directions. It’s not the fault of the organization or the player, it’s just how the business goes sometimes. But for me, being home and being here in this city has always been bigger than basketball. I’ve had a chance to impact this city in ways I never thought. So those are the things I’m most proud of, right up there with my rings and the championships we’ve won. I’ve always seen the bigger picture and played the long game instead of the short game.

You guys are off to the best home start in franchise history. But there have been other times, like when the “Big Three” squad started 9-8 in 2010-11. It would have been easy to dump a coach or overreact, but that didn’t happen. Is that Pat Riley’s influence (or ownership’s) that kept the Heat from making a panic move?

We are who we are, man. We are who we are. And we don’t shy away from who we are and what we are. And we understand that it might not be for everybody, but we are who we are. And we’re going to take the hard road and we don’t want anything easy and we’re going to put the work in. We’re going to rely on our foundation, our fundamentals and our culture and we’re going to push through.

Can you point to a time or two where life on the court just made sense and flowed for you?

I think the first training camp when ‘Bron and CB and D-Wade all came together, we were on that Navy base … that was fun. Fun from a competitive standpoint, and from a get better standpoint. Because I really didn’t care what Chris Bosh had done in Toronto, I want to see what you can do here. I don’t care that you averaged 20, you didn’t have to deal with me all 82 games. It was the same thing with D-Wade and LeBron, the way they challenged each other, the way they pushed each other, playing one-on-one every day after practice. That was one of the most competitive and fun overall training camps and experiences in my life.

To have an opportunity to break that Miami Heat rebounding record, and to do it here at home against Milwaukee, that was an amazing accomplishment.

And then winning those championships, man. That’s what we play for. That’s what you shut off your phone for in the playoffs, you start reading books and disconnect from your kids and start spending more time alone on your off days — that’s what you do it for. You’ve got to be obsessed a little bit to win a championship. You would think you just have to work hard and have the best team and it will all work out. But it’s not always the best team and the people that work hard, it’s the people willing to give up the most in those times who win championships. Because it’s a lifestyle change. Winning a championship, you have to change your life going into playoff time. You’re not going to go through the same things you do everyday and hang out with your boys and go to dinner and be up all night watching TV. Oh no, when you get into that playoff mode it’s a different ballgame.

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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