Heat

Heat v. Mavs in NBA Finals Highlights South Florida Sports Greatness

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I’m not a basketball writer, but this is about more than the Miami Heat’s upcoming NBA Finals appearance. This is about South Florida sports in general.

South Florida may not have the lengthy history of New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Chicago sports, but over the past 30 years the tradition, pride and history of South Florida sports has grown tremendously. Fans in other cities have crystal clear memories of Game Six of the ’86 World Series, Pudge’s famous home run off the foul pole to force a Game Seven in the 1975 World Series, the Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl team, etc.

Sure fans in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, etc. went through, or are currently going through, enormous title droughts, but ask anybody in these cities and they’ll give you specific memories of cherished sports moments in their city. And any South Florida fan knows these stories well from the relocated northerners who love to tell us about them. 

South Florida has seen every one of its major professional sports team play for a championship, and the Dolphins, Marlins and Heat have each won a title. The Florida Panthers played in the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals, but were swept by the Colorado Avalanche. And we all know of the unrivaled dominance that the Miami Hurricanes wrought on the college football world in the 1980s and early 90s. Even Miami Hurricanes baseball has four College World Series Championships to its name.

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But for the longest time, all South Florida sports fans had to hang their hats on were the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins have played in five Super Bowls with two wins, and of course finished undefeated in 1972. They’ve seen eight players elected to the Hall of Fame, as well as legendary head coach Don Shula. So there’s history and tradition there, but fans have seen pride in South Florida sports in general explode over the past three decades.

In 1983 the Miami Hurricanes upset the Nebraska Cornhuskers to win their first National Championship. Then they did it again in 1987, 1989, 1991 and 2001. (In light of recent events, there’s a 2002 National Championship joke in there somewhere, but given Miami’s own history of NCAA violations, I won’t go there.) The ‘Canes introduced a new attitude to college football, not to mention several traditions that caught on elsewhere in the game—entry smoke, holding four fingers at the beginning of the fourth quarter, etc. From October of 1985 to September of 1994, Miami did not lose at home. South Florida sports fans have a lot to look back at when it comes to Miami Hurricanes football, and like fans in other big sports towns, the memories are fond and crystal clear.

The ‘Canes were, and for many still are, one of the most hated sports teams of all time, which is why the recent ‘Heat Haters’ haven’t really phased fans in South Florida much since LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade teamed up.

In 1997, the Florida Marlins earned a wild card playoff berth in its fifth season of existence. The Marlins earned a trip to the World Series where they defeated the Cleveland Indians in the Seventh Game. If you were a South Florida sports fan at the time, you remember Craig Counsell jumping into the air as he ran home off Edgar Renteria‘s base hit that bounced off the pitcher’s glove and fell just past second base and into the outfield.

Fans will also think back to images of Josh Beckett, pitching on three days’ rest, hurrying to grab a ground ball off the bat of Jorge Posada to get the tag and secure a 2-0 shutout of the Yankees in Game Six of the 2003 World Series. It’s easy to mock the Marlins for their empty stadiums and scant payroll, but they’ve fielded some talented teams over the past few years that have fallen just short of the playoffs; and the Fish have one of the best scouting departments in baseball.

That brings us to the Miami Heat. Fans often look back at the years of Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, P.J. Brown, Jamal Mashburn, Voshon Lenard and Dan Majerle doing battle with the New York Knicks in the late 90s as the Knicks booted the Heat from the playoffs in three straight years (1998, 1999, 2000). One of the most enduring images is the one of Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy hanging off of Zo’s leg during a brawl between the teams.

Fans will fondly look back on the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals when Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal led Miami past the Detroit Pistons and into the NBA Finals where they came back from a 2-0 hole to grab four straight against the Dallas Mavericks. They’ll remember when Wade drew comparisons to Michael Jordan during the Finals for his refusal to let his team’s deficit grow larger, and then closed big games to give his team its first NBA Championship. They’ll remember that Pat Riley brought just one suit, one shirt and one tie to Dallas for Game Six with the Heat up 3-2. Fans remember ’15 Strong’ and continue to embrace the Heat’s ‘White Hot Playoffs’ theme.

And no South Florida sports fan will ever forget Game Five of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals when Miami looked dead in the water as they tried to close out the series up 3-1 against the Chicago Bulls. Wade, struggling all game, came on late to hit a couple of shots and then the biggest bucket of the night—a three point shot and the foul that allowed Miami to climb to within three. LeBron James was like an assassin hitting a three-point shot to tie the game at 79 and then a two to go up 81-79. Chris Bosh hit two key free throws to put Miami up 83-80. Miami’s defense was suffocating on the final possession as Mike Miller swarmed Kyle Korver and Udonis Haslem stepped up, hands in the air right in front of Rose as James came over to get a piece of the Bulls’ final desperation heave.

Those who love to hate the Heat continue to remind South Florida that anything short of an NBA title is a failure, and I’m far from handing Miami its second NBA title just yet. But even if they end up beating the Mavs this year they’ll tell them it’s two-in-a-row or bust, and then it’ll be three-in-a-row or bust, and so on. The rest of the nation’s love affair with hating the Heat has South Florida singing the familiar rallying cry of ‘Us Against the World’ and ‘Haters Gonna Hate’, similar to the attitude during the Miami Hurricanes’ heyday of the eighties and early nineties.

The Hurricanes made popular the phrase, ‘It’s a ‘Canes Thing and You Simply Wouldn’t Understand’. Finally, with stories to tell and memories to hold close, South Florida in general can adopt a similar slogan.