DWYANE WADE SPENT just one season playing alongside Jimmy Butler in Chicago, but that was all that was needed to form a deep — and familiar — impression.
“He’s a Heat guy,” Wade later told Erik Spoelstra, the coach of Wade’s longtime franchise, the Miami Heat.
Spoelstra probably didn’t need the future Hall of Famer’s recommendation — he saw from afar that Butler and his famous work ethic would fit within the team’s system — but those entrenched in Heat culture know when a player is one of them.
“You know what’s really cool about that?” Spoelstra asked a few days before Butler represented the Heat in this year’s All-Star Game. “Jimmy’s now talking like that. It’s cool. Not even because he heard it from Dwyane or heard it from me — it’s just he’s now in conversations [about other players], saying, ‘Yeah, this guy’s like us. This guy’s one of us.'”
Those who thrive in Miami are always searching for the next wave of like-minded players who will do the same.
Wade watched Butler work in Chicago and believed he’d fit in Miami. Bam Adebayo saw the way Tyler Herro played at Kentucky and planted a seed with president Pat Riley to draft him. Butler worked out with Herro last summer and recognized the same approach in the 20-year-old rookie that he used to turn himself into a five-time All-Star.
“Man, you had to go through something,” Miami lifer Udonis Haslem explained of the connection Heat players share. “You had to go through something in life that put a chip on your shoulder. And that’s built grit inside you that you’re willing to go through extreme circumstances to get where you’re trying to go.”
There’s a loyalty within the Heat’s culture that is rare in the NBA.
“Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, it’s so militaristic and hard-nosed,'” Heat big man Meyers Leonard said. “No, the Heat just want a level of professionalism … but truly at heart it’s loyal, caring people.”
From owner Micky Arison, to Riley, to Spoelstra, to the players, to the staff members who have been with the franchise for decades, there’s a familial quality to the Heat. It has been honed over the years through expectations of hard work and discipline.
But it’s not always for everyone.
“We are who we are,” Spoelstra said after a Game 3 win over the favored Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. “Some years we’re a punchline, some years people say it’s the wrong culture, but who cares? We’re not making apologies for it.”
— Nick Friedell
MORE: How Miami got one win from the NBA Finals
‘If you don’t have the wherewithal, it will break you’
QUENTIN RICHARDSON HAD heard the stories about the Heat Way before he arrived in Miami for the 2009-10 season. And on day one at the Heat facility, before he formally met anyone in the organization, the training staff measured his weight and body fat percentage. He was then given a conditioning goal he would have to meet. The “or else” wasn’t specifically defined, but the message was clear.
“It was real simple,” Richardson recalled. “‘I know you’re new here, but this is how it goes. If you have any disagreements, Pat Riley has an open-door policy. You can take it to him.'”
Richardson was then ushered into Riley’s office for a meet-and-greet, before being sent downstairs for a full workout, including multiple sets of wind sprints. When Richardson wasn’t running that afternoon, he was throwing up.
Richardson promptly purchased a high-end scale for his bathroom, where he weighed himself every morning. There would be no surprises when he walked into the facility and was sent for a weight and body fat check. He’d go on to lose around 35 pounds in six weeks.
The individual fitness standards are just one facet of a Heat culture that demands a buttoned-up professionalism from its players. The organization exudes intensity, and those who find that vibe repressive or conformist should probably seek employment elsewhere.
“It was the first time in my career — from top to bottom — there was no back and forth,” Richardson said. “You have to be cut from the cloth. If you don’t have the wherewithal, it will break you. It will make you not like basketball.”
When Richardson walked into the locker room before the first practice of training camp, two pairs of knee pads were resting at his locker. He told the trainer that he preferred not to wear them. The trainer told Richardson that knee pads were mandatory. Contact is so prevalent at Heat practices that players were often knocking knees. Rather than reduce the intensity, the team would just add protective gear, and Richardson should kindly choose between the lighter hex-pads or the pair with more cushion — but he would choose one.
“The message is, ‘You are preparing yourself for a war,'” said David Fizdale, who served as an assistant in Miami for eight seasons before head coaching stops with the Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks.
“Practices should be a war. Practices should be harder than the games.”
Though Heat players aren’t monks, a certain brand of moderation is practiced. On road trips, for example, a group of guys might set a plan when the team touches down. But whatever the itinerary that night, it will be informed by business.
“I know this is the only time we’re going to hit this city, but this is a big game tomorrow,” Richardson said of the discussions. “We’re going to go out, and we might have a drink or two, chill a little bit, then turn it in early and be ready for tomorrow. We’re not going to f— up tomorrow for tonight.”
“Practices should be a war. Practices should be harder than the games.”
Former Heat assistant coach David Fizdale
Richardson notes that for 25 years, the Heat have had leadership on the roster that set the tone, players such as Alonzo Mourning, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem who genuinely loved the structure, in large part because they believed it made them better players. The coaching staff generates goodwill by committing to the improvement of every player.
Richardson said that Miami was the first team he played for where every coach on staff, from Erik Spoelstra on down, worked with players on the floor. At the time, that role was often played by a developmental assistant.
The Heat Way, of course, was fashioned by Riley. His longevity as Heat president coupled with the enduring success of the franchise buys a lot of equity among players. It’s difficult to challenge convention when you play for an organization in which just about every principle has been with the franchise for more than two decades. The Heat demand a lot because they can.
“They want the kind of guys,” Fizdale said, “that want those expectations.”
— Kevin Arnovitz
‘If you’re here 10 years, you’re still one of the new guys’
FOR YEARS, WORKING for the Heat has been semi-jokingly referred to in NBA circles as joining “La Familia.”
While some of that comes from Pat Riley’s legendary personality and impeccable Armani suits, it also stems from Miami operating like a family organization — one that people join, and usually never leave.
Take the team’s organizational flow chart:
• Owner Micky Arison’s father, Ted, was the team’s original owner when it entered the league in 1988.
• General manager Andy Elisburg has been with the franchise since 1988.
• Coach Erik Spoelstra joined the team as a video coordinator just before Riley arrived in 1995.
• Spoelstra’s intern in the video room that year, Adam Simon, is now Miami’s assistant general manager.
• Tim Donovan, the team’s head PR man, came with Riley from New York.
• Chet Kammerer, a senior basketball advisor, has worked for the team since 1996.
The list goes on. The defining characteristic of the Heat organization — beyond its success over the past quarter-century, including three NBA titles — is how many of its employees have put down roots in a profession where that is unheard of.
As a member of the organization joked recently, “If you’re here 10 years, you’re still one of the new guys.”
In a cutthroat world of wins and losses, even the best NBA coaches, scouts and executives change teams several times over the course of their careers. There are even some teams — most notably the San Antonio Spurs under coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford — known for developing talent that other teams eventually hire away.
Since Riley chose to leave the New York Knicks and decamp to Miami in 1995, though, the Heat have become one of the most stable organizations in the NBA.
But that stability also plays a part in how the Heat go about their business. Teams in the NBA often fall prey to the whims of the moment, trying to chase short-term success to preserve their jobs. That doesn’t happen in Miami, save a spending splurge on their own free agents in the summer of 2017 that looked as if it could hamper the team going forward.
Instead, the Heat are one win from the NBA Finals three years later, with institutional knowledge — and the Heat lifers who possess it — playing no small part.
— Tim Bontemps
UD is the OG of Heat culture
DURING THE PLAYOFFS in 1999, Pat Riley once said, “You’ve got to want to win as much as you want to breathe.”
Moments later, inside the Miami Heat locker room, Riley dunked his head in a bucket of water for what seemed like an eternity.
As those witnessing became concerned, Riley eventually came up for air and roared, “Until your last breath!”
Ask anyone around the organization, over the past 17 years of Miami Heat basketball, no player embodies that mantra in the locker room more than Udonis Haslem, an OG of Heat culture.
Haslem, born and raised in Miami-Dade County, has spent 17 years with the franchise as an undrafted gem in 2003. The three-time champion’s impact on the franchise continues to be immeasurable.
And it almost never happened.
“The Heat didn’t offer me a deal after summer league,” Haslem said. “I went to play for the Spurs’ summer league team and they offered me a one-year deal. When the Heat found that out, they decided to offer me a two-year deal.
“I was on my way to Pop. A lot of people don’t know that.”
Haslem became a major contributor in some deep postseason runs, going for 17 points, 10 rebounds and 2 steals in a Game 6 closeout versus the Dallas Mavericks in the 2006 NBA Finals.
Dwyane Wade convinced LeBron James and Chris Bosh to take pay cuts in the summer of 2010 just to keep Haslem on the roster. He made good on their faith in him by gutting out a key win — on a busted left foot that had derailed most of his season — in Game 2 of the 2011 Eastern Conference finals against the Chicago Bulls.
“I was on my way to Pop. A lot of people don’t know that.”
Heat forward Udonis Haslem
“I always wanted to be there for those guys, because they took a chance on me,” Haslem said. “Back then nobody was taking pay cuts. So, I always wanted to make good on that for those guys.”
Now, he takes his duties as mentor as seriously as when he used to have to guard Dallas Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki in the NBA Finals.
“As a captain, I had to learn these guys,” Haslem said. “There is a whole generational difference here. So, being able to motivate these guys, comes from learning and hanging out with them.”
Since 2015, Haslem has started only 27 games, but he’s like an extra coach in the huddle. “Practices are my games,” he told The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears last week.
And you’d be hard-pressed to find a person in the organization more widely respected.
“[Haslem] represents everything that Miami is,” said South Carolina men’s basketball head coach Frank Martin, a Miami native who coached Haslem in high school. “An underdog, hard-working, overachieving person that has always overcome others’ opinions in his relentless effort to find success.”
— Jorge Sedano
1995: The year Micky Arison turned up the Heat
A FEW DAYS after arriving for the Orlando bubble and looking for any way to make the environment feel something like home, Miami Heat staffers started putting a cardboard cutout of owner Micky Arison courtside during the team’s practices.
For years, Arison, now 71, had made it a habit, when his schedule allows, to attend practices and sit quietly alongside his son Nick, the team CEO, as well as general manager Andy Elisburg and president Pat Riley. They all got the cardboard cutout treatment in Orlando.
Both symbolically and literally, the Heat’s leadership is there every day and aligned in a supportive role.
Brutal training camp practices, Arison is there. Midseason light walkthroughs, Arison has been there. Dramatic Finals wins or heartbreaking defeats, Arison was there the next morning with his deep tan, long flowing gray hair and laid-back personality as disarming as any billionaire you’ll ever meet.
Needless to say, this is an unusual scenario in any American workplace, much less the NBA, which is often gripped with paranoia, intrateam drama and old-fashioned backstabbing. While it’s a basic act, in some ways it defines the way Arison has run his team for the past 25 years that has led to repeated success and the moniker “Heat culture.”
In 1995, Arison fought two fierce battles. The first was with two shareholders of the original Heat expansion franchise. Though Arison’s father, Ted, owned the largest stake in the team, when it was founded in 1988, the family didn’t have operational control. And in the first seven years of the team’s history, it had one winning season — at 42-40 — in 1993-94.
Arison, a permanent fixture in front-row seats, became frustrated in the struggles. The relationship with the partners soured and then went toxic, leading to threats, lawsuits and more infighting. After months of back-and-forth and hurt feelings, Arison finally struck a deal to buy out the other partners and emerge as the controlling owner with more than 80% of the team.
Two days after he closed the deal, also firing the head coach and installing a new GM, Pat Riley came to town. In a highly unusual move, Arison asked Riley, then the New York Knicks’ star coach whom he’d never met, if he could watch him run the Knicks’ off-day practice.
Naturally, Riley rejected the request, but the message was sent: Arison had a strong affinity for the coach.
Later that year, after Riley’s attempts to get a contract extension from the Knicks that included ownership shares failed, he resigned as head coach with a season left on his deal.
Within weeks, the Knicks had filed a tampering charge against Arison for going after Riley to be coach and run the front office. New York’s proof was a memo allegedly created by Riley’s attorneys with 14 contract requests from the Heat days before he’d actually resigned. The asks reportedly ranged from a five-year, $15 million salary to ownership shares to Arison buying Riley’s homes in Los Angeles and suburban New York.
Arison accused one of his former ownership partners with leaking information to the Knicks and helping their case. For almost three months, there was a standoff between the teams with then-NBA commissioner David Stern both holding a hearing on the tampering charge and trying to broker a deal through intense acrimony.
When it was over, Arison had won again. He agreed to pay the Knicks $1 million in cash plus a top-five protected first-round pick to get Riley out of his contract. Riley got his long-term deal and equity in the Heat, one of the greatest deals ever landed by an NBA executive. And, as it turned out, one of the greatest deals ever made by an NBA owner.
After those two battles, Arison has faded to the background on basketball decisions and let Riley work. He never again had to hire a coach — Riley promoted assistants Stan Van Gundy and then Erik Spoelstra — and reaped the rewards.
Within two years, the Heat were a 60-win team and in the conference finals in 1997. In the 25 years since he grabbed the team and made the sweeping move to land Riley, the Heat have made 19 playoff appearances, five Finals and won three titles. The franchise’s value has soared, at Forbes’ last projection, to $1.95 billion.
The Heat’s banners are there because of Riley, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Bosh and, who knows, maybe Jimmy Butler.
But the Heat’s success stems from Arison, and he quietly reminds everyone of it every day.
— Brian Windhorst