MIAMI — It has been 20 years since No. 40 took to the court as a starter on opening night for the Miami Heat, the undrafted rookie out of the University of Florida who had spent the previous season in France closing with eight rebounds in a road loss to Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers.
That night, he opened in a lineup alongside Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Eddie Jones and Dwyane Wade.
On other Heat opening nights, he was in lineups with Rasual Butler, Shaquille O’Neal, Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, Gary Payton, Ricky Davis, Dorell Wright, Shawn Marion, Michael Beasley, Mario Chalmers, Chris Bosh and LeBron James.
And then it ended, Udonis Haslem walking into the sunset at the close of last season’s NBA Finals after 20 NBA seasons, to a life in retirement, away from the arena on Biscayne Boulevard, the final ounces of sweat shed on the team’s practice court.
Um . . .
yeah . . .
Because with the Heat opening the franchise’s 36th season Wednesday night at Kaseya Center against the Detroit Pistons, the ongoing constant has been the presence of Haslem. He was with the team at their closing-night training-camp barbecue at Florida Atlantic University, showed up at a preseason shootaround, and even this week has been vigorously sweating through drill work on the practice court alongside those who were alongside last season and those who arrived since.
“I feel like we’re keeping him young, we’re keeping him engaged,” center Bam Adebayo said, as Haslem went through shooting drills with those from this season’s roster. “We’re keeping his mind working, because you know he’s got to have something to think about other than his kids, dogs and family. It gives him something to do, but he also gets to come in here, talk to the young guys, share his story, share his mentality. It’s still good to have him around.”
All with the team’s blessing — and encouragement.
“It’s always great to have the GOAT of the organization, the great who knows what it takes to win on this level, for this organization,” forward Jimmy Butler said of the three-time champion former Heat captain. “With him here, it’s always smiles. You know it’s going to be a little extra competition when he’s in the gym. Look at him out there, having fun, back to basketball.”
With an emerging broadcast career and local philanthropic and business ventures, it is an undefined role at the moment, with Haslem, 43, having ruled out coaching.
“UD is going to be around,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And he’s going to serve a lot of different capacities for our organization, downstairs, upstairs. But I love having him in the gym. I love having him in the locker room. I love having him in any kind of role.
“We’re going to figure this out. It’s an open canvas. He doesn’t want to be called a coach. I don’t care what we call him, I just want him around. And we’ll figure out what that’s going to look like. But I love when he’s around our practice or our shootaround, all those things.”
All while remaining respectful of the team’s coaches, many of whom were Haslem teammates, such as Chris Quinn, Malik Allen, Caron Butler and Wayne Ellington.
“We just have to figure this out,” Spoelstra said, “of how much he’s with my group, how much it will be upstairs (working with the front office). He wants to do it all, and we want him to do it all. We have some time to work through that.”
While the advice flows, Adebayo said there also has been plenty of hands on. At one point Tuesday, Haslem had worked up as much of a sweat as any of the players on the court.
“It’s more participation,” Adebayo said of Haslem as practice-court mentorship. “He’s always been one of those guys who led by example, and that’s being on the court, active, talking to guys, talking a few things out. And we start scrimmaging, he lets the young guys get out there and hoop and coaches from the sideline.”