Heat, Panthers' playoff success in 2023 would have been hard to believe 30 years ago

Editor's Note: Rick Horrow was the first executive director of the Dade County Sports Authority and has been around South Florida from the era when there were no professional franchises here.

My father passed way too early of the dreaded melanoma in 1966. My last words with him involved him handing me a strip of season tickets for an unheralded American Football League expansion team called the Dolphins.

They would begin play on Sept. 2 of that year. I was faithfully in attendance, though my father was not. Sports in South Florida has been an emotional roller-coaster connection ever since. In 1972, the Miami Floridians folded; the Buffalo Braves passed up Miami on the way to San Diego; the Miami Screaming Eagles were announced with great fanfare (but no arena).

South Florida was a “tourist destination,” not a corporate mecca. Fans’ history of great franchise memories came from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Havana ... but not Miami.

It's amazing how 57 years have changed the landscape.

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On May 27, 1981, the Dade County Sports Authority was formed, and I was named its first executive director. A one- or two-year hiatus from corporate law was what I expected. In reality, it was seven failed sports commissions, 65 total appointed officials responsible to more than 45 elected officials. Hard to wake up and go to work every day!

Political infighting is normal for high-visibility sports facilities. In most cases, however, the team drives the PR effort, private financial commitment and relationship with the respective league. Of course, we had none of that in South Florida (and obviously little history of successful non-Dolphins sports to look at).

We had a study detailing the hypothetical impact of an arena on downtown Miami and its environs. Unfortunately, it was written in 1955. So we latched on to a federal “urban development grant” that could have/would have expedited Overtown revitalization, and cobbled together $35 million for an arena. When it opened on July 8, 1988, we cared very little about making it the “eighth wonder of the world.”

Today’s buildings, as you know, cost in excess of $4 billion-$5 billion (see SoFi Stadium in California, $5.5 billion). We cared only that it was the first real “South Florida major league facility” capable of hosting NBA and NHL franchises. The race was on.

Basketball was the primary goal in the mid-1980s. Assuming the arena would work (even as a stopgap), the effort needed multiple visionaries. Kudos to Billy Cunningham, Lew Schaffel and Zev Buffman, but Ted Arison understood the “civic consequences” of a pro sports franchise, even though he admitted to knowing very little about basketball.

On April 21, 1987, we went to then-Commissioner David Stern’s office in search of that elusive franchise. The commissioner stuck to his $32.5 million expansion fee (we were expecting a number around $24 million). Arison left the meeting, and, 12 excruciating minutes later, came back and said, “I had to go across the street and see if I could get a better deal from the other people who are selling NBA franchises. But, then, there isn’t anyone else selling them, is there?”

NBA expansion: Miami, Charlotte in 1988-89, Minneapolis, Orlando in 1989

Long story short, on April 22, the NBA awarded franchises to Miami and Charlotte in 1988-89, and Minneapolis and Orlando in 1989. We had arrived.

That first game, on Nov. 5, 1988, brought incredible pride and a sense that South Florida was at last a major league sports region. The “on the court” Heat did not read the memo, however. They lost their first 17 games and ended the season 15-67. Now, three championships later, that opening month is a distant memory.

The Heat's Pat Cummings is double-teamed by the Rockets' Eric Floyd (21) and Otis Thorpe on Nov. 17, 1988 during Miami's first season in the NBA.

The Panthers are another matter entirely. Five years after the Heat began, visionary Wayne Huizenga paid $50 million to usher in the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the National Hockey League.

Commissioner Gary Bettman was already “sold” on the South Florida market (being the NBA senior expansion point person when the Heat were awarded). When Scott Mellanby killed a rat with his stick in 1996 in the Stanley Cup quarterfinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the “rat trick” was born.

We all thought the tradition would last every year as the Panthers continued to make the playoffs. They lost in the Stanley Cup Final that year — and the “playoff slump” exceeded 20 years.

A new arena in 1998 (National Car Rental Center/Office Depot Center/BankAtlantic Center/BB&T Arena/FLA Live Arena) helped create an identity, but not necessarily on the ice. Vinnie Viola’s 10-year reign as owner has made all the difference in the world.

At no other time in the history of American sport have two teams qualified for the playoffs the last week of the season, reached the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals as eighth seeds, and will be playing back-to-back over a six-day block in two arenas a one-hour drive apart.

The Blues' Brett Hull gets around the Panthers' Joe Cirella during the first period on Oct. 7, 1993, Florida's first season in the NHL.

I look back with pride and gratitude for the small part that I played in this drama.

The 1900s "Roaring ‘20s" followed the Spanish flu pandemic, the pent-up demand fueled economic expansion, and the “gathering” at mass entertainment venues. The funding and building of Yankee Stadium in 1921 was an example.

What is happening in South Florida now is our “Roaring ‘20s” — another example of how sports bring the economic, social and cultural fabric together, especially important after COVID.

The pride is obvious with every new skyscraper and corporate headquarters that comes to South Florida because, in part, the region is viewed as a major league international destination.

Let's not forget Wayne Huizenga, Ted Arison

Let’s make sure the memories of Wayne Huizenga and Ted Arison as sports and business leaders endure forever. They paid a combined $82.5 million for their respective franchises; they would cost nearly $5 billion combined today.

The pride is also evident with regional leaders (sports fans and not) advocating the relationship between Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. That was something clearly missing when I was toiling with the Miami Sports Authority and its various iterations. We are all closer together, largely because of sports.

Maybe most importantly, I decided to come back to South Florida to try to “make sports relevant” (with the 17-0 Miami Dolphins helping in 1972). Walking down the streets of South Florida and seeing young kids with Panthers and Heat jerseys, and second- and third-generation families telling stories about how those teams have brought them together is something I will always cherish. Good luck to the Heat and the Panthers.

Regardless of the score on the court or on the ice, the region is already a world champion!

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: South Florida basks in Miami Heat, Florida Panthers playoffs success