MIAMI – Udonis Haslem made it clear he wants to return for a 15th season. Coach Erik Spoelstra talked about the “reverence” in which Haslem is viewed.
And then came the ultimate stamp of approval…
“We have 15 roster spots and I hope that Udonis fills one of them without a doubt,” Miami Heat president Pat Riley said Wednesday about the 6-foot-8 forward. “He’s invaluable in so many aspects on the court, off the court.”
Haslem will be 37 when training camp opens in four months, and despite having played in just 17 games this season, while logging ‘DNP-Coaches Decision’ next to his name in the box score 64 times, Haslem does not believe he is through.
“I got no reason to stop playing,” Haslem said. “I still got a lot of gas in the tank.
“When you get to this point you have a decision to make, do you want to be around an organization to help rebuild or do you want to go somewhere and try to help somebody win a title? That’s a decision I’ll be faced with. For me I enjoy being a part of the rebuilding process.”
Haslem’s value to the organization is not measure in points and rebounds, of which he averaged 1.8 and 2.1, respectively, this season while playing 7.6 minutes per game. Spoelstra and Riley talked about his presence, his leadership, how respected he is by the players, some who were born when he was making a name for himself in the gyms and on the playgrounds of Miami.
And when Dwyane Wade, who joined the Heat the same season as Haslem (2003-04) but as the fifth overall pick and not an undrafted free agent like Haslem, bolted Miami for Chicago last summer, Haslem’s standing with the team, in the community, spiked.
Haslem became the poster boy for loyalty and Heat fans showed that appreciation by giving Haslem a standing ovation when he entered the Heat’s final game of the season, his first action in 30 games.
“It’s easy when you get to this point in your career and you’re in a situation where a team is rebuilding, to say, ‘Let me go find a championship roster that I can jump on and help somebody compete for a title.’ That would have been the easy way out for me,” Haslem said.
“This is the organization that gave me a chance from the jump. I feel comfortable here, I believe in this organization.”
Spoelstra paid Haslem the ultimate compliment this week when he called him the “Godfather of our culture.” And although Riley may have the most rings to kiss, nobody wearing a uniform this year was a part of the family as long as, or been a through as many wars as, Haslem.
And if he returns for a 15th season, only Dan Marino will have spent more time wearing the uniform of one South Florida four major professional teams. Marino spent 17 seasons quarterbacking the Dolphins. Haslem will equal Bob Kuechenberg’s 15 seasons as a standout guard for the Dolphins.
Haslem, though, has one more ring (3) than Marino (0) and Kuechenberg (2) combined.
“He’ll take that seat and sit in my chair half the time,” Spoelstra said. “I trust his message and I know it’s in perfect alignment.
“If you want to know how to be a Miami Heat player, just look at UD.”
And, according to Haslem, that is exactly what James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Tyler Johnson plan to do this summer.
“They want to know the secret of how to make 36 look so good,” Haslem said, joking, before adding, “I’m going to make sure they get prepared for next season regardless of what my situation ends up being.”
The early thinking is what’s the harm in devoting a roster spot to a player whose contributions on the court are not expected to amount to much, especially since this season that final spot went to a player (Chris Bosh) who never stepped foot inside the facility?
Haslem played this season on a one-year, $4 million contract. He likely would return at the veteran minimum of around $2.3 million. Riley, though, would like Haslem, to be more than a high-priced mentor.
“I want to see him on the team as a player,” Riley said. “He’s just not going to take up a spot. He’s going to have to come in and earn his position, not just because he’s the grandfather of the team.”
Still, despite those words, Riley has proven again and again he has a soft spot for Haslem, whom he called “Mr. Miami” during his news conference on Wednesday.
And Haslem is not going to let Riley forget that.
“Riley’s told me I can play until I’m 40 so I’m going to hold him to that,” Haslem said. “I’m confident that I’ll be back.”