CHICAGO — Bruce Brown doesn’t need any extra motivation.
The former Hurricane guard is carrying plenty of it with him during the NBA’s pre-draft evaluation process. Brown is working to prove that his surgically-repaired left foot is fully healed, which is enough to make these next few weeks leading up to the June 21 draft especially important.
You have to admire his enthusiasm. Huell, a freshman forward for the University of Miami men’s basketball team, is a highly rated recruit but hasn’t played in a game yet, so his comments are a tad premature. They were borne of respect, given that Huell is one of countless Miami natives who grew up loving Wade.
Now that Wade has left town, who is the most important local athlete, the face of South Florida sports? Scouring the major sports teams for potential candidates:
The Heat’s rise coincided with a long dry spell for the area’s bedrock franchise. The Fins haven’t won a Super Bowl in nearly two generations (1973), and scored their last playoff win when Wade was a freshman at Marquette (2000). They’ve made the playoffs once since then. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill might be South Florida’s leading man if he proves capable of leading his team to a few successful seasons; local opinion varies, to say the least, on whether he has the goods to do that. With a $96 million contract extension, he’ll get at least two more years to sort things out. If the Fins develop one of the NFL’s feared defenses, perhaps defensive end Cameron Wake or tackle Ndamukong Suh will capture the area’s attention.
Though the Marlins haven’t been very good either, they employ two of the must-watch athletes in town. Outfielder Giancarlo Stanton and right-hander Jose Fernandez produce highlight-reel moments on the regular. Stanton’s mammoth homers and Fernandez’ video-game stuff get gobbled up on social media. They are two of the franchise’s best ever, but Marlins Park is rarely the hot place to be. Distrust in the team’s ownership is one of the reasons for this, as is a playoff resume that includes two World Series titles (1997 and 2003), two subsequent fire sales, and nothing more. The Marlins, 2.5 games behind in the NL Wild Card race, need a hot second half to make anyone forget about Wade’s painful exit.
If only the Dolphins had a Brad Kaaya. UM’s junior quarterback, who might be a first-round NFL draft pick if he decides to leave after this season, has helped keep the Hurricanes afloat in his three seasons. He is one of college football’s best passers, but UM hasn’t been nationally relevant in more than a decade. Miami used to be a Canes town, so if Kaaya and new coach Mark Richt can break a long stretch of local malaise and bring the program back to elite status, they’ll be the talk of the town. Men’s basketball coach Jim Larranagahas done a wonderful job, reaching the Sweet 16 twice in four seasons, but ‘The U’ was built on football success.
Coincidentally, the team held a press conference to discuss an eight-year contract extension for young star defenseman Aaron Ekblad on Thursday, while South Florida was still reeling from the Wade news. Ekblad and forward Aleksander Barkov will be with the franchise long-term, so they will build up a new generation of followers if the Cats keep winning. Elder statesmen Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo are more recognizable to the average fan, but the veterans won’t be around as long.
Maybe it’s up to you, Hassan Whiteside. The 7-footer, who seemed surprised to learn of the Wade news, agreed to a max contract last week that will keep him in Miami for the next four years. He will enter next season as arguably the Heat’s most popular player. If he continues producing at a high level, there’s no reason he couldn’t be the most beloved guy in town. If Chris Bosh returns to form, that title could go to the affable forward, the last surviving member of the Big Three. Maybe a new star in town, acquired by the Heat during its rebuild, could capture the hearts of fans.