Ranking the top 10 most popular athletes in South Florida sports history

Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade talks to the fans gathered at the Miami Heat’s 2012 NBA Championship celebration at AmericanAirlines Arena on June 25, 2012. (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)

Dwyane Wade’s return to Miami has fans buzzing, but where does he rank among the most popular athletes in the history of South Florida’s four pro teams?

[Dwyane Wade is coming home: Heat acquiring greatest player in franchise history from Cleveland for second-round pick]

[How did Heat players react to Dwyane Wade’s return? They couldn’t believe it]

[Column: Dwyane Wade’s return strikes every emotional touchstone for Heat fans]

10. Jose Fernandez: So much joy, so much sadness, with the mere mention of his name.

9. John Vanbiesbrouck: Beezer remains the face of the greatest fairytale our four teams have ever given us. #ratsratsrats

8. Jeff Conine: Yo, Jeter! Do your homework. There’s a reason he’s Mr. Marlin.

7. Alonzo Mourning: Taught fans how to love a guy who’s scowling. Taught patients battling serious illness they must never lose hope.

6. Zach Thomas: Overachiever extraordinaire who never took a play off.

5. Udonis Haslem: If anyone deserves the title “Mr. Miami,” it’s this guy.

4. Jason Taylor: Nobody made more game-winning defensive plays for the Dolphins. Hall of Famer on field and with foundation dedicated to kids.

3. Larry Csonka: Zonk (and that schnoz) embody the toughness we look for in every Dolphin. Gets extra credit for helping bring the 2020 Super Bowl to Miami.

2. Dwyane Wade: Will blow the roof off the AAA the next time he does his pre-tip prancing around the court. All that’s left is for that county down Miami way to fix the spelling of its name.

1. Dan Marino: Still the Man. If someone’s ever going to knock him from this perch, he hasn’t yet put on a Miami uniform.

Heat have another bonding moment at Dolphins game, thanks to Udonis Haslem

MIAMI – Every year Udonis Haslem recalls the bonding during the Big Three era and how those moments off the court were as crucial the time on the court for the Heat.

So Haslem continues to organize a team outing at the start of each season, usually at Hard Rock Stadium where he and his teammates take in a Dolphins game.

That time came Sunday.

Miami guard Goran Dragic and forward Udonis Haslem pose during Media Day at AmericanAirlines Arena in September. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

“I really believe building those relationships off the floor translates to being successful on the floor,” Haslem said Monday after the Heat shootaround in preparation for its game against Atlanta.

“I’m a huge Dolphins fan and that’s something I love to do in my free time and I take my family all the time. I consider these guys part of my family so I figured why not take them.”

Haslem no longer owns a luxury suite so he purchased field passes for his teammates. The team stood in the southeast corner of the field to watch Miami’s 31-28 come-from-behind victory over the Jets.

Wayne Ellington’s first taste of the Dolphins outing was last year.

“It’s very important, it’s crucial,” said Ellington who admitted he’s not much of a football fan but claims the Eagles as his team. He was born just outside of Philadelphia.

“We all know each other pretty well, there’s a few new faces, but at the same time it’s a brand new season for us. Doing things together outside of being in here and basketball, just coming together, it translates to the court.”

And for one more reason. Haslem said he still has to explain American football to native Slovenian Goran Dragic, who is much more familiar with futbol.

“I’m not a professional at football, but the last play was crazy with the Jets,” Dragic said about Bobby McCain’s interception with 39 seconds to play that led to Cody Parkey’s 39-yard game winning field goal with 22 seconds remaining.

“The quarterback threw the ball straight into our guys arms and we got that interception.”

Dragic, though, left after the interception so did not see Parkey’s field goal.

“I didn’t stay for the last play, but I know there was the kick and we won,” he said.

Dragic, voted a tri-captain along with Haslem and James Johnson, also believes it’s important for the team to spend time together off the field. Aside from taking in a Dolphins games last season, the team gathered in Portland for a dinner at a restaurant in which coach Erik Spoelstra is a part owner.

“It’s really important,” Dragic said. “We have a few new players so we want to get to know them off the floor, too. It’s nice when you hang out and just enjoy company and nice to talk.”

Haslem has treated his teammates in the past, too. “It’s a business expense,” he said.

Dragic, though, said his and Johnson’s time is coming to as newly-minted captains.

“Me and JJ will have to arrange something different,” he said.

[Miami Heat send A.J. Hammons to Sioux Falls, keep Matt Williams on NBA roster]

[Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside to miss second straight game because of bruised knee]

[Heat win in home opener a game they lost a year ago]

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Post-Dwyane Wade, who is the face of South Florida sports?

After Dwyane Wade left for Chicago, a local writer asked his Twitter followers to name “the new face of Miami sports.”

“Dewan Huell,” Dewan Huell tweeted.

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:

Can Giancarlo Stanton (left), Ryan Tannehill, Brad Kaaya, Aaron Ekblad or Hassan Whitewide capture South Florida's imagination? (Getty Images photos)
Can Giancarlo Stanton (left), Ryan Tannehill, Brad Kaaya, Aaron Ekblad or Hassan Whitewide capture South Florida’s imagination? (Getty Images photos)

[The Miami sports scene was a lot different pre-Dwyane Wade]

[Wade’s message to fans]

The Dolphins

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.

The Marlins

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.

The Hurricanes 

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 Larranaga has done a wonderful job, reaching the Sweet 16 twice in four seasons, but ‘The U’ was built on football success.

The Panthers 

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.

The Heat 

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.

But he probably won’t do it like Wade.

What say you? Who’s next?