MIAMI — UDONIS HASLEM was vacationing in Orlando with his family this past July when he saw a black SUV pull up to his rental house.
“My antenna goes up,” the Miami Heat veteran says of the moment. “A black SUV? I can’t see inside it? I told my kids, ‘Go in the house.'”
Haslem was right to be suspicious.
“I start walking up to the car, and [Heat vice president of sports media relations] Tim Donovan jumps out with T-shirts [with an image of Udonis on them],” he says. “I think he was shocked by my initial response, but that’s because I didn’t know who the hell it was.”
It’s ironic, given how much this surprise visit was so much about two decades of familiarity.
Donovan’s arrival marked the Heat’s invitation for Haslem, then a free agent, to return for a 20th NBA season, an offer he officially accepted when he re-signed for one year with Miami in August. He will join Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks) and Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers) as the only NBA players to have played at least 20 seasons all with one franchise. And at 42, he will remain the oldest player in the league for one more season — one he announced in August at his basketball camp in Miami.
But Haslem would still like his say in the discussion of what exactly a power forward in his 40s can offer a team.
“This is not a f—ing charity case,” he says. “My guys know what I bring to the table, appreciate me and respect me.
“I’m not joking. Trust me, I’d be the first one to get the f— out of here if I couldn’t do it anymore. I’m not gonna get my ass kicked by little guys every day.”
When his signing was announced, critics discussed the Heat’s inability to quit Haslem on social media. Among the more popular posts was one pointing out that since 2017, Haslem made the most money per minute played in the league: He has played just 273 minutes, or the equivalent of less than six full NBA games, in that time.
Udonis Haslem is the highest-paid active player per minute in the last five seasons.
(Good for him). pic.twitter.com/0Dwwef3Qqu
— HoopsHype (@hoopshype) August 21, 2022
Could the spot be better utilized on developing young talent? Would Haslem be just as valuable as an assistant coach? Or does the man, who is affectionately called “UD” as well as “OG,” because of his extensive tenure with his hometown franchise, have something left to offer a team with which he’s already won three championships?
“I understand what my role is, so why not play?” he counters. “Some day, it’s gonna be over. But everything about me being here and being a part of this is based on the fact that I can still contribute if I need to.”
Haslem is the fabric of the Heat franchise and probably the greatest single contributor to the oft-referenced Heat culture. Those who see him daily recognize his contribution to winning is real, and not some myth the organization is keeping alive.
This is, after all, still a Pat Riley-led franchise. One of the former Heat coach-turned-president’s consistent messages is, the older you get in the NBA, the better condition you must maintain. Hence, Haslem has gotten more lean in the past few seasons to maintain his agility. Riley says Haslem is currently under 5% body fat.
Despite not seeing the floor in the playoffs since 2016, Haslem felt he played his part in Jimmy Butler’s impressive performance in Miami’s 2022 playoff run by testing him in one-on-one battles before home games.
“It gets competitive up here, bro,” Haslem says. “He makes some shots on me that drive me nuts sometimes.
“If you ask anybody, that [playoff run] started up here. I was watching that s— on Joel Embiid, it was literally déjà vu of the s— he makes on me up here. I said to myself, ‘This is why we do what we do. This is why we come up here and we play 1s, and we get competitive. That’s how I know he can lead us to where we need to go.'”
Those individual sessions aren’t reserved for just Butler. Any Heat player, any size, any age gets a shot at Haslem whenever they want to sharpen their skills.
“That definitely surprised me, because I didn’t think he was gonna be playing and moving like that,” Heat forward Caleb Martin says. “A lot of people at his age have been done playing for years. He’s still in here getting it in, top-tier shape. To see him coming in and working like he does every day, knowing he’s probably not gonna get into the game … it’s impressive.”
Added teammate Victor Oladipo: “I played against him when I was coming back in rehab. OG can still slide ’em. It’s not no tough out. He’s gonna make you work for every inch. He’s willing to do whatever to help us be better, and he doesn’t even have to. He’s the most selfless person we have.
“He’s not UD sometimes. He’s UD all the time.”
THE LEGEND OF Haslem began during George W. Bush’s first presidential term in 2003, after a year playing overseas and getting in NBA shape.
A leaned-out Haslem had spent time with both Miami’s and San Antonio’s summer squads, looking almost nothing like the wide-bodied post-presence he was in three years at Florida. He’d spent his college career dominating in the low post with hook shots and heart, but was now trying to make his name with defense and an evolving midrange jumper.
“I didn’t want him to get down to [Spurs coach Gregg] Popovich, because I knew Pop would sign him in a heartbeat,” Riley recalls.
Playing for his hometown team eventually convinced Haslem to sign his first NBA deal with Miami over San Antonio, joining rookie Dwyane Wade and the newly-acquired Lamar Odom from the LA Clippers.
Throwing down on Tennessee. #tbt RT @brentjoplin: @GatorZoneMBK Udonis Haslem pic.twitter.com/ndshsU5SR0
— Florida Gators Men’s Basketball (@GatorsMBK) September 19, 2013
Before Haslem’s initial game in a Heat uniform, Riley gave the first indication that Haslem and the organization would begin a long-standing partnership.
“We were down in Puerto Rico after a week of training camp, I think it was our first preseason game,” recalls Riley, who would eventually hand the head-coaching duties to Stan Van Gundy five days before the 2003-04 season began. “We all went to the shootaround, and this is the first time I’m going to say, ‘OK, this is our starting lineup.’ And I called out Dwyane, I called out Eddie [Jones], I called out Brian [Grant], I called out Caron [Butler]. And I said, ‘OK UD, you’re starting at the 4 ahead of Lamar Odom.’
“Players were looking around because Lamar was a very, very talented player. And that’s where Udonis showed me, showed everybody that he was one of the great competitors in our franchise and in this game.”
Haslem started the first 24 games of that season (Odom eventually started all 80 regular-season games he played with the Heat that season) before being moved to the bench. He averaged 7.3 points and 6.3 rebounds for a surprising Heat team that reached the Eastern Conference semifinals. Haslem would then start 360 of the next 362 games he played over the following five seasons, and all 22 games of the 2006 Heat championship run — capped by a 17-point, 10-rebound performance in the championship-clinching Game 6 in Dallas.
“I said to him, you’re going to be wide open a lot,” Riley recalls telling Haslem before that game. “Get into the creases, get into the gaps. He hit a baseline jumper, hit another elbow jumper, and then he got an offensive rebound and put that back in. He had no fear of the big moment. He never did.”
Among the greatest signs of respect Haslem received from his peers was when the Heat’s Big Three — Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh — took slightly less than their maximums in 2010 so Haslem could re-sign with the team and be a part of what would be a run of four Finals appearances in four years.
Haslem, at this point playing mostly as a reserve, thanked them with moments of unforgettable support — most notably by filling in for an injured Bosh early in the 2012 playoffs. Against the Indiana Pacers in the second round, Haslem’s Game 5 retaliation against Tyler Hansbrough would become the moment that most typified that stage of his career.
Hansbrough had fouled Wade in the head and neck area one play earlier. So Haslem, himself wearing eight stitches over his right eye from a collision one game earlier, committed a hard foul against the Pacers forward, leaving Hansbrough bloodied and getting OG ejected and suspended for Game 6.
“Just staying ready so I didn’t have to get ready,” Haslem says, of his biggest contribution to that championship. “CB gets hurt, we don’t win the Indiana series or the Boston series without me. Regardless of what my role was, we don’t win that series without me, which means we don’t win the Finals without me.”
When the current iteration of the Heat was built around Jimmy Butler, Haslem discovered a running mate with a similar affection for work. And as the Heat were making a run to the NBA Finals in the Orlando bubble in 2020, he had another chance to prove his worth.
Udonis Haslem is a three-time NBA champion with Miami and is the franchise’s all-time leader in rebounds. Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports
“We were going to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Haslem says. “This is not home. This is our job. It’s almost like going to Europe to play: You spend your nine months there, and then you bring your ass home.”
Together, they came up with a plan. “Soon as we hit the bubble, we were on some militant s—,” Haslem recalls.
“I was crazy, I was sleeping on the couch. I never slept in the bed. I slept on the couch for the three months I was in there. I had my cabinets full of Campbell’s soup, water bottles and a little shot of Hennessy on the side. I never left my room, either. Me and Jimmy didn’t have many friends.”
Haslem is proud of his part in taking the fifth-seeded Heat to the NBA Finals inside the bubble, even though they lost to the Lakers in six games. Last season, he remained visible throughout Miami’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals. The most in-your-face moment came when he broke up an on-bench argument between Butler and coach Erik Spoelstra in the midst of a late-season losing streak.
“He brought it down to a level where all parties understood this was about winning, period,” says former Heat all-star Alonzo Mourning, now the team’s vice president of player programs and development. “Every team wants a player like that in their locker room. We’re just fortunate enough to have that.”
HASLEM WAS INITIALLY unsure about returning for this season. But it was a conversation from two years ago with his father Johnnie that convinced him to reach that round number.
“We were just going through the summer, and he was like, ‘S—, the way you’re going, you could do 20,'” Haslem recalls from their talk in 2020. “I thought he was crazy. I was like, ‘I don’t know about that.’ But he said I should really think about it.
“And then Dwyane mentioned it. Those are two people that I trust and I value their opinions. So I started thinking, ‘If the mind holds up and the body holds up, that’s a hell of a class to be in.'”
But while Haslem is inevitably being celebrated with jersey swaps and tributes for the next seven months, his father won’t be around to see what he helped inspire.
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Johnnie died Aug. 30, 2021, at the age of 70, taking with him the perfect ending to his son’s underdog story.
“It just wasn’t gonna be the ending I envisioned after 20 years,” Haslem says. “That was the most important piece, my dad. Not to take anything away from my stepmom or my wife or my kids, but from the day I picked up a freakin’ basketball, that dude’s been right there.
“It definitely dampened it, put a dark cloud over it. But there are a lot of people that deserve to be a part of this. I didn’t want to forget about those people.”
Those include his family and friends, and his teammates.
“He’s constantly making me better, whether it’s talking, breaking down film, playing one-on-one,” Butler said. “He’s in everybody’s ear for the better because he knows what it takes to win, he’s been a champion, and he wants everybody else to feel the same. Glad to have that guy back.”
Back in a jersey, specifically. Not only because OG still has something left in those 42-year-old legs, but because when he is finally done, he envisions more than just an assistant coach role.
Haslem looks at what Buster Posey just did in San Francisco, joining the Giants’ ownership group just one year after his 12-year career with the team, and is determined to do the same with the Heat.
Until then, his goals are more about making sure his impact carries on. His value over the past several years of his career can only truly be measured by those in uniform with him. And he’s hopeful his work resonates well after he’s retired.
“I want to pass the torch to Bam [Adebayo] as the next bearer of the culture,” Haslem says. “I want to continue to mold and help Jimmy be the champion that he deserves to be. And I just want to leave this locker room headed in the right direction.
“I want kids somewhere to say, ‘I want to have a career like Udonis Haslem — undrafted, worked for everything I got, won three championships, retired and went into ownership with the same organization I played with for 20 years.'”