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Twenty years of Udonis Haslem in the NBA: ‘I would like to say I am Heat culture’

The Miami Heat veteran reflects on his retirement, mentorship, team ownership and more

MIAMI – On Oct. 28, 2003, an undrafted power forward made his NBA debut in the Miami Heat’s starting lineup. Now nearly 20 years later after arriving with zero fanfare, Udonis Haslem has written one of the most amazing longevity stories in pro sports as one of just 10 NBA players who have played in 20 seasons. The others include Basketball Hall of Fame names such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett and Robert Parish as well as future Hall of Famer and former Heat teammate LeBron James.

Tonight, Haslem and the Heat will visit the Boston Celtics in a deciding Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT). A victory means Haslem’s swan song will take place in his and the franchise’s seventh appearance in the NBA Finals, this time against the Denver Nuggets. A loss in Game 7 and Haslem will say goodbye after winning three championships, teaching countless teammates “Heat culture,” and being one of the most notable role players the league has ever seen.

“You get drafted, you play your role, you eventually become a superstar, you lead an organization, you lead a team, you win your rings, and you go into the Hall of Fame and you ride off into the sunset. People think it’s this way, that is how it is supposed to be done,” Haslem told Andscape on April 24 from the Kaseya Center. “It’s not that black and white. You don’t have to be a superstar to be a winner. You don’t have to be a Hall of Famer to have an impact and put your fingerprints on an organization that’ll last forever. That’s what most people want to believe, and that’s what society wants you to believe, because I wasn’t Dwyane [Wade] or LeBron that I’m not worthy, to be the face or to be the guy here in Miami.

“But if you ask anybody around this city who the guy and who the face is, they’ll tell you different. So, for me, do it your way. Create your path and put yourself in a position where you can land your own plane. That’s what I want people to learn from me. You don’t have to do it their way. People want to tell me, ‘Oh, you’re taking up a roster spot,’ or this, that and the third. How can you tell me how to contribute to success? Why does it have to be the way you think it should be? Because the problem is if I did things the way people thought I should be, I’d never be here. If I tried to succeed the way people told me I should succeed, I’d never be here. If I tried to live life the way people told me was a successful life, I’d never be here.”

The Heat franchise has six retired jersey numbers from former players in Wade, No. 3; Alonzo Mourning, No. 33; Tim Hardaway, No. 10; Chris Bosh, No. 1; Shaquille O’Neal, No. 32; and former NBA great Michael Jordan, No. 23. James, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, also could have his No. 6 retired by the Heat one day as well. But undoubtedly, the Heat are expected to one day retire the No. 40 jersey worn by Haslem, perhaps as early as next season.

Only Wade (948) played in more regular-season games in a Heat jersey than Haslem (879). Haslem is also Miami’s all-time leader in total rebounds (5,791). No, “U.D.” was never an NBA All-Star or a member of any All-NBA team. But the impact that Miami’s Liberty City legend has made on the Heat and the greater Miami community on and off the court has earned him the nickname “Mr. Miami.” Haslem is also a local philanthropist and business executive who told Andscape that his hope is to become a part-owner of the Heat in retirement. Haslem believes he is deserving of such of an opportunity due to his impact on the Heat for two decades and believes that accomplishment could be a motivational tool for locals and fellow Black people.

Heat president Pat Riley, who also coached Haslem, has great fondness for what “U.D.” has done for the Heat.

“He walked into our practice facility and competed to get a contract,” Heat president Pat Riley told Andscape. “He didn’t realize how good he was. And the very first game where we announced the starting lineup in Puerto Rico, he was a starter. And from that day on he has been a starter forever. Now, as he transitions from that to a role player to a mentor on the bench, he has had an immense impact with his experience, wisdom and knowledge and his teammates love him. They and the community know one thing, that U.D. has your back. Always has your back …

“Absolute perseverance from a person who really has embodied everything that we expect from a player’s approach to being professional, competitive, a warrior. The fact that he is a hometown prodigy, a first son of Liberty City in Miami, he has embraced everything that we’ve asked of him times a hundred. And the city, the organization, the [Heat owners] Arisons and Rileys have absolutely fallen in love with U.D. He’s been the best of the best.”

The following is a Q&A with Haslem and Andscape in which he reflects on his decision to retire, the impact his career has had on his family, his hopes of becoming a minority owner of the Heat, how he embodied “Heat culture,” how his role will be replaced, what it will be like to have his jersey number retired and much more.

Miami Heat center Udonis Haslem prepares for the play-in tournament game against the Atlanta Hawks on April 11 at Kaseya Center in Miami.

Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Why is now the right now to retire?

I just think it’s time. I’ve given all that I can give, but I’ve also lost so much. I’ve lost time. Things that I don’t get back. I lost both my parents. So, in the midst of doing so much giving, and it’s been amazing, I’ve lost so much time. And I lost so many things that I can’t get back. And I’m just getting to the point where I’m realizing all the people that have sacrificed for me to be in this position. The reality is I won’t have them forever. And I think it’s time to start giving back to those people.

What do you think you’ve missed?

My son’s games, family functions, birthdays, holidays. Just those memories. And now I realize as I get older, is that the only thing you’re going to have is memories when it’s all gone. I wasn’t thinking like that then. I was thinking that, ‘You’ll have time, you’ll have forever, materialistic things.’ And as I get older now, I realize that all you’re going to have is your memories with these people. So, you’ve got to make sure you create memories.

When did your parents pass?

I lost my mom 13 years ago. I lost my dad two years ago. So, when you get to that point in life and you realize, man, that all you have left is those memories, then you just want to create more and more with the people you love. So, now I’m at the point now where I just want to create as many memories as I can with the people I love.

With veterans like Andre Iguodala on the Golden State Warriors, Garrett Temple on the New Orleans Pelicans, and so forth, have you created something that the NBA should model in having a veteran reserve on the bench to help the younger players, hold teammates accountable and push for a professional mentality from everyone?

They should. If you really want to invest in these young superstars, it has to be more than just financial. I understand that the money is going up, and these guys are getting younger. But you put the future of billion-dollar franchises on the shoulders of 21- and 22-year-olds, sometimes younger than that. They have no idea of how to even navigate through life, much less lead a franchise to a championship. So, for me, there’s a disconnect between this generation and front offices and coaches. Rightfully so. It’s not a bad thing, but the players are getting younger. Most of the time, let’s be honest, it’s older white people running these organizations. They can’t relate. Not even close. You don’t know where he came from. You don’t know what he’s been through. He’s not going to trust you.

I come from a different approach. I don’t care if you play here or somewhere else. I care about you as a Black man, or as a human being. Whatever your race is, I care about you as a human being. Because I’ve been where you are coming from. I have been where you’re trying to go. I can show you how to get there. And I think oftentimes people tell these kids that you have to be this or that. It’s not that black and white to be this or that. It’s not that black and white to separate from your people that you grew up with, to be this new guy now. For me, I hope you navigate all those things, man, and still become the best basketball player that you can be.

When you walk in any locker room, the first approach is, ‘what can you do for us as a basketball player?’ My first approach is, ‘What type of person are you? Where you came from? What is your life experience? Do you have kids?’ I know all these guys’ parents. [Heat players] Max [Strus], Gabe [Vincent], Caleb [Martin]. I literally have relationships with their parents. It’s not just they walk in this locker room and they go home. So, I create relationships that go beyond the game of basketball. And that’s how I end up getting the best and the most out of these guys, because I show these guys I care.

Miami Heat center Udonis Haslem celebrates winning the NBA championship in the locker room after the Heat defeated the Dallas Mavericks 95-92 in Game 6 of the 2006 NBA Finals on June 20, 2006, at American Airlines Center in Dallas.

Victor Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

I watched everything around this city grow in value when this team was hot, and we were winning. And I watched how the city turned to fire. To be a part of that success is one thing. To benefit as everybody else in this city and the organization has, it’s a whole other thing. And I’ve been here through it all. So not only do I think I’m worthy of the opportunity [team ownership], I think I helped create some of the value of this organization as well.

Do you see the light at the end of the tunnel of your NBA career now?

I see the light. It took a while, but I see the light. The light for me is to step into the phase of being the owner. That’s the light for me, man. There’s no disrespect to coaching or anything that those guys do, because I think we have one of the greatest coaches [Riley] to ever pick up a pen and pad. But for me, all the things that I’ve witnessed, not just in this organization, but around the entire the NBA — because I do have relationships with everybody in this league, different teams, different owners, different GMs [general managers] — I’ve got a lot of respect and a lot of relationships with different people. And the conversations that I’ve had with people, the information that I’ve gathered, and everything that I’ve experienced, the next step for me is to be stepping into an ownership situation and sitting next to the guys like Mickey and Pat and [Heat CEO] Nick [Arison] and those guys.

I also have to understand my value as well. And once again, there’s no disrespect to coaches or anything that they do, but the impact that I’ve had on this organization, and the impact that I’ve had on this city, only thing that makes sense for me is to sit next to those guys and make these kind of decisions and have those opportunities.

Do you expect to get offered the ability to buy in?

I don’t know. We’ll see. I would hope so. I would hope to have those conversations. I think I’ve been very clear about it when I’ve had interviews, and people have asked me about it. And I’ve been upfront about that being the goal of mine, and that being the next step for me. So, that’s what I would like to do, to sit next to those guys, and I’m sure there’s a way we can work it out …

There’s a lot of things working in my favor now. I won’t be a player anymore, so it’ll be easier to navigate through those things. But I’ve gathered information, I’ve talked to [former San Francisco Giants star catcher] Buster Posey, who played for San Francisco and now he’s into ownership with the Giants. I’ve had conversations with [Phoenix Suns president and general manager and former Heat forward] James Jones, who is a buddy of mine. I’ve gotten a story on [former NFL wide receiver] Larry Fitzgerald’s situation with the Phoenix Suns. Obviously, Shaq with Sacramento [as a former minority owner of the Kings].

So, I’ve had conversations with people that have done it before. Obviously, Dwyane [Wade, now a minority owner of the Utah Jazz] is my brother. I’ve talked to these people, and I’ve gathered as much information as I can. So, it’s not just I’m sitting here looking to throw something at the wall and see if it sticks. I’ve done my research. I’ve done my homework. I clearly have the résumé. I’ve checked all the boxes. Winner, leader, philanthropist, father, husband, businessman. I’ve checked all the boxes, and it’s authentic. I’m born and raised here, and it just makes sense for me, as the value that I hope and it’s time for me to make sure I tap into that.

Why is it important to have black ownership in the predominantly Black NBA?

For me, I think it’s important to show people where I come from, that you can achieve these things. For me, I think every day growing up I only knew what I saw outside my house. And most of the kids only know what they see outside their house. And they’re not seeing owners, they’re not seeing doctors, they’re not seeing lawyers, they’re not seeing people with that kind of success. You’re only seeing people with a certain mindset in certain circumstances. And you really don’t know these things exist until you see them and people put them in front of you. I tell people all the time, I’ve never been to South Beach until I got to the NBA. I ain’t never been over across that bridge [to South Beach]. So, until people put it in front of you, you don’t even know that it’s achievable and that it’s a reality and it’s realistic.

So now you’re talking to a kid who might not know that if they can be a basketball player, a football player, but you know somebody came from where you came from is an owner. You know somebody that came from where you came from. [Miami Gardens native] James Jones, is a GM and a president. So, you see all these opportunities for people that came from where you came from, where you can achieve these things. It’s one of those things where [you] show them. Show them that they can do it. If you can do it, they can do it. So, it’s an opportunity to set an example. And once again, Black ownership, I’d hate to say me because it’s a ‘we.’ There’s Alonzo, there’s Dwyane, there’s LeBron, but we’ve contributed so much to the success of this organization. I watched this organization go from $23 million [in value] when I got here to $2.3 billion. I watched everything around this arena grow in value. I watched everything around this city grow in value when this team was hot, and we were winning. And I watched how the city turned to fire. To be a part of that success is one thing. To benefit as everybody else in this city and the organization has, it’s a whole other thing. And I’ve been here through it all. So, not only do I think I’m worthy of the opportunity, I think I helped create some of the value of this organization as well.

What is the mentality that you have that is important in life?

If I tried to live life the way people told me was a successful life, I’d never be here. ‘Yeah, go to college, get the house, get the dog, get the car. This is success. This is how life should go.’ You’ll be [expletive] miserable and you won’t make it. Excuse my language. That’s not how life should be. What success looks like, what happiness look like, it’s what you’re created to be for you. At the end of the day, you’re going to get knocked down so many times. How many times can you pivot and get up and re-create those things for yourself to continue to be successful? That’s what life looks like to me. Life doesn’t look like the house and the dogs and the cars. Life looks like, you’re going to get knocked down. Can you get up? Can you recover? What’s your happiness look like? And that’s what I’ve been able to focus on.

A close up of the jersey of Miam Heat center Udonis Haslem during a game against the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 12, 2019, at American Airlines Arena in Miami.

Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

I ain’t up here smoking cigarettes and eating chicken. I’m getting work done, man. That’s what I try to tell people all the time. What people don’t understand is the reverse effect of this is if I’m not in shape and if I can’t compete then [my teammates] don’t listen to me. If I can’t do this, they going to be like, ‘Man, OK, respectfully, OG, we love you, but get your a– out of here.’

When your No. 40 goes up in the rafters at the Heat’s arena, what’s that day going to be like?

It’s going to be an emotional day because my parents are not here. I miss them a lot. I think for me, 20 years without my pops, which I knew would’ve been an amazing journey for him, he would’ve loved to see that. To be able to land my own plane would’ve been amazing for my mother. The things she’s went through, the drug addiction and the homelessness, just to have those proud moments. I’m not going to say I’m not happy, but it’s a little different not having him there. And I think once my father passed away, I lost a little bit of fire.

As much as I love the game of basketball, as much as I love competing, as much as I love to be successful, I never stepped on a basketball court without that man somewhere near. Whether he was on the phone, whether he was at the game, the man was somewhere right there. And it wasn’t the same. It’s not the same that he’s not there anymore. Even though I still love the game and I still love these people, it is just not the same fire or competitiveness or will to prove them wrong. I think I’ve done enough now.

Did you enjoy letting people know you still had it when you scored 24 points against the Orlando Magic on April 9, which was also your last regular-season home game with the Heat and Wade was in attendance?

Oh, hell, yeah. Listen, I couldn’t wait. I read. I hear all the comments, and even some of my peers, every now and then they got jokes to crack. But I bust their a– too. Some of the guys that sit up in there behind them suits at TNT and they got jokes, I would tear their a– up. I ain’t up here smoking cigarettes and eating chicken. I’m getting work done, man. That’s what I try to tell people all the time. What people don’t understand is the reverse effect of this is, if I’m not in shape and if I can’t compete, then [my teammates] don’t listen to me. If I can’t do this, they going to be like, ‘Man, OK, respectfully, OG, we love you, but get your a– out of here.’

I have to earn their respect every year. To be able to have the title of captain. To be able to have the title of somebody that they respect you and listen to. As much as I hold them accountable, they hold me accountable as well. And it goes both ways. So, it was fun to go out there and play, and show to people that it’s a lot of work that I get done behind the scenes here. I’m not just kicking back drinking coffee with my feet up.

What do you think you’re going to miss the most?

The locker room. Cracking the jokes and hanging out with the guys, and just being funny. I’m quite the jokester. I keep it loose around here.

What’s the first thing you going to do in retirement from the Heat?

I’ll just continue to do business, but I’m going to take my stepmom out of town to see Bruno Mars. She loves Bruno Mars. Oh, man. She watched this man’s YouTube videos and shows and all that stuff all the time. We were having a barbecue at the house the other day for my father’s birthday. I was outside with my cousins. We were playing cards and dominoes, Black people stuff at barbecues. And I walked in the house and she was watching Bruno Mars videos, and all his songs and his live performances. And I had no idea to that point that she was such a huge Bruno Mars fan.

As soon as the season is over, I’m taking her to see him in Vegas. He’s got a residency in Vegas. And she’s the last one I got left. She’s my guardian angel. Thank God for her because I wouldn’t have no parents. This lady came into my life when I was 5 years old. It’s hard enough to get somebody to raise their own child let alone raise a child that’s not your own. She’s been a rock for me.

What do you think you meant to the Heat culture? To the fabric of this organization?

I would like to say I am Heat culture. If you do it right, and you stay committed to the process, you don’t just speak it but it becomes a lifestyle. And this is where you can end up. I have businesses around the city. I’ve played 20 years in the NBA. I put myself in the opportunity in a position where I can at least have the conversation about ownership. So, I think Heat culture applies in all walks of life.

Not just in basketball, because most people don’t want to be held accountable. Most people don’t want to outwork people. Most people don’t want to do those things that some people see a little bit unnecessary or extra. Here we were believing in doing the extra things. We been believing in doing the things that people deem unnecessary because we want to be different. We want to be better.

So, who fills your void when you’re gone?

That’s a great question. Nobody. They got work to do. They got work to do, dawg. I don’t know if it would just be just one person. We have great leadership in Kyle [Lowry], who’ll be back next year. We just picked up K. Love [Kevin Love]. We also have Bam [Adebayo], who is somebody who I’ve been molding and mentoring, and been very close to over the years. You got Spo [Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra] who has been right there with me through all this. So, it’s going to be collective. A lot of collective voices and a lot of collective leadership. But there’s no doubt in my mind that these guys will figure it out. They’ll get it done.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.