To make the jump to calling the Miami Heat likeable this season is probably going too far for many NBA fans. There's still plenty enough jilted ticket buyers in places like Cleveland and Toronto to warrant a cascade of boos whenever the Heat's traveling road show hits town.
And as the perceived evil empire of basketball, a non-Miamian (and many Miamians in sports-fickle South Florida for that matter) would still have to be considered the lowest form of fan -- the bandwagon jumper -- to don a Heat jersey and cheer this squad on.
Yet as they say, time heals all wounds. The palpable rancor this team generated last season, while not completely gone, has dissipated somewhat. "It's a lot more calm," said Heat centre Joel Anthony before Miami's 113-101 win over the Raptors in Toronto Friday. "It's a lot less ... hectic," the Montreal native explained, searching for the right word.
"It would have been tough to keep that up for another year," said Dwyane Wade after the game.
In a more unexpected way however, the Heat has gained the respect of many who feel that athletes -- especially African-American ones -- need to speak up on the myriad of social issues that affect that community.
When you think about it for a minute, their display of support in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting was unusual for a group of professional athletes in 2012. As Jason Reid of the Washington Post pointed out in a column
last week, gone are the days when sports stars like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Jim Brown, to name a few, put themselves front-and-centre on serious issues.
Granted, that era -- the 1960s -- was the one of most socially turbulent in modern history. But it also gave way to the criticism of athletes that followed later. When black Democrat Harvey Gantt was challenging Jesse Helms (a onetime Dixiecrat the late writer Christopher Hitchens once eulogized as a "provincial redneck") in a 1990 North Carolina Senate race, one of the state's favourite sons, Michael Jordan, refused to endorse the former civil rights activist, famously saying "Republicans wear sneakers too."
Now that was politics (although that and race seem to be the same thing in America sometimes), and Jordan is certainly entitled to do what he wants, but the optics told everyone that commerce would be superseding pretty much everything else from that point forward. Which is why there is -- for a lack of better term in the midst of a terrible tragedy -- something refreshing about the Heat's hoodie photo.
Some have opined that the Heat are just capitalizing on a new form of political correctness, but I'd offer that is contradictory given the example I just mentioned. And while people like Rashard Mendenhall have got themselves into trouble with controversial tweets, they and the dozens of other athletes to jump into hot water because of Twitter were individuals voicing real-time opinions, be they ill-advised, unbelievable, silly or profane. So 2012.
An entire team -- including two of the top five players in the NBA -- taking their stand on a real-world issue? That's not as 2012.
Wade is no stranger to dealing with real-world tragedy either. Late Thursday night before the team landed in Toronto, he found out from family members that his nephew had been shot in Chicago. While he was in hospital and expected to recover, it's the senseless violence gripping Wade's hometown that the star is trying to fight with his charity foundation.
"You never expect to get a call [like that]," Wade said. "There's a lot of violence ... obviously in Chicago. That's something I'm always focused on with [Wade's World]."
Through Tuesday afternoon, there have been 139 homicides in Chicago this year.
"It is troubling," Wade said of the staggering number of murders. "We're trying to do what we can to try to make a change ... but when it hits someone in your family, it really hits your heart. I just thank God that he's healthy ... thank God he's going to get another chance."
And taking it back to basketball, you can pick apart Heat all you want -- because you don't like them, or being bad at defending the perimeter, etc. -- but don't question their chemistry, because it's a tight group.
"Going through what we did last year makes you stronger emotionally," Chris Bosh said after the Raptors game.
"These are our brothers," Wade said about his locker room. "Anything [negative] we go through away from each other hurts all of us."
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