Imagine if the Miami Heat were in the NBA’s rugged Western Conference, how much more difficult mounting a legitimate playoff run would be.
Wait a minute. They actually were a Western team, back in Miami’s expansion season of 1988-89, and the results were not pretty.
Maybe you’ve heard of the franchise’s 0-17 start that year against a sprinkling of Western and Eastern teams.
That had coach Ron Rothstein and company scrambling for the slightest taste of success, and they finally got it in mid-December with a groundbreaking 89-88 victory over the Clippers at the old Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. Grant Long, Pat Cummings and Billy Thompson contributed 15 points each that night.
Along the way to 15-67 were some truly horrendous happenings and some ridiculous road trips. As a member of the NBA’s Midwest Division, Miami’s closest division rival was about 1,000 miles away in Houston.
One trip crossing from December into January included games at Seattle, Denver, Portland, Golden State, Los Angeles and Phoenix. Those stops were part of a 10-game losing streak and it wasn’t much better when the Heat were home.
Magic Johnson, James Worthy and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers scored a 47-point victory at Miami Arena that season, for instance. That was nice for Pat Riley, who was their coach at the time, but it should be pointed out that the West wasn’t even the toughest conference back then.
The Lakers were swept by Detroit in the 1989 NBA Finals and that set off a five-year championship run by the Pistons and the Chicago Bulls of the Eastern Conference.
What was Miami doing out west in the first place? It was all part of the NBA’s effort to work in some expansion teams and make all the numbers work in the process. Miami and Charlotte came in first, followed by Minnesota and Orlando the following season.
The Heat spent just that one season in the Western Conference, finishing 36 games back of Utah in the Midwest and 42 games behind the top-seeded Lakers.
It took a while, but Miami eventually won three NBA titles. Keep that in mind when today’s Heat team lays an egg like that loathsome 111-109 home loss to Orlando on Monday night.
Remember, too, that just about most every NBA team looks fairly hopeless from time to time.
In 2000 and 2001, Riley failed even to get Miami to 60 points in a couple of bad losses, and those were 50-win Heat teams featuring Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway.
The Miami Heat are returning to the Florida Atlantic University gym next week for training camp, which always brings back memories of the team’s first-ever exhibition game there 29 years ago.
Until the night of Oct. 14, 1988, Miami’s NBA expansion franchise had only practiced and played intrasquad scrimmages. It was totally new and exciting when head coach Ron Rothstein actually put on a business suit and brought his guys out to play the Seattle Supersonics with Heat partner Billy Cunningham alternately looking on and signing autographs.
Were you there? Don’t lie. The box score says only about 4,000 people were, and at that time a mere 4 percent of the Heat’s season tickets had been sold to Palm Beach County residents.
That was a long time ago, though, before the Sonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder, before all of South Florida fell in love with the Heat’s championship ways.
Fun to look back, after three NBA titles, to the franchise’s beginnings. What follows here is my column from the night of that exhibition debut, a 116-107 Seattle victory, with apologies to one original Heat player for writing that he “had all the finesse of a front-end loader.”
HEAT UNWRAP AN NBA VISION OF A TEAM DRESSED IN BASICSOct. 14, 1988By Dave George, Post Sports Columnist
Until Friday night, until a fairly full house at Florida Atlantic
University watched a somewhat significant exhibition game against a semi-tough NBA opponent, the MiamiHeat dangled somewhere between fantasy and fact.
Like a papier-mache pinata, the concept of a major league basketball franchise in
our own backyard was beautiful but no one had taken a whack at it yet.
South Florida’s last taste of suspense this sublime was when Christo the
artist promised a masterpiece of floating fabric surrounding a handful of
islands off Biscayne Bay. Would the Heat be similarly fluffy, presented in
pleasing pastels for the discerning Floridian but lacking in substance?
Any fear of that was ended with the first glance at Miami’s shock-troop
entry to the domain of Magic and Isiah and Kareem and Larry Friday. Maybe
storm troops would be a better word, since the NBA’s most mod squad debuted in black uniforms, insufficient to shake the veteran Seattle SuperSonics but a
fashion statement of great note.
The Heat’s new palace in downtown Miami may be pink but the players who
take the first halting steps toward tradition there won’t be. A ghastly green, perhaps, but definitely not pink.
No squad with Pat Cummings in the paint,
moving with all the finesse of a front-end loader, could ever be so. No coach whose last official sideline bark came in the NBA Finals ever would allow it.
“I’m sort of pleased but not satisfied,” Heat coach Ron Rothstein said
of the 116-107 loss his junior achievers suffered in their first dry run
toward the apocalyptic Nov. 5 season opener. “It’s going to be a long, drawn- out process but I hope people appreciate how hard the guys played.”
Appreciate it? These folks ate it up, howling like Lakers fans with $50
Forum seats. In truth this was only the FAU gym, a distant little dot on the
map for the fans who have invested the most in the belief that Artis Gilmore
and Art Deco both belong in Dade County.
Heat Managing Partner Lewis Schaffel estimated Friday that only 4 percent of the team’s season tickets have been bought by Palm Beach County residents, one percentage point ahead of the number sold to New York City residents. Those 4 percent were in the gym when the game started at 7:30 but by 8:15 the faithful had arrived, filling all but the far corners of the stands.
Joining them there were Stu Inman, Miami’s director of player personnel,
and Billy Cunningham, former NBA star and one of three partners in the
franchise. They scattered themselves in the bare spots of the bleachers to
watch the game, doing everything physically possible to complete the crowd and thus present the most pleasing face possible for this first date.
They needn’t have worried. The Heat may be only tepid today but there is
steam in the furnace. Let’s get crazy here, in honor of the moment. Miami
won’t win just a dozen games in its opening season. The Heat will win 14. No, make it 15.
Why fight the feeling when it feels so good?
The possibilities are endless. Consider for a moment that the Heat went
through the entire opening game with just two basic offensive sets, signaled
by various point guards with a shout of “fist” and “thumb up.” That leaves
four fingers completely unexplored, and that’s using just one hand.
Consider also that Rony Seikaly sat the bench for this one. Sure, every
center in the NBA won’t melt in his shadow like Dwayne Schintzius did but
they’ll have more trouble with him than Seattle’s big men did Friday with
And chew for a moment on the fact that this fresh mixture of mice and men actually led at halftime, 55-54. The Sonics walked to the locker room in
confusion over this exhibition aberration, rationalizing to themselves, “It’s not the Heat, it’s the humidity.”
There even was a point midway through the third quarter when Miami led by 11 points, cause for celebration even in a practice game. Exuberance was in
the air, rivaling the gush of a public address announcer who earlier had
introduced Tony Karasek to the crowd as a member of the Heat.
Karasek was cut on Wednesday.
The 21-4 run that the Sonics used to reinstate the natural order of the
universe quieted the crowd only for a moment. And it never stopped the Heat
from hustling. Chief among the survivors was rookie Kevin Edwards, who
established himself on opening night as the talent on a team that had
difficulty even getting the ball across half court against Seattle’s full-
Still, how could you hate them? On they went, racing up and down the court like fireflies. A flash of brilliance here, a dark spot there. Sure, it’ll take time but now that the Dolphins are playing like veterans again, there is room for a pack of rookie renegades.
This may work out after all.