It's not just the Knicks anymore
Are the Miami Heat the latest pro sports franchise to face a daunting curse? Before you laugh off the suggestion as an exceptional case of sour grapes, let's review some recent history of a franchise that has had as much star power as any other in the NBA, and more regular season success over the past ten seasons than anybody except for the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs, both of whom have won multiple championships in recent years.
The Miami Heat however, have yet to reach the NBA Finals as a franchise. Monday Night's setback at home was the latest in a long list of failures this team has experienced in critical games. South Florida and Heat fans across the country have fallen into a mode of frustration and depression since last night's blown lead and abrupt season ending loss.
When Pat Riley, winner of five NBA titles with the LA Lakers was named Heat coach, President and General Manager in 1995, it seemed the franchise was about to the next great NBA dynasty. Sports Illustrated ran a cover story contrasting Pat Riley's initial success with the Heat to Don Shula's failures with the Dolphins. (A cover story Riley angrily denounced, claiming he was a Dolphins fan and an even bigger Shula fan, and that he did not realize the nature of the story when he agreed to it.) In Riley's first Heat season, the team traded for Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway and made the playoffs despite a roster that was constantly in flux all season long. The only player Riley seemed to like that he had inherited from the past regime was tough man Keith Askins who is today still a Riley favorite and member of the organization's staff. In Riley's second season the Heat had the NBA's second best record at 61-21. The Heat reached the Eastern Conference Finals where they lost to the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. Despite the loss, the Heat played well, holding the Jordan led Bulls to an average of only 84 points for the series, which was unheard of in the NBA at the time.
The next season began the long frustrating road which culminated last night for the franchise. The Heat had the league's third best record (again behind Chicago and also behind Utah) and hosted the rival New York Knicks who had barely made the playoffs in the first round. (The Heat-Knicks rivalry was ranked the top Pro Sports rivalry by Sports Illustrated for the 1990s) The Heat played poorly, and in the waning seconds of Game 4, with the game all but over Alonzo Mourning took a swipe at his old nemesis Larry Johnson. Johnson and Mourning had played together in Charlotte and had a troubled relationship. Mourning was suspended for the deciding Game 5, which lead to a Knicks rout in the Miami Arena. The next season, with Michael Jordan retired, the Heat had tied for the best regular season record in the NBA. The Knicks had the worst record of any team that qualified for the Playoffs, and thus the two teams met in the first round again. In the deciding game, the Knicks got an off balance long range shot from Alan Houston to advance, yet again in front of Miami's home crowd. The next season the Heat won its fourth straight Atlantic Division title, swept Detroit in the first round and again faced the Knicks in a decisive Game 7 at home. Tim Hardaway's three point basket gave the Heat the lead inside of two minutes to go, but the Heat wouldn't score again and when Clarence Weatherspoon's jumper clanked with 6 seconds to go, the Heat had again been beaten by New York.
One underlying tension point always prevalent in South Florida is the number of New Yorkers in South Florida who show nothing but contempt for the teams we locals love so dearly. We hear about the Jets, the Knicks, the Yankees and the Mets almost as much as we hear about the Dolphins, Heat and Marlins. Losses to the Knicks and Jets were especially hard for South Floridians as the rivarly was super intense and half the locals seemed to be pulling for the Knicks, as well as every time the Dolphins would play an inferior Jets team it seems going back to the 1970s, they lose. Heat fan frustration reached the boiling point the following season when Jimmy Buffett was tossed from the Arena by refs for complaining about the Knicks getting every call in a critical late season matchup. Spike Lee always did the same in New York, why did he never get tossed from a game on National TV? Conspiracy minded people like myself were beginning to wonder, why is it that the Heat never get the calls and the league is quick to fine Pat Riley or eject Jimmy Buffett without inflicting any similar punishment on the New Yorkers? Could it be because it serves NBC and TNT well that New York every series goes to the limit and New York keeps winning? As controversial as he is, South Floridians like myself never got the satisfaction of getting even with the New York first crowd until one night in October 2003 when Jeffery Loria had a smug look on his face at Yankee Stadium following Josh Beckett's masterpiece Game 6- a look that said "gotcha!" The Marlins had defeated the evil empire, and were World Champs.
The Heat overhauled the roster coming into the 2000-2001 season making a blockbuster deal to bring local star Eddie Jones who grew up in Pompano Beach back home to South Florida. The Heat who has long been community minded in its outlook (unlike the Miami Dolphins; Pat Riley has been known to watch Miami Hurricanes game in the locker room cheering on the Canes, and been interested in creating a hometown feel by bringing as many local stars to the Heat as possible) had the missing piece or so it seemed. But when Alonzo Mourning was diagnosed with a Kidney ailment and had to quit playing and Jones didn't live up to his billing, Riley was accused of bad management and of being too much of a homer. The Heat did win 50 games that season but bowed out of the playoffs quickly, being swept by the lower seeded Charlotte Hornets who featured three former Heat players in its starting lineup.
Fast forward to Summer 2004. The Heat, coming off a strong playoff run the previous season acquires the most dominant big man in the recent history of the game. At the same time a supporting cast that cut its teeth the previous year with a successful season was in place for a title run. The Heat easily secured the best record in the Conference and home court advantage. After sweeping the first two playoffs series, the Heat faced defending champion Detroit. By this time, the entire Heat lineup was hobbled, and when Dwayne Wade went down in Game 5, the reaction from many of us, was "here we go again." What other team in recent memory has had to hold its entire starting five out of practice the day before a deciding championship game?
I'm not sure what to call this curse, but after Monday night, I am convinced it exists.
Providing Unique Commentary and Insight into Politics, History and Society since 2005
- I am the host of the Major League Soccer Talk and EPL Talk Podcasts and am frequent guest on other (world) football shows. I am also the publisher of various other websites including this one. I work in public/government relations in addition to my soccer work and have a keen interest in history, politics, aviation, travel,and the world around us.