MIAMI -- These survival-of-the-fittest games move very fast. And, cold as the wild, the pack will leave you to shrink in the rear-view mirror if you are limping. Udonis Haslem was supposed to be at the center of this Miami Heat circus, but instead he is outside the tent, leaning on a crutch, undone by the kind of rare foot injury usually sustained by football players, distance runners and car-crash victims. Haslem is a very rugged man, as hard as the Miami streets that helped shape him. He is not used to being this helpless.
"It feels terrible," he says.
The worst part?
He does not hesitate when answering this. He does not talk about winning or scoring or fun with the guys on the road. Fame? Relevance? Glory? No, no, no. He doesn't mention playing cards on the team plane or the locker-room laughter or the home crowd swelling and swaying behind him.
No, the worst part is this:
"Seeing Dwyane (Wade) get fouled hard by Dwight Howard or seeing LeBron (James) get the headband knocked off his head," he says.
"I don't have words for how much that bothers me," he says. "I wouldn't let anything happen to them if I was out there. If that means I get thrown out protecting them and they get to keep playing, so be it."
Haslem's story isn't just about basketball. It is about who he is, and how much this team and this city mean to him. There never has been a professional athlete in this town who has taken as much pride in his Miami roots and proved it with everything from his scars to his paychecks.
When the Heat won the NBA championship in 2006, bringing it back to the ravaged Liberty City that once rioted around him as a child and now rejoiced around him as an adult, there was only one man in that winning locker room who understood the weight of what that meant to his neighbors. That might explain why so-rugged, so-rough, so-stoic Udonis Haslem was the only one in that locker room sobbing.
Twice, he has sacrificed millions of dollars to remain a part of this team in this city -- $14 million the last time, $10 million the time before that. And Wade, James and Chris Bosh sacrificed millions to keep him a part of it, after which Haslem told them, "You didn't make a mistake. I won't let you down." But now he can't contribute, can't be accountable, can't pay them back. He can't be sure if he will be right again this season even as the doctors work toward a late-March return. His walking boot comes off next week, when he will start water rehab, and the research he has done on his injury has scared him.
"I've stopped the pity party, but I've been angry, frustrated, disappointed," he says.
What's the big deal, right? He is a millionaire. This is just paid leave, right? A long paid vacation until the playoffs? Who wouldn't want that? Just Saturday, Haslem had time to fish and play football with his sons when he normally still would have been in bed after a Heat back-to-back through Orlando and Charlotte. What's so bad about that deal?
If you have to ask, you don't know Haslem or his pride very well. And you don't know, for all the millions the Heat has paid him, and for all the millions he has earned taking charges and elbows and pain, why he always will feel like he owes this franchise, too.
This has been the very hardest year of a very hard life that had him living in so many places as a child that he shrugs when you ask him how many homes he had. He had to bury his mother, an addict, this summer. And he had to be pretend strong for his little sister, which left him feeling unusually vulnerable when away from his family.
"In the last hours, I said everything I needed to say to my mother and cried with her the way I needed to cry," he says. "I felt very weak. In my quiet time, I grieved alone."
You know who helped him through it? Wade's mother, who has had her own experiences with addiction. The last time Haslem saw his own mother smile was when he told her that he was turning down an extra $14 million from Denver and Dallas to stay in Miami. And he knew just how right his choice was the night of her wake, at 9 p.m. in Liberty City, when Pat Riley walked into the room.
Felt it again the next day, at the funeral, as cars kept pouring in with his basketball family as he pretended to be strong. There was Wade and James Jones and Alonzo Mourning and Quentin Richardson. Keyon Dooling and Michael Beasley and Mike Miller, all from out of town. Nick Arison, the owner's son. Keith Askins, an assistant coach. Team doctors and secretaries and long-time employees and here came the entire public-relations department.
"You can't put a price on something like that," Haslem says. "It's one thing to talk about being a family on TV or in the newspapers. It's another thing to show it. I've had help in my life, but I consider myself a self-made man. When I fall, I fall hard on my butt, pick myself up, wipe that off, bounce back, move on alone. This time, I needed these people. I had someone there to catch me."
He wants to repay the debt so badly now. He wants to keep Tyson Chandler off the glass and take charges from Blake Griffin and retaliate against Howard when Wade is writhing on the floor. Instead, after Sunday's game against the Clippers, he was set to join Juwan Howard in helping to feed the homeless. And he will continue his work on creating a couple of AAU teams for kids in Miami. If he can't help his basketball family just yet, he will help strengthen the community around it.
"Basketball rescued me," he says. "It helped me make the right decisions when my friends were into drugs and robberies. I need to help kids out of the inner city. There are kids who have never crossed the county line. They don't know there is something better out there for them. They don't know how to reach."
You hear that phrase a lot in sports. The NBA has a series of commercials showing how much it cares. And Haslem likes giving back to the homeless and kids and the Miami that made him. But the team president who showed up at his mother's wake, the teammates who took fewer millions to keep him, the brother in Wade he wants to protect, that kind of giving back can't get here fast enough -- and somehow, emotionally if not geographically, hits even closer to home