Heat stars (from left) Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James return to… (David J. Phillip / Associated…)
Imagine a basketball team whose three biggest stars have sacrificed money and ego to assemble on one team for the sole intent of winning a championship.
Two of those stars' craving for a title was such that they left homes they loved and fans who loved them. The third star made an equally difficult move by stepping aside and welcoming them.
Imagine this collection of players then playing an entire season under a national microscope unmatched in the history of team sports. Every itch is documented, every scratch is scrutinized, every star is questioned about every public act, every day is another chance for them to embarrass or enrage.
But imagine they don't. They endure the media's perfect storm with uncommon dignity and grace. They don't publicly criticize others. They don't publicly fight among themselves. Off the court, they are a model of restraint. On the court, they are an example of unselfish determination, three guys trying to figure out a way to meld their three incredible talents for the good of this team.
Imagine this collection of stifled egos and textbook teammates growing together for nine months until they are within two victories of an NBA title.
And imagine all of America cheering against them.
This is the Miami Heat, and you hate the Heat, and I can't figure out why.
Miami plays host to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday night in Game 6 of one of the greatest NBA Finals that I have witnessed, the games filled with a passion that is equaled only by this paradox.
The Heat has been built around many of the values that many fans admire not only in their sports, but also in their lives, yet seemingly everyone is texting and chanting, "Go Mavs." Have you met anybody outside of Miami who is cheering for the Heat? I haven't, and it makes no sense.
The Mavericks are the team with a player, Jason Terry, who prances down the court imitating a jet after he scores a basket. Yet it is the Heat players who are considered arrogant.
The Mavericks are the team with the owner who sits behind the bench and attempts to bully the officials. Yet it is the Heat which is considered evil.
The Mavericks have a guard, Jason Kidd, who pleaded guilty to a domestic-abuse charge after assaulting his wife. They have another guard, DeShawn Stevenson, whose career has been marked by legal issues. Yet the Heat players are considered bad guys?
America thinks the Heat was unfairly built, but how many Americans have left their longtime jobs to take a chance with a hot company filled with all-star workers? America thinks the Heat has been constructed to defy the notion of fair competition, but since when is it unfair or anticompetitive to do everything within the rules to win?
I know where it starts, of course. We all know where it starts. It starts, and possibly ends, with Dirk Nowitzki versus LeBron James.
Even though he hails from Germany, the Mavericks star Nowitzki is viewed as an all-American player. Humble, deferential, shaggy hair, floppy walk — he's Jimmy Chitwood with an accent.
Even thought he hails from middle America, the Heat star James is viewed as a foreigner. Dark stare, hulking frame, intimidating swagger — he's Ivan Drago with a headband.
Nowitzki is the only one of these two players who has publicly ripped a teammate during these Finals — remember when he called out Terry for not being clutch? — yet James is considered the loudmouth. Neither player has won a championship, yet even though James has risked his reputation to be here, everyone thinks Nowitzki deserves it more.
Are there racial elements here? It would be naive to think otherwise. In some narrow corners I'm sure Nowitzki is considered a great white hope while James represents the heart of darkness. But James and, by association, the Heat are disliked for other reasons far more complex than color.
For one, there's history. Many have decided to dislike LeBron James since The Decision, and it's hard to argue with them. I thought James' nationally televised announcement last summer that he was dumping Cleveland for Miami was perhaps the most narcissistic bit of athletic behavior ever, and I ripped him for it.
But as time has passed, I've realized that James was an immature 25-year-old who was taking advice from other immature 25-year-olds. Wouldn't we hate for our lives to be forever stained by one of the many stupid things we all did in our mid-twenties?
While James is hated initially for The Decision, the rest of the Heat players were hated initially for what happened next, that smoky nightclub of a pep rally last summer to celebrate the union of James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. They claimed they would win multiple championships. They partied as if they had already won.
It was disgusting, but it was just marketing, and it was reminiscent of a certain giddiness that enveloped the assembling of another combination all-star plate in the summer of 2003. I'm guessing most of those who fear the Heat were fascinated with the Lakers when Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. With the exception of a little summer stupidity, what's the difference?
Those are the sorts of questions that should be asked Sunday night when the Mavericks take a three-games-to-two lead into Miami. If the Mavericks win, here's guessing that America, instead of focusing on the celebrating Nowitzki, will instead be searching to examine the face of the mourning James, the body language of the angry Wade, the confusion on the flighty Bosh.
America will believe the Heat deserved this defeat, quickly and joyfully casting shame upon it for acting so truly … American?