Heat’s Mario Chalmers: ‘The best part of it is just being back’
The 35-year-old guard returned to the NBA on a 10-day contract, part of a wave of players coming back as teams navigate COVID-19
SAN FRANCISCO — Mario Chalmers was sitting on the visiting bench at Chase Center, taking in the moment about an hour before tipoff on Monday night. The NBA veteran knows this could all be over again in fewer than 10 days.
But by the big smile on the Miami Heat guard’s face before his pregame workout, he appeared more focused on enjoying every second of his surprise return rather than worrying about when it could be over.
“The best part of it is just being back,” Chalmers told The Undefeated before the Heat’s loss to the Golden State Warriors. “Going through what I went through. Having an Achilles injury and going overseas playing for a couple years and just seeing a different kind of basketball. I’m just happy to be back where I started and back where I belong.”
More than 100 players have signed 10-day contracts due to a new hardship allowance that was implemented as a wave of NBA players became sidelined due to the omicron variant of COVID-19. The Heat’s game against the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 29, 2021, was postponed because they were unable to meet the league’s requirement of eight available players. So to help fill the void, the Heat signed Chalmers to a 10-day contract on New Year’s Eve while Miami navigated injuries and health and safety protocols.
Chalmers had been trying to return to the NBA since 2018. The 35-year-old has played professionally overseas, in the Big3 and most recently in the G League.
For the Heat, signing Chalmers made sense due to his familiarity with the franchise after averaging 8.8 points, 3.8 assists and 1.5 steals from 2008 to 2015 and winning two championships as the starting point guard.
“He is a major part of the banners that are up there,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We were together from the beginning of his career. A lot of development was spent with Rio in the summer, working with our staff, preparing himself to be one of the mainstays of those championship years. I really enjoyed seeing his growth and progress as a professional and as a human being.”
Said Chalmers: “Hopefully, my legacy there is a winner. Someone who came out and laid it on the line all the time. Someone who helped win championships. Didn’t back down from anyone. I lived up to the challenge.”
Chalmers’ first stint with Miami ended on Nov. 10, 2015, when he was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies. On March 10, 2016, his season with Memphis was abruptly ended and his career was in jeopardy after he suffered a ruptured right Achilles tendon against the Boston Celtics. The next day the Grizzlies waived Chalmers.
Chalmers missed the 2016-17 season and played sparingly in 2017-18, averaging 7.7 points and 3.7 assists for Memphis in 66 games. The lack of interest from NBA teams at that time broke Chalmers mentally.
“Mentally, I went into a little depression,” Chalmers said. “I’m not going to lie. Ever since I [was a] kid I always had basketball. Not having basketball, no teams calling and nobody wanting me was definitely hard.”
Chalmers returned to the court in Italy with Virtus Bologna after signing for the remainder of the season in March 2019. Being back on the court and the love he received from the overseas fans healed the pain, but he still yearned to return to the NBA. He also played in the Big3 league, for AEK Athens and Aris Thessaloniki in Greece, and for Indios de Mayaguez in Puerto Rico from 2019 to 2021.
While seeing the world was a great experience for Chalmers, playing overseas certainly had its challenges.
“I was humbled to go overseas,” Chalmers said. “That was a whole different ballgame. A whole different space. I was tired of going overseas. Not getting my money. Not getting paid on time.”
Chalmers decided to put his name in the G League free-agent pool in hopes of joining a team during the AT&T NBA G League Winter Showcase in Las Vegas from Dec. 19 to Dec. 22, 2021. The Grand Rapids Gold of the G League, an affiliate of the Denver Nuggets, signed him on Dec. 18, 2021. After averaging 8.5 points and 3.0 assists in two games, he was waived by the Gold on Christmas Eve. Heat assistant general manager Adam Simon attended the G League showcase and was watched Chalmers play.
“I think the showcase helped me with the Heat,” Chalmers said. “I also played a couple times in the summertime with Miami in the practice gym. I’ve been seen by them a couple of times, but I think the showcase gave them a different look at me where they saw I put the work in, I was in shape and I could play.”
Chalmers next headed to Vance County, North Carolina, for the funeral of his aunt, Lois Chalmers. In the midst of the mourning, the Heat delivered some good news: They called his father, Ronnie, who also serves as his agent, to tell them they wanted to sign his son to a 10-day contract.
“The call came at a time where the family finally needed something to uplift them,” Mario Chalmers said. “It was perfect timing. My aunt meant a lot to me. She had a smile that lit up a room. That was my dad’s sister. They were really close. I was close to her. He took it hard, so it was good for him to get this call and see his son get a chance to get back to the NBA.”
Shortly after, Heat president Pat Riley sent Chalmers a text message.
“’Are you ready to play? Get to Houston.’ It was short and simple, as Pat is,” Chalmers said.
Spoelstra said that he and Chalmers remained in contact and communicated via text before the latter’s signing. Chalmers previously told Spoelstra that he would be available if the then-injury-riddled Heat needed him. The omicron variant’s impact on Miami’s roster ultimately opened the door for Chalmers.
“It was good to reconnect with Rio, but I hoped we didn’t have a bunch of spots available,” Spoelstra said. “Of course, like everyone else, we did. It happened quickly. I just enjoyed the human part of bringing him back to the family.”
Chalmers did not play due to coach’s decisions in his first three games since being signed by Miami. Then on Wednesday before the game at Portland, he and Nik Stauskas were ruled ineligible, a designation for players who are inactive due to the return of those in health and safety protocols (Duncan Robinson and Max Strus took their places). His 10-day contract will be up on Jan. 9, without an opportunity to play in a home game during that span.
Chalmers isn’t quite ready to give up on the NBA, even if the Heat don’t sign him for a second 10-day contract. He said he is willing to return to the G League if needed.
“I really don’t know what to expect,” Chalmers said. “I hope I get another 10-day contract. I hope I get to sign for the rest of the year. The biggest thing is to keep playing. Expectations? I really don’t have none. Let’s see what happens. …
“I just appreciate them giving me the opportunity to come back and getting the love from the fans. Even though I haven’t gotten a home game, I still have got a lot of love from Heat fans saying, ‘Welcome back.’”
Said Spoelstra: “I don’t know where this is going to go. We all have to keep an open mind to this. This is like nothing else we’ve been a part of before. But if you have an opportunity to do something like this, even for a short period of time, I think it’s worth it and I’m grateful for the relationship.”
Chalmers is the son of two coaches who helped develop him and many others on and off the court. Ronnie Chalmers is a former head basketball coach at Bartlett High School in Anchorage, Alaska, and an assistant coach at Kansas. Almarie Mosley Chalmers is a certified life coach who wrote a book about raising a basketball family called The Ball is in Your Court: Embracing Your Child’s Dreams and founded Hi-Rise Sports Camps, which taught life skills development to student-athletes.
Once Chalmers retires from playing, he dreams of working in the NBA.
“I want to get into player development when I’m done,” Chalmers said. “This is a perfect opportunity for me to look to see what I have to do.”
It’s quite possible that the Miami resident could find that opportunity with his beloved Heat. Chalmers said he would love that, and Spoelstra could be the one to make it happen.
“He told me something crazy [last] summer,” Spoelstra said. “He said he wanted to get into this profession. I asked him: ‘Are you nuts? Are you kidding?’ But if he chooses to when he is done playing, he still has years ahead of him because he’s in shape and his style of play will lend him to play a few more years, but if he does decide to get into this madness, I’d love to help him in any relationship — whether it is with us or someone else.”