Heat’s Udonis Haslem ‘ain’t really here trying to be friends with nobody’
Behind the mindset of the Miami Heat’s veteran leader in the NBA bubble
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – In the NBA bubble, veteran Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem has a variety of canned soup and tuna, microwavable mac and cheese, graham crackers, cereal, microwavable popcorn and packaged noodles in his hotel room. He prefers to sleep on the pullout bed from the couch instead of the soft king-size bed. (So does forward Jimmy Butler.) And he rarely says a word to his opponents living on the same grounds at Gran Destino Tower.
Despite the many luxuries on hand and the potential to bond with other teams, Haslem and the Heat have preferred to be uncomfortable and unfriendly in their quest to win an NBA championship.
“You got to get leaders like me and Jimmy,” Haslem said. “Action reflects leadership. When you see how I approach every day, and when you see how we approach every day in the bubble, ain’t really here trying to be friends with nobody. I might have spoken to about five people outside of my teammates since I’ve been here. I didn’t leave my room until my wife got here. That was about a week and a half ago. I ain’t slept in the bed. I’m sleeping on the couch. Jimmy sleeps on his couch, too. That ain’t nothing planned. That’s just how it happens. …
“I didn’t want to get too comfortable. I didn’t want to feel like home. I don’t want to get relaxed. I want to keep my edge. I want to stay focused on the task at hand. So, I’m sleeping on the couch right now, dog, with a room full of Chunky soup.”
Haslem took the hard road to the NBA, going undrafted in 2002. He started his professional career in France, where he kept his clock on Eastern Standard Time because he wanted to stay on NBA time. He signed with his hometown Heat in 2003 and the rest is history.
He has gone on to win three NBA championships over his 17-year career with the Heat, and has made an impact as a businessman in the Miami area. While the 40-year-old has played in only four games this season, he has drawn rave reviews from Heat All-Stars Butler and Bam Adebayo for his role as a demanding, straightforward, big brother-type on the bench.
Haslem spoke with The Undefeated about his experience in the NBA bubble, his relationship with Butler and his future in the NBA.
You’re like the big brother on the Heat. What role have you played here?
On the team, I’m a general. I’m the captain. But in this bubble, I understand how to be a soldier. I understand that the bubble is in basketball. We have this platform for numerous reasons, before we even get to talking about sports. In that situation, I’m a soldier, I’m following the leaders of this league, the leaders of the [National Basketball] Players Association.
But also, making my voice get heard, saying, ‘Hey, we got a lot of mixed emotions and a lot of conflicting feelings right now, and none of us have ever experienced anything like this. Let’s make sure we stay on the right page and stay together.’
Were you ever conflicted about coming?
Only confliction was losing ground on the work that I was doing at home. I had an opportunity, for the first time in my life, to educate myself more on the political part of things. I took the leap of faith and I started sitting down with mayors and commissioners and people like that.
I was able to get a relationship with a guy from my neighborhood who’s a politician, [Miami commissioner] Keon Hardemon. He’s a brother from my ’hood, living in the city. Real intelligent brother. The mayor speaks very highly of him. He’s my age. The thing about politics and politicians, you just can’t find one you can trust. I found one that I can trust. Educating me on a lot of things. I was really afraid of losing that ground that I had gained on those things since I got here.
What community work in Miami are you doing from the bubble?
You see what the Miami Heat has done, partnering with the Miami-Dade police department, and the mayors and commissioners. Those are all conversations that were started with the Heat this summer, getting on the phone with the mayors and the commissioners and the police chiefs. I had never put together a Zoom call in my life, and that was the first Zoom call I put together. Fast-forward to where we are now, the Heat’s created a partnership with the Miami-Dade police department, focusing on training and specific police skills, that’s something that’ll go 20 years from now, when I’m done with this. That’s one thing that we’ve been able to put into motion.
I’m doing as much as I can, but it’s frustrating. … Being far away is difficult, but we do have this platform, and I think, collectively, it is bigger. We bring LeBron [James] and myself, and all these guys together, speaking on the same team.
When the NBA teams considered ending the season after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, what did you say to your teammates? Why do you think you guys continued to play?
My thing was, let’s think about it. I see both sides. Both decisions could be defended. But in my mind, it felt like, as a group, collectively, [leaving] made us look weaker. You talk about everything that’s being said about us, and the platform that the NBA has. Nobody’s watching anymore, and nobody cares anymore. I think if we disband and go our separate ways, then we let the people feel that way about us.
Also, if we alienate people like [Heat center] Meyers [Leonard], who are trying to understand but don’t fully grasp a part of the kneeling and everything like that, but they have a good heart, they contributed to the cause, moneywise, timewise … we alienate people who are trying to educate themselves and learn, then we’re no different than the people we’re complaining about. Those are two things I’m focused on.
What do you remember about how pained Leonard was before he decided to not kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner” with his teammates? You’re one of the guys he talked to.
I told him, ‘You can’t worry what everybody thinks about you. We personally know you in this locker room, we know you in your heart, and we know what kind of person you are. There are a lot of people that’s going to go out there and say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and after that, after that leave their mouths, they’re not going to give no time to the cause, they’re not going to give no money to the cause, they’re not going to give no effort to the cause. You’re somebody who’s trying to understand, you’ve been affected by white privilege your whole life, and it’s not your fault, with the things that you’re currently learning now, but you’re open to learning. You’re giving your time to the cause. You’re giving your effort to the cause. You’re giving your money to the cause.’ …
We can’t turn people away just for what they don’t know. I think that’s the biggest mistake that we’re making. ‘Oh, he’s not with us.’ It’s not that he’s not with us. Maybe some people just don’t know. There’s a difference between the ones that don’t know and don’t care. There’s a big difference.
What’s next in terms of making an impact off the floor?
I’m going right back to the ground with the mayors and the commissioners. ‘What else can we do?’ I’ve got too much blood running around on the Miami streets for me just to stop now. ‘What can we do?’ My sister works for the police department. That’s the biggest thing for me. My mom passed away, and I have to take care of my little sister. My little sister works for the police department. My uncle works for the police department. I have two cousins that work for the police department. I got an auntie that works in payroll.
I got about 20 people in my family that work in the Miami-Dade police department. They’re like me and you. But people get conflicted about blue, they don’t care. If you blue, you blue. For me, I’m going to get right back to work on how to bridge that gap, because there are issues, there is systematic racism, there are terrible police officers and terrible people.
What kind of conversations have you had with your family in law enforcement?
I talk to my family members all the time. They’re very open and honest with me. They call a spade a spade. White cops get intimidated in Black neighborhoods. They act somewhat irrational sometimes. That’s coming from my family members that are in the police department. That’s just the truth. For me, we just continue to try to bridge that gap. I think that’s what we’re doing with the Miami Heat, as far as restructuring the police training.
You’re a step away from the NBA Finals again. When I say that, what comes to mind?
Honestly, the whole Boston Celtics rivalry, and how they went tooth and nail, blood and guts, a shot away, a timeout away, a rebound away. I think about those matchups, and I feel like this is going to be another one of those matchups for the ages. This is the first time I’ve been jealous in a long time. I wish I could be out there in this, but I think they’re ready for it. One thing about this team is they’re definitely built for the bubble.
I will be ready, but I understand my role. When I say ‘jealous,’ I just remember being in those battles with the old Boston Celtics, so I know the feeling that they’re going to have out there. That’s a great feeling, man. Mano a mano. Lock them in a room, and whoever comes out …
You could be in the Finals in three different decades. That’s got to mean something, right?
Yeah, it does. Honestly, people talk about what I do for these guys, but these guys do way more for me. If the new guys weren’t coming in, listening to me, excited to be under my wing and to hear my stories and to learn from me, I doubt at 40 years old, I’d be in the condition that I’m in, mentally, physically, emotionally. I lean on these guys as much as they lean on me. … These guys push me and I push them. We kind of need each other.
What was the key to you connecting with Jimmy?
Me and Jimmy like each other. We’ve been built on anger, frustration, people telling us what we couldn’t do. That’s really been our lifeline, up to this point. That’s how we got where we at. It’s built on frustration, anger, rage. However, you want to use it, but if you use it the right way, then you see the results on guys like me and Jimmy.
Now that you’re seeing Butler up close, what makes him special?
You don’t see guys that attack every game and every possession and really try to win every game and every possession. This league, you’ll see a guy that’ll say, ‘We’ll get on the next game. I’ll take this possession off and take a break.’ I know guys that rest throughout the game. I was never one of those guys that rested throughout the game. I literally tried to play every possession as hard as I could, offensively or defensively.
That’s what I love about Jimmy. He literally doesn’t give a s—. Don’t care who he got to guard, really doesn’t care. He’s going to play as hard as he physically can, every possession. I never have to have a conversation with Jimmy about his effort. Never. That’s what I love about him.
So why do you have Chunky soup, cans of tuna fish and noodles in your room when there is hot food and restaurants available?
It’s my combat pack. No bulls—. That’s my combat pack. Also, in the bubble, it ain’t just about basketball. Coaching, and other things, reflecting. Hopefully, I leave the bubble a better man, a better husband, a better father, a better businessman. I finally got into stocks. All the business stuff I’ve done, I never looked into stocks and doing s— like that. I got into Apple stocks, before Apple and Tesla split. I got into that. I’m educating. I’m going to leave this thing with some stuff up here.
Is this your last NBA season?
Depends on if we win. … In all honesty, it’s a conversation that I’m going to have with the coaching staff. There is a value and a need for me here. It doesn’t have to be the way that everybody thinks it should be. If I have to put on a suit and stand on the sideline, just because everybody else thinks I should. I found value in this locker room, and I’ve been able to move the needle and help us win games, and that’s what it’s all about. Whether it’s playing or you’re on the bench, you figure out ways to make yourself valuable in your world. You help your team win games.
How does your body feel?
Amazing. For me, practices are my games. When we’re in practice, I’m going all out. I’m getting my reps. I was able to start a preseason game and play 22 minutes. … I hadn’t even played in three or four years. I wasn’t tired. Didn’t feel out of rhythm. I really take this s— serious.
That’s another reason why guys can follow my lead, because I don’t just talk about it. I show you. I’m not going to be the guy that’s going to sit on the sidelines, going, ‘Yeah,’ eating potato chips and drinking soda. That ain’t me. I want to be in the trenches. I want to sweat. I want to be in practice. I want you to see it, so when I say something to you, you can’t question me. You’ve already seen me do it and put the work in.
How are things doing businesswise during the pandemic?
Businesswise, it’s tough. With the restaurants and everything I got into, I felt terrible. The reason why I got into those restaurants is to be able to provide jobs for my community. I wanted stuff that I like, and ultimately, I just want to be able to provide jobs to people. When everything shut down, [former Heat star and business colleague] Dwyane [Wade] and I felt terrible about our employees. We were able to send out gift cards and food packs. I really felt terrible, because everything that I worked for is to give these people opportunities to work. Now, this pandemic has come, they can’t work. We finally got back open, finally opened the outside, 50%. Hopefully, those things get back to normal.
My low-income housing projects are still going up. … Those are the things that I’m most excited about, because everybody remembers Wynwood for this tourist attraction in Miami right now. They don’t even know what Wynwood looked like seven or eight years ago. I got homeboys that still live over there, but they get moved out. With me being able to build those high-rises, or that one high-rise in Wynwood, at least we’ll keep some of those people in that area.
When you’re done playing for the Heat, do you want to stay in basketball?
In some shape, form or fashion. It has to be with the Heat. I can’t be anywhere else. Not only have I accepted the culture, but I’ve helped tweak it and mold it. I’ve been the keeper of the culture for a long time.
What kind of impact have you had on Heat culture?
I don’t say much, but I want to let everybody know, make no mistake, when you come to this locker room, I’m who you got to answer to. We have a lot of leaders on this court. Dwyane was the greatest player to ever come through the Miami Heat organization. He is the leader on the court. LeBron [James], all those dudes. … I understand who scores all the points, but when you come in that locker room and you got to get with this culture, and the expectations of what we expect from you, I’m who you got to deal with. You see how that works out for some people. Everybody ain’t built for it.
For the people who don’t know, how would you define the culture?
If I’m 40 years old, and 6% body fat, I go running and do 10 suicide [sprints]. What do you think I’m going to expect out of a 22-year-old? I have no understanding why you can’t. There is no, ‘I can’t.’