"When we come back from our road trip [Miami has away games against the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento this week], we have a five-game home stand," said Bufman, "and we better win one." It won't be easy. The visitors are the Dallas Mavericks, Seattle SuperSonics, Utah, San Antonio and the Houston Rockets.
No one is surprised that the Hornets have gotten off to a better start than the Heat, which lost 99-84 in Charlotte on Nov. 29. The Hornets decided to build through the expansion draft and free-agent signings, while Miami, under the guidance of experienced NBA hands Billy Cunningham and Lewis Schaffel—who are partners with Bufman and Carnival Cruise Lines founder Ted Arison—elected to hoard its draft picks and to eschew veterans with long-term contracts. "No matter how many times you warn people about what's going to happen," says Schaffel, "the route we've taken is clearly the tougher way to go for our fans."
It's one thing to be firm in resolve if your young players are talented. It's quite another if you are playing nursemaid to half the roster of the 1991 Topeka Sizzlers. Right now the Heat's rookie tote board says:
•Three will help: center Rony Seikaly from Syracuse, who is an NBA player despite his penchant for dropping balls and not dropping free throws (he's shooting 51% from the line); Kevin Edwards, a strong, slashing shooting guard from DePaul; and Grant Long, a second-round pick out of Eastern Michigan, who plays every minute as if the Heat was contending for the NBA championship.
•One might: free-agent guard Anthony Taylor, an Atlanta Hawk reject whose build is slight but whose jump shot is not.
•And two probably won't: Sylvester Gray, an early signee from Memphis State whose superb athletic skills probably will not be honed soon enough; and John Shasky, a former CBA player who has already applied for membership in the Lifetime Backup Center Club chaired by Chuck Nevitt.
Even when third-year forward Billy Thompson and third-year guard Pearl Washington (currently on the injured list with a groin pull) are thrown into the mix, one still must conclude that the Heat is a long way from hot. However, says Ron Rothstein, the Heat coach, "There is no way we could have been better than Charlotte this season. Absolutely no way. Sure, we could've gone the Charlotte route, signed a lot of veterans and gotten more wins. But at what price?"
Well, the Hornets did not exactly mortgage the future to land proven players like Kelly Tripucka, Kurt Rambis and Robert Reid. Charlotte retains all of its future draft picks, although it did build the team around these three veterans. The Heat, by contrast, focused on youth and also made trades to acquire a first-round pick (Edwards) and three seconds (Long, Gray and Orlando Graham from Auburn-Montgomery, who was cut) in the '88 draft, as well as three extra second-rounders in three of the next four drafts. Good work, Miami. Now for the hard part—using the picks to get first-rate players.
For the time being, the Heat will try to tread water, hoping that the youngsters cut their teeth quickly, that a respectable but hardly awe-inspiring group of veterans (Rory Sparrow, Sundvold, Hastings, Pat Cummings) maintains its enthusiasm and that a few calls start to go the Heat's way. The most popular pastime of any expansion team is to dwell on alleged injustices by the zebras, and Miami certainly is no exception. Some of its complaining even seems to be justified.
As of Sunday, the Heat had shot more free throws than its opponents in only one game, against the Spurs on Nov. 9. The Lakers were not whistled for a foul until 5:45 of the second period during their game in Miami—a 138-91 blowout on Nov. 23. Perhaps that night was in Rothstein's subconscious when he rose to question a technical foul that veteran referee Jim Capers called on Hastings late in the third period of the game against Sacramento. "Tell me, Jim," said the frustrated Rothstein, "would you call that technical on Magic Johnson?"