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A Long Way From Hot
Jack McCallum
July 05, 2006
Travel back with us to Year One of the Heat, when the team dreamed not of a championship but simply of a single victory
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July 05, 2006

A Long Way From Hot

Travel back with us to Year One of the Heat, when the team dreamed not of a championship but simply of a single victory

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LIKE A high school kid collecting yearbook signatures, Scott Hastings, the backup center for the Miami Heat, circulated through the visiting locker room in Chicago Stadium on the night of Saturday, Dec. 10, imploring teammates and coaches to sign his stat sheet. Yes, for weeks the long tentacles of history had been reaching out for this juicy expansion tidbit, and when it was time, the Heat threw up its hands and said, "Take me." With that night's 111-88 loss to the Chicago Bulls, Miami fell to 0-16, breaking the NBA record for consecutive defeats at the start of a season. "I'm going to frame this and put it in my bar," said Hastings, part owner of Jocks 'n' Jills in Atlanta. "People will look back on this someday."

And someday the Heat--which, along with the Charlotte Hornets, joined the NBA this season--will win a game too. Many thought that the first victory would come on Dec. 7 against the Sacramento Kings at the brand-new Miami Arena, where Heat fans can buy Cuban coffee and a rum drink called Frozen Miami Heat. All but a few of the arena's 15,008 seats were filled that night. Zev Bufman, one of the Heat's four principal owners, wore sneakers to the game so he could spring from his courtside seat onto the floor and "hug the whole team" when the final buzzer sounded. Local newspapers played up the fact that the Heat was actually favored by 2� points.

Alas, Sacramento pulled off a 96-94 upset to hand Miami defeat number 14-making its own record 3-12. Defeat number 15 for Miami had come on Friday night, Dec. 9, courtesy of the visiting Denver Nuggets, who won 121-110. After Chicago, which got 38 points from Michael Jordan, contributed defeat number 16, it was time for the Heat to say hello and goodbye to the 1949-50 Denver Nuggets, who were not around for the '50-51 season; the wild and wonderful 1970-71 Cleveland Cavaliers, whose record after 30 games was 2-28; and, of course, those ever-popular objects of derision, the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who put together the worst season record (9-73) in NBA history. All three of these teams opened with 15 straight losses, but all won number 16.

Like waves on Miami Beach, the Heat jokes are rolling in. David Letterman conferred official pop status on the Heat recently when the team was mentioned on his Top Ten list. That night the list covered the reasons why Yasser Arafat should be allowed to come to America to address the U.N.: Reason No. 7-the P.L.O. leader's three-point shooting could help the Heat win a game. And Pat Williams, the general manager of the Orlando Magic--which will enter the league next season, along with the Minnesota Timberwolves--noted last week that the Heat is losing so frequently its "mascot should be a Democrat."

To underscore his faith in the Heat, which he says is destined to be a "very special" franchise, NBA commissioner David Stern last week awarded Miami the 1990 All-Star Game. By then the Heat will almost certainly have won a game. "Right now it looks dark for Miami," says Stern, "but everything takes time. They have no place to go but up, and up they will go."

Terrific. And how much negative publicity about expansion will the league have endured by then? Will 10 wins, which would lift the Heat above the ignominy of the 1972-73 Sixers, make the season a success? Or does "up" mean the rarefied atmosphere in which the Hornets, winners of five games through last weekend, reside?

"None of us is putting a number on it," says guard Jon Sundvold, whom Miami got from the San Antonio Spurs in the expansion draft. "Sixteen straight, 20 straight, 30 straight losses by March or April, what's the difference? What's the impact for next season? None. We'll be in the lottery in any case, and our younger players will have improved by then. We'll be a much better team next season."

Heat fans have been patient, but how long will that last? The call of the boobird has been detected on at least two occasions in Miami Arena--during a 105-101 loss to San Antonio on Nov. 30 and on Friday night (defeat number 15), when Hastings was singled out in the course of an 0-for-5 shooting performance against Denver. Even Bufman, who made his millions producing plays for Broadway ("The good thing about being in the NBA is that you can't close on opening night," he says), seemed a little antsy before the Denver game, to which he wore street shoes.

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:

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