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After a workout at Florida International University last August, forward Jamal Mashburn was on his way off the court when, without thinking, he leaned over to pick a ball up off the floor and palmed it with his right hand. Shocked, Mashburn danced around the court smiling and laughing, holding the ball out for everyone to see. His Heat teammates thought he had gone crazy. But for Mashburn, who still has two screws in his reconstructed right thumb, the simple feat was an exhilarating breakthrough.
After reestablishing himself early last season as the multifaceted threat he had been in his first three years as a pro, the 6'8" Mashburn came down awkwardly after a dunk against the Pistons last Feb. 13 and fractured the thumb in 16 places. It was the kind of severe break most commonly seen in high-speed accidents, such as motorcycle crashes. Upon seeing X-rays team doctor Harlan Selesnick told Mashburn his career might be over. "And if you do somehow make it back," Selesnick added, "you'll never palm a ball again."
"I've scored 50 points in a game," says the 26-year-old Mashburn, "but palming that ball for the first time this summer was probably my biggest thrill as a player."
If he stays healthy, Mashburn should have something a little more exciting in store this season—a shot at the NBA championship. Miami already has a dominant center in Alonzo Mourning, and a sharp-shooting floor general in guard Tim Hardaway. But experts generally think it takes a trio of All-Stars to win a title. That's where Mashburn comes in, especially now that Heat shooting guard Voshon Lenard is hampered by a stress fracture in his left leg. "I can be that third player we need," says Mashburn, "and I'm out to prove that to everyone."
After the first few days of training camp, coach Pat Riley seemed convinced. He was even entertaining thoughts of playing Mashburn for 48 minutes a game and at all five positions. "Certain guys you can just ride like a horse, and Jamal is a guy like that," said Riley. "I know what Mash can do, we all saw it last year before he got hurt At that time he was exactly what I had expected."
In his fourth year in Miami, Riley has fairly specific expectations for the Heat, too: He wants a tide. Anything less and he may dismantle the team, which has had the NBA's best road-winning percentage (.695) for the last two seasons. This year, with the additions of power forward Clarence Weatherspoon and veteran guard Terry Porter, Miami is deeper than ever. "Basically what Coach has been saying to us is, It's time to get it done," says Mashburn. "There can't be any more excuses. We can't talk about winning a title anymore. We've just got to do it."
Can they? The answer may be in Mashburn's hand.
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