CHICAGO — Twenty-seven seconds remained on the game clock and on the Miami Heat’s 27-game winning streak. At that point, finally, so deep into the Chicago Bulls’ surprising victory Wednesday, a chant went up lustily from many in the sellout crowd of 23,014. “End the streak! End the streak!”
Granted, the whole thing would have been edgier and more impressive had the Bulls’ fans done their chant 27 seconds before tipoff. The fans were neither cocky nor delusional enough to do it that way, though. But it was fun for them and fitting punctuation to another long night of booing whenever this team invades that house.
But then, that’s Chicago, the city LeBron James tormented back in his Cleveland days and snubbed when he had the chance to sign in July 2010. It’s the city that Dwyane Wade still considers home, where he still roots for the Bears, even as he wins a couple championships down in Florida. It’s one of the diehard markets of pro basketball, where passions for its team run much deeper than any general interest in the NBA overall.
Hate the Heat? Yeah, folks in the stands at United Center hate the Heat, same as those in Boston or Philadelphia. But then, they can work up lots of dislike for lots of teams, from the nondescript road shows from Phoenix or Toronto to the Boy Scouts of Oklahoma City.
Many of the league’s less-rabid precincts, however, seem to be softening a little on the Heat. Maybe it’s a matter of time – we’re 33 months removed from James’ fateful decision and the silly smoke-and-mirrors arena welcome, all puffed up with boasts and self-satisfaction. Maybe it’s the trials they’ve endured – sputtering from the start, a lost opportunity in the 2011 Finals vs. Dallas, an out-of-sight, out-of-mind lockout and finally, a little redemption.
Maybe it was the 27 victories in a row over 52 days and the sense that this wasn’t only about them, their rings, their bank accounts and their egos. They were elevating themselves before everyone’s eyes and giving back something to the game’s history with their pursuit of the 1971-72 Lakers’ record streak.
Maybe it’s the snapping of that streak, another sign of Miami’s mortality and, unintentionally, a hands-off approach to that all-time record.
Maybe it’s the way they play, the perfection within all those X’s & O’s, the snapshot of an all-timer (James) at the peak of his powers and the pecking order that has developed in which a Shane Battier or a Norris Cole can be as important, in a moment, as any of the Big 3.
Or maybe it’s the lower profile overall after winning, in what at least can pass as humility, that finally has turned some of those frowns the Heat used to elicit upside-down.
Sorry to burst your toxic bubble, if you haven’t been paying attention.
But these Heat are not hated the way they used to be.
“The vitriol is dialed down,” Battier said Wednesday in Chicago, about nine hours before the streak got snapped. “In talking to guys who were here two years ago, it’s definitely dialed down. I wouldn’t say we’re loved. But I think people appreciate the style of basketball we’re playing and appreciate us more as basketball players instead of as just personalities.”
Those around the Miami team on an everyday basis can attest to the shift in responses it evokes. Ethan Skolnick of the Palm Beach Post has traveled throughout the NBA covering this iteration of Heat and has noticed the shift.
“Yes, dramatically,” Skolnick said. “When we went to other cities before, the hardcore cities – New York, Chicago, Boston – you expected [the team to get harsh receptions]. You didn’t expect in Atlanta and Memphis and Portland to hear the receptions this team would get.
“Now when we go to those cities, the boos turn to cheers at a certain point. There are enough Heat fans that it starts to drown out the negativity. And I think there’s an appreciation for the team that didn’t exist before.”
That suggests a couple of possibilities: Are Heat fans, old faithful or newly minted, crowding through the turnstiles to swing the audible sentiment? Or have fans of rival teams taken their feet off the Miami team’s throats?
In Cleveland last week – jilted Cleveland! – the noise at The Q mostly was boos every time James touched the ball. But when he hit a few clutch shots or threw down YouTube-worthy dunks, many cheered the athletic wonderfulness as if he still was one of theirs.
“Now Oklahoma City didn’t turn,” Skolnick said, “but a lot of the smaller markets have, we’ve noticed, like Milwaukee … We sort of say the ‘boos’ turn to ‘oohs.’ ”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, asked about the shift in fans’ attitudes, launched into a stump speech about his players’ willingness to sacrifice – salary, playing time, stats, whatever – and the possibility that folks might respect that. But no, that didn’t seem to quite fit. In fact, the farther Spoelstra went down that path, the greater the chance that people might renew some disdain for the Heat. As in: Yeah, yeah, yeah, tell us about it.
Finally, the question was put to him bluntly: Is your team hated less now?
“I think that already changed last year,” Spoelstra said. “But who knows? I hope basketball aficionados appreciate these guys for the way they compete on a night-in, night-out basis and for how unselfish they are.”