DALLAS – At the time, Udonis Haslem was accustomed to being spoiled at the University of Florida.
There, he had a training staff available to provide whatever he needed. That changed when he left college and played professionally for one season in France. Haslem quickly learned he wasn’t in Gainesville when there was no trainer in the locker room to tape his ankle before the game.
“I was like, ‘Man, I can’t tape my own ankle,’ ” Haslem recalled.
A few days later, he was surprised by a package in the mail. Help came from a reliable source. Mike Miller, then in his second NBA season, offered an assist to his old college teammate by sending a box of ankle braces.
Stories as such are plenty in a friendship that has spanned a decade. The fact the Heat are just three wins from an NBA title is the headline, but the fine print is Haslem and Miller together again chasing a championship that eluded them in college.
“We never lost contact,” Haslem said. “… We always stayed in contact no matter what. When Mike was in Orlando (with the Magic), I was only an hour away in Gainesville. We always talked.”
Eleven years ago, Miller was a high-flying combo guard at Florida. Haslem was a power forward with a mean streak. Together, they led the Gators to the NCAA championship game, where they were defeated by Michigan State.
They were both sophomores, figuring they would get another chance to win a ring together. It never happened because Miller left for the NBA following that season. The coming years led to them going their separate ways, but they were reunited last summer when Miller joined the Heat.
A pact was made the moment Miller signed his contract: finish what they started back in 2000.
“We felt we had unfinished business at Florida,” Miller said. “To be this close and having another opportunity, hopefully we can make the most of it.”
Both Haslem and Miller overcame adversity this season so they had opportunity to hoist a trophy together. For Miller, it was battling back from a right thumb injury that forced him to miss the first half of the season. He later sustained a similar injury on his left thumb, but has played through the pain.
Haslem returned in the second round of the playoffs after missing 69 games with a torn ligament in his left foot. Their drive to play on the court together was rewarded May 22 against the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals when Haslem received a standing ovation while making his first home appearance since the injury.
Miller, checking in at the same time, accompanied him to the scorer’s table.
“I had my Gator guy in there,” Miller said after the game. “That’s my guy right there.”
Ever since, Haslem and Miller have shown moments of how they have developed chemistry over the years. After grabbing a rebound in the series-clincher against the Bulls, Haslem said it was almost instinctual when he kicked it out to Miller for an open 3-pointer. Swish.
The two then pointed fingers toward each other as they ran back down the court.
“It felt like the old days,” Miller said with a smile.
The bond is so strong Heat coach Erik Spoelstra refers to them as “the two Florida boys.” They have provided the Heat with toughness in the postseason, whether it’s Miller wrestling for loose balls or Haslem serving as the emotional leader.
“They help each other a lot,” swingman James Jones said. “Unlike the rest of us, we haven’t been through the fire together like they’ve been through. They’ve been through it in college on a high level and tasted disappointment. That’s something that they draw upon every time they step on the court together. They will each other into the hustle plays, into doing the scrappy, small things that help you win.”
Even though Haslem won an NBA title with the Heat in 2006, he said it will be more special if Miller is in the locker room for the champagne celebration.
“Yeah, you have no idea how much that haunts us,” Haslem said. “… We always talked about playing together again. We never thought it would actually really happen and then it did. Once again, we have an opportunity to try to get it done.”