MIAMI — For weeks, even months this season, it was a matter Erik Spoelstra believed best left unsaid.
By then, however, what was not formally listed by the Miami Heat coach had become apparent with each pregame meeting with the officials.
Udonis Haslem again was the team’s sole captain.
For the previous two seasons, after Goran Dragic returned as a 2017 EuroBasket champion and after James Johnson’s enthusiasm became infectious in the locker room, Haslem, Dragic and Johnson had served as tri-captains.
But now, it again this season has been The Captain, singular, for Haslem, as it had been in 2016-17, after Dwyane Wade had left in free agency and Chris Bosh was sidelined.
“I mean, it’s not easy,” Haslem said of a responsibility mostly previously shared with Wade, one not even granted to LeBron James during his four years with the team. “But obviously we teach leadership at all levels. So, you know, the floor is always open to anybody to speak up and help us push the envelope to where we’re trying to go.
“I can’t do it alone.”
And yet, he has done it alone, including in 2007-08, just two years after Wade led the Heat to the franchise’s first championship.
The last time Haslem wasn’t a Heat captain? That would be in 2006-07, when Pat Riley still was coach and there was no designated player captain, something that had been the case under Riley since Eddie Jones served a captain in 2004-05.
The next time Haslem won’t be a captain? Likely next season, with this expected to his 17th and final season with the Heat.
“None of us can do it alone,” Haslem, 39, said. “But I take responsibility of taking care of the locker room and everything like that. But once we step on the floor, all bets are off. Everybody’s energy is needed. Everybody’s advice is needed, everybody’s opinions are needed.”
To Dragic, it hasn’t been a demotion, just more of the Heat getting back to a natural order.
“It’s a different team,” Dragic said than from when he began his two-season run as a captain. “We all know that OG is the real captain, so I don’t have problems with that. He’s here for everybody. He’s got that authority that everybody listens to him.
“It means a lot, especially for him. He doesn’t play much, doesn’t even play, and to come in with that attitude every day to help others, is something that’s really unique. That makes him special.”
Johnson, who since has been traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves, said that once Wade returned in the middle of 2017-18 and then settled back into his familiar double-wide locker during last season’s farewell tour, it was apparent that the leadership again would come from Wade and Haslem.
“It was almost like it was their team and they were the voice,” he said. “So it was almost like we felt back two years ago. It wasn’t messing with my confidence or how I led.”
Johnson paused and then addressed another reality of the reconfigured roster he left.
“Now,” he said, “it’s the young guys.”
Which is why, in the games during the days, weeks and months before this pandemic shutdown, and hopeful again, Haslem made a point to not be the only one in Heat colors at those pregame sessions with the referees.
Instead, as teammates warm up, he would grab one of the rookies, perhaps Tyler Herro or Kendrick Nunn, or second-year forward Duncan Robinson to join him at the center circle.
“I usually choose the young guys,” Haslem said, also with Jimmy Butler in some of those sessions. “I’m choosing Kendrick and I’m choosing Herro the majority of the time, maybe Duncan. But mostly the younger guys.
“I just want ’em to get familiar with the referees, know ’em by name and not by, ‘Hey, ref.’ I think when you address them by their names, I think that starts the relationshipp off in the right direction. I want these guys to learn these refs’ names early, and I want the refs to be familiar with these guys, as well.”
So, now, Dragic said, not taken as a demotion, at all, but rather a promotion of the team’s values and culture.
“I love,” he said, “having him in this role.”
©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)