MIAMI -- It was only right that the last Lifer on the roster give the Heat's welcoming address, before the first home opener without Dwyane Wade in 14 years.
"I promise one thing," Udonis Haslem told the crowd, which would see Miami squander a 19-point lead and lose to Charlotte, 97-91. "We will play as hard as we can for you guys every night. Continue to support us, we will continue to fight."
That seems a fair bargain, even it went without saying. Fighting is expected in these parts. That's been a hallmark of Pat Riley's Heat reign, fighting for premium talent, fighting through repeated adversity, fighting with the league office, fighting for playoff position -- with 17 postseason appearances in 21 years. Fighting is ingrained enough that Wade, in some of those Big Three era huddles, borrowed from the film Red Tails so he could triple up: "We fight! We fight! We fight!"
And yes, some of the Heat's fights lately have been internal, with franchise cornerstones, like Wade, who then chose to flee -- leaving the arena he called his "house" for the big city, Chicago, that was nearest his childhood home, and somehow taking his three-point shooting talents with him.
So, sure, Friday was weird at times, weird as it was to watch Wade in Bulls red on Thursday, draining shots from deep. The Chris Bosh situation is complex; that gets into health care privacy and salary cap mechanics and liability risk. And after last season ended, many Heat fans had resigned themselves to the possibility he would never play again, or at least not for the Heat. The Wade thing is simpler and more personal. It was a 13-season relationship, not like four (plus parts of two others) for Bosh, and four for LeBron James. The Wade connection wasn't supposed to ever sever. Not over too little money to buy a mini-mansion, anyway.
So, naturally, his absence was felt everywhere Friday -- and it made you feel his presence.
Everywhere included the foyer of the locker room, where he is still featured in two of the four floor-to-ceiling photos. On one wall, blood and sweat drip down his face. That's next to a similar shot of Haslem and a message: "For he today sheds his blood with me shall be my brother." On the other wall, there are pictures of both he and Bosh screaming. Between them, this is written: "Forged in the fire between a hammer and an anvil.'
Everywhere included the inside of the locker room, where his old caddy-corner stall -- the one closest to the training room, --was identified by a generic "MIAMI HEAT" nameplate rather than "WADE 3."
Everywhere included the bench during player introductions. Everything used to build until Wade's name was finally called last, an honor that is generally bestowed upon the best. Friday, there was no such crescendo. The final player announced was Goran Dragic, who is indifferent about the designation: "I can be first or second or fifth, as long as I play."
Everywhere included the end lines and sidelines, as Wade would race around prior to tipoff, arms raised, to stir every quadrant of the crowd, until the roaring reverberated around the arena. Many on hand seemed to be waiting for that Friday; his jersey outnumbered that of any other current or past Heat player.
Everywhere included the court during the game, too.
How much was he missed?
How much will he be missed?
It's impossible to know for sure, because it was difficult to believe what the analytics intimated last season, that Miami was even, or better, when he wasn't playing. Clearly, there was a pace conflict with Dragic, with the point guard preferring to push and Wade appreciating a more methodical approach. But clearly, there was value to Wade's late-game play; he took 101 shots in what the NBA categorizes as clutch situations, compared to 80 for Dragic, Justise Winslow, Tyler Johnson and Hassan Whiteside combined. Common sense still suggests that since he's, well, Dwyane Wade, he'd be more productive in his minutes than Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Tyler Johnson or Rodney McGruder.
But here's the only caveat: common sense suggests that doubted athletes on short, modest contracts are the most motivated species in any sport.
That, more than anything, is why the Heat figure to fulfill Haslem's "fight pledge," playing hard even if they don't always play together -- ball movement was an issue Friday. They will fight even if their fights prove futile, as this one did, because of too many misses (shot just 12 of 43 in second half) and turnovers (20 in all). Simply, the Heat played hard enough but not well enough for long enough against a more seasoned opponent in the Hornets. That shouldn't be a surprise. Only three of Friday's rotation players have ever averaged double-figure scoring in a season, and one of those (Whiteside) was sitting with foul trouble during critical stretches, and the other two (Dragic and Waiters) combined to shoot 9 of 28 overall.
A texter to my Miami radio show referred to this team as the "Who-tles," a tribute to the Big 3 "Heatles," and a dig at the anonymous, itinerant nature of this roster. Many of Erik Spoelstra's core players this season have traveled enough, trying to find basketball security, that they could freelance for Fodor's. And even if all want to stay, they know that they are probably just placeholders, with Riley looking to revamp the roster to quickly turn a rebuild into a reload. Or they should know. It's what he does.
No one is entirely safe. Not even Dragic, who sees some of the 2013-14 Suns in this squad. That team won 48 games, about twice as many as most observers predicted.
"Oh yeah, definitely," Dragic said. "The style is a little bit different. But you can see the attitude we've got. We have a lot of guys who can create for others, and if we are unselfish and move the ball, we can have something special. We have players who can play multiple positions, and that's really hard to find in this league. We still need to work a couple of things, but if we can approach it the right way, we can be a really tough team."
Even if most have them pegged to finish under .500.
"When you see [what] some people are predicting about us, of course you want to prove them wrong," Dragic said. "We talk. We know we're better than that. And we do want to prove them wrong."
What about Haslem's 2003-04 Heat team? The one that started 0-7 and was projected to finish near the East cellar? The one that finished 42-40 and took 61-win Indiana to six games in the second round?
"It's hard to remember," said Haslem who, at 35, is now the Heat's elder statesman.
Heat fans do. It was one of their favorite teams.
"We had Lamar [Odom] on that team, we had Caron [Butler], we had me, we had Dwyane, guys with a chip on their shoulder," Haslem said.
Yes, they had a young core, with a couple of veterans (Brian Grant, Eddie Jones) and they fought the odds. And they were fun. That, for this team, is as attainable an aspiration as any in the post-Wade era: fight, and fun.
"We just got to continue to fight the battle from the neck up," said Haslem, who didn't play, but did plenty of counseling, especially of Whiteside, from the sideline. "But that's expected. It's not going to happen overnight. We got to build that mental toughness, we got to build that connection. But I was happy to see that nobody showed bad body language, nobody was pointing any fingers."
Soon, fans will start pointing toward Nov. 10, when Wade comes to town, for the only regular-season meeting in Miami between the Heat and Bulls.
Haslem said it doesn't feel odd at all anymore, not to have his friend around every day.
"Yeah, it's over," Haslem said. "Our relationship is stronger than it's ever been. But that chapter is closed for everybody. If it re-opens, then I'll let you know."
Consider that his second promise.