Both regimes were punctuated by smoke.
The most recent, the Miami Heat led by “The Big Three,” rose from beneath a smoking metal stage last summer, before one quarter had been played, before one victory had been secured, and claimed to be orchestrating the birth of a historical dynasty right before our eyes. The bravado was overwhelming, the narcissism more sickening than the morning after a late-night rendezvous of vodka shots and assorted liquor bombs. How could LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh take part in an act of such vanity when, at that point, their careers had combined for 21 seasons and only one championship?
How could LeBron, who had been to one Finals (’07) and got swept by the San Antonio Spurs, grab a mic on stage and start rambling about how many titles this new Heat team was going to win? “Not four, not five, not six, not seven …” How could Bosh, who led the Toronto Raptors to the playoffs only twice in seven seasons and never made it out of the first round, rise from the smoke of this excessive charade and act like a howling dog staking claim to his corner on the block? Better yet, how could Wade, the one guy with a ring, simply smile for the cameras and go along with this repulsive PRE-championship celebration when he surely possessed a soul that knew just how difficult it is to actually become a champion? How? How, how, how???
These questions formed the corpse of hatred that America embodied after LeBron announced on national television that he was “taking his talents to south beach.” The Decision was enough for the city of Cleveland to burn LeBron jerseys and proclaim its basketball star, its hometown hero, its blood, was nothing more than a caricature of loyalty. LeBron wasn’t Cleveland’s prodigal son. To be that, there would have to be a future return back to Cleveland, a repentance met with the caring arms and warm love of home, and hell if that’s ever going to happen. No, LeBron is just the enemy now.
This blatant mockery and disrespect for the struggles a championship team endures, though, this foolery exhibited on that stage in South Beach last July, that was the defining chapter of the novel that led America to label the Miami Heat as the newfound Lucifer of the NBA. The national media ran with that storyline, crafting column after column about greed and piousness. When pundits failed to adequately describe what they had just witnessed, they relented to the most common verb in sports: hate. Shortly thereafter, everybody “hated” the Miami Heat. Everybody “hated” LeBron. Everybody “hated” The Big Three.
When I sat down to eat with a friend recently, the talk inevitably turned to the upcoming NBA Finals. When I asked my buddy, a Los Angeles native and Lakers fan, who he wanted to win the Finals, he responded, “Is there a way where the Mavs and the Heat can both lose?” After I checked with my sources and confirmed that, no, unfortunately somebody has to win an athletic contest between two participants, my buddy said, “Well, fine, I guess I’ll take the Mavs because at least I don’t hate Dirk. But I HAAAAATE LeBron!”
This struck me as odd. How could a guy who has absolutely zero relation to Cleveland, the Heat, Miami or the east coast, legitimately “hate” LeBron with such undying passion? I give Clevelanders a pass. Hate up, boys and girls. But the rest of you, how can you spew this vitriol, speak of such personal vileness of LeBron and the Miami Heat, and then actually believe it when you wake up in the morning?
I’m not questioning the ubiquitous dislike for this team based on the ridiculousness of its actions last summer. That is understandable and warranted. It’s almost impossible to NOT dislike what this team stood for at its inception. But to say you “hate” the men behind the jerseys 10 months later as they are closing in on making good on Title No. 1, to say you despise this team like it’s the raunchiest display of callousness and self-righteousness we have ever seen in sports, begs questions: Have you completely or only partially bought into the myth of historical “hate” that the media has fed you since last summer? Have you completely or only partially drunk the “unprecedented display of ego” Kool-Aid that the country has forcibly poured down the back of your throats for almost a year now? Have you completely or only partially gnawed on the “utter villainy” rib bone that everyone outside of Miami has lathered in Bull’s-Eye.
They are just questions.
Because, please allow me to tell you, we have seen this narrative before. The true narrative of hate, of disrespect for authority, of villainy.
The story was written in this very same town, but the protagonist ain’t the Miami Heat.
* * *
About a week ago, I killed some time by perusing my TiVo archives, and in there I found possibly my favorite ESPN 30 for 30 documentary to date. It’s called, “The U.” It’s a two-hour film directed by Miami native Billy Corben about this rogue college football team in the 1980s and ‘90s called the Miami Hurricanes. While the community at the time was fighting the Cocaine Wars and cultural and racial tensions in South Florida, this renegade team formed a dynasty built on brashness and arrogance and extreme disregard for rules and political correctness. I don’t know, perhaps you may have heard of them.
When the documentary premiered about 18 months ago, I recorded it and changed the settings to, “Save until I delete.” It never takes me more than 30 seconds into the film to know why I changed the settings to keep it on my television. It’s the story of the biggest sports villain of the last few decades, and the script was penned by a group of college kids. While college athletes today are vilified for trying to exchange jerseys for tattoos or a few bucks, these Hurricanes set off an eruption in South Florida that shook the foundation of their university and the structure of academic institutions. By their play on the field and their talk on the streets, these Hurricanes were bad, bad boys who did good, good things for the University of Miami. They scoffed at the higher-ups and went about their business of playing high-light reel ball and turning Miami football into a national brand.
Administrators and media figures will say that the University didn’t condone many of the actions that the Hurricanes displayed on the football field, but did you ever see the president or the AD throw a wrench in this money-making machine? Me neither. These boys became rock star-like figures during the rise of hip-hop culture, and nobody at Miami tried to reel in these “student-athletes” because, damn, the show was so spectacular, the university money so welcomed. Never have we seen a scene quite like this, where a college football team wielded more power than the university administrators. It was as if Sam Jankovich, the athletic director at Miami for most of the ‘80s, wanted to maintain the class and integrity of his school but didn’t know how. Or, he didn’t want to know how, because Miami won — four national titles in a nine year span — and everybody in town rejoiced. If I told you that Jankovich once knocked on the dorm room door of some Hurricanes, and the Hurricanes responded by answering the door, giving Jankovich the bird, and then popping him in the mouth, you would believe it.
There was no wondering who was king in South Florida and at the University, and the documentary did a fantastic job of detailing how the throne was built. In September 1986, the No.1 and defending-champion Oklahoma Sooners came to Miami to play the No. 2 Hurricanes. Miami had beaten Oklahoma the previous year, and the Sooners, led by linebacker Brian Bosworth and quarterback Jamelle Holieway, wanted revenge in Miami. The hate between the schools was palpable, prompting a pregame television introduction that still produces chills a quarter-century later:
But perhaps the most interesting and telling subplot of that game was the story of the famous trash talk between a few Hurricanes and Sooners in the early morning hours of game day. Miami’s Melvin Bratton and Alonzo Highsmith had an idea, an idea eloquently described by Jeff Pearlman in his book, “Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty.” An excerpt from Pearlman’s book:
The night before kickoff, neither Miami tailback Melvin Bratton nor his roommate, fullback Alonzo Highsmith, could sleep.
“It’s five-thirty in the morning and I’m just lying there looking around,” Bratton said. “Me and High are like kids at Christmas. We are so ready to get their ass. Oklahoma’s been getting all the hype. It’s Bosworth this and Bosworth that. I said, ‘High, f— the Boz and f— that fade haircut of his. Let’s call that sonofabitch and wake his ass up.'”
Bratton had heard the Sooners were staying at the Fontainebleau Hilton. He called the front desk and was patched through to Bosworth’s room.
“Is this Boz?” Bratton asked.
“Well, this is Melvin f—–‘ Bratton and Alonzo Highsmith, and this is your f—— wake-up call, m—–f—–! And at high noon we’ll see your sorry ass in the Orange Bowl and we’re gonna kick your f—— ass!”
As soon as Bosworth hung up, Bratton and Highsmith told Hurricane defensive lineman Jerome Brown of the “exchange.” Brown summoned the entire defense to his dorm room, from which they called the hotel and asked to be connected to Sooners quarterback Jamelle Holieway. “Ja-may-al, come out and paaa-lay-yay,” Brown taunted, “Come on out, Ja-may-al.”
When he later learned of the calls, Johnson nearly fell over laughing. And why not? His Hurricanes had won, 28-16.
Bosworth’s nightmare didn’t end in the early morning hours, however. The game included an ugly brawl, and when Miami’s victory was nearly complete, the Orange Bowl faithful broke out in song: “Byeee byeee, Bosworth, we haaaate to seee youu gooo!”
The crowd repeated the verse over and over, and the Hurricanes rejoiced. The city was taking the shape of its rebellious college football team, and revolution was well underway. These stories of daring and rambunctious acts are plentiful in “The U.”
The Hurricanes were set to play Penn State in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, and the whole week leading up the game Miami was playing up a war theme. This was an “us against the world” mentality crossed with missiles and army tanks. The Hurricanes took this war theme so seriously that they got off the team plane in Arizona dressed head-to-toe in camo fatigues. Fans gathered to see the Miami football players parade down the steps of the charter plane, and what they got instead was a recessional of solemn and serious soldiers. As was customary before big bowl games, there was a dinner function held for both Miami and Penn State in the heart of the desert. At this steak-fry dinner, some Penn State players took to the microphone on stage and began going through a routine of jokes directed at the Hurricanes, some of which were laced with racial undertones. This upset big Jerome Brown and the rest of the Miami team, so Brown decided to share a few words of his own.
Dressed in a dark warm-up suit, Brown began, “We didn’t come here to act like monkeys with everybody. We came here to play football.” The crowd hooted and hollered at Brown, having no idea what was going to happen next. What actually happened next was an act that would unequivocally dominate today’s airwaves for DAYS on end. Brown tore off his warm-up suit, revealing his camo fatigues, topped off with a camo hat, sunglasses (even though he was indoors at night), and army boots. And then Brown delivered one of the most memorable quotes of any athlete I can remember.
“Did the Japanese go and sit down and have dinner with Pearl Harbor before they bombed it?” Brown rhetorically asked his teammates, who responded with a defiant, NO! Brown waited a few seconds, allowing his words to simmer inside the ears of the audience. “Well, fellas, let’s go.” And like that, the Hurricanes all got up and walked out of the restaurant. This football giant, this powerhouse of dominance, had officially brought the war to Penn State when all the Nittany Lions wanted to do was enjoy a meal and have a few laughs.
The villain, the representation of everything that was wrong with this new era in American sports and culture, had arrived.
* * *
There’s a minor detail to that Brown story that you may not have expected.
Miami lost. The Hurricanes, perhaps a bit too jacked up on their own gravitas, unraveled, committing seven turnovers and losing the national championship to Penn State, 14-10. This shook South Florida, as the community never planned to face defeat. Local apparel stores even began selling national championship t-shirts days before the title be game because they were so sure their Hurricanes would come through. But this loss didn’t change the way Miami’s football program went about its business. The program stayed the same, continue to revolt against any semblance of structure and authority, and to this day Jankovich calls some of the acts of those teams “disgusting.”
My question to you now is this: Can you IMAGINE the scorn and ire the Miami Heat would draw today if they shared one ounce of the same vengeance that those Miami Hurricanes did? Can you imagine what would happen if the Heat acted that way, then LOST these NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, and then proceeded with the same level of sickening swagger? My gosh, based on the impulses of “hate” beaming through our television screens and laptop monitors today, I’m convinced North America would disintegrate under a flurry of flames.
But you want to know the truth of all this? Go back and watch that television intro for the ’86 game between Miami and Oklahoma. Listen to the rhythm of the music, the pulse of the words. What you hear is the ballad of a genuine villain, the anthem of deeds intended to be done without dignity. The video of “The Big Three” rising from the smoking stage in South Beach last summer? Ehh, it’s cute. It would fit in on MTV’s ‘My Super Sweet 16.’ But that’s as far as the evilness of LeBron James and the Miami Heat goes.
The Miami Hurricanes bulldozed through barrels of smoke when they took the field at the Orange Bowl, and the fans roared from the bottom of their hearts because they knew what they were in store for. The show was home. The rest of the country looked at the Hurricanes as thugs and impostors, as rowdy children let out of their playpen. Those Miami teams were hated because of the image they celebrated and the ideals they represented, but they were also hated because they were so … damn … good. The Hurricanes moved the needle of college football, and they offered a real-life model for the country’s rebellious youth to embrace. There was reason to hate those teams, because they consciously spit in the face of what millions believed in. And they celebrated it.
The Heat? Yes, 20 years from now there will be documentaries on the Miami Heat, on LeBron James, and all this hoopla that has gone down in South Beach. But those films will be about a makeshift narrative America hastily produced because it was seen as the sexy thing to do. Those films will be about two Hall of Fame basketball players who were genuinely good people and came together with a third All Star buddy of theirs to form the dominant team of their generation. Those films will be about superstars who embraced the bright lights of celebrity in an era that openly celebrated such behavior.
But, unlike the Hurricanes, those films won’t be about a cultural line drawn in the sand. They won’t be immersed in the depths of a villain. They won’t be about legitimate hate, regardless of what the media claim.
True “hate” never was, and never will be, born from a smoking stage at some mid-summer South Beach dance party.
Follow Teddy Mitrosilis on Twitter here. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.