It was early winter, pre-pandemic, with the NBA in full swing, and as Chris Bosh lounged courtside at the AmericanAirlines Arena enjoying the benefits of being a beloved retired Heat champion, he witnessed something that awakened an old, familiar pang.
“It was Bam Adebayo, bringing the ball up,” Bosh said. “I had to give Spo a hard time. When I played, he got upset with me when I did that. I called him on it. He just smiled and said, ‘Hey, man, we’re just trying to get better.'”
Nearly nine months later, Adebayo is an NBA sensation in a carefully constricted bubble, an absurdly athletic, rim-running big man with a crafty basketball IQ who can attack off the dribble, dish like a veteran point guard, set bone-crunching screens, suffocate elite perimeter shooters and reject offerings from future superstars into the seats. The Miami Heat have crashed the NBA Finals, slicing opponents into tiny, little slivers with well-designed cuts, smart execution and, of course, 3-point marksmanship that occasionally boggles the mind.
Forgive Bosh if he winced when he tuned in to Game 1 of the NBA Finals and watched all of that disappear against former Heat teammate LeBron James. While the basketball world fawns over the staying power of the Los Angeles Lakers‘ star, Bosh, who is one year older than James, is left to ponder the what-ifs of his career. He would be a prototypical player for today’s NBA, a skilled, stretch big man with range and versatility. He would also meld perfectly with a young Miami team that plays together, shares the ball and maximizes their talent.
“I envy what they are doing,” Bosh admitted. “Look at how skilled everyone is, how they move, how they shoot, how they put the ball on the floor. I would have loved that. Probably would have been a 5 on that team.
“So in those brief moments, I find myself thinking about what it would be like if I was still out there. But I have trained myself to stop looking at basketball that way.”
Bosh agreed to join this reporter in remotely watching Game 1 of the NBA Finals. He unwillingly retired in 2016, the victim of recurring blood clots. In February 2015, a clot in Bosh’s leg traveled to his lung and left him hospitalized for several days. He recovered, but a year later, in February 2016, the clots returned. By September, Bosh had declared himself ready to return, but the Heat’s medical team and front office determined following a failed physical that it was unsafe to put the 11-time All-Star back on the floor. President Pat Riley said that Bosh’s career was likely over, a devastating conclusion that the veteran forward simply could not accept.
“It was an extremely difficult period in my life,” Bosh said. “Overcoming it took some time. That dose of reality is hard to swallow.”
As the Heat ownership and front office maintained the stance that it was unsafe for Bosh to play, particularly because he was taking blood thinners, Bosh became increasingly frustrated and called on the players’ union to intervene. Over time, he came to accept that his career was finished, and he gradually rejoined the Heat fold. Spoelstra gave Bosh a shout-out during Miami’s celebration following its Eastern Conference championship win over Boston on Sunday.
“I was in such a weird place when all of that was going on with my health,” Bosh said. “Eventually, you get it, and you understand. But while you are in it, it hurts.”
Bosh said he shared a meal with Riley three years ago at the famed Nobu restaurant in Malibu, California, to put any lingering resentment to rest.
“We didn’t really talk about it,” Bosh said. “We just caught up. I was so glad to see him that I didn’t even bring up any of the past. Instead, we talked about what comes next. The rest of it was unspoken. It was, ‘Hey, we all got what we wanted. Now we can move on and enjoy this thing we shared.'”
As he watches the current Heat team, Bosh says there are many characteristics that resonate with him: the disciplined way the team runs its offense, the obvious conditioning that enables players to remain in motion. Bosh has always admired Spoelstra’s basketball acumen, though that has expanded. One thing that hasn’t changed, Bosh says, is the essence of what separates the Heat from other franchises.
“You’d be surprised how playing harder, getting up into a team, wearing them down and continuing to push the envelope translates into wins,” Bosh said. “It becomes a habit. Anyone involved in the organization learns very quickly that there are certain standards and expected ways to perform.”
All of that was on immediate display in the opening moments of Game 1 as the Heat staked a 23-10 lead on swarming defense, perfect 3-point shooting (3-for-3) and four aggressive buckets from Jimmy Butler. But by the end of the first quarter, that lead had vanished, with Anthony Davis turning careless Heat turnovers into baskets and Adebayo banished to the bench after two early fouls.
It got worse as the half progressed. The Heat defense imploded, Butler turned an ankle, the Lakers blitzed Miami by 30 points in the second quarter, and the Heat limped into the locker room down 65-48.
As L.A. knocked down 3-pointer after 3-pointer, the Heat wilted. Goran Dragic, their redoubtable veteran, did not come out for the second half, felled by a left foot injury. Adebayo later left the game because of an injury. It was a demoralizing 116-98 beating for an upstart team brimming with confidence just days ago. Mental temerity has been their hallmark. Now regrouping for Game 2 will have to be their blueprint.
Although he keeps a house in Miami, Bosh spends most of his time in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Adrienne, assisting four of his five children, all of whom are 12 or younger, with their remote learning plans. Bosh recently wrote a book, “Letters to a Young Athlete,” which is an introspective look at the travails of winning and losing, the importance of remaining centered and discovering the merits of perseverance. “The bottom line,” Bosh said, “is ego is an enemy.”
His kids, he says, don’t grasp the significance of the Heat’s run to the Finals. They are more interested in cartoons, so most nights, Bosh tracks the Heat on his own. He knew Miami was a dangerous team but concedes that he didn’t pick the Heat to advance to the Finals. He calls Adebayo a friend, talks with him regularly and has shared a few conversations with rookie Tyler Herro but noted, “I don’t force myself on anyone.”
“Some of them are just kids, fresh out of college,” he said. “I watch them and wonder, ‘Damn, is that what I looked like?’ I thought I was a grown man when I went to the NBA. Now I realize I was a grown boy.”
Although Bosh and James were close during their time together, LeBron’s basketball journey is ongoing, which leaves him in a different place and mindset. Aside from an occasional group text that connects the former champions, there isn’t constant communication between them.
“I’m not surprised at LeBron’s longevity because I know what went on behind the scenes for him to play at this level,” Bosh said. “It’s no accident. He’s put in the work.
“When ‘Bron and I were together, our heroes were MJ and Kobe because they played with excellence for such a long time. I thought we would do the same. I definitely saw myself out there at 36, reinventing my game to fit the style of play.”
Miami’s charge is to rebound in Game 2 with energy and purpose. Bosh says the Heat are in the best shape of any team that was in the bubble, as the result of a legendary conditioning program that requires weekly tests on body fat and a preseason sprinting session that is daunting to recall all these years later.
“There’s a certain grind to it,” he said, “because the Heat put so many more demands on you than other teams. You have to meet the physical markers, which also leads to some psychological markers that can be challenging. We did it. It wasn’t anything crazy. But as you get older and you’re a 12-year veteran and you still have to pass a conditioning test to start the season, you get a little tired. When you win championships, you get entitled.
“But this Heat team is so hungry. When you add guys like Jimmy Butler, [Jae] Crowder and Iggy [Andre Iguodala], you create a level of hard-nosed play that perfectly pairs with the Heat culture.”
Bosh appreciates the two titles he won and the moments when the Heat were on top, but he warns of the fleeting nature of that — as Miami experienced Wednesday.
“I had some passing glory,” Bosh said. “For a while, I was mad it was taken from me. But one day — I don’t even know where the voice came from — I told myself, ‘You had your time. Now enjoy letting these guys play.'”
In Game 1, anyway, there was precious little for Bosh and the Heat faithful to enjoy.