Valentine Post-Mortem - Zo Returns

Mourning was once the team's unquestioned leader. Now, his role on court and off will be much different. O'Neal is the locker-room voice, Dwyane Wade is the budding superstar and Mourning most likely will be asked to provide only key minutes off the bench.

"We've had a long conversation about this," Riley said. "He wants to fit in. He understands this is not what it was three years ago, four years ago. ... I don't think it's going to be any problem."

It's easy to admit that this team is better. Not only does this year's Heat have a much greater potential to win the championship, but the squad as a whole is a lot more entertaining and exciting. Personality top to bottom. God hopes they don't cut loose the Wang of Zhi Zhi.

Who would you rather have as the two stars? Zo and Timmy... or Shaq and Dwyane. Yes, an incredibly easy choice, but for old diehards like myself it is difficult to let go of the past. In doing so, you let go of a great deal of the angst that drove me during my teenage years. Yes, the Miami Heat were as much a part of my bitter pubescent years as acne and body hair.

When Allan Houston's game-winning jumper rattled into the hoop, I jumped into a pool fully clothed and punched the water until exhaustion. I then nestled under a tree. Crying and hoping - above all hoping that Mother Earth would heal me. I felt like I had lost a member of the family. The wounds still remain. A friend actually got up and ran home never saying a word - 7 miles later. Deep scars.

After all, I'm one of those delusional fans who spent the better part of five years trying to convince friends, acquaintances and newspaper columnists that the Miami Heat was underrated. I championed the Heat cause across foreign lands and cyberspace. In fact, I once bought Russian Dolls in Moscow of the 2000 squad - Zo, Timmy, J-Mash, "Thunder" Dan Majerle, Anthony Mason & Brian Grant - just to confirm the team's status abroad. I still treasure those dolls to this day.

Yet, the team continually floundered and excuses were made. Reminiscent of today's Wolves. At first, only MJ's Bulls were ruining our run, then the playoff heartbreakers with the Knicks and finally - the coup de gras - Zo's kidney.

I was well versed in the excuses, but they were shielding the real reason behind the constant dissapointment. This team never felt right. It was more Knicks under Riley than his Lakers. Strong defensively and admiringly bull-headed, but completely devoid of any real offensive spark. As a fan, you love Mourning but wonder why he punched Larry Johnson. You admire his defensive presence but lament his inconsistent offense.

It was a team built for drama - not for winning. Why did apparently two of the NBA's fine statesmen - P.J. Brown & Charlie Ward - get into a fracas under the basket?? Why did the big shots come down to Jamal Mashburn & Clarence Weatherspoon - a miserable recipe of chokers - instead of Timmy, the only player capable of serving up the real daggers? Riley never assembled right mix. Blew it up too, no luck.

Sadly, there was never a big winner among the first decade of Riley in Miami. There was talk of a curse. It seemed Coach's career would coast off into oblivion like so many other successful winners on their third mission.

Then completely out of nowhere - when you thought he was defeated, beaten & humbled - Riley got lucky. Drafting Dwyane Wade lucky. Granted, Riles had made some inspring picks in 2002 with Caron and Rasual Butler. In retrospect, this may seem like the draft that turned them around - but they were only nice players drafted immediately after and before some bigger studs. As an aside, the 2000 NBA Draft was a sour one overall with only Amare, Boozer and Yao becoming impact players. Think of the rest - Jay Williams, Tsiktz, Haislip, Borchardt, etc. A who's who of mistake picks.

Fast forward a year. Caron was to be the point-forward, an above-average talent that slipped to 10, but who showed himself not to be the savior. The savior would come in another form as Dwyane Wade fell in Miami's lap at number five. Even so, was this brilliance or luck? Clearly, doing the draft over again not knowing what you know now, all four players taken ahead of Wade would have been taken ahead of him again.

The Heat now had the talent assembled after two relatively fortunate drafts. Odom was the third piece. But, as luck would have it, being able to sign Odom would only come after Anthony Carter failed to kick in his player option. The rest is history. Three arms are flipped for Shaq and the team becomes an instant contender.

Today Zo has returned after basically burning the bridge he took out of Miami. Time and his charity has hailed those wounds. Yet, we worry. The same Zo who for all his brilliance seemed a little too complicated. Like Kellen Winslow Jr. or a younger Barry Bonds. Yeah he's older. Calmer. But why risk the team chemistry?

Because its the ultimate storyline. Redemption for everyone. A lifted curse. Not at the level of the Red Sox, but a bounce back no one envisioned. The Miami Heat over the past 10 years become an odyssey with success at the end, instead of an anonymous trip. Zo adds drama to the storyline and enough size inside that together, Shaq and Him push around Duncan and Nesterovic.

It is such absurdly poetic justice that the league should be on notice. These stories aren't a coincidence. There are signs of a greater hand at work.

Will the saga of the past decade bear the fruit of the 2005 NBA Championship? I say aye, but nod that fate will determine whether I'm still a homer or not.


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