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Don’t Blame It on Rio

Life after LeBron for Mario Chalmers and the way forward for the Miami Heat.

Trotting up the stairs of Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena one cloudy and drab recent October morning, I am faced with a massive screen showing a familiar-looking trio: the giant grinning faces of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, a hard-earned Larry O’Brien Trophy in hand. And the third member of the crew, smiling away in happier times? No, not LeBron. He’s gone home, back to Cleveland. The Heat marketing team has plugged that King James–size hole with … veteran forward Udonis Haslem. The screen then clicks to the next image: Oprah, in mid-yelp, advertising her upcoming self-actualization seminar, “The Life You Want Weekend.”

At the pro shop, I lazily rummage through the merch. “No more LeBron stuff, huh?” I ask the clerk, trying not to smirk too hard. He clocks my tone, but gives me what I want. “Behind you,” he answers flatly, and I turn around to find a single, lonely rack of James jerseys, marked 50 percent off.

On the practice court, the team’s morning session is wrapping up to the sounds of Trick Daddy’s “J.O.D.D.” Norris Cole is working on backdoor cuts. Chris Bosh is refining post moves with Juwan Howard. And Chris Andersen — known to the world as Birdman, and to his closer associates as Birdzilla1 — is shooting 3-pointers, shirtless. Up close, with his tattoos in full view, he’s mesmerizing.


1.

Not joking. One of the team’s PR guys helpfully explains to me that this is Andersen’s preferred nom de guerre.

Andersen grants me a few minutes of his time, and growls at me to hurry up before I even ask a question.

What’d you think when you heard LeBron was

“I didn’t hear anything, man. I was doing what I had to do to take care of my summer.”

But did you guys have conversations

“I don’t conversate about it. I be about it.”

So is it getting annoying, talking about LeBron all the time?

“What? What?!”

Um. Like. Is it annoying … being asked …. about LeBron all the time?

Silence. Thousand-yard stare. Angrily puckered lips. Finally, a shake of the head. Thank you for your time, Birdzilla.

LeBron James is gone. He’s taken his talents back to Northeast Ohio. And there is some schadenfreude to be found in Miami these days.

What do you do when your icon leaves you in the lurch, leaving a stain on four years of Finals runs? When the best player in the world — the one who took you to the promised land and to your best life — skips town? When, four years after he made your home explode with joy, he dumps you out of the blue, and now everyone you run into gingerly clasps your hand, whisper-asking, “How are you doing?” And all you can do is sit there with a tight smile and mutter, “I’m fine, I’m fine, I actually feel totally fine”? There’s nothing you can do. It’s a blunt, persistent kind of ache.

But for a team that often describes itself as a “family,” there’s one guy for whom this feels particularly sad. At some point early in the Miami Heat’s four-year run, Mario Chalmers — the team’s starting point guard since the very first game of his career — became the whipping boy. Screaming at Rio was practically a team pastime: The image with which Chalmers had become most closely associated was that of a furious LeBron storming toward the poor guy mid-huddle, intent on ripping his face off.

Even the president knew about it. “And with that, I think we should take a picture,” Barack Obama said in January at the end of the celebration of the Heat’s second championship at the White House, “but we should make it quick before one of these guys starts yelling at Mario.”

Indiana Pacers v Miami Heat - Game 6Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty

If the Big Three–era Heat were a ’90s sitcom, Chalmers would be the sometimes tolerated, ultimately accepted irritant next door. Elemental to the ensemble and embraced in their own peculiar way, these characters were the release valve for a messy family’s stress and pressures. Think of your Urkels, your Jazzes, your Kimmy Gibblers. They were necessary, in their treaded-on ways. “Usually in basketball, everyone has a big guy on their team that’s tall and has some athleticism, and when they don’t play with heart or passion, it’s usually the big guy that gets dumped on,” Shane Battier, the now retired sage of the NBA and former Heat teammate, explained once. “Here, it’s Mario.”

The yellers themselves would never say as much, of course. This was all just loving squabbling, LeBron would insist. Rio’s my little brother! But now big brother’s gone. And Chalmers remains, an acute symbol of the Heat’s dejection. Kimmy Gibbler stands alone.

Picking at the LeBron scab isn’t as big a deal for some other members of the Heat. “That story’s old,” Haslem says plainly. “If you wanna talk about something with LeBron, let’s talk about the success we had.”

“To be honest, I haven’t really thought about what people think of us,” Cole says, just a touch prickly. “You hear what people say, but it doesn’t matter.”

Bosh, though, seems downright sunny. There are things about LeBron that he will miss. “He could pick up the ball and wait and read the backside defense. He could see over them. He could make a 30-foot pass from the slot, all the way from the corner, and hit you right in the numbers.”2


2.

Then the conversation veers to Tyler Johnson, a since-waived rookie with surprisingly impressive hops for a white dude. Bosh explains that he didn’t expect Johnson’s athleticism, “’cause of the obvious.” A dramatic pause. “He’s a … short guard,” he says, before laughing uproariously.

Coach Erik Spoelstra, with some distance between him and this tumultuous summer, has jokes: “After LeBron left? All bets were off. I mean for the first two or three hours, it felt like Jerry Maguire. We were calling everybody, and nobody was answering! And then we settled in, and put together our plan.”

That plan means more touches and more spotlight for Wade and Bosh. In the black hole of LeBron’s absence, they must be the matter. But Mario Chalmers has some plans of his own. “With LeBron gone, there’s an opportunity I’m planning to take right now,” Chalmers says. “I can be that guy to shine.”

On the ground floor of the arena, a photo crew is shooting the team’s promo material. The concept is glitz and glamour: The players who are done with practice for the day are decked out in evening formal wear. There are cameras on dolly tracks, a wafting steamer, and mirrors festooned with the oversize lightbulbs of old-timey Broadway dressing rooms. Posing in their classy gear as Jay Z’s “Change Clothes” blares, the players listen attentively to the photographers’ instructions: “Do the arms crossed.” “Gimme the closed fist.” “That’s it, that’s it, swag it out!”

In his tux, black scarf, and dark sunglasses, Chalmers looks spiffy as he moves through the setups. He points dramatically at his watch, brushes the dirt off his shoulders, mugs and rocks. “You a natural, Rio!” reserve forward Shawne Williams calls out.

At one point, Chalmers is pulled to the side by a small camera crew. Apparently, a well-connected fellow’s kid is a big Heat fan, and the kid’s having his bar mitzvah soon in New York, and the kid would just really love a blessing from Mario. Skeptically, Chalmers plays ball.

“What’s a bar mitzvah, 16?”

Thirteen.

“You a grown man at 13?”

In the Jewish faith, yes.

Pause. “How do we know he’s a Heat fan? I can’t be caught on camera congratulating a Knicks fan. I could go to jail for that.”

Laughing, the camera guy assures him that’s not the case, and cajoles him back on message.

Finally, Chalmers delivers: “Congratulations on your bar mitzvah — mazel tov!”

No one has ever doubted the man’s confidence. That’s, in large part, where the People Yelling at Mario Chalmers phenomenon began. “No matter what, no matter how tough we are on him, he actually thinks he’s the best player on this team,” Wade said back in 2012. “That’s a gift and a curse.” It hasn’t changed. “I’m always gonna be the best player, no matter what the situation is,” Chalmers, who is wearing a T-shirt depicting a black-and-white American flag with a caption that reads “Home of the Slaves,” tells me a few days after the photo shoot. “I don’t care if I got Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, and Magic Johnson on the same team. I’m the best player on the court. That’s just my mind-set.”

Trace the steps of his life and you can understand why. Born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, by two parents who played college basketball, Chalmers had a ball in his hands by the age of 2. His mother, an elementary school teacher, was his first coach, a defensive-minded instructor. Later, when his dad retired from the Air Force, he was able to spend more time with young Mario, crafting his offensive game. “I was fast, that was the thing,” Chalmers says. “No one could catch me on the court. As a baby, my auntie used to call me ‘Electric.’ I was always moving, always into everything. So that transferred to the court.”

From the age of 8, he always played a level or more above his grade. Other than fishing — deep-sea stuff, off boats, catching salmon, trout, red snapper — all he and his friends and his family did was play basketball. And by the end of high school, by which point he was a state champion a couple times over, he had his pick of “almost any school in the world.” He went with Kansas, where the starting point guard position was his for the taking, and where coach Bill Self’s tutelage was calling.

“It was tough,” Chalmers explains, “[coming from a place] where, I can say, I didn’t grow up around a lot of white people … I actually thought about transferring.” But the senior players told him: Buy into the Coach Self system. It’ll take you far.

And so he did, and so it did. Fast-forward to 2008, his junior year, and The Shot. The title game against Memphis, down nine points with 2:12 remaining. “Coach told us keep believing,” Chalmers recalls. “They’re not a good free throw–shooting team. Keep believing.” Coach was right: With 10.8 seconds left, the lead had dwindled to two points. At the free throw line for two shots, future NBA MVP Derrick Rose managed to stick just the second.

Before the free throws, Self called a timeout. “He said, ‘We gon’ get the ball to Rio.’ Everybody was looking at me. I’m just sitting there like, ‘Give me the ball. I’ll do it.’” The ball was inbounded to Sherron Collins, who just barely managed to fumble-flip it to Mario. “I got a little bit of space. I was able to get the shot off.” It’s a preposterous bomb, almost as riveting now in replay as it was that day. “And the rest is history.”

In overtime, Kansas was victorious. When Chalmers got back to campus, he was a hero. “Oh, that was crazy. That’s the best time of my life. That’s when the Sports Illustrated came out with me on the cover,” he remembers. The cover line read: “Mario’s Miracle.” “I had lines of people waiting outside of my classrooms wanting autographs. This is shell shock to me. I mean it got so bad that my professors were calling Coach like, ‘Mario Chalmers can’t come to class, he’s too much of a distraction.’”

Could you then perhaps understand how this young man might still believe, despite years of LeBron and the gang’s well-intentioned emotional abuse, that he’s the best basketball player alive?

Chalmers’s early years in the league were marked by more auspiciousness. On draft day, he slipped to Minnesota in the second round — before being immediately flipped to Miami,3 where he lucked into some not-so-stiff competition4 for the first-string point guard role.


3.

“Being in Miami, as a rookie with all that free time, it’s the worst place to come,” he says, smiling. “We was hanging out all the time. Oh, yeah, everybody wanted us everywhere. We had that buzz around the city.”

4.

Marcus Banks, we see you!

On opening night against the Knicks, Chalmers was in the starting five. “My first regular-season game was in the Garden,” he says, with a little residual dreaminess. “The Mecca of basketball. I finished with 17, 8, and 9.5 I’ll never forget that game. I knew, OK, I’m an NBA player. I belong here. This is what I do.”


5.

Close, but not quite: It was actually 17, 8, and 7.

Brooklyn Nets v Miami Heat Game - Semi Finals Game 1

Two years later, LeBron James came to town and the Big Three were born. And rapidly, the dynamic — Rio as the pressed-upon little brother — was established. The Heat were expected to win a title immediately; when the team started out 9-8, there was sheer panic in Miami. It’s not hard to understand that that much pressure needs a release. But why Mario?

“LeBron and D-Wade, those were my two big brothers,” Chalmers explains. “We’d clash on the court, but off the court we’d never clash about anything. I’m very stubborn. That’s just how our relationship was. It was never nothing serious. I understood what was going on. They knew that I was the type of player that could take the constructive criticism and it wouldn’t tear me down. It only made me stronger. I think that’s why they did it so much. As a little brother, you gotta take that sometimes.”

Occasionally, it’d get so bad that LeBron would be moved to publicly apologize. After one particularly intense incident in 2013, he tweeted his feelings about Chalmers.

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For the most part, though, the spats would come and go. “You too locked in [to] really think about it,” Chalmers says. “You don’t really know you going back and forth like that until after, when somebody say something to you. And then it’s like, ‘Y’all still thinking about that one play after we won the game?’”

And certainly, the Heat won some games. In four years with James, the Heat went to four straight Finals and clinched two titles. In Game 4 of the 2012 Finals, Chalmers went off for 25 en route to beating Oklahoma City;6 that offseason, he bounced between Vegas and New York, popping up everywhere from First Take to the Fox Business network, “getting my name out there, getting to be seen. That was living off the championship high. Everybody wanna be associated with a champion.”


6.

In that Game 4 victory against the Thunder, one play stood out. With nine minutes left in the fourth and the Heat up only three, LeBron bricked a long jumper, and the rebound was tipped to Chalmers, who coolly sank a 3. The home crowd erupted, but as the camera panned to Mario, you could see him drop his shooting hand, the one he’d just held up in celebration, and make eye contact with LeBron, and pat his chest in apology for something that had happened earlier.

So excuse him if a little yelling seemed like a small price to pay for the sweet taste of victory. The guy at the top demanded accountability. “One thing you can never take away from Bron,” Chalmers says, “he made sure that you knew that he needed you. The conversations, the stares he gives you … it’s just everything. And that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

Now that LeBron’s gone, Chalmers insists it’s still all love. “I knew that once that decision came out, everything was gonna blow up,” he says. “I probably waited a good couple of weeks to reach out. I hit him and I said, ‘Yo, congrats. I look forward to seeing y’all.’ He said, ‘All right, lil bro. We gon’ battle.’ I was happy. It felt like he was at peace again. And our relationship is never gonna change. I can still call him for anything, still talk to him about anything.”

Later that day, during a preseason game against the visiting Houston Rockets, Chalmers shows out. He hasn’t been starting: Spoelstra’s been experimenting with him at backup 2-guard as a spark off the bench. And for all Coach’s praise — “He’s playing positionless … that’s six years in the making” — it’s a sore spot with Chalmers. “All these stories out — ‘Cole took his starting spot.’ Nobody beat me out and made me lose my spot,” he says. “It’s just doing something that’s better for the team.” Maybe he sounds defensive. Maybe he is. But tonight, it doesn’t much matter.

At his best, Chalmers is a dervish. And here he is now, leaping into passing lanes, jump-starting fast breaks, whipping the ball around, making everything go a little faster. He goes hard to the basket, he gets bumped, he still finishes. He jaws with the ref, he mixes it up for loose balls, he comes around on the weak side for blocks. And by the end of the third quarter, when he banks in a 3 as the shot clock expires, he undeniably has the hot sauce in his possession. The goofy “Seven Nation Army” chant reverberates. It’s only preseason, but the crowd is juiced.

During game breaks, I walk around the concourse talking to fans who have resisted the urge to burn their LeBron jerseys. They’re still wearing their LeBron jerseys to the game tonight.7


7.

And they are all doing so with no undershirt. This is Miami, after all.

“He brought us a couple of championships,” one young fellow with a thin mustache tells me. “I’m not as bitter as some people.”

“I understand why he left, but at the same time,” a more anguished young man says, before pausing dramatically — “it hurts.”

“This is vintage!” a cheerfully wasted guy with wing tats on each shoulder says about his James jersey. “It’s like buying real estate!”

Then, that same man quietly explains that LeBron donated $20,000 to his sister’s cancer fund, and that her cancer is now in remission. I certainly didn’t expect the interaction with the super-drunk guy to go in this earnest and unassailably positive direction. Then his buddy, an even more super-drunk guy with a massive black beard, peeks right into my darkened soul: “You don’t like LeBron, do you, bro?! Bro, you don’t even like him!” And the two of them, cackling warmly and hanging onto each other for support, stumble off.

Back at the game, the good times roll with a prerecorded video of an adorable lady who goes by Grandma Nelly, and whose 90th-birthday wish was to play one-on-one with Dwyane Wade. Wish granted. She’s seen happily tossing up shots at the team’s practice facility with her idol; scooping up one of her misses, Wade puts it right back up, then cracks, “You throw better lobs than Mario Chalmers!”

It doesn’t matter. Chalmers zooms all around the court, and the Heat hold on for a shaky win. The crowd barely notices that Dwight Howard and James Harden have been sitting on the bench with towels around their necks for quite some time now.

Miami Heat v Cleveland CavaliersBuda Mendes/Getty

“It was a tough season last year,” Chalmers says. “We knew we was going to the Finals, and it was like we wanted to fast-track everything. Instead of making it a process, the way we did the last two championships. We wanted to fast-track everything, and we got complacent.” There’s only hunger now, he promises.

“No team’s ever gone to five straight Finals,”8 he adds, perhaps a bit overly effusive about this squad’s chances sans LBJ. But in the woozy glow of the preseason, after a win, a certain giddiness is in the air. Anything seems possible.


8.

Not quite right here, either: The Celtics accomplished the feat for 10 consecutive seasons, from 1957 to 1966.

In one corner, Birdman stomps to his locker, mock-scattering the media scrum with a bellowing “Any more questions?” In the other, Wade asks if he got an assist on a particularly nifty circus shot Bosh pulled off in the first quarter. “Nope!” Bosh shouts back. “I made sure I took three dribbles.”

As Bosh pulls on his street clothes, I ask him about how Chalmers has changed over the years. He responds, at first, just by laughing. But then he explains. “The thing I always wanna do with Rio is challenge him. I always saw the potential in him. Yeah, we’re gonna have our moments. And I mean, he comes back at me — it never really gets publicized, but it works both ways. But he had a different focus today. And I tell him: ‘We need you to play like that every single night.’ He can do it. He knows he can.”

I ask Wade about Chalmers, too, his new role and how he’s played so far. “We like Mario where he’s at,” Wade says. “He gets to be aggressive, and I like him aggressive. Mario can do some good things for this team. Right now, we like him where he’s at.”

Wade pauses, before adding one final note: “Uh, obviously, you know … I’m still gonna cuss him out on the court at times.”