Like a high school kid collecting yearbook signatures, Scott Hastings, the backup center for the Miami Heat, circulated through the visiting locker room in Chicago Stadium Saturday night, imploring teammates and coaches to sign his stat sheet. Yes, for weeks the long tentacles of history had been reaching out for this juicy expansion tidbit, and when it was time, the Heat threw up its hands and said, "Take me." With Saturday's 111-88 loss to the Chicago Bulls, Miami fell to 0-16, breaking the NBA record for consecutive defeats at the start of a season.
"I'm going to frame this and put it in my bar," said Hastings, part owner of "Jocks 'n' Jills" in Atlanta. "People will look back on this someday."
And someday the Heat—which, along with the Charlotte Hornets, joined the NBA this season—will win a game too. Many thought that the first victory would come on Dec. 7 against the Sacramento Kings at the brand-new Miami Arena, where Heat fans can buy Cuban coffee and a rum drink called Frozen Miami Heat. All but a few of the arena's 15,008 seats were filled that night. Zev Bufman, one of the Heat's four principal owners, wore sneakers to the game so he could spring from his courtside seat onto the floor and "hug the whole team" when the final buzzer sounded. Local newspapers played up the fact that the Heat was actually favored by 2½ points.
Alas, Sacramento pulled off a 96-94 upset to hand Miami defeat No. 14—making its own record 3-12. Defeat No. 15 for Miami came on Friday night, courtesy of the visiting Denver Nuggets, who won 121-110. After Chicago, which got 38 points from Michael Jordan, contributed defeat No. 16, it was time for the Heat to say hello and goodbye to the 1949-50 Denver Nuggets, who were not around for the 1950-51 season; the wild and wonderful 1970-71 Cleveland Cavaliers, whose record after 30 games was 2-28; and, of course, those ever-popular objects of derision, the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who put together the worst season record (9-73) in NBA history. All three of these teams opened with 15 straight losses, but all won No. 16.
Like waves on Miami Beach, the Heat jokes are rolling in. David Letterman conferred official pop status on the Heat recently when the team was mentioned on his Top 10 list. That night it covered the reasons why Yasser Arafat should be allowed to come to America to address the U.N.: Reason No. 7—the P.L.O. leader's three-point shooting could help the Heat win a game. And Pat Williams, the general manager of the Orlando Magic—which will enter the league next season, along with the Minnesota Timberwolves—noted last week that the Heat is losing so frequently "their mascot should be a Democrat."
Watch that tongue, Pat—your day of reckoning is coming soon. Considering the Heat's performance to date, it seems fair to wonder what the NBA landscape will look like with four expansion stepchildren traipsing around it, spilling milk at Boston Garden and leaving crumbs on the Forum floor. "It's a non-issue," says NBA commissioner David Stern. "In the rush to see a trend, people fail to see where the Pistons, Bulls and Knicks, teams like that, were several years ago."
To underscore his faith in the Heat, which he says is destined to be a "very special" franchise. Stern last week awarded Miami the 1990 All-Star Game. By then the Heat will almost certainly have won a game. "Right now it looks dark for Miami," continues Stern, "but everything takes time. They have no place to go but up, and up they will go."
Terrific. And how much negative publicity about expansion will the league have endured by then? Will 10 wins, which would lift the Heat above the ignominy of the 1972-73 Sixers, make the season a success? Or does "up" mean the rarefied atmosphere in which the Hornets, winners of five games through last weekend, reside?
"None of us is putting a number on it," says guard Jon Sundvold, whom Miami got from the San Antonio Spurs in the expansion draft. "Sixteen straight, 20 straight, 30 straight losses by March or April, what's the difference? What's the impact for next season? None. We'll be in the lottery in any case, and our younger players will have improved by then. We'll be a much better team next season."
Heat fans have been patient, but how long will that last? The call of the boo-bird has been detected on at least two occasions in Miami Arena—during a 105-101 loss to San Antonio on Nov. 30 and on Friday night, when Hastings was singled out in the course of an 0-for-5 shooting performance against Denver. Even Bufman, who made his millions producing plays for Broadway ("The good thing about being in the NBA is that you can't close on opening night," he says), seemed a little antsy before the Denver game, to which he wore shoes.
"When we come back from our road trip [Miami has away games against the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento this week], we have a five-game home stand," said Bufman, "and we better win one." It won't be easy. The visitors are the Dallas Mavericks, Seattle SuperSonics, Utah, San Antonio and the Houston Rockets.
No one is surprised that the Hornets have gotten off to a better start than the Heat, which lost 99-84 in Charlotte on Nov. 29. The Hornets decided to build through the expansion draft and free-agent signings, while Miami, under the guidance of experienced NBA hands Billy Cunningham and Lewis Schaffel—who are partners with Bufman and Carnival Cruise Lines founder Ted Arison—elected to hoard its draft picks and to eschew veterans with long-term contracts. "No matter how many times you warn people about what's going to happen," says Schaffel, "the route we've taken is clearly the tougher way to go for our fans."
It's one thing to be firm in resolve if your young players are talented. It's quite another if you are playing nursemaid to half the roster of the 1991 Topeka Sizzlers. Right now the Heat's rookie tote board says:
•Three will help: center Rony Seikaly from Syracuse, who is an NBA player despite his penchant for dropping balls and not dropping free throws (he's shooting 51% from the line); Kevin Edwards, a strong, slashing shooting guard from DePaul; and Grant Long, a second-round pick out of Eastern Michigan, who plays every minute as if the Heat was contending for the NBA championship.
•One might: free-agent guard Anthony Taylor, an Atlanta Hawk reject whose build is slight but whose jump shot is not.
•And two probably won't: Sylvester Gray, an early signee from Memphis State whose superb athletic skills probably will not be honed soon enough; and John Shasky, a former CBA player who has already applied for membership in the Lifetime Backup Center Club chaired by Chuck Nevitt.
Even when third-year forward Billy Thompson and third-year guard Pearl Washington (currently on the injured list with a groin pull) are thrown into the mix, one still must conclude that the Heat is a long way from hot. However, says Ron Rothstein, the Heat coach, "There is no way we could have been better than Charlotte this season. Absolutely no way. Sure, we could've gone the Charlotte route, signed a lot of veterans and gotten more wins. But at what price?"
Well, the Hornets did not exactly mortgage the future to land proven players like Kelly Tripucka, Kurt Rambis and Robert Reid. Charlotte retains all of its future draft picks, although it did build the team around these three veterans. The Heat, by contrast, focused on youth and also made trades to acquire a first-round pick (Edwards) and three seconds (Long, Gray and Orlando Graham from Auburn-Montgomery, who was cut) in the '88 draft, as well as three extra second-rounders in three of the next four drafts. Good work, Miami. Now for the hard part—using the picks to get first-rate players.
For the time being, the Heat will try to tread water, hoping that the youngsters cut their teeth quickly, that a respectable but hardly awe-inspiring group of veterans (Rory Sparrow, Sundvold, Hastings, Pat Cummings) maintains its enthusiasm and that a few calls start to go the Heat's way. The most popular pastime of any expansion team is to dwell on alleged injustices by the zebras, and Miami certainly is no exception. Some of its complaining even seems to be justified.
As of Sunday, the Heat had shot more free throws than its opponents in only one game, against the Spurs on Nov. 9. The Lakers were not whistled for a foul until 5:45 of the second period during their game in Miami—a 138-91 blowout on Nov. 23. Perhaps that night was in Rothstein's subconscious when he rose to question a technical foul that veteran referee Jim Capers called on Hastings late in the third period of the game against Sacramento. "Tell me, Jim," said the frustrated Rothstein, "would you call that technical on Magic Johnson?"
Capers indicated that he would have—and then called one on Rothstein for asking the question.
The season already has been a long one for Rothstein, who six months ago was sitting on the Detroit bench as an assistant coach during the Pistons' championship series against the Lakers. But he has endured frustration before, notably in back-to-back winless seasons two decades ago at Eastchester (N.Y.) High. "I contemplated suicide then," says Rothstein, laughing, "but never quitting." And now?
"I guess the worst thing I think about is—what else?—actually going zero and 82," he says. "You look at the schedule and think, well, who are we going to beat? And when? Who's going to help us? It's tough."
Toughest on the Heat's veterans, who have been around too long to revel in the "Oh boy, tonight we play Michael Jordan" spirit that seems to prevail—at least for now. "We're goal-seeking individuals, like most athletes," says Sparrow, "and our self-worth is tied up in winning. It's hard to feel good about yourself when you're losing."
Adds Hastings, "Winning and losing are opposites, but the funny thing is, you can get used to both. And losing's the one thing we must never accept. We can have fun and try to look at things philosophically, but we've got to guard against a losing attitude."
Through last weekend, though, it wasn't easy for the Heat to have any other kind.