Basketball / Sports

Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel directs his players against the Washington Wizards in the first half of Game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., Friday, May 9, 2014. (Chuck Myers/MCT)

The Sterling moment that saved the Heat

NEW YORK -- It has been two weeks now of Donald Sterling stories, most pertaining to repugnant racist comments, with those who worked for him, coached for him, played for him, stepping up with their own accounts of troubling moments with the expected-to-be-deposed Los Angeles Clippers owner.

Amid the decades of turbulence there also were basketball decisions so bizarre from Sterling that it left those inside the game wondering exactly what was going on elsewhere in Sterling's mind.

One of those involved the Miami Heat. It could be argued it was a moment where Sterling's impetuousness changed the course of Heat franchise history . . . ironically, for the better.

If it wasn't for Donald Sterling, Alonzo Mourning might never have been part of the Miami Heat, Heat-Knicks might never have become the NBA's most passionate playoff rivalry of the late '90s, Pat Riley might never have grown more steadfast in his desire for a championship foothold in South Florida.

The date was Oct. 15, 1993. The Heat had just completed a trade that would send Glen Rice and Willie Burton to the Clippers for a draft pick and Danny Manning, whose impending free agency was a concern of Sterling's notoriously tight wallet. Clippers General Manager Elgin Baylor had verbally agreed to the deal.

Manning already was talking publicly about a partnership with Grant Long, combo forwards playing side by side. Notified of the trade while driving to Heat training camp in Lake Worth, Rice was shaken, commenting, "I don't think he's going to be able to help the Heat more than I can." Manning already had his flight booked to Miami.

And then? And then Sterling blew it all up, explaining to one of the parties involved that he had awoken from a dream that had Manning at the center of a Clippers championship.

The deal was off.

"It's unfortunate," then Heat-Managing Partner Lewis Schaffel said at the time. "I don't think we should ever get involved with that team again." (In fact, to this date, the Heat have made only one trade with the Clippers and Sterling, on Feb. 19, 1998 acquiring Brent Barry for Ike Austin and a first-round pick ultimately used for Brian Skinner.)

Manning's agent, the late Ron Grinker, was incredulous, "Elgin Baylor assured everybody he had authority to make a deal."

Rice remained with the Heat. Thrived. By the 1994-95 season, he was averaging a career-best 22.3 points per game, on 41-percent 3-point shooting. He was on the verge of an All-Star breakthrough.

It was exactly what Riley needed when he arrived to the Heat as coach and team president in September 1995. Because two months later, Rice was the featured piece in the trade that landed Mourning from the Charlotte Hornets. Manning, already on the decline by then, likely would not have been enough. Rice was, that season to begin a three-year run of All-Star appearances.

With Mourning, the Heat became contenders for the first time, those epic playoff struggles with the Knicks providing Riley with the resolve to remain in South Florida until championship visions were realized, the 2006 tile coming not only with Mourning back with the team, but at the start of what Dwyane Wade would later also deliver alongside LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

Had Donald Sterling not had one of what now clearly were numerous misguided visions, who knows where the Heat would stand, whether Riley could have parlayed anything else on his inherited Heat roster into the player who became the first to have his Heat jersey retired.

NBA lore is replete with stories of Sterling bungling numerous opportunities for his Clippers, before Blake Griffin and Chris Paul finally made things right.

In 1993, when he was known more as the bad owner of a bad team, rather than as a reprehensible racist, his meddling allowed the Heat to preserve an asset for arguably the most significant trade to this date in the franchise's 26 seasons.

In the lane

NEW WORLD: Here's how life has changed for LeBron James from that contentious first season with the Heat: Amid his postgame congratulations Tuesday for Kevin Durant's MVP, James noted, "I think I played well enough to win it, but I don't think our team played well enough to win it." There was a pause, the briefest of pauses, and then what amounted to a second-chance point, when he added, "We had too many up-and-down stretches throughout the season, and if my team's not winning, then I shouldn't be the MVP." If the comments came during a similar juncture during the 2011 postseason, before the first championship, during the ill-fated attempt to play a villain, James likely never would have gotten the putback opportunity with his follow-up comment. And he might not even have felt the compunction to offer the clarification. This time, no turbulence, no outside need to seize on a gotcha moment. Just a gracious runner-up.

ODD RESULTS: It would have been interesting if the NBA utilized the same transparency with Executive of the Year it has with the postseason awards selected by media. Instead, there was no accounting of the voting of fellow league executives, who voted the honor to the San Antonio Spurs' R.C. Buford. And then there was Pat Riley, who received one of the 30 first-place votes and placed fifth in the overall balloting. So let's get this straight: When Riley signed James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the 2010 offseason, he merely shared the 2011 award with the Chicago Bulls' Gar Forman (whose prime addition was Carlos Boozer). But when Riley's only additions of significance this season were Greg Oden and Michael Beasley, there is more credit than Daryl Morey's addition of Dwight Howard with the Houston Rockets or Billy King's gambit with the Brooklyn Nets, with Morey placing ninth and King eighth? If the award has become a career achievement award, then designate it as such. Or was the Spurs' offseason addition of Marco Belinelli more of a game changer than we realize?

NOT AGAIN: With Mike Miller returning to the free-agent market this offseason after a solid season that saw him play in every game for the Memphis Grizzlies, keep in mind that, by rule, the Heat remain ineligible to bring him back to their roster by any means until the 2015 offseason, since he had two years remaining on his contract when the Heat used their amnesty provision on him last summer. Miller will collect $6.6 million from the Heat next season, although that number will neither count against the Heat's salary cap nor luxury tax.

PRESSURE POINT: Among the more intriguing elements of the Heat's offseason will be whether Wade utilizes his early-termination option as part of an agreement to provide the Heat with greater cap flexibility going forward. During his season-ending media session, Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki showed the opposite side of Kobe Bryant's late-career cash grab. "We'll find a good way where I feel respected for what I did and we still have enough money left for us to get great players in here," Nowitzki said, expressing free-agency faith in owner Mark Cuban. "He has been great to me and been loyal to me for a long, long time. I'm sure we're going to find a great solution for everybody." Nowitzki is 35, Wade 32. Age is not the big difference. The biggest difference is Wade is due $42 million over the next two seasons if he simply remains locked into his current deal.

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