A funny thing happened to me this past weekend. I was driving into South Florida and working my way into downtown Miami so I can check into my hotel. One of the navigation options as you arrive into Miami-Dade County is to take the Palmetto expressway to the Dolphin expressway (also known as the Don Shula expressway). And this got me to thinking: how much longer before these roads are renamed?
I was born a couple of weeks after the Miami Dolphins won Super Bowl VII and capped off the perfect season. Technically, the Fins have won a SuperBowl in my lifetime, but I was only 11 months old at the time of SB VIII. They reached two more, in ’82 and ’84. I remember crying myself to sleep after both losses, and the image of Roger Craig high-stepping into the end zone in Super Bowl XIX still haunts me. Still, Shula is a legend in South Florida, and he and Dan Marino are firmly cemented on the Mount Rushmore of South Florida sports.
The Marlins have won two World Series titles recently (’97, ’03), but ten years is a long time, and the glory of those championships is marred by the horrible management of the franchise immediately after. In the Fall of 1997, Wayne Huizenga dismantled the team in a fire-sale. Following the 2003 title, Jeffrey Loria did little to keep the key pieces in place, held the city hostage over a stadium deal, and the took a big crap on the fan base by getting rid of all the big-name players signed in the 2011 off-season. If there is one Marlin that symbolizes any positive feelings fans have for the franchise, it’s Jeff Conine. He was the Marlins’ first All-Star and part of both World Series teams. Mr. Marlins is not quite on the Mount Rushmore of South Florida sports, buy you can definitely find him in the foothills.
The Florida Panthers are a funny story. Their amazing run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996, in only their fifth year of existence, created a slew of instant hockey fans, myself included. That scrappy team led by Scott Mellanby and Stu Barnes, and anchored by John Vanbiesbrouck in goal was fun and exciting to watch. But now they’re a mere afterthought. They’ve been irrelevant in the standings for years, and they play their home games 35 miles north of downtown Miami. In terms of geographical relativity, if the Heat play on South Beach, then the Panthers might as well be in Orlando.
Which gets us to the moral of the story. Although it pains my heart to say, which will forever bleed coral and aqua, Miami is officially a basketball town. Three titles in eight years will do that. Three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals will do that. Two back-to-back titles will do that. Having the rest of the country hate you because of the team you love will do that. The same unifying, us-against-the-world attitude Miami felt at the height of the Hurricane football team’s dominance in the late eighties is the same feeling that’s has once again spread in South Florida. And it’s not going to change anytime soon.
The core of this year’s championship team will be back next season to make another run at the title. I don’t think LeBron nor Wade nor Bosh will opt-out, and I think this Heat team will contend for a championship over the next five to seven years. And in the mind of the South Florida sports fan, the gap between the Heat and the other three franchises will just continue to get bigger and bigger.
Remember that in the not-so-distant future as you make your way to the American Airlines Arena and your GPS tells you to take the LeBron James Highway to the Dwyane Wade Causeway to then turn onto Pat Riley Boulevard.
Sorry, Dan, but you may have just lost your spot on Miami’s Mount Rushmore.