The center of the American sports universe is ... Miami?
Miami is one win away from the Heat and Panthers hosting their respective finals.
Joe Rose has been doing sports talk radio in Miami for 31 years now and never before had he received a listener comment like the text that came into the 560 Sports studios on Monday.
“We don’t deserve this,” it read.
Rose just laughed.
The sentiment is no doubt being expressed by frustrated fans across North America who are looking on with intense envy as both the NBA Miami Heat and NHL Florida Panthers push toward their respective finals.
No city has ever had an NBA champion and Stanley Cup champion in the same year. Just eight have hosted the finals of both leagues in the same year and none since 2003, when the New Jersey Nets and Devils accomplished it. The Devils won. The Nets lost.
Now here come the Heat, up 3-0 on the Boston Celtics. And here come the Panthers, up 3-0 on the Carolina Hurricanes. South Florida is just a couple of conference finals close-out games from playing for everything.
This is an historic sporting nirvana, yet it’s happening for a region whose sports fans are known for their lack of consistent interest and support.
This is botox and bandwagon country.
So it’s a fair question, even from locals. Do they deserve it?
“I said, ‘Hey man, we paid our dues,’ ” Rose said Tuesday morning, after finishing his drivetime show on WQAM. “We’ve lost and lost, not made conference finals and all of that.
“I don’t think anyone can argue with the reputation of the fans here; it’s part of what we are,” he continued. “But while I know it’s not a big, traditional market, we’re not going to apologize to anybody. I’m sorry, but we’re enjoying every last second of it.”
They should. Making it even more remarkable is how little was expected of both.
This isn’t just two juggernaut teams from the same city bulldozing through the postseason. Each had to battle just to get into the playoffs as the lowest seed. Little to nothing was expected of them.
“It was a dogfight just to get in,” Rose said. “Then everyone was saying, we’re the 8 seed against Milwaukee (Heat) and Boston (Panthers). Those aren’t good match-ups. That’s why this just gets better and better.”
And so suddenly, one of the historically least passionate sports cities is having a full-blown love affair with two tough, scrappy and opportunistic teams led by hard-nose superstars in Jimmy Butler and Matthew Tkachuk.
“When Jimmy Butler looks in the mirror, he sees Matthew Tkachuk,” Rose said. “It just goes back and forth. ‘We just won on the road.’ ‘So did we.’ ‘Oh, we just won another.’ ”
There are fans in South Florida as dedicated and diehard to their teams as anywhere else in the country. Seriously, they exist. They just happen to be outnumbered by those that don’t, at least unless it’s fashionable to do so.
And that’s why there may be so much jealousy around the country. People long ago got tired of the Boston franchises winning so many championships, but no one could ever claim their fans weren’t hardcore.
The stereotypical image of a Miami fan base is of indifference reflected in empty swaths of seats, or even rival fans (many of whom winter in South Florida) overwhelming the home stadium.
The Heat, with its downtown arena and longer history of success (three NBA titles) finished fifth overall in NBA attendance and sixth in percent of capacity (98.8). They generally show up, albeit late.
The Panthers, however, played to just 86.7 percent of capacity (29th in the NHL) at its Sunrise location in Broward County, some 35 miles from downtown Miami. And much of that is bolstered by sellouts when Canadian clubs visit.
“Sometimes during the regular seasons those northern teams have half the building,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said on WQAM Tuesday morning.
Miami’s most infamous fan moment came at the end of Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Heat fans, certain of an impending loss to San Antonio, began heading out to beat traffic despite never trailing by more than five points.
It caused them to miss Ray Allen force overtime with one of the greatest shots in finals history. Cameras then captured fans rushing back to the arena to bang on closed doors in hopes of getting back in. Miami won without them to avoid elimination.
“Don’t come to Game 7,” Miami’s Chris Bosh said, unforgivingly. “People gave up on us … they can watch the game at home.”
Harsh. And hard to shake off.
Maurice said that he hopes the momentum of both teams helps them grow their fan bases, obviously his Panthers in particular. The every other night nature of the two schedules has meant that lately each team takes the spotlight, the momentum fueling both teams.
“It’s a great time to be down here and celebrate sports,” the Florida coach said. “It’s a great crossover. [There are a] lot of hockey fans who haven't watched a lot of basketball [until now] and then it goes the other way. Everybody gets to cheer a team on.”
Sure, this would be bigger if it was Chicago or Philly or New York or whatever. Miami is Miami though. It’s a unique and sensational American city because it is unapologetically unlike everywhere else. It’s about beaches and nightclubs, transplants and immigrants, diversity and diversions.
Not just sports.
At least until now, this spring of winning and winning, of upset after upset, of two incredible blue collar stars lifting their teams to heights no one predicted.
“It’s incredible,” Rose said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Almost no one anywhere ever has.