Majestic palm trees line the street, swaying in unison with the steady ocean breeze. The bay glistens as the sun slowly begins its daily descent. The cocktail deck overlooking this picturesque scene is packed with a tanned, joyful crowd clinking drinks and enjoying the occasional cigar. No one seems to have a care in the world.
Welcome to South Beach for the Eastern Conference finals.
Located on Biscayne Bay in downtown Miami, American Airlines Arena at times seems more like a giant yacht club than a sports arena. It's no wonder fans are often spotted arriving to their seats so late into the game. Basketball is just one of the many attractions on tap at the facility.
Miami isn't exactly known as a sports Mecca. But even with their recently-assembled trio of basketball superstars, 'the Heat' in town seems to be more often than not a reference to the weather.
While many cities garner a certain buzz when a team is as close to a championship as the Heat are, you would be hard-pressed to find many, if any, visible clues there is a team at all in Miami, let alone a team in the conference finals. During a five-mile jog around town on Sunday morning, I spotted a grand total of ZERO pieces of fan apparel, signs advertising the games at bars and restaurants or even a billboard for one of the 394,872 companies LeBron James endorses.
To recap, I saw zero signs of the Heat's existence. Like one less than Joakim Noah's point total on Sunday night. And 50,000 less than he had to pay on Monday.
The game itself did feature a sellout crowd made up of predominately Miami fans decked in their best Rick Pitino-approved white apparel. Memorial Day be damned. However, the in-house DJ had to almost force through peer pressure and public humiliation for several people to put on their free Heat shirts. "Put that shirt on" he would insist forcefully at specific individuals while their faces reddened on the jumbotron to the delight of their peers.
At other points of the evening, the DJ would tell the crowd when to make noise or to stand. It almost had the feel of a 'Basketball Game Etiquette 101' class. Not that I was aware that type of class existed. The fans politely obliged and banged their complimentary sticks provided to make the crowd sound louder, but it lacked a certain organic quality that is so prevalent in towns like Chicago or Boston or … just about anywhere else.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist, or even a sociology major (like moi) to understand why Miami is lacking in the diehard fan department. There is a large percentage of transplants residing within the city limits and surrounding suburbs, and such intensity or loyalty to a team is rarely learned.
And, perhaps more importantly, while those of us in the North rely on our sports teams to carry us through the seemingly endless winters, those in Miami don't share that need. The sunshine and warmth fill their winters. Why stay inside on a Sunday in February to watch a basketball game when you can work on your tan and enjoy a frozen margarita at the beach?
Or at least this is what I tried to convince myself as my blood began to boil watching fans flee the arena with seven minutes to go despite the Heat holding just a six-point advantage.
There is a reason Dan Marino and Michael Jordan jerseys hang from the rafters in the arena. Despite the 2006 NBA title, the Heat don't have a whole lot of history to flaunt.
That very well might change this year. But the overall interest in the team will continue to be minimal in South Florida as long as the sun keeps shining and that more-frequently referenced heat persists.