Miami the place to be for special basketball
MIAMI (AP) -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the reigning NBA champions. One of the hottest teams in NCAA men's basketball. The leading collegiate women's scorer in the country.
All in one city.
Welcome to Miami.
Long considered a football town, thanks to those perfect-season Dolphins and five-time-national-champion Hurricanes, it seems like Miami now has an identity crisis of sorts. Football town or a basketball town? It's been the source of debate for some time, perhaps now more than ever, and South Floridians may all agree that it's a nice problem to have.
"People here like basketball," said Jerica Coley, the FIU guard whose 25.5-point-per-game average easily tops the women's Division I charts -- and whose nickname, HolyColey, is part of a big-time marketing push by her school. "They want to see good basketball. And as a city, I guess we're pretty good right now."
That's an understatement.
The Heat will have the best record in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break this weekend and boast a star-studded roster -- keyed, of course, by the reigning MVP in James, who seems to be in line to win that award for a fourth time this spring.
Down the road a bit in Coral Gables, the Miami Hurricanes and coach Jim Larranaga have gone from unranked to No. 3 in the nation and atop the Atlantic Coast Conference in about a month, easily becoming the biggest story in the college game this season after enjoying blowout wins over Duke and North Carolina. A few more miles away at FIU, Coley is starring on a nightly basis despite almost-constant double- and triple-teams against her.
Not to mention, the city also lays claim to a former women's national coach of the year in Miami's Katie Meier and a surging FIU men's program led by Richard Pitino, the son of legendary longtime Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
"It's cool. We turned this into a basketball town," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "And I'm a fan of the other sports. I've gotten to know coach Larranaga the last two summers ... and since then I've spent a handful of times on campus meeting with him and his staff, just talking hoops. I'm a big fan of his. And what they've been able to do down here is very cool."
That also means games in Miami tend to be a tough ticket. This past weekend, the Heat played host to the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday, the Hurricane men's team hosted North Carolina on Saturday, and the Heat closed the three-day extravanganza at home again Sunday with a matchup against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
Three days, three sellout crowds, about 50,000 tickets sold in all.
When the Heat won the NBA title, team radio announcer Mike Inglis excitedly shouted that Miami was "the center of the basketball universe." These days, it seems like that statement has never been more true. And in a city where the football teams aren't exactly filling stadiums, hoops is hot.
"It's well-deserved," said Heat guard James Jones, a former Hurricane player and a Miami native. "We have a very good coach and very good team down at the University of Miami. Evidently, we're the defending champs. FIU is on the way up. I think the game of basketball is continuing to grow here. This is always been predominantly a football town. The Dolphins have been here longer than anyone. But basketball has slowly gotten better."
Of late, it's seemed to have gotten better in a hurry.
The Heat won a title in 2006, were the NBA's worst team two years later, then landed James and Chris Bosh to play with Wade in 2010 -- with two trips to the NBA Finals and one title to show so far. The Hurricanes' women's program was one of the nation's best over the past two years. And this season, the Miami men are the talk of the NCAA game, with many people already tabbing them as a Final Four-caliber team, even though few even listed them as a top-four team in the ACC entering the season.
"A lot of good things are happening in Miami," Wade said.
Even the stars are fans of the other teams in town these days. Wade, James and Jones were courtside for the Hurricanes' win over North Carolina this weekend, and it's not unusual to see college players in turn showing up at Heat games.
But even Hurricanes point guard Shane Larkin isn't sure that Miami has truly turned the corner from being a football town -- yet.
"Miami has traditionally been great at football," Larkin said. "Until we have that type of success year after year after year, it's going to be a football town. But with what we're doing right now, people are going to start taking notice ... so we can keep building until they say it's a basketball town."