How can fans explain to someone who doesn't follow the game just what it is about a mediocre player that is so inspiring? How does that concept even begin to translate into other walks of life?
Quite frankly, it never does. You don't go into a store to complain to - or praise - the peons behind the register. You seek out a manager, the big boss. In film or in books, no one roots for the lazy anti-hero who does just enough not to earn your hatred. We like our characters clearly defined, either overwhelmingly noble or, in the case of a Hannibal Lecter, charmingly and outrageously evil.
But in sports, it's easier to root for the player that does what he can despite his limitations, rather than those who are blessed with otherworldly athleticism and skill. The latter may sell the jerseys, but the former holds the key to our hearts.
And so it is with Udonis Haslem, now in his 11th season in the NBA, and all with his hometown team, the Miami Heat. His career has been steady, dependable - no 60-point games (hell, not even a 30-point one), no huge game-winning shots from the corner. Just unremarkably solid.
This year has been different than previous ones. Haslem hasn't been someone you can count on for 10 points and eight rebounds a game. He has barely cracked the rotation through much of the season. His shot seemed flat, his injured body no longer has the springs to challenge for rebounds and you can't step in and take a charge if you're always a step to slow. It's been difficult to watch but, because the Heat have been largely successful and there have been so many other storylines to follow - LeBron's MVP journey, D-Wade's health and the ongoing salvage job of both Greg Oden's and Michael Beasley's careers - you tend to overlook what has always been there. What you may have taken for granted over 11 seasons.
So Haslem's recent performance against the Boston Celtics (14 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks in 27 minutes) was a reminder to Heat fans; don't forget me.
Maybe I'm just feeling a little nostalgic, a little sentimental; dealing with personal crises even as I've just finished reading Junot Diaz' This Is How You Lose Her. For those who haven't read it (and you should), it's a semi-autobiographical account of loves lost and the stupid mistakes you make when you forget to care about whose heart gets broken. Sometimes, the one that breaks is your own.
And, just like he always has, Haslem showed up just to remind me that self-pity ain't got no place in this world.
For those 27 minutes, it was the U.D. of old. Knocking down jumpers, disrupting passes, hustling...always hustling. It was good to see, an encouraging sign, even as the Heat struggle to win games this March and their chance to catch up to the Indiana Pacers slips further away.
There was Haslem, helping us remember that he still cares, even when he's stuck on the bench like his shorts were made of Crazy Glue.
Dear Heat Fans, Udonis wrote with each rebound and made shot, I'll always be there for you.
I'm glad we're winning, and I'll always do what I can to help, even if that means not playing when it's the most important thing in the world to me. But, just in case you forgot what I can do and how much I care, here's a little reminder.
Don't forget me.
No worries, U.D. Like you've always done for your teammates in the past, we got your back.
Just a reminder to Coach Spoelstra...in case you need a spark every once in a while and you're looking for someone to embody your oft-repeated mantras of "grind" and "defensive identity?" He might just be there, already on the bench. He's the one with the sleepy eyes, grizzled stubble and number "40" on his jersey.
And to those non-fans who can't understand rooting harder for the blue-collar player than the superstar? Take a look at Udonis Haslem. He's the one chewing his mouthpiece down to powder because he never stops working.