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Geography, Symbolism and the Real Miami (Heat) Culture

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A look at why South Beach isn’t Miami and why the Cuban lottery may be the answer to the Heat’s future.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Every night, amid the non-native palm trees and the snarling traffic, the beautiful people put on their skin-tight clothing and take their talents to South Beach. But unlike LeBron James, not a single one of them does their work at the American Airlines Arena.

You see, the Heat actually play in a dreary, bleak area of downtown Miami that is known more for its parking nightmare than its thriving nightlife. The Arena stands out as a symbol of hope, an architectural masterpiece that pays tribute to the aquatic theme that is so pervasive in everything South Florida, and a reminder to the area's homeless that any drug use should be limited - or at least less conspicuous - with the increased police presence on game days.

South Beach, a club-friendly region that gained fame and notoriety for being the spot to see-and-be-seen in the early 1990s, is actually a part of the City of Miami Beach. Amid the over-priced drinks and the over-pale tourists that flock to the shores, the area is a neon-loud carnival of hotspots, hotels and haute culture and is connected to basketball the same way many Miami Heat fans are.

They're all actually located miles away from the Arena.

At some point between Don Johnson to Jimmy Johnson to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, most of Miami-Dade County, from the airport to the Atlantic, became known as "South Beach." This designation had been building for a while, but became etched in geographical stone when, in July 2010, James announced his intentions to join the Heat by uttering the phrase that became inexorably linked to the Big 3 era.

Local basketball fans cheered loudly but the Miami Beach Visitors Bureau was beyond ecstatic, even willing to sacrifice a ceremonial chicken to pay homage. Fearing a tarnished image from tourists, they simply evicted one instead.

But one could hardly blame James, whose own geography lesson would become such a topic of intense debate and nationwide hatred. Even as he defended his decision to simply find a new job in another city, he had to clarify that he wasn't betraying any hometown fans by leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers. You see, James is proudly from Akron, Ohio.

Even residents fail to make the distinction clearly. The area itself was known as Dade County until 1997, when voters chose to rename the zone "Miami-Dade" because of the international recognition and appeal of the City of Miami. The county itself is comprised of 35 different cities or municipalities, ranging from the most well-known (Miami, of course) to the incomprehensibly small (the Village of El Portal, which translated means "The Gate" but ultimately opens to complete anonymity).

To take it a step further, the Heat do play in Miami, but the Dolphins play in Sun Life Stadium, which is located in Miami Gardens. The University of Miami shares the stadium, too, but their campus is actually in Coral Gables, a city whose borders wind so precisely that it seems obvious their planners were intent on keeping all of the scenic parts to themselves. Marlins Stadium is technically in the City of Miami, but, to be honest, it doesn't matter because no one's going there anyway.

So what does it all mean? Some of the area's largest streets extend through several cities at once but driving their entirety seems like taking a tour through progressively lower tax brackets until you finally reach your destination. The residents of Dade County (or more importantly and by local ordinance "Wade County") do share a bond, one that is often-maligned and rarely on display for the rest of the nation; their absolute love for the Miami Heat.

From the murals in Liberty City to the abuelas wearing Udonis Haslem jerseys, these people truly love the team. With the Dolphins season following an all-too-familiar pattern and the Marlins being, well, the Marlins, South Florida is crossing borders and cheering on the best thing to happen to local sports in decades.

And the fanbase, like the local population in miniature, is a sampling of international flavors and styles. Some are more familiar with the history of the game (which, locally, only extends from 1995 P.R., or "Post Riley"), but they all love their Heat. And loudly.

Is there any more ubiquitous a celebration than the distinct sound of Miami Heat fans, cheering on a championship as they clog the cities' streets, with the clamor of pots and pans? Its origins are varied and distinctly international, like the fans themselves. But, after three NBA titles in seven years, the ritual has become assimilated as part of South Florida and, moreover, Heat culture. Dominicans, Venezuelans, Haitians, and Cubans, parading together as one, cazuelas firmly in hand.

It is reminiscent of another local tradition, one that harkens back to the halcyon days of Cuba past but, like Heat fans, represents a mingling of cultures that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Chinese refugees had, strangely enough, immigrated to Cuba at some point in its history, retaining aspects of tradition even as they added a little Cuban spice. Among these customs was the practice of translating common words into numbers, a numerology that had existed for centuries. For Cubans, la charada was part of a surreptitious gambling system where meaningful words and phrases, often appearing in dreams, could be used to play the lottery under the nose of government officials.

As competing number games were being run simultaneously, sometimes the same digit could represent different things and interpreted however it suits you. For example, the number "4" can mean "cat" or "tooth" - following your instinct could lead to financial loss or gain depending on the choice you make.

Heat players have chosen their respective jersey numbers for varied reasons, perhaps out of tradition or even indifference. But to Cuban fans, those numbers could represent very different aspects that can be seen as either a blessing or an omen. Think of longtime Heat player Alonzo Mourning, whose jersey number - 33 - means "vulture". In an obvious way, his health issues jeopardized his life. In basketball terms, his career was practically dead when he rejoined the Heat in 2005. But the vulture, while symbolic of death, also represents "rebirth" and Mourning was ultimately vindicated as he won a ring with Miami the following year.

Its eerie how well certain numbers match a player perfectly. Haslem's number "40" means the "cure" or "blood." He has been both, healing South Florida as part of three championship teams while also being the lifeblood of a gritty, defensive-minded approach to success. Shane Battier, one of the smartest players in Heat history, wears "31," a number that means "school". Joel Anthony's "50" means "police" - every fan knows "The Warden" is great defender.
Others can be interpreted as you like, yet still seem applicable. Michael Beasley's "8", for instance, means "dead" or "lion." While his career has been in a casket for years, Heat fans hope he'll have the courage to be the player he was always meant to be.

As for the team's superstars? When it comes to James, Wade and Chris Bosh, there is hope for Heat fans. James' jersey, "6", means "turtle", traditionally slow to get there but, through consistent work and dedication, always wins the race. Wade's number "3" is "sailor" and he has clearly guided the Heat through rough waters. Bosh, wearing number "1", is the "horse," dependably doing the work that often goes unnoticed.

The NBA season is just days away and Heat fans, regardless of zip code or cultural background have much to look forward to. So whether you're from South Beach or South Miami, enjoy the view of construction along the Palmetto Expressway, text your way through traffic and enjoy your morning shot of café Cubano.

The Heat will be winning their third consecutive championship this season, because, as every Cuban gambler already knows, the numbers never lie.

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