It's just a game.
I keep coming back to that when I think about Mario Chalmers' seven-year tenure with the Miami Heat, a stint that ended on Tuesday after the team agreed to trade the backup point guard to the Memphis Grizzlies. Chalmers has been - and continues to be - a polarizing figure for Heat fans; half appear to be in mourning while the other half (maybe more) haven't stopped celebrating.
What was it about Chalmers that makes him so worthy of debate? On any other team, the move wouldn't have generated much of a buzz locally; in fact, national writers barely gave it much thought.
But in Miami, there's just something about Mario that has people talking, even with the season only eight games old and the team still looking anywhere form disjointed to title-contending on any given night.
Part of what defined ‘Rio was surely his start with the Heat. Drafted in the second round in 2008 (and acquired by Miami via trade), he was a casual throw-in that was linked unfairly to the much ballyhooed selection of Michael Beasley in the first round of that same draft. The '08 team was a mess, just two years following a championship and having to redefine itself after losing Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, and half the roster from that title-winning team.
Expectations were low following a 15-67 record the previous season. Beasley, the uber-talented, self-proclaimed knucklehead that never quite lived up to his potential, was the consolation prize. Linking "B-Easy" and Chalmers wasn't a stretch; Miami fans are typically indifferent to college basketball but all they really knew about him was that he'd hit a game-winning shot in the NCAA title game. And that he was from Alaska, quite literally at the opposite end of the United States from sunny South Florida.
Following that, there was the pre-training camp incident at a rookie symposium where Chalmers and Beasley were allegedly busted smoking marijuana in their hotel room, just hours after completing an anti-drug workshop. It's here where the divide between the two rookies became tangible. Miami fans overlooked Beasley's involvement with a chuckle and accepted it as part of his young, immature and Spongebob Squarepants-loving personality.
Instead, while Beasley struggled with his role, Chalmers was immediately a steadying contributor. The team unexpectedly made the playoffs with him as a full-time starter. And, still, Miami fans never seemed to quite embrace him.
His role changed the next season - as it would many times over his tenure - yet he never complained publicly, never acted as anything but the consummate professional. Meanwhile, Beasley would remain favored by Heat fans, despite seeking rehabilitation after another drug-related incident. Not surprisingly, the team itself would recognize Chalmers' value and keep him on the roster while Beasley was shipped to Minnesota to make room for the next great era of Heat basketball.
It was during this four-year stretch that the legend of Chalmers would grow, perhaps nowhere greater than in the mind of the man himself. During the 2010-11 season, Chalmers was in-and-out of the starting lineup but continued to produce solid numbers, particularly given his low draft status and contractual worth. But the following season he would be promoted to the starting lineup and the world would finally see him shine on the brightest stage.
His greatest weakness was projecting, at least outwardly, a constant overconfidence that was a contrast to his limited role in this new star-laden team. On a team with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James, Mario would be forever self-assured in what he added to the team. Fans weren't convinced. There's no denying that Chalmers was prone to occasionally absentminded plays - fouling a 3-point shooter or throwing the ball to no one in particular - but this was a small part of what he contributed. He'd shoot nearly 39 percent from 3-point range and handled his role with his usual professionalism.
But fans chose to focus on the miscues rather than the successes. It didn't help that Chalmers was subjected to regular humiliation from the "Big 3", assuming the role of scapegoat. Under the constant scrutiny that the three superstars were under, a release valve was needed for those high-pressure situations - Chalmers would play that role. He'd downplay it to the media, accepting his role as the team's de facto "little brother", all the while continuing to find ways to improve and be an excellent complementary player. When James wouldn't drive the lane against opposing centers, Chalmers possessed a strange willingness to do so; when Wade couldn't hit that big shot from long-range, Mario was more than capable.
The past few seasons have been more of the same - see Rio shoot, see Rio foul, see Rio be irrationally cocky - but it's worth noting that even with the team in flux after James returned to Cleveland, Chalmers would re-sign with the team that drafted him. His role would change and he'd never go quite comfortable and maybe it was this inconsistency that was the final straw for many Heat supporters.
But of that divide between Miami's fans, I find myself in the clearly unhappy section. I'm not delusional and don't recognize his faults but part of what makes Chalmers - and basketball, in general - fun, is that you never know what's going to happen next. There are other players like him, embodying both feast and famine, and they make the sport both infinitely more frustrating and interesting to watch.
I hope the Grizzlies can find a way to turn their slow start around and that, maybe, they'll find their way into the postseason in a deadly Western Conference. You can bet that Chalmers will get on the court and make that terrible foul that will leave Memphis fans throwing up barbeque sauce-covered hands in shock. But they'll find themselves smiling in delight as they walk down Beale Street remembering his big shot when it counted most. Chalmers, for his part, will still be confident in his ability, even if he makes more of the former than the latter. But he'll still be smiling that sly, cocked grin of his even as he jogs slowly up the court.
After all, it's just a game.