FROM THE DAY THE CAST ASSEMBLED IN THE SUMMER of 2010, the Heat franchise all but morphed into a reality-TV series. Even the most innocuous actions and mundane comments were seized upon and turned into a week's worth of sensationalized programming. Yet one of the most important moments of its first season happened in the humdrum privacy of a morning shoot-around on March 10, 2011, when power forward Chris Bosh—among the NBA's more serene stars—had a rare alpha episode of his own. "He was going full speed; he yelled a couple times; he was keeping guys in it—'Come on, let's go!'" said coach Erik Spoelstra. "One time he dunked and said, 'Come on, we're going to do this tonight!' Everybody looked to see his expression."
They realized Bosh wasn't kidding around: Miami had lost five straight, and a meeting with the two-time defending champion Lakers was less than nine hours away. That night Bosh poured in 16 of his team-high 24 points in the first half to lead the Heat to a 94--88 win, after which Spoelstra cited as a rallying point Bosh's moment of assertiveness earlier in the day. "I was surprised by the reaction," responded Bosh. "I didn't even know anybody took notice."
The victory over L.A. presaged an eventual championship formula, and it was not by coincidence that Bosh was in the middle of it.
Critics insist that Bosh does not belong in the same tier as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but here is the real question: Where would James and Wade be without their 6' 11" power forward? Spoelstra routinely refers to Bosh as the Heat's most important player, running the offense through him and counting on his mobility as a defender to set up the shot blocking of James, Joel Anthony and others. Although Miami got past the Pacers and (barely) the Celtics without Bosh for nine games in the 2012 postseason, his absence was clear as the Heat struggled on drives and opposing big men like Boston's Kevin Garnett had field days on both ends of the court. "We all had a big pit in our stomach when we saw [Bosh] walking off the court in Game 1 of the Indiana series," Spoelstra said. "We played tough, but we knew that he makes it all work." When Bosh returned to the starting lineup, in Game 2 of the Finals, his 16-point, 15-rebound performance helped the Heat get its swagger back.
Bosh earned a seventh straight All-Star invitation in 2011--12 even while continuing to make a larger sacrifice than his two more celebrated teammates did. His scoring fell from 24.0 points per game with the Raptors in '09--10 to 18.7 his first season in Miami and 18.0 this year—a personal seven-season low—in large part because his shots per game have fallen from 16.5 to 14.2 over these three years.
There was talk that Bosh was soft, but in the end his critics would be reminded of Garnett and Pau Gasol, who had also been previously dismissed as power forwards not known for mixing it up inside. "They must have the formula for something, because they've won three [championships]," Bosh said last year. "Just because a guy isn't all big and brawling and pushing everybody around, that doesn't matter—what matters is [his] competitive spirit."
IN SPITE OF THEIR FAILURES IN BIG MOMENTS EARLY ON IN their time together, Bosh remained optimistic that he, James and Wade would thrive in their new roles. "We [were each] the main guy taking 20 shots and carrying the team on our back on a nightly basis," Bosh said. "I had to learn to move without the ball, and I'm still learning to do it. That's one facet of the game, like the 50 million other things I have to work on, that I didn't have to know before. One thing I've learned is that it's easy to shoot a lot of shots, but it's harder to fill a role."
After spending his first seven NBA years relatively free of expectations in Toronto, Bosh needed a full season to adjust to the harsh light of scrutiny experienced in Miami. "It's a trip to listen to everything," he says, "and you've got to laugh to keep from crying sometimes."
The 24-hour news cycle began during the free agency period in the summer of 2010, which culminated in 10,000 fans packing AmericanAirlines Arena for a celebration that July. With that, the heat was on the Heat. Yet the outside pressures clearly helped to squeeze the team closer together.