Herald Tropic staff writer

It's a Tuesday night in January, and somewhere in America some guys who consider themselves to be Knowledgeable Sports Fans are sitting in a bar, talking.

One of them is saying: "You know what's wrong with pro basketball? They don't play defense. All it is is big goons running up and down the court scoring whenever the hell they feel like it."

And the other guys nod.

Meanwhile, in the Miami Arena, the Heat are playing the Sacramento Kings. The Kings are quite possibly the worst team in the NBA. This means that the Heat, who are not exactly a dynasty themselves, have a good chance to win. It's the second quarter, and Sacramento, which is trailing but gaining, has the ball.

Grant Long, the Heat's starting power forward, six feet, eight inches tall, 230 pounds - this is considered small for an NBA power forward - is getting back on defense. He plays in the middle where the tall timbers hang out. He's guarding Sacramento forward Antoine Carr, a major load of lumber, arms bigger than your legs, legs bigger than your recreation room.

Tactically, what's happening is that Carr is trying to establish position near the basket so he can accept a pass and maybe take a close- in shot; Long is trying to deny Carr the position, and the pass. In concrete terms, this means that they're banging on each other like enraged buffalo. Their leg tendons bulge as they lean against each other, their huge bodies forming a triangle with the floor as a base. Long keeps one hand on Carr, sometimes two.

This is, technically, a violation of the rules, but it's also such a fundamental part of NBA big-man defensive play that no ref will call it. Carr retaliates by jerking his big arms back, shooting elbows into Long, pounding, pounding, sending sweat drops flying. This is also of course against the letter of the rules, but refs usually ignore it, too, unless they see actual teeth on the floor.

This intense little war is going on near the center of a swirling, 10-man mass of violently fast motion - "small" men, who are actually big, darting around the perimeter, changing direction so quickly that you expect their sneakers to leave scorch marks on the floor; bigger men inside, grunting and trying to muscle their way to the right places, the places that were so easy to get to in practice when the coach would simply point to spots on the floor and say, OK, now you move over here, and the players would just trot over. But now they fight for each inch.

Antoine Carr lunges away from Grant Long, toward the middle. A Sacramento guard, seeing this - NBA guards see everything - instantly fires the ball inside. Carr grabs the pass and whirls to his right, driving to the basket - this is happening faster than you can think about it - and Long leaps to the right, trying to get in the way, and WHUMP GRUNT they slam into each other, a collision that would hospitalize normal people - they'd be telling their grandchildren about it 20 years from now - and WHAM Long is on the floor, skidding backward 10 feet on his butt, and TWEEE the ref is blowing his whistle. Both Carr and Long look at the ref with that injured, puppy-dog-eyed "Who ME?" expression that NBA players adopt reflexively, sometimes with their elbows still deep in an opponent's gut. The ref points at Long, on the floor.

"That's where it's at," he says. Long shakes his head, gets up, ready to bang some more, because the game goes on with you or without you, and nobody has time to dwell on a routine foul play that took maybe two seconds. Meanwhile, back in the bar somewhere in America, the Knowledgeable Sports Fans are deciding to have another beer.

* * *

I should stress that I'm not at all knowledgeable myself. I just like pro basketball a lot, and I wanted to do a story about Grant Long because (a) I love the way he plays, and (b) this would give me a chance to hang around Miami Heat practices and, with professional coaching, develop a potentially lethal outside jump shot. I need a strong jumper to compensate for my weak inside game. I haven't been able to slam-dunk a basketball for the past five years. Or for the 38 years before that, either. I'm not physically gifted, which is why I'm a fan of Grant Long, because he's not gifted either, by NBA standards.

Ask 10 basketball people to describe him, and they'll all say the same things, often in the same words: He's a blue-collar player. A great attitude. Great work ethic. A much better player than he should be. He doesn't look pretty out there, but he always gives you 110 percent. A heckuva nice guy. He's done a tremendous amount for a guy with limited physical gifts. Of course all this is relative. Compared with Godzilla, King Kong had limited physical gifts.

Even the most marginal NBA player is an absurdly better athlete than an ordinary person. When basketball people say that Grant Long can't shoot, can't pass, can't dribble, what they mean is: He can shoot, pass and dribble better than you, better than anybody you know, better than all but a few hundred people in the world. Long's jump shot is so bad, by NBA standards, that his team never runs a play designed to set him up for it; but you could practice your jump shot every day forever and still never beat him in a game of Horse.

One day Long and I were standing on the floor of the Miami Arena, talking. I was bouncing a basketball, and suddenly Long flicked his hand out, stole the ball, and started dribbling it. I tried to steal it back. I tried hard to steal it back, for about 30 seconds, and I never once touched it, despite the fact that Long, nearly a foot taller than I, was bouncing it to the height of my chest, and was making no effort to back away from me, or use his body as a shield.

The problem was that I was operating in Normal Person Time, which is slow motion for an NBA player. Long would be bouncing the ball so that it passed a foot from my hand, and I'd make my craftiest, slickest, lightning- quickest move for it, and Long - looking at me, not the ball - would casually alter the dribble, flick the ball through his legs, pick it up on the other side, leaving me lunging at air, time and again. But in the NBA, this is a guy whose ball- handling skills are considered to be zero. This is a guy who, if everything went according to the Heat game plan, would not dribble the ball once.

"Offensive plays aren't run for me," Long says. "So I have to do everything I can do with my own strengths. One of my strengths is to play good post (near the basket) defense - to beat up guys, body them really hard. By the end of the night, I have the advantage, because they're running around, trying to score, getting tired, and I don't have to score. (He laughs.) All I have to do is beat up on them."

I asked Heat head coach Ron Rothstein what a power forward is supposed to do.

"He's supposed to kill people," he answered, only partly kidding.

Long is one of the NBA's top foulers. In 1988-89, his rookie season (and the Heat's), he led the league in fouls, with 337, and was disqualified from 13 games (you're disqualified from a game when you commit six personal fouls); last season he committed 300 fouls and led the league in disqualifications, with 11. In one game last year, the Arena crowd actually gave him an ovation for getting all the way to the fourth quarter before committing his first foul.

Long commits fouls because that's part of his job. Unfortunately, fouling is not the route to glamour and fame and lucrative product endorsements. The Wheaties people pay big bucks for the image of Michael Jordan soaring to the basket at cruise-missile speed and altitude; there's no demand for Grant Long playing grunt defense, planting his body inside Antoine Carr's shorts.

But watch Long closely in a game, and you won't be bored. If the NBA kept a statistic for floor burns, he'd lead the league; he's constantly colliding, falling, diving, skidding. Nothing looks easy for him. Other players flow gracefully around the court; Long flails his body violently from place to place, running with such obvious effort that he seems to have several extra knees and elbows, shooting out in random directions. Also his shirttail is always out and his shorts always seem to be almost falling off. This is why he wears a pair of tight, knicker-like, knee-length white shorts under his uniform shorts, sticking out the bottom, creating a semi-comical look.

These are called "compression pants," and I always thought they served some medical purpose, but in Long's case they don't.

"In college, I always feared that my shorts would come off," he says. "I feared I'd be breaking away for a layup, and somebody would be behind me, and he'd trip and fall and grab my waist, and my shorts would come down and I'd just be standing there naked. That was one of my biggest fears."

"So now you wear those knickers," I say.

"Exactly," he says.

"They look goofy," I say.

"That's my protection," he says. "At least if my shorts come down, I'll be standing there looking sexy."

* * *

Still in the second quarter against Sacramento: Antoine Carr is out of the game, and Long is now guarding Anthony Bonner, another side of beef. Bonner gets the ball down low and WHUMP GRUNT . . . Surprise!

Long is on the floor again. Both players immediately shoot sincere, hurt looks at the ref, who, this time, calls traveling on Bonner. No blood, no foul. Heat ball. Long, happy that he's not being charged with anything, is up instantly, churning down the court. Coach Rothstein is running up the sideline after his team, yelling instructions. At least I assume they're instructions. What it sounds like he's yelling is totally random nouns. He does this all game long.

"MOTION!" he'll yell.

Or: "FIST!" He yells this a lot.

Sometimes, mysteriously, he'll yell: "X!"

Occasionally he'll yell something less technical, such as: "WHERE THE F*** IS OUR DEFENSE??"

Rothstein virtually never looks happy during a game. Even when things are going well for the Heat, he looks like a man being informed by surgeons that at least one kidney has to go. Much of the time Rothstein yells his instructions to Sherman

Douglas, the Heat's starting point guard. Douglas doesn't look like a pro basketball player: He's only six feet tall, if that; he has a baby face and a squat, lumpy body. But he has the eyes of a predator, and he's an amazing athlete. He has to be. An NBA point guard must be able to simultaneously (1) dribble the ball quickly up the court while an opposition player with world-class quickness tries to steal it; (2) watch the clock, because his team has only 24 seconds to get off a shot; (3) analyze the other team's defense; (4) keep track of all four of his teammates, sometimes directing them with his free hand; and (5) glance at his coach, who is yelling seemingly random nouns at him.

Above all, the point guard must always be ready to act - to whip the ball instantly when a teammate breaks for the basket, creating an opening, lasting maybe a tenth of a second before the defense adjusts, during which a perfectly thrown pass will result in a score. So point guards are extremely decisive. You put point guards on the Supreme Court, and they'd hand down a landmark decision every five minutes.

The best point guard in the NBA now, and maybe ever, is the Los Angeles Lakers' Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who regularly throws seemingly impossible passes, without looking, to teammates in a perfect position to score. These passes are so sudden, so deceptive, that they sometimes surprise even Johnson's teammates, bouncing embarrassingly off their bodies. It would be scary to be a Laker. You'd never be able to really relax. You'd have this recurring Psycho-style nightmare where you're in your hotel room, taking a shower, feeling safe, and suddenly CRASH the shower door explodes and a laser-beam Magic pass breaks your nose. * * *

Magic Johnson, who starred at Michigan State before turning pro, was Grant Long's idol when Long was growing up in Romulus, Mich., the second-oldest of four brothers.

"My father left when I was . . . to tell you the truth, I don't remember at all," he says. "I guess it just didn't faze me at all.

That's probably why I don't remember it. It just never fazed me at all when he left. It seemed like the family just pulled together." His mother, Dorothy Long, worked for an airport catering service. "She worked so hard," he says. "We had our struggles, but you couldn't tell that we didn't have a lot. The things we had were precious. For Christmas, we might get one or two things, but it would be the best Christmas ever.

"To this day, she works on Christmas. She works SO hard. I think that's where I get it from. What they always say about me is, 'He works hard.' But you're supposed to work hard. That's why they pay you."

Long makes $300,000 a year now. His teammates, who like to kid him, claim that he has not spent any of these dollars. He does not have a lavish life style. He drives a Chevy Blazer, eats at Wendy's.

He wears jeans and T-shirts, which is unusual in the style-conscious world of pro basketball. "I don't put a lot of value on clothes," he says. "I've always worn jeans, and I'm not going to stop just because I'm in the NBA. I think that's part of me that says, 'You're still Grant Long, from Romulus.'"

Long is popular with his teammates, his coaches, the press. He's funny, articulate, and incongruously gentle, for a guy who makes his living killing people. He's your basic nice guy, a guy who actually married his high-school sweetheart (they have an 8- month-old son). Nobody has anything bad to say about him, and he doesn't have anything bad to say about anybody else, except . . .

"The drivers in Miami are terrible," he says. "That's the only thing I don't like about Miami. The drivers are terrible."

Long is getting worked up now, showing far more emotion than he does when he gets flattened by Antoine Carr.

"I'm watching the TV news, and they have this statistic: Over 75 percent of Miami drivers don't have licenses or insurance. They KNOW this. So why are they TELLING us this? Why aren't they getting these people off the STREET? And the drivers are so noncourteous. They don't let the other drivers merge. They're saying, 'I'm not letting ANYBODY in,' and they go bumper-to-bumper so nobody can merge, and it makes me sick. Then you got people who drive the WHOLE WAY with their blinkers on, never turning. They never turn. They're crouched way down, got both hands on the wheel, driving about 25 miles an hour. In the fast lane. I don't think there IS a fast lane in Miami."

* * *

Long's favorite recreational activity is bowling. Yes. Also, like most Heat players, he plays Nintendo.

ME: Are you any good at Nintendo?

LONG: I'm pretty good.

ME: What board can you get to on Super Mario Brothers III?

Note: I'm asking this penetrating question because my son plays this game a lot, and I'm wondering if he has reached NBA caliber.

LONG: I got to the Dark World. I haven't rescued the Princess, though.

ME (triumphantly): My son did.

LONG (skeptically): No he didn't.

ME: Yes he did.

LONG: No he didn't.

(NOTE: I checked with my son, and it turns out he didn't.)

* * *

Back in the Sacramento game: Sherman Douglas, with the ball, is scuttling up the court, watching everything, including Long, who is churning up the right sideline. The man guarding Long looks away for an instant, and as he does SQUEAK Long plants his right sneaker and blasts to the basket and launches himself into the air, reaching the rim at the same moment as a long, high, arcing pass, which was thrown by Douglas in the nanosecond that Long started his move, before anybody else in the Arena saw it. This is the Alley Oop, the most fun-to-watch play in basketball. As Long sails past the rim he grabs the ball and with the same motion WHOOM hurls it through the basket. The crowd explodes, but Long is already churning hard back up the court, because if he pauses to bask in the glory, his man will score an easy basket at the other end, and that's the one that Rothstein will remember.

Long's basket produces a burst of words from my right on the press table, where Jose Paneda is doing the play-by-play in Spanish for radio station WRFM. To me, it sounds like this: Derechelosimplemadoamos SHERMAN DOUGLAS esteisquierdalamenteierdoasos GRANT LONG erdamentalastalamentemen- clavar !PERFECTO!

I met Paneda earlier that day, when I challenged him to a game of one-on-one on the Arena floor after the Heat practice. I lost pathetically because of an Invisible Force Field that kept popping up around the basket whenever I took shots at it.

Paneda said doing basketball play-by-play in Spanish takes a lot of energy. "I have to use about eight words for every English word," he said. "In English, you say 'ALLEY OOP!' I have to say: 'HE THREW THE BALL AND IT GOT TO THE BASKET AT THE SAME TIME AS THE OTHER GUY AND THE OTHER GUY SCORED!' " * * *

At halftime the Heat are trailing, 42-40. The PA announcer informs the crowd that the halftime entertainment will be "one of the premiere freestyle cyclists in the world." A young man comes out riding a small bicycle and does some premiere freestyle tricks such as: The Front Pogo; The Rear Pogo; The Grasshopper; and of course The Front Infinity Roll Into A Side Glide. The crowd, enthralled, heads for the restrooms.

You never know what you're going to see at the halftime of a Heat game. Bizarre, mutant halftime acts roam the country, going from arena to arena, and sooner or later they all come to Miami. Last year there were two guys who did trampoline tricks while wearing water skis. Also there's a guy who comes out with a frame attached to his body, and life-size Michael Jackson dolls attached to the frame, so that when he dances, the Michael Jackson dolls dance in perfect unison. You have to see it to truly appreciate it, especially when one of the dolls' heads or arms comes loose from the frame and starts jerking around spasmodically, as though that particular Michael Jackson has a neurological disorder.

So far this year at halftime I've seen a guy who balanced a spinning basketball on top of what looked like a skinny, scraggly, 30-foot-tall dead tree; a group of men who did precision drill formations with lawn chairs; and - this was the best - a man who used a vacuum-cleaner-like machine to slowly inflate a large balloon, after which he somehow got his entire body inside the balloon, after which he hopped to the other end of the court, still squatting inside the balloon, looking like a hyperactive disease germ magnified several million times, after which he popped the balloon and leaped up, thrusting his arms out triumphantly, as though he had just won the Tour de France. I watched this act in rapt fascination along with many other spectators, and I know I speak for them all when I say that my reaction was: Huh? I mean, at parties, when other people ask this guy what he does, does he come right out and say that he hops around basketball courts inside a balloon? Or does he just say that he's in Show Business?

Also appearing regularly on the Arena floor are Burnie, the Heat mascot, who wears a very big costume and engages in comical antics; and the Miami Heat Dancers, who wear very small costumes and cause the guy fans to chew their pretzels more slowly. I asked Shaun Powell, who covers the Heat for The Herald, how the Heat Dancers stack up against the rest of the league. He frowned thoughtfully, a trained journalist offering an informed opinion. "I'd say that the Heat Dancers are probably in the top 30 percent of the NBA dancers right now," he said. "I would say that Burnie, as a mascot, is second only to the Gorilla of Phoenix."

The actual Heat basketball team has not yet reached this level of performance.

"Every city we go to, you see the same headlines in the sports pages," Powell said. LOCAL TEAM COOLS HEAT. Or LOCAL TEAM CHILLS HEAT. Or ICES HEAT. Or FREEZES HEAT. In the stories, they're always the 'Hapless Heat.' The Hapless Heat did this, the Hapless Heat did that. It's like they're from Hapless, Florida."

* * *

Nevertheless in the third quarter the Hapless Heat come out strong, thanks to hustle, determination, and the fact that WRFM's Jose Paneda has switched to his Lucky Green Scoring Pen. "Green for go!" he informs me, holding it up, in between shouting "!PERFECTO!" Also helping out is Grant Long, who puts the Heat ahead 49-48 by making two foul shots, which is a good example of performing under pressure, inasmuch as the foul consisted of Long's getting kneed in a Highly Sensitive Area.

I ask him later if this kind of thing ever makes him angry. "No," he says, "I never take it personally, because it's part of the game. You leave it on the court."

I ask him if he ever talks to opponents, or if they talk to him.

"I never have time to talk," he says. "What could I say? 'Hey, I got a rebound!' Some of the other players talk, but when they talk, it's just in fun. They've done it since they were on the playground, and it's always in a joking manner. Like, one of Larry's (Larry Bird's) favorite things is, you know how he just sits there and shoots the jumper, and you come running out at him, and he'll say something like, 'Just in time.' Or: 'You're too late.' But you know Larry's a great player and a great competitor; he's not trying to be a smartass or anything, so you don't take it personally."

I myself was shocked to learn that Larry Bird, the Great White Basketball God, was making snide remarks out there. He always looks so businesslike, so clinical, so in control. If you were in a 747 with the Boston Celtics, and the entire flight crew keeled over dead, you'd say, "No problem! We'll have Larry land it!"

Long shakes his head at the aggrandizement of athletes.

"It doesn't make sense," he says. "I mean, think about it. A professional athlete has achieved success athletically, but then suddenly he's supposed to know everything. That's ridiculous. He knows no more than he did before; he just makes a lot of money. Why should his opinions have weight? You've got doctors out there who've been to school for 12 years. Those are the role models. We're just basketball players. I don't mind people coming to me for advice, and I'll tell them what I think, but I don't know any more than the next guy knows."

* * *

A game-day Heat practice has just ended on the floor of the Arena, and the team has left, except for Long, who's taping a public-service TV announcement for a program called CHARLEE, which aids abused and neglected children. In the script, a CHARLEE official, Ray Porredon, is supposed to announce a horse shoot-out tournament to benefit the program, and then Long is supposed to come on camera and say: "Be there, and see who has the best shot in South Florida. Please support our children with special needs." Then he's supposed to turn and make a jump shot. It takes quite a few takes to get everything right. Both men appear as relaxed and natural as utility poles; they eye the camera warily, as though at any moment they expect snakes to come shooting out of it.

In the first few takes, Porredon tries to act as though he's surprised to see Long. "Hey!" he says, his face reflecting either surprise or terror. "It's my friend Grant Long of the Miami Heat!" The director decides that, dramatically, this is not working. He observes that, logically, Porredon wouldn't be surprised to see Long, because (a) he's on a basketball court, and (b) Long is a large individual who has clearly been standing right next to him.

"So you don't need to act surprised," the director says.

"No surprise," Porredon says.

"Ax the surprise," Long says.

Both men have some trouble delivering their lines. At one point, Porredon announces that the event will be a "horse-out"; at another point, as Long is finishing his lines, a highly visible fly, left over from the circus, lands on his face. But finally they get through everything flawlessly, and all that remains is for Long to turn and sink a 20-foot jump shot. The irony here is that, when he attempts these in games, a giant involuntary cringe sweeps the crowd, accompanied by the occasional half-whispered "Noooooo . . . "

"Please support our children with special needs," Long says, then he turns, cocks the ball, shoots and . . . SWISH. Yes! The crowd (me) goes wild, pumping its fist, performing The Wave.

"MAKEUP!" shouts Long, suddenly a star.

* * *

Speaking of jump shots: A bit earlier I was working on mine when up walked Tony Fiorentino, who is one of Rothstein's two assistant coaches, and also the runner-up in the NBA Coaching Staff Omar-Sharif-Look-Alike Contest. (The winner is Rothstein's other assistant coach, Dave Wohl.) Fiorentino spent a moment watching me take my shot, which goes like this:

Shot . . . CLUNK

Shot . . . CLUNK

Shot . . . CLUNK

The "CLUNK" is the sound of the ball banging off the rim. This happens frequently when I shoot because of wind shear.

"You're holding the ball wrong," Fiorentino says. "Try holding the ball with the seams like this." It turns out that you're supposed to hold the ball with the seams running horizontally under your fingertips. Good players, when they get ready to shoot, automatically align the ball so the seams are right.

This is a revelation for me. In all the years I've been clunking the ball off the rim, nobody has ever told me that you're supposed to grip the seams a certain way. This is significant. I can feel it. This is the turning point in my game, and it's happening on a real NBA court, in front of a real NBA coach. I grab the ball, dribble out 15 feet, and . . .

Shot . . . CLUNK

Shot . . . CLUNK

Shot . . . CLUNK

"Maybe you should stand closer to the basket," suggests Fiorentino.

* * *

Now we're back to the Sacramento game, and you'll never guess where Grant Long is. Right! The floor! I'm not sure exactly how he got there, because all my notes say is "GL on floor again," but while he's lying there the ball, miraculously, rolls right to him, so he grabs it and fires a pass. The game is going well for the Heat. They're more than 10 points ahead and playing well with only a few minutes to go.

They're definitely going to win, and Rothstein looks like a man whose surgeons are now telling him they need to remove BOTH kidneys, plus at least one major limb.

The Heat call time out; they set up a play, the players gathering around Rothstein, frowning down at him while he talks. The timeout over, they head back onto the court. Sherman Douglas takes the inbounds pass, dribbles the ball on the perimeter. "Grant!" he shouts.

Long comes out, but not to get the ball. The ball is for scorers. Long's job is to set a pick, which means plant his body in a spot so that Douglas can run past, running his defensive man into Long and thus breaking free.

"You ready?" yells Long, planting himself. There is nothing subtle about this. This play does not have an element of surprise. Everybody on both teams knows what is about to happen. Out in space, orbiting Russian spy satellites are picking this up, sending the word back to Moscow: Long is about to set a pick for Douglas.

ZIP Douglas makes his cut and WHUMP the defensive man hits Long and ZOOM Douglas is skittering into the middle, a water bug among sequoias, and BANG he collides with somebody and stumbles and TWEEE the ref calls . . . traveling. Sacramento ball. Rothstein is enraged.

"GIVE US A CALL!" he shouts to the ref, and then, turning away, he says some other things that would not be wise to say to an NBA referee.

Later, I asked Rothstein how come he's so intense, even when it seems as though the game is over.

"Anybody who thinks the game is over doesn't know anything about the NBA," he said. "I've seen teams lose with the ball, up by six, with 10 seconds left."

But not this time. This time the Heat win, 95-83. Long walks off the court, dripping sweat. Also walking off the court, not sweating at all, is Sacramento player Ralph Sampson, a seven-foot, four-inch center. He'll make $2 million this season, and, under his contract, he'll make $2 million more for each of the next two seasons. He didn't play one second in this game. He hardly ever plays. Bad knees.

* * *

After the game, some reporters are in the hall outside the Heat locker room, waiting to talk with Rothstein. He emerges from the locker room, looking tired and much more relaxed. He pauses next to me.

"I watched you play today," he says, his voice becoming soft, almost fatherly. "You were awful."

Before I can explain about the wind shear, he's talking to the reporters about the game.

"It wasn't real pretty," he says, "but we'll take it and run."

Meanwhile, in the locker room, assistant coaches Wohl and Fiorentino, the dual Omars, are doing paper work. I decide to ask them an informed, technical, savvy basketball question.

"What's an informed, technical, savvy basketball question I can ask Wohl and Fiorentino?" I whisper to Herald columnist Bob Rubin.

"Ask them if they were pleased with the defensive rotation," Rubin suggests.

"So," I say to Wohl and Fiorentino. "Were you guys pleased with the defensive rotation? Or what?"

Wohl looks up. "Oh yes, pleased," he says. "Definitely."

"We squeezed the traps well," notes Fiorentino, adding: "But then the game started."

"Here's what I want to know," I say. "When Rothstein is yelling things like 'fist,' is he just making up random nouns?"

"Yes," says Wohl. "He yells random nouns, and we yell random verbs back. We hope they'll connect and make a sentence."

"The idea," explains Fiorentino, "is that the other team will listen and become confused."

Meanwhile, all around us, large wet men are giving quotations naked. The players were making a lot of noise in the shower, laughing, shouting, whooping, but when they get to their lockers, where the press is waiting with note pads and microphones, they shift into Quote Mode, adopting somber expressions and using phrases like "putting forth a good effort" and "playing with intensity," which I doubt is what they were saying in the shower.

The striking exception is Grant Long, who is not remotely somber. Striding from the shower, he grabs a cold bottle of Evian Natural Spring Water and, without hesitating, pokes it into the naked butt of Sherman Douglas, who is speaking into a radio microphone. Fortunately Douglas, with a point guard's presence of mind, is able to swat the bottle away without interrupting his quotation. Next Long strides over and sits down next to forward Billy Thompson, who's being interviewed by a TV reporter. Long leans over, listens a second. "He's lying," he informs the reporter.

A couple of reporters ask Long questions, but most of the attention is focused on the scorers - Douglas, Thompson, Glen Rice, Kevin Edwards. In the next day's Herald story, only one sentence will be totally devoted to Long. It comes at the end, in a section called "Odds and Ends." It says:

UNSUNG HERO: Who else? Grant Long had a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds, and spent lots of time diving for loose balls - as usual.

* * *

In the locker room, the press finally gets its quota of quotations and goes off to write stories. I go home to practice gripping the seams. Grant Long pulls on his jeans and T-shirt, goes home to his wife, Nikki, and son, Garvis.

Somewhere in America, Knowledgeable Sports Fans are watching the late sports on the TV over the bar. On the screen are some NBA highlights; a player is making a spectacular dunk shot. "Look at that," a fan is saying. "No defense at all. A million dollars a year and they don't play defense. Bunch of overgrown spoiled babies."

* * *

"Being a dad is great," Long says. "Except lately he doesn't want to sleep at night. It's 3 o'clock in the morning, and he's standing up in his crib, screaming, making a noise like somebody's in there burning his foot. So I go in there, and he has snot all over his face, and he sees me, and he just starts smiling. He's laughing. He wants to play. So I finally brought him into our bedroom, and laid him on our bed, and he played with his toys for about 10 minutes and fell right off to sleep. Three in the morning, I had practice the next day, had to get up at 9, but it was great.

"The fathers don't know what they're missing out on, the ones that leave home. They just don't know what they're missing."

* * *

It's 10 nights after the Sacramento game, and the Heat, to the delight of the Miami fans, are slaughtering the New York Knicks. Even Rothstein would probably admit, under torture, that the game is out of reach. This is what's known as Garbage Time, because play gets sloppy, and players can score easy baskets. Rothstein's lineup now includes Alan Ogg, a rookie center who has had little playing time. Ogg is not considered to be highly talented. What he is considered to be is seven feet, two inches. He moves with a slow, lumbering gait, but he works very hard. In the Heat practices I watched, every chance he got, he slam- dunked the ball. It was as if he knew he wouldn't get many chances to do it in games, so he was determined to do it when he could. They'd run a little drill, and at the end somebody'd feed the ball to Ogg, and WHOMP he'd stuff it hard through the hoop, then look at the floor kind of bashfully, because after all, it was only practice. Sometimes the other players would smile. They've affectionately nicknamed Ogg "Ogglajuwan," after Akeem Olajuwan, the very gifted center of the Houston Rockets.

Ogg is a cult figure among Heat fans. They go nuts when he comes into a game.

"Oggggg!!" they shout. "OGGGGGGGG!!!!" It sounds like thousands of people simultaneously getting sick.

There are just a few seconds left in Garbage Time, and the Heat have the ball. In fact Grant Long has the ball, and he's actually dribbling it, an indication that things are very loose indeed.

Now Long is in the lane, close to the basket. The defense is slack. This is an easy shot opportunity, a chance to pad his statistics in a meaningless moment, to indulge in a little self- gratification, and so Long . . . passes off to Alan Ogg, standing under the basket. Ogg rears up - he doesn't really have to jump - and WHOMP jams that mother home.

"OGGGGGGGGGGG!!!!" goes the crowd, high-fiving, insane with joy. Grant Long, unsung hero, churns back up the court.