FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.: Until last Sunday, Tony Gonzalez had spent more time in the Miami Heat locker room than in an NFL playoff-winning locker room.
You can look it up.
It is why, as they boarded the bus for Monday’s practice in Salt Lake City, the conversation among Heat coaches Erik Spoelstra, Keith Askins and Bob McAdoo was about how one of their own was headed to the NFC Championship Game, one step from the Super Bowl.
Many have passed through the Heat’s various summer camps, summer leagues and tryout rosters, but only one is headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The year was 2002. Gonzalez was in the midst of a contract dispute with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Heat insisted the invitation to summer camp wasn’t a publicly stunt, but it also was a time when a little publicity wouldn’t hurt. This was before Dwyane Wade, before Shaquille O’Neal, before anything resembling a Big Three.
Stan Van Gundy was the coach of that summer unit. McAdoo, Askins and Spoelstra were his assistants.
And there was no doubt who had the best hands in camp.
“By far had the best hands that I’ve ever seen on an athlete,” Askins reminisced this past week. “You could pass a ball to him anywhere and he’ll catch it.”
But there also were basketball skills, a player who played three seasons of basketball at California, including time alongside Jason Kidd.
The year before his Heat tryout, Gonzalez dabbled in a pro-am league. This time, his agent set up the workout with the Heat.
This was no Summer Groove, no defenseless charity basketball. This was a camp that featured Caron Butler, Rasual Butler, Mike James, Malik Allen, William Avery, players fighting for playing time, jobs, NBA survival.
And a 26-year-old, 6-foot-5 would-be power forward living a dream.
“He could play,” McAdoo said as the Heat completed their six-game trip. “First, when you see a football player come in, you say, ‘Come on, what is this?’ But he held his own. He was a great rebounder, could play offense. His offense was pretty good, had a pretty nice jump shot. His professionalism is what you saw right away as a coach.”
He played well enough in that camp to advance to the Orlando Pro Summer League, where he would appear in two games, including one matchup against NBA champion power forward Dickey Simpkins.
“From him being with us that summer,” Spoelstra said, “we’ve always been a big fan of his, first for a competitor to be able to take himself out of his comfort zone. But then you could see his level of professionalism. Even his preparation for camp, totally professional, first one there, last one to leave.”
The audition ended after those two appearances, after playing 29 total minutes, shooting 1 of 7 and closing with 11 rebounds and three points. The plan never was to advance to training camp, but rather to perhaps hook on after football season, as a midseason replacement.
Because the one thing Gonzalez had then, and until now, was plenty of time after football season.
Until last week’s 30-28 Atlanta Falcons victory over the Seattle Seahawks, Gonzalez had never won a playoff game in his 16-season NFL career.
Like many, Askins found that unfathomable, did not know it was the case until CBS told him it was the case.
To Spoelstra, it was a lesson he would impart to his players, one of unyielding perseverance. For a moment, it was if one of Spoelstra’s own had made the breakthrough. To a degree, oddly, it was.
“To see him finally break through,” Spoelstra said, “the lesson there is you could see the absolute, unadulterated joy, getting his first playoff win. And you realize you can’t take anything for granted, nothing is guaranteed, and somebody that good, hall of famer, been on a lot of good teams, he’s never been able to break through just to get a win, much less play for a championship.”
“Fantastic,” said McAdoo, having waited 10 years in his own hall of fame playing career for his first championship. “He had tears, but it was tears of joy, and I could understand.”