- Elizabeth Merrill
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MIAMI -- There once was a man who enjoyed being the center of attention. He made a guest appearance on "Entourage." He nailed his two lines. The photo shoot he did for Maxim was, well, an attention grabber. With his 6-foot-11 frame sprawled out on expensive furniture in a posh beachfront home, he posed in front of a bowl of fruit and talked about how he found the perfect woman.
For six years, Chris Bosh, a complex man with impeccable taste in clothes, art, food and books, was a leading man in complete control. And then he wasn't.
This might be hard to sell, a story on sacrifice. It probably won't fly in the 49 states where fans despise the Miami Heat, curse "The Decision" and have rooted since July for any other team to win the NBA championship. Poor Chris Bosh. He's making $110 million over six years to live in South Beach. Cue the violins.
A professional athlete of Bosh's caliber spends a lifetime protecting his rep and his ego. And Bosh's have been trampled on in this first season in Miami. Stan Van Gundy called him a lap dog. Scottie Pippen once referred to the super merger of Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade as "Two and a Half Men." When James and Wade engage in a man hug after a crucial Heat victory, Bosh is often somewhere off to the side, raising his long arms alone.
He's the Jan Brady of the Big Three. No. 1 in the program, No. 3 in their hearts. Before Sunday night's game-winning jumper with 39.6 seconds to go against the Dallas Mavericks, Bosh was rarely called upon to take the final shot. That's not really his job anymore. But he will be the one who takes the blame when something goes wrong.
"It is what it is," Bosh said. "If somebody feels like they have to pick on somebody, pick on the quiet guy."
So, here's what happens when the face of another franchise leaves his comfortable surroundings in Toronto and steps into a frying pan. His toughness is tested like never before. He is called soft by his opponents and is asked to do humbling new things such as moving without the basketball. A six-time NBA All-Star loses his identity and eventually concedes to playing third fiddle.
But here he is now, getting exactly what he wanted, playing for a championship. After months of being dismissed as weak and insignificant, Bosh has been a force in the playoffs, standing up to the brutes in Boston and Chicago, holding his own in the NBA Finals. If he can help the Heat win two more games in the longest season of his career, maybe Bosh can finally shut everyone up. If he can wrap his giant mitts around an elusive 2-foot trophy, maybe Bosh will finally prove that he belongs.
"If you want to win, sometimes you have to sacrifice things," Bosh said. "I know everybody says they'll sacrifice whatever they can to have a chance to win. But until that really happens, you'll never know the emotions you have to go through in order to get it."
The former cornerstone
There is nothing wrong with being No. 3. Jose Carreras made beautiful music being the Third Tenor, even if nobody remembers his name. And here's the beauty of being in Miami, the epicenter of hype: The stage is big enough for everyone.
Bosh is more of a household name now than he was as the star in Toronto. Just before the NBA playoffs started, news leaked that he had married his fiancée, Adrienne Williams, in a quick, private ceremony. Bosh denied it, but TMZ was all over it, running a copy of the marriage certificate. He gets paparazzi treatment in South Beach and is immortalized in Big Three cups and a box set of Big Three action figures that goes for $45 at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Before James and Bosh arrived last summer in the quest for championships, this was another quiet, run-of-the-mill NBA town. Now even the backups are gossip-column fodder.
"That's the cost of being a highly visible team," forward James Jones said, "with three of the world's best basketball players.
"It's clear that this isn't one of those teams where people don't pay attention or they're impartial. They care whether or not we win and they care whether or not we lose. They make you and force you to play at a higher level. Because you know everybody's watching."
It's not as though Bosh was a newcomer to the glare. In high school, he was Mr. Basketball in Texas, an honors student at Dallas Lincoln. He was 6-foot-7 as a sophomore and grew an inch every year. "When Chris was here," Lincoln coach Leonard Bishop said, "I think we lost eight games and probably won 120." Bosh spent just one season at Georgia Tech. Former coach Paul Hewitt said he saw mild-mannered, bookish Bosh angry maybe once. After a road loss to Tulane.
He was picked fourth overall in a star-studded 2003 draft that included James (No. 1 to Cleveland) and Wade (No. 5 to Miami). And then, in 2004, at the tender age of 20, Bosh was asked to be the cornerstone of the Raptors franchise.
"Being the best player on the team, I mean, I think he was expected to lead the franchise," former Raptors coach Jay Triano said. "And he did."
Bosh was a quick, eager study and surrounded himself with good people. Michael Curry was his mentor. He bought Bosh a book on finance. Men who are careful with their money are always diligent on the floor, he told him.
They'd get up and work out early, and Bosh rarely complained. He threw his skinny body into the fray at center, constantly getting pushed around by much bigger opponents. He earned his teammates' respect.
"He wasn't a young guy who was just glad to be in the league," Curry said. "He wanted to be great."
After Bosh's first game of his rookie season, Curry asked him to take off his shoes and autograph them. He wanted to save them for the kid, thinking someday they might mean something.
Bosh was never a vocal player, and because of that, his leadership skills occasionally would come under question. But the numbers never did. He averaged 18.4 points and 9.5 rebounds in his second season, and in 2007 pushed the Raptors to their first division title. It was an interesting duality -- the quiet-on-the-court Bosh hamming it up on YouTube in a cowboy hat, clamoring for All-Star votes.
"He's very diverse," Triano said. "He's not going to be defined by just basketball."
Repeated attempts to build around Bosh fizzled, and by the summer of 2010, he was a smaller-market star struggling to find big-time success. He had made two trips to the playoffs in Toronto and had two trips home after the first round.
Bosh always hated this time of year, when he packed up for his home in Dallas and watched the other teams fight it out in the advanced stages of the NBA playoffs. Hewitt used to hear the frustrations wearing on Bosh's voice.
"Man," Hewitt recalled Bosh telling him once, "I wish I could be in a place where we have a chance to win." Hewitt talked to Bosh's mother, Freida, last summer, when everything was uncertain and Bosh had just finished up another disappointing run with the Raptors. Freida didn't divulge anything, but Hewitt knew, after that call, that Bosh was tired and had to go.
"He's going to Miami," Hewitt told a friend.
This is why, Hewitt and Curry say, a man who clearly cares what others think of him has taken the barrage of shots to his ego. He sees something bigger. Curry, who is now the associate head coach in Philadelphia, connected with his old student recently. A couple of nights before the Heat eliminated the 76ers in the first round of the playoffs, Bosh met Curry for dinner. Curry handed him the old sneakers.
"This guy is going to be a Hall of Fame player," Curry said. "And his parents are going to have his first game shoes."
The right fit?
The world was against them, the plan was a bust. It was November, a million months from that welcome party/pep rally from last summer that was played ad nauseam. Miami was 9-8, and everything Bosh did seemed to be wrong.
He scored 35 points in a blowout win against the Suns, then put his foot in his mouth in the postgame with his quote about coaches wanting to work and players wanting to chill. Bloggers said Bosh wasn't ready for the big time. Some people in Miami thought Bosh wasn't the right fit.
He was expected to be a banger, a big, imposing body who could intimidate in the paint. That's never been his game. Bosh is a finesse player with a pretty 15-foot shot, but now he was watching James and Wade fly by, carrying the offense. Bosh didn't know his place.
"From the moment of the introduction, there were three players on stage, and one of them wasn't quite the equal of the other two," said longtime Miami Herald columnist and ESPN personality Dan Le Batard. "So three of them were given the same stage, the same platform, and we all knew that the other two were peers, and he wasn't."
There were times, Bosh said, when he didn't feel like an effective player. He felt lost. But he kept studying and talking to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra about what was expected of him. It has taken eight months to figure out how they all fit in, and sometimes they're still guessing.
For starters, Bosh didn't know James very well when they met last summer. Sure, they had played together in Beijing for the gold in the 2008 Summer Olympics. But you don't really know the man next to you, Bosh says, until you've gone through some storms together.
Bosh's big breakthrough came in the doldrums of March, when he asserted himself and asked for the ball more, not because he wanted to pad his statistics but because it would help the team.
"You look at what we've done this year," Jones said, "and you take him out of the equation, and none of this is possible."
But it's clear that there is some separation in the Big Three. James and Wade are inseparable, and their friendship seems truer with every step forward in the postseason. On a Wednesday earlier this spring in Miami, the duo plopped down in front of a long table. The two joked about a broken microphone and who should sit where. James fidgeted with his fingers while Wade said something profound.
Bosh did his media session alone.
He has always moved to a different beat, a cross between easy listening and hard-thumping rap. He plays with a hint of vulnerability and fear. He says things James and Wade wouldn't say. Like when he was humbled in a second-round loss last month in Boston. Bosh told reporters that nerves played a part in one of his worst games of the season.
"When you talk to LeBron or Dwyane, you feel like you're talking to a basketball player," Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote said. "When you talk to Chris Bosh, you get the feeling you're talking to a pretty interesting guy who just happens to play basketball. He admits things you don't often hear major athletes admit. He'll tell you that sometimes he feels anxiety in late games.
"He almost reminds me, in a way, of Ricky Williams with the Dolphins. He just has that sensitive side to him that's interesting to explore."
The less glamorous life
When Bosh was struggling, he would lean on others. He'd call a retired player who went through a dramatic role change in his career and ask how he handled it. Bosh declined to comment on whom he gets advice from, but Horace Grant would be an obvious guy to call.
More than two decades ago, Grant was young and potentially prolific, a power forward just like Bosh. He wound up on the Chicago Bulls, playing beside Pippen and Michael Jordan. One day, Phil Jackson pulled young Horace aside. The coach said he was well aware of the fact that Grant could score. But if the Bulls were going to be successful, Grant had to do the less glamorous stuff, to play defense and block shots.
The fall of 1992 tugged at Grant's pride and his sense of fairness. Jordan and Pippen had just come back from winning a gold medal with the Dream Team, and the two were best buds and tighter than ever. Grant felt left out, and he didn't particularly like the fact that Jackson let them rest in training camp.
"I mean, it was tough," Grant said. "But when you put the team first, everything comes easy."
Today, Grant has four NBA championship rings and zero regrets. He was watering his lawn in Southern California on a recent Thursday afternoon, living the life of a retired and very content man.
He has the NBA League Pass at home, and watches a lot of Heat basketball. He sees himself in Bosh, says the kid needs to bulk up a little more so he can be stronger inside. But Grant loves the way Bosh plays. He hopes Bosh takes time to savor this season, warts and all.
"I know what Chris is going through," Grant said, "being that third fiddle. I would say to Chris, 'Don't worry about what other people say. Do what you do, and do it well.' Winning a championship is what it's all about."
Silencing the critics
With 2:40 to play Sunday night and the Heat staring at another blown lead and a possible 2-1 hole in the Finals, Bosh was wide open. He pump-faked, hesitated -- and passed up the open shot. Bosh had reason to think twice. He has shot just 31 percent from the field in the Finals and took a nasty poke to his left eye in the first half.
So many times this season, the other two-thirds of the Big Three have taken over in games like this. But now it was Bosh's turn. Two minutes passed; the score was tied; and James kicked the ball to Bosh, 16 feet from the basket -- one of Bosh's favorite spots. And he nailed it, sealing the Heat's victory.
Turns out, Chris Bosh does fit in. He is showing it in each step of the playoffs, averaging 23.2 points and 7.6 rebounds in the Eastern Conference finals against the Bulls, silencing Carlos Boozer, who said before Game 1 that the Heat had two great players but didn't mention Bosh.
Bosh hasn't fired back much, at least not verbally. The cameras turned to Wade after Sunday night's game, and he finished up an interview on the court, then looked around for Bosh. Wade slapped him a high-five and wrapped the big guy in a long hug. James stood nearby. And the Big Three walked off the court together.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His toughness has been tested. He's been called soft. The six-time NBA All-Star lost his identity as the go-to guy and has to concede to playing third fiddle to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. But look now, Chris Bosh is playing for an NBA championship.