Rashard Lewis skipped along the sideline at AmericanAirlines Arena, head tilted to the rafters, as if sunning his smiling face in the banners above. Dwyane Wade reached up for a high five. Mike Miller rushed over for a fist bump. LeBron James hollered, "Hell, yeah, Shardie!" Lewis had just nailed his biggest shot of the 2013 NBA Finals, a sky-scraping half-court heave, and it sent his Heat teammates into giddy convulsions. It was a game-altering shot—except the game was before practice last Friday in a gym that was empty save for a few dozen reporters. Lewis, 33, is a two-time All-Star who is among the 10 most prolific three-point snipers in league history. He once signed a $118 million contract. Yet his greatest moment of the 2013 Finals may or may not have been captured by a blogger's iPhone.
During the series against the Spurs the national TV audience won't see Lewis do much more than stand for timeouts in a resplendent white sweatsuit and take an occasional swig of Gatorade. It's a role—12th man—that Lewis gleefully accepted last summer when he signed with the Heat even though they employ no fewer than five marksmen who perform the same floor-spacing function. He averaged 5.2 points, 2.2 rebounds and 14.4 minutes this season—his lowest in every category since he was a rookie—but he still made more of a contribution to his team than Tracy McGrady, a seven-time All-Star and two-time scoring king who joined the Spurs on April 16 after a winter in China. McGrady has appeared in five playoff games, Lewis nine, and neither touched the floor in the Finals until garbage time of Game 2. "I watch just like you," McGrady says. "I just have a better seat."
Lewis and McGrady are the royal breed of bench warmer, the Ring Chasers, former headliners who flock every year to primo destinations like Miami and San Antonio with knee braces and salt-and-pepper hair. Contenders like chasers because they come cheap, on a veteran's minimum contract, and don't require babysitting. Chasers like contenders because they provide a chance to round out their résumés with the one thing that has eluded them. "I've logged minutes, played on All-Star teams, made a decent amount of money," Lewis says. "It's not a big deal for me to go out and score 20 points anymore. I just want to win a championship—by any means possible."
Ring chasing is hardly new. Juwan Howard averaged 1.5 points for the Heat last season. Glenn Robinson appeared in nine games for the 2004--05 Spurs. Mitch Richmond appeared in two playoff games for the 2001--02 Lakers. But they all came away with the lifetime achievement award they craved. "The ring is a stamp on your career," says Howard, now 40 and chasing a second ring with the Heat. (He played 51 minutes this season.) "A champion is a champion, no matter what."
Lewis insists the champagne would be just as bubbly with the '13 Heat as it would have been when he was with the '09 Magic, who fell to the Lakers in the Finals back in the days when he played for more than the scout team. McGrady won't go that far. "It would mean a lot," he says. "But would it mean as much as if I'd done it when I was young in Houston? No way."
Howard's ring is as shiny as the one earned by James, but they are as different as diamonds and cubic zirconium. True champions distinguish between real bling and knockoff. In August 2007, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge offered Reggie Miller a passenger's seat on the gravy train driven by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. "I couldn't do it," says Miller, who retired in '05. "For almost 18 years I was the man trying to win a championship in Indiana, and I will always take that over jumping someplace else to get a ring. It wouldn't have been the same."
According to talk-radio ranting, you're either the winners or the Bobcats and there is real debate over whether Luc Longley's career (three rings) was more successful than Karl Malone's (zero). Miller, now a TNT analyst, should be lionized for resisting fool's gold, but successors are not following his lead. They jeopardize their legacy in an attempt to complete it. Imagine Kobe Bryant playing water boy for the 2017 Cavaliers so he can match Michael Jordan's six titles. The thought is enough to make Lakers fans spit up their sushi. Legends don't chase. It's unbecoming and unnecessary.
Cory Joseph, San Antonio's 21-year-old backup point guard, stood on the court at AmericanAirlines Arena before practice last Saturday, eyeing McGrady on the bench. Joseph was reminiscing about a December night more than eight years ago when McGrady played for the Rockets and scored 13 points in the last 35 seconds to unleash a feverish comeback over the Spurs. "Remember the last possession?" Joseph asked. "He brought the ball up, and they were only down two, but you knew he'd pull up and take the three. And you knew he'd make it."
Whatever glitter McGrady finds in these Finals, he flashed more precious mettle in those 35 seconds.
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