From agonizing lows to the summit of the basketball universe, this acclaimed sports journalist has been running point on the Miami Heat for the Sun Sentinel for more than 30 years
There’s the Miami Heat. And then there’s Ira.
Nearly every single time the Miami Heat have stepped onto the court for a game, Ira Winderman has been in the stands—with a pen and paper handy. He’s been covering the Heat for the Sun Sentinel since before Miami’s NBA team even played its first game—and he’s seen just about everything over the past 30-plus years. Winderman was there for the team during its early expansion years, and he was there 25 years ago when Pat Riley arrived. He documented the entire Dwyane Wade era, and he suffered from the press box through two dismal 15-win seasons. He covered the franchise’s first championship in 2006 and four consecutive NBA Finals, including two ending with South Beach’s very own Big Three hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy. Through all of the ups and downs of Miami’s 31-some seasons, Winderman has been one of the only true constants.
Perhaps even more impressive than Winderman’s longevity is his prolific output. He has produced thousands—maybe tens of thousands—of articles, blogs, columns, and radio and television interviews. His online Ask Ira column is beloved by Heat devotees and haters alike, and his postgame recaps have been a staple of the Sentinel’s sports section since pro basketball first came to the 305.
Winderman has been in every active NBA stadium, and flown more than four million miles in the course of his work. Along the way, he’s been honored by the Florida Sports Writers Association and the Pro Basketball Writers Association. After all these years, he is as much of an institution in sports journalism as the Miami Heat are in professional basketball. Now, the onetime Boca writer—Winderman penned a Boca Interview on LeBron James for us back in 2013—has come full circle. As the race to the NBA playoffs began to heat up, Winderman spoke to Boca magazine about his career in sports journalism, the Heat’s most legendary icons, and the team’s prospects of finding playoff success this year.
How did you get into sports journalism?
I got into sports journalism when I literally showed up, on day one—I mean the first day I was on campus—at SUNY-Binghamton, now called Binghamton State, up in New York. I walked into the newspaper office and I said, “I want to write sports.” They gave me an assignment before classes even began, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
How significantly has your job changed in the decades that you’ve been covering the Heat?
I’d say for the first 20 years, I was in a newspaper rhythm: Gather all the information I could through the course of a day and evening, synthesize it to the best possible newspaper story or stories. Work on it, re-work on it, edit it, re-edit it, and then every morning know the best possible work I could do for the last 24 hours would be in the morning paper. For the last 15 years or so with the internet, it’s become a completely different job, and it’s almost like everything is living in the moment. If something happens now, you write it now. If you need to get more information, instead of waiting to complete the assignment, you do the assignment and you constantly update the assignment. So, more of a sort of rhythmic pace became a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, 365-day kind of approach to it, and it’s unceasing.
But I enjoy it, because I’m a type-A personality. … If something requires change, I’m going to evolve. Honestly, just like the game itself has evolved. It’s almost in lock-step. Basketball, when I was covering it 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, is as different a game as the work I did 10, 20, 30 years ago.
After all these years and all the games you’ve attended, can you still watch basketball for fun?
I’ll watch basketball, I’ll follow it on my phone when I’m on the road, I hope the planes have TVs so I can watch basketball.
You know, the one thing I almost find insulting is when people say to me ‘How can you do the same thing for 30 years?” And my answer to them is, ‘If it was the same thing, I wouldn’t do it.’ Every game is different. Every game has its own script. To me, it’s something different every single time I show up at the Arena.
Of all your years in this role, what stands out the most?
The best thing, that I felt most fulfilled writing, was when the Heat drafted a player out of Connecticut named Caron Butler in 2002, and I started to read his story: how he had been incarcerated as a youth, how he had an ankle bracelet, had been shot. There were rumors on draft night that he fell to the Heat in the draft because he still had bullet fragments in him. And I traveled to Racine, Wisconsin, where he’s from, and I went to the youth prison where he was held for several years. I learned about what he went through, I spoke to his family, I went to the community center, and I just got such a holistic feeling for the player that to this day, Caron and I, whenever we see each other, we just embrace. Because when you feel a person’s journey and what he’s been through, it makes you realize that it is more than a game.
… The kind of thing that I’ve enjoyed, more even than the games themselves, is getting the chance to tell the story, and to see players years later and how things turned out for their families, and how they’ve gone in that direction. That, to me, is as rewarding as any triple-overtime buzzer-beater by a player.
Are there any other players that you’ve forged personal relationships with over the years?
In the early years, it was a different game. When it was people making—and I don’t want to minimize this—tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars, it was just a little easier to try to relate. Former Heat center Rony Seikaly, I’d go to his house down in Miami and we’d play tennis, and it didn’t seem that different. Now when you’re dealing with millionaire players, they’re simply living different lives. They’re very good people, I enjoy being around them, but socially, it would just be awkward to sort of be their friends …
I think the players I forged the greatest relationships with over the years have been players from the earlier years of the Heat, and a lot of the end-of-bench guys, who I just hope for them that they get their chance. … To see that they’re earning a little, they’re getting their chance to get to live a little bit of their dream a piece at a time.
How exhausting is a full season for you, especially if the team makes a deep playoff run?
I can’t answer that for one reason: It almost never ends. It’s become a year-round cycle. Think about it: The season ends, then I’m off to the draft combine, then I’m writing about the draft, then I’m getting ready for free agency, then I’m out in Las Vegas for two weeks for summer league, then I’m writing about the free agents when they have their press conference when they come in. Maybe you get a month to decompress in August, then first thing in September, guys are back and getting ready for camp. So it’s become like the NFL, with all they do with their combine and their draft. It’s such a 12-month season, I find myself almost trying to exhale a little bit during the season, because there isn’t that natural break that there used to be. … There is no finish line. It just starts all over again.
How do you think that the Heat stack up against other major NBA franchises?
I think they have been [on par with the NBA’s legendary franchises] since 2006. Once they had the championship breakthrough where they were able to bring in Shaquille O’Neal with Dwyane Wade and win the championship, it sort of showed that, hey, this is for real down here. This isn’t just “Hey, we’re gonna go to South Beach, have a good time, guys are gonna get a suntan, and that’s gonna be it.” Instead, it turned into a basketball mecca to a degree, and then they were able to lure LeBron James and Chris Bosh, and they won those titles in 2012 and 2013. I think in the last 15 years or so, the Heat have been on par with any franchise when it comes to the professionalism that they have, the championship success that they’ve had. I think over the last 15 years it really has changed. Of course, the Lakers have the history, the Knicks have the history, the Celtics have the history, but I think in the last decade and a half or so in the NBA, the Heat has been recognized as much as any team as far as overall success.
What do you think has been the most important factor in that success?
I think it’s time the Heat raised a banner to Pat Riley. This September will be the 25th anniversary of when he signed on as Heat president, as coach, and that’s where it started. That’s where the culture changed. That’s where the Arison family started spending more and got more involved. I know there’s a preceding seven-year history of the Heat, which is obviously significant or else there wouldn’t be a Heat, but this is Pat Riley’s franchise. It’s like the Cleveland Browns, who named the Browns after Paul Brown and his family, and what they did for the franchise. This could be the Miami Rileys right now, because what Pat did is change everything down here to the point that it’s not just a football town, solely, anymore.
How do you think Erik Spoelstra compares to other great NBA coaches?
Erik Spoelstra to me is a Hall of Fame coach, based on playoff success, based on what he’s done with various rosters and different forms of teams and reloaded teams. I think he is as good as any coach this side of Greg Popovich in the NBA right now. He’s had teams that were coming off 15-victory seasons, and he turned them around. He dealt with Chris Bosh losing two seasons of his career and then having to retire because of the blood clots. He’s been through so much, including losing LeBron James and building it back up. And you saw, when Dwyane Wade’s number was retired, how close those two have grown. That’s what you want from a coach. I’ve had some differences with Erik over the years, but I would never deny the fact that he is a great NBA coach.
When the mayor of Miami named Seventh Street after Dwyane Wade, he said that it was “on behalf of the greatest athlete in the history of South Florida.” Do you agree with that statement?
I have the age and the time down here that I obviously can look at the natural comparison to Dan Marino. And, for as much as Dan Marino accomplished, I think when you look at championship lineage, the fact is this: South Florida has had three championship parades for Dwyane Wade when he won championships with the Heat. They had none with Dan Marino. So, I think that matters. I think it’s been the unfair thing for Dan Marino throughout his post-career. But that’s the reality: Dwyane Wade delivered championship parades to South Florida. So yeah, I think that does put him a notch above. And I don’t disagree with the mayor.
Having been with the team for its entire history, what did those championships mean to you?
I enjoy it all. I enjoy the up times, I enjoy the down times. I enjoy the championships for this reason: The good people who I know who might not even be involved in the basketball side of it, for them it was meaningful. For them, those were special moments. Whether it’s the guys on the broadcast team, or some guys behind the scenes, there was just a great feeling in the arena on those nights when they won the championships. That’s when I looked around the arena and saw the smiles of the people that I get to work with on all those game nights. But I also enjoyed the 15-win seasons. There are still stories and interesting things there. I think championships probably matter more to others, honestly, than they do to me.
Do you think that this Heat team [would have been]* in a position to make a deep run in the playoffs this year?
That’s a tough question. I think this team can compete with anyone in the east, and they’ve showed that. The fact is they have home and road victories over the 76ers, over the Raptors, over the Pacers, and over the Bucks. But I’m not sure this team has that second definitive scoring star that you need in the playoffs when the opposition says ‘we’re gonna shut down this one guy.’ Who else is going to stand up? I love Bam Adebayo as a hustle player, as a contributor. But I’m not sure that if opponents are able to lock down Jimmy Butler, that there’s another guy who can step forward in a seven-game series. So I think the Heat can be competitive in any playoff game, but I’m not so sure about in any playoff series, depending on the matchup.
* This interview took place before the suspension of the 2019-2020 NBA season due to the coronavirus pandemic. As of press time, it was unclear when, or if, the season would resume.
Could you ever see yourself moving on to cover a different team or a different sport?
Probably not after 32 years of being this invested. As long as there’s a Sun Sentinel and a Sun Sentinel sports department and they’ll have me, I think I’m comfortable enough in the rhythm of what I do that, honestly, I would hate to give up that institutional knowledge. I would hate to go cover another team or go to another sport. I would almost feel naked not to have 32 years of knowledge of the team off the top of my head. To constantly have to go to the team media guide, and the reference book and the stats book, as opposed to just knowing “oh yeah, he’s gonna break Brian Shaw’s three-point record,” because you know it. I think that’s the kind of thing that has made this special. When you live it all.
… I don’t want to give that up.