New-look Curry solution to Heat old issue?

Eddy CurryMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

After many trials on and off the court, Eddy Curry finally returned to the floor.

MIAMI - Soaking wet and emotionally drained an hour after his long-awaited return to the relevance of an NBA game, Miami Heat center Eddy Curry cut through a crowd of reporters waiting for him with a towel around his neck.

This was long after Chris Bosh, Curry's immediate neighbor in the Heat's locker room at AmericanAirlines Arena, had already dressed and left Thursday night.

Long after LeBron James dissected a performance in which he slammed Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers and stuffed the stat sheet with 31 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four steals and three blocks.

Even long after Dwyane Wade popped into the room and hopped up onto his seat to retrieve a few items in his locker stall, as if to let everyone know he's recovering nicely from an ankle injury that's sidelined him the past two games.

Curry was trying to dry himself off, but it wasn't because he had just left the showers like the rest of his Miami teammates. Instead, he entered the room from another door -- the one that leads to the Heat's training facility.

"I felt like I needed some more work," Curry said after a 20-minute cardio workout that followed his six-minute playing stint against the Lakers. "Just trying to put my body through what a normal game situation would have felt like."

If you're searching for the most meaningful difference between the underachieving and vastly overweight Eddy Curry you thought you knew from his days with the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks, and the version of him you saw in his Heat debut, it requires looking beyond the Jennifer Hudson-style physical makeover.

As much as Curry has impressed the Heat's players, coaches and front office by dropping somewhere between 60 and 75 pounds in the past 18 months, it was the initiative he took after crossing the finish line Thursday to run another lap that has instilled confidence within the Heat that this project might actually work out.

Having last played an NBA game on Dec. 17, 2009, Curry received a standing ovation from many fans in the arena when he checked into the game with 2 minutes, 20 seconds left in the first quarter against the Lakers. He promptly scored his first basket on his first touch and finished with six points and three rebounds in just more than six minutes.

Coach Erik Spoelstra's plan was to limit Curry to three-minute playing intervals in his first game back until he adjusts to the adrenaline and conditioning demands needed to play longer stretches in his role off the bench. But Curry's build-up leading into the game and the work ethic he showed afterward appear to count more than anything he contributed to the box score Thursday night.

"None of us know what he has been through these past few years," James said of Curry, who has battled weight problems, injuries, legal issues and family tragedies since 2009. "To see him come all the way back, to put on a uniform and get out there and make some plays ... it is a testament to him."

Moving forward, this process will continue to be a series of small steps. Even as a team with one of the smallest frontlines in the league and essentially no experienced depth at center, the Heat aren't asking much of Curry.

If Spoelstra eventually gets a handful of points off post-up relief baskets, along with a few rebounds and two or three aggressive fouls from Curry over 10-to-12 minutes a night, it'll be considered a bonus.

"He has a long way to go," Spoelstra said, before acknowledging the strides Curry has already made. "He has put in a lot of work, the majority of it on his own. During the lockout, he worked in solitude to get into condition. Since then, we have put him into our full conditioning, weight and running program. He has passed every test and he's come a long way."

If team president Pat Riley gets Curry to avoid the off-court distractions and personal demons that once derailed the career of the No. 4 overall pick from the 2001 draft, the investment of a non-guaranteed, veteran's minimum contract Miami offered will be money well spent.

"All this is," Riley has said of the gamble Miami has taken with Curry, "is an opportunity. What he does with it is up to him. We know what kind of (impact) player he can be."

If Curry, 29, can get himself to comprehend that this might be his best -- and last -- shot to resurrect a potentially promising career that's been more painful than productive through his first 11 seasons, then his future might eventually overshadow his past.

But those remain three big, Curry-sized "ifs" for now.

Part of his past caught up with Curry in a positive way after Thursday's game, when he finished his workout and reached for his cell phone. It was flooded with texts and voicemail messages from former teammates and coaches who had just watched him on national television.

Some even joked that they saw a player in Curry they didn't recognize. Now that the weight is off, the wait is over for Curry to rescue his career.

"I know I've been working hard for this moment," Curry said. "This is only the beginning. I was extremely nervous. I don't remember feeling like that in a long, long time. I've been away from it for a little bit for one reason or another. But now I'm back and I'm going to have some fun."