MARIO CHALMERS LOVES his father. He has no problem stating this aloud. It is not, as is typical of most 25-year-old men, a fact that embarrasses him to any degree. His is a love without shame. He will say, his mouth curled into a tight smirk, that his dad, Ronnie, is a "bragger" or a "boaster," but this is not criticism so much as evidence of their closeness. Chalmers knows what he can get away with saying and what he cannot, the fine-tuned calibration of their relationship a symphony that has been playing since the Miami guard was a boy of 4, standing in the shadow of his 6'4" father, trying with adorable futility to steal the ball from his hands.
That was when the dream was born -- the moment when Chalmers was seized with such implacable desire not just to win but to beat him that he chose to play basketball every day for the rest of his life, to forsake all other pursuits, to rise to such prominence that there could be no disputing who was the
"Do you remember the first time you beat me?" Ronnie asks.
It is Sunday morning, a few hours before the Heat play host to the Bulls. Ronnie Chalmers, 56, is sitting on a love seat in his Miami high-rise apartment. He moved there four years ago with his wife of 35 years, Almarie, but is lending it to his son while Mario's $2.6 million, 5,500-square-foot condo (which he is buying from rapper Drake) undergoes renovation a few blocks away. The apartment is tidy, with few signs of a 20-something's presence save the teetering stacks of video games flanking the flat-screen. Mario, perched on a nearby stool, eats his breakfast of eggs, potatoes and waffles, a pregame load-up that his chef prepared.
"Yeah, I remember; I was 12," he says.
Ronnie shakes his head.
"It was your senior year in high school."
Mario clanks his fork against his plate, scoops up a bite of egg.
"I beg to differ."
He recounts the scene. How he and his dad had played one-on-one in the backyard of their suburban home in Anchorage, Alaska, as they had done every day since he was old enough to hold a ball. How when he sank the winning basket, he ran full speed into the kitchen hollering for his mother: "I beat him! I beat him!"
"I was 12," Chalmers repeats, catching his father's eye.
Ronnie smiles, turns his gaze to the wall of windows overlooking downtown Miami.
"No," he says impassively. "You're wrong."
Chalmers stays quiet, continues to eat.
With door-wide shoulders and a voice disc-jockey deep, Ronnie presents an imposing figure -- the product of 22 years in the Air Force and an innate dignity that makes everyone in the room seem mealy and punk-ass the moment he enters. Ronnie has managed his son's career, from birth to present, with determined intensity. Formal lessons began in the backyard, where he taught Mario "how to dribble, when to shoot." He then coached an Anchorage YMCA league team, which Mario led to a state title as a seventh-grader. Ronnie later started an AAU team so his son could face stiffer competition and explore broader opportunities than Alaska provided. At Bartlett High, the father (again as head coach) and son teamed to win state championships in 2002 and 2003 but lost out on a third in 2004 at the buzzer in overtime.
"My son begged me to coach his teams," Ronnie explains, waving off any intimation of stage parenting. Still, he does not deny his son's dreams were once his own. A former small forward for the Air Force and armed services teams, Ronnie was offered a scholarship by the Citadel when he was 24. The Air Force declined to grant his release, sending him instead to Alaska. Four years later, Mario was born.
"I wanted to be a pro," Ronnie says with palpable frustration. "But I never had the right doors open up for me."
He made it his business to ensure the same fate did not befall his son. In this, he can claim victory. Mario's stats this season, as they've been since he
But even a high-hat Big Three needs a savvy point guard to oil the machine (as in the 2007 Celtics). Chalmers continually sets picks off-ball to free LeBron James and Dwyane Wade for looks; his hand is always in passing lanes on defense or in a shooter's face. Compact and scrappy, Chalmers is the one who comes up with loose balls, makes the pass that sets up the pass that sets up the easy transition basket. And he can nail the long ball to keep defenses honest (his 85 threes led the Heat).
More important, when the chaos hits the fan, Chalmers is the Heat's version of Obama: Chill the F out, I got this. That was most evident in a Jan. 5 road game against the Hawks, who had beaten the Heat three days earlier. With Wade and James sidelined by injuries, the guard scored five of his 29 points in triple OT to seal a 116-109 win (22 of his points came after the third quarter). "He's the type of guy who understands that the only way you can prove it is in the big moment," Miami forward James Jones says. "And he relishes that opportunity."
His play this season is the prime-time version of the calm he brought to the University of Kansas in his three seasons there, most notably in the 2008 NCAA championship game against Derrick Rose's Memphis Tigers. With 2.1 seconds left, he sank a three-pointer over Rose's extended hand that tipped the game into overtime and led to eventual victory, earning him the title of most outstanding player of the tournament and bringing him what he calls "the happiest moment of my life." It was made all the sweeter because his dad was again part of the team, as KU's director of basketball operations.
Breakfast finished, Chalmers is navigating his black 2012 Range Rover HSE along the expressway. In the back are his Louis Vuitton duffel and postgame denim shirt and tie, selected by his older sister, Roneka, 34, whom he
Chalmers nods along to the beat, his face still holding its last bit of puppy fat, resembling a younger Nick Cannon. His own son, 4-year-old Zachiah, lives in Kansas with his mother. Chalmers celebrated Zachiah's birthday with him four days earlier. "I have a good situation with his mom," he says. "But it's difficult for me." The two are friends, amicable co-parents, but Zachiah isn't around much. Chalmers says he wants to be closer, see him more often.
He pulls into the players' parking lot, waves to security and screeches into his spot underneath the arena. In a few hours, he will be charged with his toughest assignment of the season: neutralizing Rose, the Bulls' MVP point guard, while keeping the Heat offense in sync against an imposing defense. But if he's feeling any pressure, his placid expression reveals nothing. As he grabs his postgame ensemble from the backseat, he thinks about that first time he beat his dad.
"I changed inside that day," he says, his voice soft and plain. "I knew I could beat him. And because of that, I knew I could beat anybody. I haven't had doubts since. Never. Not once."
"MARIO WAS ALWAYS very confident."
Ronnie is sitting in the friends and family section, watching his son run the court. Almarie is beside him. Next to her, Roneka. All are smartly dressed in black. Ronnie and Almarie whisper in each other's ears, frustrated by the slight Heat lead and the lack of passing. "I hate the showboating," says Almarie.
The Chalmers family prefers everything old-school. Like the way they raised their kids in Alaska. Every summer back then, the family traveled to the
At the Bulls game, a young man with diamond studs and a bedazzled trucker cap turns around, taps Ronnie on the knee and says: "Hey, boss man. As a coach, tell me this. Why can't LeBron post?"
Ronnie smiles, lips rigid.
"I never get used to watching," he says faintly. "I never get used to not being the coach."
On the court, 10 minutes or so into the game, Chalmers runs the ball the way his father taught him, his shoulders hunched, his knees and feet kicking high, a human accordion, bouncing. He compresses his body while maintaining speed, looking small while he rolls over men half a foot taller. He shoots over Rose, scores an elegant two. Ronnie nods solemnly.
The first quarter showcases Chalmers' value to the Heat, despite his low scoring. Six and a half minutes after tip-off, his no-look pass to Wade in transition leads to a rousing alley-oop to James. A short while later, his brush screen on Richard Hamilton enables LeBron to go one-on-one with Bulls backup point guard John Lucas, resulting in a dunk so definitive that it made waves on South Beach.
On defense with four minutes left in the quarter and the shot clock winding down, Chalmers forces Rose into an awkward look that clanks off the rim. (It's no accident that the Synergy stat service rates Chalmers as one of the
Through it all, Chalmers maintains his stoic demeanor. His sister? Not so much. Up in the stands, Roneka winces as she watches Chalmers miss an easy two-footer. "I still see him as my little brother," she says. The two have been close, despite an almost nine-year age difference. As kids, Chalmers would use Roneka's bedroom as his indoor court. He also flirted with her friends. Neither thrilled her.
"We'd play this game where I would be a journalist and he would be an NBA player, and I would pretend to interview him after he won the championship," Roneka says, laughing. "In high school, he'd come to my practices and shoot. Even then people would ask, 'Who is that kid?'?"
IT'S 8:35, TWO hours after the Heat have finished beating the Bulls, and Chalmers is nursing a tweaked wrist at the dinner table of Truluck's, a posh bistro within walking distance of his dad's apartment. The whole family is together, talking, as ever, about basketball.
Chalmers played well, if not spectacularly: He scored just five points and missed a critical late free throw, but he also did not commit any turnovers and was dogged on Rose all night. (He scored 34 but shot just 11 of 28.)
Chalmers stays quiet, speaking mostly to his sister, then only to crack wise about something his parents have said.
"What's he whispering now?" Almarie asks, sipping a glass of wine.
"He's just clowning as usual," Roneka says, shaking her head.
The family talks about the coming year, how "my goal for him is to know what to do when the air goes out of the basketball," Almarie says.
Chalmers keeps his head low. He eats his shrimp dinner, guzzles several glasses of lemonade. The subject of his tattoos comes up. He has 14.
"And I'm still going," he says with surprising volume, catching his mother's eye.
"Excuse me?" she says.
"I'm still going," he reiterates, quieter now.
"Of 365 days, I'm proud of him 300," Almarie mutters. "The other 65, I want to kill him."
Chalmers recently bought his mother a 2007 Honda Element. He wanted to buy her something fancier, but that was her favorite, so he obliged, surprising her by parking it in the garage, with balloons and bows taped to the top. "At the end of the day, you only have your family," he says. "You only have your blood."
Roneka says, gently: "Mario is a little naive. He probably thinks everyone has a family like ours. He doesn't realize how unusual that is."
She glances at her brother, eyes soft.
"He can't even picture us not being there."
Dinner over, the family members are waiting in front of the restaurant for the valet to retrieve their vehicles. They stand close as book pages. Roneka musses Chalmers' hair. Almarie kisses his cheek, drapes an arm around the back of his neck. They make plans for the next day and the day after. Chalmers mentions that he might like to play pool. He's good. He owns a cue.
"I'm the best in my family," he says, cocking his head.
Ronnie steps closer, placing his hand on his son's shoulder.
"Oh yeah? Have you beaten me?"