The French connection

THE WOMAN BEHIND the counter is grumpy. It's almost closing time at the post office, 1:55 p.m. on a Saturday. The line extends all the way to the stamp machine, and now here's Steve Stoloff, this slightly hunched 71-year-old man, slapping down an international package that she says is addressed incorrectly. He's written "FRANCE" before the French postal code. "The machine will read that as an American ZIP code," she scolds as she changes the label. "So always put the country underneath."

Inside that package is a series of recorded DVDs, two weeks' worth of Miami Heat games; the one against the Bulls is marked simply "Bulls 1/29." Across the ocean, Steve's brother Gary eagerly awaits the DVDs. Steve kindly taps the postal worker's hand. "Oh, I understand! Gotcha, gotcha," he announces at a volume that outpaces the occasion. "Thank you so much. I would have said, 'Gary, didn't you get it? I promise I sent it!' Thank you so much." Steve turns to leave and sees the attention his voice has attracted. Everybody is staring at him. And so he continues babbling, waving his arms as he glides past the crowd. "Grazie, grazie, grazie. I'm happy! She helped me. God bless the post office!"

The doors shut behind him. Outside, along the manicured streets of Weston, Fla., a sleepy suburb of Fort Lauderdale, Steve stands in silence for a moment. Then he laughs loudly and reveals what he'd like to have told the postal worker. "What are you talking about?" he says dismissively. "I've been doing this for 24 years! I've sent that same package a million times."

He isn't exaggerating much: Since 1988, when the Heat debuted as a pathetic, runty upstart in the NBA, Steve has recorded, packaged and mailed nearly every game to his younger brother in France. They are his regularly scheduled expressions of brotherly love, a vital part of his life, his analog connection to the best friend he rarely sees. It's $200 a season in postage. If the man knows anything, it's how to address a damn package.

THE STOLOFFS call themselves "the egg." Why "the egg"? Because they look alike. Because despite Gary's slight French accent, they sound alike. Because their knees act up at the same time. Because despite living an ocean apart, their lives have progressed in parallel. "We decided we both came from the same egg," Steve says. "We were twins. But when it came time, only my egg came down. His got stuck. He came out five years later, a clone of me."

The gestational period was actually much longer. Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., with two other siblings -- an older brother and a younger sister -- Steve and Gary had little in common. Steve struggles even to recall a story of the boys together. When pressed, he remembers the time when he was 12 and Gary was 7 and they went to the opening of a public pool. A dangerously large crowd had formed, and there was pushing and shoving. People were trampled. Gary climbed atop Steve's shoulders, and the older boy carried his little bro to safety. "I tell him I saved his life that day," Steve says.

Later, life took the two boys in very different directions. Steve was a good student and athlete. He went to Queens College, where he played varsity basketball, baseball and soccer. He graduated in 1962, got married, earned a master's degree from Hofstra and moved to Long Island with his wife, Dorothy, to become a guidance counselor.

Gary, well, he could have used his brother's guidance. A stoner more interested in music than homework, he opted for his GED when he tired of high school. Then he joined the Army -- as a drummer. He played in a traveling jazz band to entertain military personnel throughout Europe. After his tour, Gary went full-bore hippie -- dropping acid, living in a cave in Greece, landing in a Danish slammer for stealing motorcycles. In 1969, Gary was deported and landed back in New York, where he drifted until he received an invitation to join a band in London. That didn't last, but Gary did meet Anna, a bandmate's friend. Before long they married, and in 1971 they moved into an old Welsh farmhouse so dilapidated that the newlyweds spent their days renovating and their nights sleeping in an adjacent barn. To make ends meet, Gary worked a series of odd jobs; for a time he even sold reclaimed wood from old London churches. It was truly a life on the fringe.

With Gary finally settled, Steve developed an unfamiliar yearning: "I missed him," he says. So Steve and Dorothy went to Wales for a visit, but when Dorothy took one horrified look at the accommodations, she hopped a train to London. "I'll see you in a week," she told her husband. Once back home in the States, Steve tried calling Gary to keep in touch, but the long-distance bills proved too costly. "A call would go like this: 'Hey, Gary! How ya doin'? Take care of yourself!' Two dollars a minute for that."

Soon Steve had an epiphany: He would tape himself talking -- about his day, his life, whatever came to mind -- into a portable cassette recorder and mail the 90-minute one-way conversation to Gary. "I could not wait to listen," Gary remembers. "It was just such fun." So Gary sent a tape back, and the brothers developed a tradition that goes like this: In their cars, they have two portable tape decks -- one to talk into and one to listen to each other's tapes.

These days, they can talk on the phone for pennies a minute. And they do. But they're still taping as well, a new cassette every two or three weeks, however long it takes to fill 90 minutes.

Based on those tapes, the egg was formed. For decades they've shared squabbles with their wives, the challenges of parenthood (Steve has two kids, Gary four) and now the joys of grandkids. As Steve drives home from the post office, he hits play on Gary's latest tape and holds it aloft to hear. "Anyway, the grandkids had a good time," Gary says, springing to life midstory. "I did something that I never do." (At this, Steve whispers to himself: "Candy!" A brother's intuition.) Gary, on tape: "I allowed them to buy candy. It wasn't a candy bar. You know, it isn't like the old days when you buy a whole bar. You buy individual little tiny things."

Steve laughs. He hits stop, then picks up the other machine, hits record and shouts into it, "Wow, way to go, bro -- no sugar for the kids normally, but a little breakdown there! What the hell, one time's not too bad. You had. To be. Their hero."

Yes, they talk about everything, even religion. Steve's Jewish, and Gary is an atheist, which makes for some lively debates. "It's tough sometimes -- all the arguments are two weeks late," Steve says. "I'll bring up something that has to do with religion, and he'll just nail me! I have to pretend I forgot to respond because I can't win."

Over the years the tapes literally became an oral history of their lives. Steve eventually took his family to Florida, where he remained a counselor. In 1982, Gary moved his family to Vignevieille, France, a southern village of roughly 100 people that attracted him with its laid-back vibe and palette of rolling hills and centuries-old homes. He became a contractor and actually built his family's house. A charming little river called Le Sou runs through his backyard.

The more the brothers shared, the closer they grew. "When you see that Steve's doing something he's really excited about," Gary says, "you want to learn about it so you can share his excitement." Steve took up cycling with friends, for instance, inspiring Gary to become a long-distance rider. And when camcorders first hit the market, Steve sent Gary one -- along with cassettes full of movies he'd recorded from American TV. But it turned out that European TVs were incompatible with the camera, so Steve shipped Gary an American TV. Then Steve moved into sports, a passion he wanted to share with Gary, and began passing along copies of World Series and Super Bowls, "express written consent" disclaimers notwithstanding.

In 1988, when the Heat debuted, Steve taped some games and sent them to Gary, thinking, He might get some entertainment out of this. Says Steve, "It was like panning for gold. One thousand times you get nothing, then you say, 'Whoa, look at the size of this nugget!'"

The Heat games proved to be a gold mine. Gary was perfectly happy watching all the other stuff Steve sent him, but this, this infant basketball team, was something else. "It wasn't something where we sat there and thought, Hmm, which team should we root for?" Gary says. "It was just a natural progression. This was a new team, and it stuck." The Heat were terrible, but they were exciting just for existing, sort of the way parents admire their newborn's every move. For brothers who had missed their starting point, who bonded by playing catch-up, they could now invest equally in the care of something new. The Miami Heat were a foundation.

Steve knew just what to do: He began to record and mail each game all season, every season. Sometimes he'd also mail newspaper clippings, articles from local Sun-Sentinel beat writer Ira Winderman. But when they arrived before the recording, they ruined the magic. So Gary set some rules: His brother couldn't tell him about anything that happened in a game -- any game -- until Gary had a chance to watch it himself.

The system evolved with technology, to a point. VHS gave way to DVD, which cut postage costs in half. Gary also tried NBA League Pass, but he struggled to stay awake multiple nights a week to watch the games live, and he couldn't find a way to load the previous night's game on NBA.com without seeing the final score first. So the brothers stuck with the system they had honed over the years: Games are mailed in bundles every two weeks, lips are sealed and Gary devours every Heat package as soon as he receives it. He'll stay up until 5 a.m. watching them back-to-back on his laptop -- headphones on so he doesn't wake his wife -- all so he can talk to his brother about them as soon as possible.

"It's a time warp," Gary says. "But for me, I am 100 percent in time."

"THIS IS IT," Steve says. "The only purpose of this TV is to record the Heat."

And really, it could be nothing else. It's one of those ancient back-heavy clunkers, set atop the VCR that Steve previously used, the whole thing balanced on a card table and wedged sideways between a bed and a wall in a spare bedroom that Steve's wife has clearly decorated: The carpet is pink, the bedspread floral. But the TV is all Steve, or really, all Gary. Through his DVD recorder, Steve captures every game here -- except for when he accidentally sets the system to record a local station when the game is on national TV or when he inputs the wrong time. About five games a season are lost this way.

Often, Steve will set the game to record and then head out to the AmericanAirlines Arena to watch in person. He splits a Heat ticket package with some buddies. (He does the same with Panthers and Marlins tickets. Steve grew up a Jets fan, so the Dolphins are dead to him.) Had the brothers grown up close, had they both moved to Florida, perhaps they would have shared seats in the upper deck. But their long-distance passion is the next-best thing. "Half our conversation is Heat talk," Steve says of their regular phone calls. "It's a vital part of our interaction."

When the Heat play a stinker, those calls can be brutal, especially for Steve, who has to suffer in waves. He'll watch the ugliness once, then mail it off and relive it with Gary two weeks later. When the Heat finally won it all in 2006, it proved to be just as torturous for Steve. In Game 6 of the '06 NBA Finals, when Dwyane Wade chucked the ball skyward to burn the final seconds between Heat Nation and glory, Steve burst with a joy no local fan had ever known before. But then he dutifully shut his mouth, returned to his ritual and put his last package of the season in the mail. Two weeks later, long after fans had purchased their championship T-shirts, after the confetti was cleaned from the Miami streets and the players had returned to their off-season homes, Gary hit play on this final contest. He watched, fast-forwarding only through the commercials, until finally, mercifully, Wade again threw the ball in the air.

"You're going to ask me to describe what it was like?" Gary says. "If you describe to me what an orgasm is, I will describe to you what it was like to find out, and see, the Miami Heat win in 2006. You cannot describe the excitement, the pleasure."

Of course, the first thing he did was call Steve, who was waiting by the phone.

EVERYONE IN HIS tiny French town is aware of Gary's Heat fervor. His family knows not to spoil games for him. But every so often, a buddy catches some Heat news on TV and drops it on Gary just for the sport of it. "I do remember one guy," Gary says. "I just looked him in the eye and said, 'Do you know -- do you understand -- what you have just done to me? Do you understand that? Did you enjoy that? Did you take pleasure in that? Because you have just ruined my day.' And that's nose-to-nose, eyeball-to-eyeball. In French."

And then?

"Oh, when I get home, I'll still watch the game."

Because otherwise, what would he have to talk about with Steve? These brothers are Grade-A talkers, a mix between carnival barkers and the sibling hosts of NPR's Car Talk. They pose questions to themselves and answer them emphatically. That's what decades of talking into a tape recorder will do to a man: It will make him speak to entertain. It will force him to emote. But talking about the Heat has given Steve and Gary much more: They've gained an understanding of something they couldn't see as kids -- that they were never that different after all. Steve embraced the thrills in front of him, while Gary went hunting for them. The egg is two shades of white-hot heat: Steve's enthusiasm, Gary's intensity.

It's no surprise, then, that Gary's all-time favorite Heat player is Alonzo Mourning. "I love Zo with that big fist punching the air, then he walks over to the crowd and makes that muscle and has that look on his face. That is Zo. I love that energy. And that's what it's all about." As for the current team, Gary loves ... coach Erik Spoelstra? "It's all in Spo's eyes," he says. "Spo is going to be a great coach, just like Pat Riley was a great coach. I really like Spo. Because I like intensity. I like passion. You've got to watch Spo. You've got to watch his eyes."

Steve, on the other hand, prefers Wade and, of course, LeBron. When King James announced the Decision, Steve was watching ESPN in a Chinese restaurant and leaped from his seat and hooted. To him, the feeling rivaled watching the Mets win the World Series in 1969. He watched that in person, bribing a Shea Stadium usher to let him in. After the final out, he rushed onto the field and grabbed a wooden stool from the dugout -- a souvenir he still has today. "This has to be a championship season," he says now. "All the way, baby. All the way!"

The brothers, thousands of miles apart, get to experience all of this together for only $200 a year in postage. It's a bargain. After all, airfare is expensive for two retirees and their wives; they see each other only once every few years. When Steve and Dorothy visit France, Gary springs for their hotel, his way of paying Steve back for all the packages. At the end of every visit, they weep, each silently wondering whether he'll ever see his brother again.

One of their more recent visits was six years ago, when Gary rode his bike from California to South Carolina -- a 5,000-mile winding trek -- to join a family reunion. Steve cycled to meet Gary 10 miles outside of town. "It was unbelievable," Steve says. Then he stops, his eyes redden and the trademark Stoloff volume softens to a whisper. "I always get emotional at this. Calm down, boy." Pause. "So we have, uh, breakfast." Pause. "It was great."

Then the egg rode the last 10 miles together, talking about the Heat the whole way.

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