It started in 1988 with 17 consecutive losses.
The Miami Heat have been playing catch-up ever since.
Tuesday, the Heat caught up.
For the first time in the franchise’s 24 seasons, the Heat are a .500 team.
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For some franchises, such an accomplishment would be reduced to mundane trivia. It took the Orlando Magic, for example, only two games at their 1989 inception to reach .500 and three to move above.
For the Heat, it is a climb now in its third decade, .500 reached for the first time when Tuesday’s 105-90 victory over the Indiana Pacers lifted them to 942-942 all-time in the regular season. A victory Friday against the Cleveland Cavaliers to conclude this six-game trip would, of course, put them above .500 for the first time.
To the current players, even the tenured veterans such as Dwyane Wade and the Udonis Haslem, the magnitude of the climb is incomprehensible since their formative basketball viewing years came during the Heat’s Pat Riley era, when Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway routinely were pushing the Heat deep into the playoffs.
But to one assistant coach who sits alongside them nightly, the climb has been such that the magnitude is almost incomprehensible in another fashion.
Ron Rothstein, the Heat’s inaugural coach, was there for that 0-17 start in 1988, for the 15-67 finish that expansion season, the 18-64 record the following season and the 24-58 close in the third season, in 1990-91. He then took a mental-health break, moving on to stints with the Detroit Pistons, Cavaliers and Miami Sol of the WNBA.
Back now for an eighth season as a Heat assistant coach, Rothstein was caught off-guard by Tuesday’s franchise-evening accomplishment.
“I don’t know if I ever thought about it,” he said with a laugh. “I had no idea, but yeah, it’s nice.”
As Rothstein spoke, long-time friend and inaugural Heat assistant coach Tony Fiorentino, now the team’s television analyst, stood alongside. It was Fiorentino, who, at the franchise’s inception, jokingly tormented Rothstein.
“He asked me once, ‘Tony, am I ever going to be .500?’ ” Fiorentino said. “I told him, ‘no.’ “
The two then shared a decades-delayed laugh.
“It’s pretty nice,” Rothstein said of the franchise finally getting things squared away. “I had no idea. It’s nice to know.”
The Heat were one of four teams added by the NBA in 1987, with the Heat and then-Charlotte Hornets beginning play in 1988 and the Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves in 1989. While the Magic have long moved past .500, at 940-861 entering Wednesday’s play, the Hornets (918-964) and Timberwolves (718-1,083) have lagged behind the Heat.
Keith Askins, who joined the Heat in their third season, 1990-91, as an undrafted free-agent forward and now has been on the coaching staff the past 12 seasons, said everything changed when Pat Riley arrived in 1995 as coach and team president, now currently solely serving in the latter capacity.
Askins, too, was surprised to learn that the climb to .500 is now complete, considering the struggles that continued even beyond the Rothstein tenure.
“You know what? We’re growing, that’s all I can say about it,” he said.
Now the milestones come with more substance, such as the Heat on Tuesday night becoming the first team in more than four decades to win road games on three consecutive nights by double digits.
But early on?
“In the early years, it was more about entertaining,” Askins said. “Fans came out and a lot of times they cheered for the opposing teams. For years it was a very friendly crowd for New York, friendly crowd for Boston.
“Now we have a fan base and that’s a big plus for the organization.”
These days, under the guidance of owner Micky Arison and Riley, .500 is a source of ridicule, such as last season’s 9-8 start with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
“I think you’ve got to give a lot of credit to Mr. Arison and President Riley for how hard they work in putting together some solid teams over the years,” Askins said. “We’ve had some solid clubs and we’ve continued to build.”
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