Growing up in Miami’s Liberty City, Udonis Haslem wasn’t immediately drawn to basketball. As a kid, football was his sport of choice (this is South Florida, after all). But, he says, it didn’t take long for him to grow taller and become interested in hoops.
“I remember going out in back of my grandmother’s house where there was this basketball court you could get to by either climbing the fence or slipping through a little hole in the fence in the neighbor’s yard,” Haslem recalls. “I played on the lower basket with my cousins until I was big enough to dunk. The bigger basket was mostly drug dealers and older guys, and that wasn’t the crowd you wanted to be with when you were young. I remember that, and I remember my father making sure I never backed down and understood that life was going to be hard as a Black man in America.”
Haslem’s life and his career have been marked by hard work, grit, and resolve—a combination that has given him the platform and means to create hope and opportunities for people living in underserved communities like the one he grew up in. He’s never forgotten what it feels like to be counted out, which is likely why he’s made a name for himself as someone you can always count on—both on the court and off.
“So many people will be told the same things I’ve been told and wonder why it’s happening and throw themselves a pity party,” he says. “If you think like that and let doubt creep in, you don’t have a chance to be what you want to be or see yourself even become it. I’m here now today because I’ve never let people dictate my circumstances.”
Haslem grew up in a tight-knit family. It was impossible not to be close: Before moving into a house, he lived in a two-bedroom apartment with his stepbrother, stepsister, aunt, stepmother, and father. Both of his biological parents struggled with drug addiction, he says. His stepmother, Barbara Wooten, stepped in as a dependable presence, giving him everything he needed “and then some” as his parents turned their lives around for the better. When Wooten landed a job in Jacksonville, she moved there with Udonis in tow. He was in his early teens at the time and soon discovered his passion for basketball.
It all began with a game of pickup. “I wasn’t skilled enough yet, but I was big,” says Haslem, who stands 6 feet, 7 inches. “My stepbrother, Sam, would take me to the court with the older guys to play. One time I took this shot and it was an air ball, but Sam caught it, dunked it, and told me, ‘Good pass.’ Well, it wasn’t a pass. It was a shot, and it was an air ball. But it made me feel so good. I wanted to feel like that again. That’s when I fell in love with basketball.”
He began playing organized basketball in ninth and tenth grade, making a name for himself in Jacksonville. When Wooten’s job transferred her back to Miami, Haslem moved again and enrolled at Miami Senior High School, a hoops powerhouse that won back-to-back state championships in 1997 and 1998, Haslem’s junior and senior years. That’s when he started taking basketball seriously, he says, which prepared him for what came next: playing starting center at the University of Florida (UF) and, eventually, in the NBA.
“[Gators coaches] Billy Donovan and Anthony Grant came into Liberty City to see me at my grandmother’s house,” he says. “I used to get off the bus at 27th Avenue and I would have to run a few blocks over and two streets across to get to my grandmother’s house. If you’re getting dropped off after dark in Liberty City, wherever you want to get to, you have to run because you don’t want to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Grant, a former Miami High standout, convinced Haslem that UF was the right place for him. But as soon as he arrived on campus in Gainesville in 1998, Haslem says news articles circulated claiming he was too small to play center in the Southeastern Conference. He remembers the stories like they were yesterday, and says they only fueled his underdog mentality. He earned a reputation as a hard worker, dropping more than 40 pounds and becoming the first Gator to play on four consecutive NCAA tournament teams. He became the player he believed he could be—averaging 13.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. During his tenure at UF, he also met the love of his life: Faith Rein, an aspiring sports broadcaster and Gators track and field star.
“I was sitting outside with this pit bull puppy that I got and that we weren’t supposed to have in the dorm,” he recalls. “She didn’t like dogs, but she stopped to play with mine and we started talking. From that point on, we built a relationship. I would watch her run and she would come to my games. Our very first date was Popeye’s. I had a car, so I told her I’d drive if she paid.”
Rein was one year younger than Haslem, and when he didn’t get drafted by the NBA (analysts blamed his relative lack of height for an NBA forward), he headed to France alone to play basketball. The move was made out of necessity: Haslem had a young son from a previous relationship, so he needed the money. The NBA wasn’t necessarily the goal, he says. He signed with Chalon-Sur-Saône of the French LNB Pro A (one of the top-tier men’s professional basketball leagues in Europe) and headed overseas.
“I’ll never forget the feeling of going over to Europe for the first time and cracking my windshield because I thought if I threw hot water on it that it would get the ice off,” he says. “I had no clue. I also remember getting arrested in France because I didn’t know how to drive a stick, and I kept getting into accidents.”
After a year abroad, Haslem returned to Miami in 2003 to fight for a spot on the Heat’s roster as an undrafted free agent, a feat he likens to a scene out of The Hunger Games trilogy. That spot remains his after 20 years, making him the longest-tenured player in Heat history. Only one other NBA player, Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks, has played for a single team for longer, at 21 years. When Haslem hangs up his jersey at the end of this season, he’ll tie with the late Kobe Bryant, who spent 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers.
During Haslem’s time with the Heat, the team has won three NBA championships in 2006, 2012, and 2013. Also in 2013, Haslem married Rein, with whom he has two sons—and six dogs that “roam the yard like lions,” he says.
Andy Elisburg, general manager of the Heat, says that Haslem’s impact in Miami has been about more than just his championship rings and impressive rebounding stats. “The first thing about Udonis is that he has had a huge impact on the Heat’s winning record, playing on all three of our championship teams,” says Elisburg. “He has set the template for what it means to be a Miami Heat player. It began with Alonzo Mourning, but he’s the next link in that chain, setting an example for how to act in the community, on the floor, and in the locker room, where he’s not afraid to say anything to anyone whether they’re a rookie or a star veteran.”
Teammate Tyler Herro, who was drafted by the Heat in 2019, says the locker room won’t be the same without Haslem.
“Ever since I came to Miami, he’s been supportive to me, showing me the ins and outs of the city, and any city we go to on the road,” Herro says. “He’s our captain and a big voice in our locker room, so when he’s gone, someone will have to step in and fill those shoes. He’ll definitely be missed.”
No matter how high Haslem has climbed, he has never forgotten his Liberty City roots. When a family friend died in 2003 during Haslem’s first season with the Heat, he and Wooten stepped in to provide the children left behind with school supplies and uniforms. His NBA contract wasn’t always secure in those days, but he strove to help local children in need through his foundation, UD Kids. The scope of his philanthropy broadened in 2022, when it became known as the Udonis Haslem Foundation, which provides programs for education, low-income housing, financial literacy, and minority-owned businesses, among other areas of need.
“We just have too many people who come from where I come from who need help,” Haslem says. “They’re good people, hardworking people, and honest people—but sometimes they just can’t get a break. I have this platform, so I want to use it and my resources to create opportunities for people who need them.”
While Haslem says he typically keeps to himself, he admits that he has had to come out of his shell to do this kind of work. “I have a great personality, but a lot of people don’t know it. You have to let people see you as a human being and not as a basketball player. You have to let them understand that you have a compassionate side, that you do have a heart and you do have grace.”
The foundation will be a large part of his post-NBA life, as will public speaking engagements and spending time with his family. He habitually calls Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez and various city commissioners to find out what locals need most and how he can help.
But he also has his sights set on being part of the Heat’s ownership.
“I aspire to be at the highest level of leadership at the Miami Heat, and that will have to do with ownership,” he says. “I’m not just a leader in my organization. I’m a leader in the NBA who younger guys reach out to for advice about so many things. To maximize that is to be somewhat affiliated with the ownership situation. That’s the main goal. This team, this city, this foundation—they’re always going to be where my heart is. And if you know anything about me, it’s that I’m all heart.” «