Heat catch fire amid the Botox and bling

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The best-looking crowd I've ever seen at a sports event was at the Miami Heat-New York Knicks basketball game last Wednesday. In fact, it was hard to tell where the rows of celebrities morphed into the normal people.

By the time the last Miami fans made their entrances shortly before half-time, presumably detained by last-minute Botox injections, the arena was packed above capacity. A plastic surgeon, the quintessential Miami profession, told me: "For three years I was alone here. I could sit where I wanted. Now you sit in your seat." That was true of everyone except the Heat's mascot, who chose to sit on a Playboy centrefold fortuitously to hand.

Of course the Heat beat the Knicks, notching their 15th victory in 16 games. "Miami looks good enough to be a champion. That's the first time we've ever been able to say that with conviction around here," noted a columnist with the Miami Herald, a newspaper struggling to get its head around the idea that football is not the only sport. At last this glitziest of cities has the glitzy basketball team it needs.

Miami became habitable only after the second world war, when cheap air-conditioning and plane tickets arrived. By 1966 it was big enough to support a major-league sports team, football's Miami Dolphins. But only in the late 1980s did the city itself become major-league. The art deco hotels on South Beach were cleaned up, and their population of old Jewish ladies was replaced by gay men bearing poodles. Shooting people, hitherto a staple of local culture, began fading out of fashion. Then the celebrities landed. In Miami, Madonna's purchase of a house in 1992 has a significance comparable to Columbus's discovery of America in 1492.

A year after Madonna's advent, baseball and ice hockey teams arrived in Miami. The Heat had pitched up earlier, in 1988, making history immediately by losing their first 17 games. But demographics were on the team's side. Every day Miami grew bigger and richer, unless you lived just by the Heat's arena in Overtown, the black ghetto that is the country's poorest zip code.

Though the Heat improved, few people cared. Alexander Wolff, author of the basketball classic Big Game, Small World,told me: "I can say with confidence that Miam i is not a basketball city. In Florida, football is absolutely the number one preoccupation."

Well, the number one preoccupation after celebrities. And last July the Heat acquired the biggest celebrity in sport, certainly literally: the 7ft 1in Shaquille O'Neal. Shaq was fleeing the Los Angeles Lakers after squabbles with rival celebrities, and there was no way this actor, rapper and shoe designer was headed anywhere but Miami. Basketball players love Miami, where the game is just minutes by limousine cavalcade from the South Beach nightclubs. On nights when there is no game, the Heat's next opponents can generally be found cruising the beach in their SUVs.

Shaq bought a mansion on Star Island - presumably named for the stars who live there - and promised great things. "If you take pictures of me naked on the beach, don't sell them to The Enquirer," he warned Miamians, "unless I get 15 per cent."

The second he landed, every real-estate developer's wife in Miami was on the phone for season tickets. The Heat is pulling bigger crowds than ever before for the endless warm-up games that in American sports masquerade as the regular season. More than 20,000 people attended the Knicks game.

This is the time of year when celebrities' migratory patterns take them to Miami - and on to the arena's jumbo screen. Puff Daddy was there, for instance. The celebrities rattled their jewellery as Shaq scored 33 points and got 18 rebounds.

The bigger thrill, though, was a 22-year-old guard named Dwayne Wade who dances instead of runs and has hands as neat as a high-end plastic surgeon's. Calling basketball a team sport is a slight misnomer: two great players usually suffice. Thanks to these two, the Heat are hot.

Many fans stayed for a significant slice of the game. It was understood, though, that the basketball was a sideshow. The hip-hop disc jockey Jam Cam, complete with bandanna and babes, helped us get through it as we waited for the nightclubs to open. I say "babes", but it's quite possible the women were 80-year-olds: in the land of plastic surgery, little is at it seems.

In the Heat locker room afterwards, no Shaq. Instead, a pair of his size-22 red boots stood like marooned boats in the middle of the floor. You knew they were Shaq's because they bore his Dunkman logo - a picture of him dunking, which he can do almost without jumping.

In the Knicks locker room was the man who had guarded him, Nazr Mohammed. Had Shaq talked to him during the game? Mohammed nodded: "He told me he's gonna sue me. I've got the Dunkman symbol tattooed on my shoulder. Shaq saw it, he said: 'No you didn't! I'm gonna sue you.' "

Mohammed sipped from a bottle of Listerine, and continued: "I told him, 'You should have cut me a cheque, for free advertising over the years. You should be happy!' " Shaq should indeed: another championship ring this summer would make him one of Miami's more bejewelled residents, if only narrowly.

simonkuper@ftnetwork.com

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