How Miami Became a Basketball Hotbed Year Round
MIAMI -- It’s been 30 years since the Miami Heat first set up shop in South Florida. In those three decades, the team has grown into basketball royalty, with lessons learned from imported NBA luminaries. The Heat brought in Lakers legends, from Pat Riley to Shaquille O’Neal, to build a championship culture. The team went from battling Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the ‘90s to enlisting the services of one of the Windy City’s sons, Dwyane Wade, in pursuit of its titles.
Still, for most of the Heat’s history, hoops remained an afterthought in and around Miami. For all the NBA had brought to the city and the region, football was comfortably king, thanks to a lengthy legacy of success formed by high school powerhouses like Miami Northwestern Senior High School, college championships captured by the University of Miami, and an impressive CV of gridiron legends and Super Bowls compiled by the Miami Dolphins.
But that all began to change less than a decade ago, with nine powerful words from one world-famous out-of-towner: “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.”
Since LeBron James etched those words into the collective sports conscience on national TV in July 2010, the city of Miami has seen the growth of a burgeoning basketball culture. The “Heatles,” with their four Finals appearances and back-to-back titles, helped to plant those seeds.
The scene owes its current vibrancy—with All-Stars like James Harden, John Wall and Victor Oladipo flocking to South Florida for workouts and scrimmages—as much to the efforts of locals (players, trainers and hoops heads alike) as to the sun, sand and glamour that have long made Miami a destination for football players, tourists and retirees alike.
Miami-based trainer Justin Zormelo celebrates the Golden State Warriors' second consecutive NBA championship with his client Kevin Durant.
Justin Zormelo is one such Florida resident who’s helped to turn Miami into a summer destination for NBA players. While working his way from Heat intern to trainer for the likes of Wade, Wall, Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard, the Virginia native founded his company, Best Ball Analytics, in 2011 to help his clients refine their on-court skills using advanced statistics.
"It’s been nice to see basketball pickup in Florida,” Zormelo tells CloseUp360. “You definitely have to thank guys like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James for what they did increasing awareness. … LeBron definitely sparked the culture down here."
Zormelo isn’t alone among trainers who see South Florida as a home for offseason hoops. David Alexander works on strength and conditioning with NBA stars like James, Wade, Wall, Oladipo and Ben Simmons—along with a handful of NFL clients —in the Miami Design District. Fitness trainer Ed Downs currently consults with Dwight Howard, and has worked with James, Wade, Chris Bosh and Tim Hardaway Jr. And Stanley Remy has helped players like Wade, Rudy Gay, Jeff Green and Andre Drummond develop their skills from the comfort of his hometown.
Remy, who got his start in the training business with his local friend and former NBA player-turned-NBPA regional rep Keyon Dooling, believes in the region’s promise.
“We can play basketball,” Remy says. “We’ve been a part of this for a while. Guys like Brandon Knight and Keyon—those guys came up through the South Florida ranks. We know that we have the talent here. It’s just all about consistent programs to build the culture here, and that’s what we’re doing now.”
South Florida has produced a handful of NBA players over the years—from old heads like Dooling, Udonis Haslem, Steve Blake and James Jones, to up-and-comers like Knight and Hardaway Jr. Their success has helped plant the seed for the city’s basketball scene.
New York Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. prepares to shoot a free throw at the Miami Pro League. (Robson Lopes)
Now, the city has a place where local products and visitors alike know they can find quality competition regularly during the summer. The Miami Pro League—South Florida's version of Los Angeles’ Drew League and Seattle’s Crawsover Pro-Am League—has been instrumental in attracting NBA talent to the city since Miami’s own Kyle Davis founded it in 2014. The league began inside a small gym in Coral Gables before expanding to the popular Miami Senior High School in 2016.
Like many South Florida natives, Davis grew up playing football. His gridiron efforts morphed into a career in marketing as an adult, through which he picked up on the emerging hoops trend in his hometown. After spending time observing New York City’s vibrant basketball culture up close, he was inspired to bring something similar to Miami following the formation of the Heat's Big Three.
For Davis, the Heat’s on-court success behind James, Wade and Chris Bosh sparked a city-wide transformation.
“I started seeing kids rocking flip flops and dri-fit socks, versus the football cleats and footballs in their hands,” Davis says. “Seeing these kids starting to gravitate towards the sport of basketball, I told my buddies that I wanted to help be that spark in the city, where we shifted the culture from just football to include basketball.”
The Miami Pro League’s success thus far is predicated, in part, on a creative marketing plan that included live-streaming games on Twitch this offseason. Viewership on the gaming platform and a growing presence on Instagram put eyes on the league across the globe.
Detroit Pistons All-Star Andre Drummond flies in for a dunk at the Miami Pro League. (Robson Lopes)
Some of those eyes belonged to Miami’s top trainers. The league now coordinates with them, giving their players an opportunity to implement the things they have been working on while in Miami against talented competition.
"We had to prove to these players' trainers when they want to come to Miami to chase the girls and hop on the boats,” Davis says, “tell them they can get some good runs, too, at our pro league.
"It really took these trainers showing up and seeing the pro league themselves to say, ‘OK, you guys are official. Yeah, I'll tell guys about it.' Their rep and their name is on this just as much as ours by inviting these players, and telling them what's going on down here."
What began with Andray Blatche as the first-ever NBA player to take the court in the Miami Pro League has since seen the likes of Harden, Wall, Oladipo, Hardaway Jr., Drummond, Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo participate.
“It’s just starting to get a whole lot better as the years go on,” Hardaway Jr. says. “Why not? We’ve got nice weather here. The beach—you can do beach workouts and just chill out on the weekends here. There are just so many things you can do out here, and I’m happy it is getting bigger and people are starting to notice.”
Hardaway Jr. works out at the University of Miami. (Chuck Farris)
Miami's recent emergence as a major basketball market is the result, in part, of past efforts by a local legend, former Heat big man and Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning.
Over the years, “Zo,” a physical competitor on the court, showed his softer side by embracing the community through his charity work. His off-the-court efforts have focused on educating at-risk youth and giving them a chance to delve into whatever profession they choose—basketball or otherwise. With efforts like Zo’s Summer Groove (now Zo’s Winter Groove), building the Overtown Youth Center and opening a high school with his wife, Tracy, Mourning has impacted South Floridians both young and old.
Wade has since joined Mourning as a community leader with inextricable ties to the Heat. Both are transplants to the area, with Mourning hailing from Virginia and Wade coming from Illinois. Despite not being from Miami, the two have been adopted as favorite sons.
They brought a championship together to Miami in 2006, but the local sports culture needed more proof to enact a wholesale shift toward basketball.
“Miami, I love us, but we are finicky fans,” Davis says. “We don't believe the flukes or one-offs.”
To Zormelo, the explosion of social media combined with the Heat’s super team from 2010-14 to create a vastly different climate for basketball in the area compared to 2006.
“Instead of just watching your favorite guys on TV,” he says, “now you're seeing guys train in the offseason in Miami. LeBron James brings a following wherever he goes. I think when you add all of that stuff up, and the basketball training game with social media and putting out videos, it is booming.”
Dwyane Wade counsels his son, Zaire, at the Miami Pro League. (Robson Lopes)
Jim Larrañaga’s arrival at the University of Miami as the men's’ basketball coach in 2011 helped boost that boom further. As trainers looked for places to work out their players, they found “The U” to be extremely accommodating.
“The most difficult thing has been finding facilities to work out in,” local skills trainer Andrew Moran says. “To be here, it’s a big court with multiple courts to work out on. I think it’s great. I also think it’s great for [fans]. People can see it on social media. Miami loves the Hurricanes anyways, so I think it just builds the community even more and the community of basketball.”
Zormelo, too, has made use of the university’s practice courts, with Durant joining him in Coral Gables.
“Coach Larrañaga opened up the doors for us,” Zormelo says. “Now you see pickup runs in there with tons of NBA players coming in. It’s been nice to see.”
Players enjoy comfortable accommodations for their runs and workouts, and UM enjoys the exposure that comes from social media, as fans tune in to see what their favorite players have been doing during the offseason. One video in particular, from Remy’s Instagram, shows Wall and Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier hitting each other with layups and jumpers while school colors and banners hang in the background.
"Seven years ago, guys weren’t coming down here for two or three months. They were coming down for a week or four days," Zormelo says. "Now it’s finally turning into the place where guys are coming and changing their careers, like Oladipo and John Wall, and these guys are now buying homes here."
Moran added that the last two summers have been "nuts" in terms of NBA players coming down to Miami and training. A camaraderie amongst the trainers helps to keep the culture growing and positive. They’re not trying to poach from each other and don't critique the way their counterparts conduct business. Remy encourages other trainers to bring their clients to work out with his, and he often sends his clients to Moran when out-of-town commitments arise.
“I think all of [the trainers] kind of started from the bottom and are built on the foundation of working hard, and working for their clients on those hot summer days,” Zormelo says. “This isn't really for show down here. There's just not too much animosity amongst guys and that really helps. Players can go with whoever whenever, but they always get work.”
As much as NBA out-of-towners have done to build up Miami's hoops scene, its future still depends on locals taking up the cause. To that end, Remy and Moran are focused on expanding the city’s selection of training destinations.
“We're probably going to have our own facility down here next year—just nicer and bigger things.” Remy says. “I'm going to have travel teams. I'm going to develop the youth more and just grow…. We want to continue to just bring things down here and just keep building.”
Miami-based trainer Stanley Remy at the University of Miami. (Chuck Farris)
Moran’s Miami Hoop School, a youth development program that he founded in 2012, is also an important component.
"Miami needed consistent basketball programming, whether it was me or somebody else," he says. “I think at a young age, if you build on the raw skill, it will benefit them in the long run.”
Moran is a disciple of the I’m Possible Training brand, which has impacted the way his academy conducts training. His Miami Hoop School offers camps, clinics and private sessions at its two locations, in Doral and Kendall, and prides itself on teaching concepts that encourage clients to train on their own.
Supporting youth development in this way empowers players from the region who aspire to reach the upper levels of basketball notoriety.
“I think once you get guys start to make it out, you can start to see AAU programs, top coaches and top talent—instead of one guy here and there,” Zormelo says. “Once you see people start to invest in South Florida basketball like they do football, then you'll seed guys get higher IQs. Florida can be a hotbed for players.”
South Florida is currently home to two of the nation's top high school prospects. Scottie Barnes, a 6'8” forward from West Palm Beach, is the second-ranked player in the class of 2020, according to ESPN. And Vernon Carey Jr., a 6'10” center from Southwest Ranches who trains with Remy, is the No. 3 prospect in the class of 2019.
Carey Jr.’s father, Vernon, played high school, college and pro football in the Miami area from the late 1990s until 2011. Being the son of a former pro athlete can come with the expectation to follow in those formidable footsteps. But Carey Jr. is forging a different path.
“We didn’t know whether it was basketball or football that we we are going to go with,” says Remy, who has been training Junior since the high school senior was in seventh grade. “We just stuck with it. I know my formula works, and he stuck with the formula and look at him now.”
If Carey Jr. and Barnes can raise the bar after Hardaway Jr. and Knight, South Florida could have just the ambassadors it needs to cement itself as a hoops hotbed for generations to come
Check out our Q&A with Stanley Remy.
Check out our Q&A with Andrew Moran and Alex Prendes.
Warren Shaw is a veteran NBA writer based in Miami. Follow him on Twitter.