The NBA I Grew Up Watching: 1996-97 Miami Heat

The world is going through uncertain times, and with the NBA on a hiatus (optimistic projections now say until mid-June), there’s never been a better time to reminisce about the good old days as we await a return.

Growing up in India, basketball was nowhere on the map. There were far more popular sports like cricket, hockey or even tennis that attracted attention and investment around me. 

The NBA, however, did find its way into my life.

Just not in the most conventional way. 

As a ten-year-old kid back in 1996, I remember heading over to a friend’s house and getting a crack at a demo version of EA Sports’ first NBA title: NBA Live 95. 

I fail to remember the two teams that we got to choose for a head to head game, but what started as a great way to pass our time quickly snowballed into a love affair with the league.

Over the next few years, there were so many competitive sessions on the couch, sweaty hands on keyboards, and rapt attention on what now looks like stick figures at the top of the key or the 3-point line as the clock wound down. 

The controls for the game were simple: You could either just move and dribble, pass the ball or take a jump shot.

Yet, you could still tell apart a Tim Hardaway (Miami Heat guard) from a Reggie Miller (Indiana Pacers guard) or a Shaquille O’Neal (Orlando Magic center) from a player simply labeled ‘No.99’, who shared the court with Chicago Bulls greats Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman because the title hadn’t been able to get a player by the name of Michael Jordan to sign on. 

The in-game intro videos to the Live titles were probably the only bit of real footage I initially watched, but curiosity drove me to tune into the bi-weekly NBA on NBC or TNT broadcasts we had access to on cable TV back then. 

Broadcasts grew from bi-weekly to weekly and, as the years flew by, NBA Live was taken over by NBA 2K (virtual simulation title by 2K Sports). My fascination and appreciation with the real and virtual leagues only grew.  

It’s hard to single out what it was that caught my attention and thrust the league to the top of my list of favorite sports—probably some combination of the pace-of-play, rugged physical defense, the swagger, individual personalities and brands, the blocks, the dunks, the crossovers, cornrows and tattoos!  

All in all, the late 90s and early 2000s were a time of unprecedented growth for the NBA. Under the leadership of commissioner David Stern, the league’s brand transcended national boundaries to become truly global. I’m living proof of that.

For me, some teams and superstars captivated more than others. 

Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ve been granted the license to take a nostalgic dive into the era and describe the league I grew up watching, one team at a time. 


What makes a team exciting to watch?

Is it the hard-nosed defense that ends up with an emphatic denial at the rim as the shot clock expires? Or a flashy ankle breaker followed by a smooth finish? An icy late-game buzzer-beater from deep, perhaps? 

The 1996-97 Heat had it all.

Having just completed a roster revamp, the team had assembled a stellar cast—can they be considered one of the era’s first “super teams?”—and were poised to finally enter the conversation of championship contenders. 

There was All-Star guard Tim Hardaway, newly arrived from the Golden State Warriors. A 6’0” ft tall (but strong) floor general, he was able to slice through defenses on a nightly basis and set up easy buckets for his teammates. 

Hardaway was also a lights out shooter (career 35.5 percent from downtown) who dazzled on the court with his ‘killer crossover’: an uncanny between-the-legs dribble followed by a hesitation move and front crossover that left many defenders wobbly. 

That crossover became one of the hippest moves of the era and nearly as iconic in its time as Kareem Abdul-Jabaar’s Skyhook or George “Iceman” Gervin’s finger roll for the previous generation.

Then there was hard-nosed offense-defense big man Alonzo Mourning. Though he had already made a name for himself at Georgetown and then with the Charlotte Hornets to begin his career, his Miami Heat tenure was reaching its pinnacle.

He came into the season having just had a career year (1995-96) with per-game averages of 23.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks (per Advanced NBA Stats), including this 50 point performance against the Washington Bullets on March 29, 1996:

In a league full of elite centers, Mourning was among the up-and-comers (like Shaq) who showed the NBA was in good hands up front.

The Hardaway-Mourning duo was also complemented by the recent additions of energetic 6’11” ft defensive forward P.J. Brown (New Jersey) and sharpshooting guard ‘Thunder’ Dan Majerle, who was a key piece of the Charles Barkley-lead, NBA Finals-reaching Phoenix Suns from just a couple of years ago. 

Second-year guard Voshon Leonard (41.4 percent 3-point field goal) and mid-season pickup (via the Dallas Mavericks) scoring-forward Jamal Mashburn added to the floor-spacing that made the team deadly. 

Key to the Heat’s title hopes, however, had been the addition of high-profile head coach Pat Riley who also took over the role of team President. His rings from the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers “Showtime” era still shown brightly, but they were equally balanced with the gritty swagger his New York Knicks had developed as contenders in the mid-1990s.

He remained one of the league’s few true “celebrity” coaches and perhaps even still outshone Chicago Bulls headman Phil Jackson as the NBA’s most recognizable.

With Riley leading from the sidelines, the team not only developed a high octane inside-outside game but complemented it with a physical, no-holds-barred, intimidate-the-opponents brand of defense that was synonymous with the era and qualified for tops in the league with a 99.2 defensive rating. 

So exciting was the team’s brand of play that they kicked 1996 off with an outstanding 14-game road winning streak, earning them the ‘road warriors’ nickname.  

The exceptional play lasted through the entire campaign, capped off by a sweet 102-92 finish at home in Miami late in the year against the Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. Both teams were a lock in the playoff standings that year, but what made that particular victory significant was the fact that it denied the Bulls a chance to win their 70th game of the season while giving the Heat their 60th!

The Heat finished the year with a spectacular 61-21 regular-season record (41-9 on the road). 

And the magical run continued in the playoffs, where the Heat outmuscled the Shaq / Penny Hardaway-led Orlando Magic in 5 games to win their first-ever playoff round, then followed it up with a come-from-behind win against the Patrick Ewing-led New York Knicks in 7 games. 

The Knicks actually led the series 3-1 before the Heat clawed their way back to win via a mighty Game 7 performance, 101-90 in front of a raucous home crowd and earning themselves a spot in the Conference Finals

Tim Hardaway was on fire in that, making 6 of his 10 shots from the 3-point line and finishing with 38 points, 7 assists and 5 steals. Ewing led the Knicks with 37 points, 17 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks, making this both a matchup to remember and launching what would become one of the league’s premier rivalries over the next half-decade.   

The Heat’s momentum eventually sputtered out in the conference finals where they succumbed to the Bulls in 5 games, ending what was a historic year for the Heat as the Bulls went on to win their second-straight championship and fifth overall. 

No matter how good Miami was, no one was beating those Chicago teams in a playoff series during that three-year span. At least the Heat acquitted themselves as a credible challenger:

1996-97 made it seem like the Heat would be around to challenge Chicago for a long while. And though that was somewhat true during the regular seasons-to-come, the playoffs were a different story.

Miami failed to stay fully healthy in its coming campaigns—it always seemed like two of the Hardaway-Majerle-Mashburn-Leonard group were always hurt simultaneously, especially by the end of the season—and the Knicks came back to get their postseason revenge more than once.

Nonetheless, few teams had me hooked the way the Heat did back in the 90s. In a way, they helped to truly solidify what’s become my lifelong passion for NBA basketball, paving the way for many of the other teams who will make this list in future articles.