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The Miami Heat's Ricky Charles is sitting on a plush red cushion atop a gold-painted throne. The chair is on a platform perched dizzyingly over the 400 level at the very top of the American Airlines Arena, more than 100 feet in the air. Far below, an action-figure-sized Karl Malone takes practice layups and jump shots along with the rest of the Utah Jazz. It's minutes before the opening tip-off of the first meeting between the Jazz and the Heat this past December 18.
Ricky is lording over the scene, dressed as a character he created called Fire Starter. He's wearing a gold-painted breastplate, fashioned by the same California outfit that made the gear for the hit movie Gladiator. His head is encased in a helmet built to resemble half a basketball, with flames sprouting from the sides. His face is cast in a tough-guy grimace. It's easy to miss the detail, though, because Ricky Charles's arms are on fire. For that matter so is his throne.
The arena goes dark, signaling the starting-lineup introductions for the Heat. Down below on the hardwood floor, drummers beat giant kettle drums. Metal contraptions that look like overgrown silver toasters spit fireballs into the air. Hot cheerleaders gyrate. Music blares.
High up in the rafters, an assistant holds a plastic straw to Ricky's mouth. The straw is attached to a dental rinse bottle, but the liquid inside is lamp oil. Ricky swigs. Then with one fluid motion, he sprays a mist of oil onto his burning arm as he moves it away from his body. This creates a wide and dramatic arc of flame.
Enormous television screens that hang above the floor flash the image larger than life. The crowd, such as it is, watches with rapt awe. Ricky blows his flames twice. In a matter of minutes the intro is over, a curtain is drawn across the section where he sits, and the Heat players below start scrabbling for the opening tip-off.
Unfortunately that will be about as good as it gets tonight and, seemingly, maybe for the rest of the season. The Heat goes on to lose spectacularly to the Jazz, scoring only 56 points, tying a franchise record for lowest in a game. It's one more disaster in a terrible season. Mired at the bottom of the Atlantic Division, with only 15 wins in 27 games as of January 28, it certainly is the most pitiful start since megafamer coach Pat Riley took over.
After the game Riley is despondent, his face ashen and temporarily aged. "This is probably one of the worst games I've ever coached in my life," he tells the Miami Herald. "It's a lack of effort. We're not as bad as we look."
But as the Heat struggles to regroup in a desperate push to make the final spot in the playoffs, its management team is scrambling to provide diversions for disillusioned fans. For the Salt Lake game, the terrace of the Triple A is done up as a winter wonderland, replete with ice-skating rink and moonwalk tents in which kids can bounce. Inside the arena hallways, fans relieve the stress of watching a terrible basketball team by receiving free massages while resting on specially designed chairs. The folks at American Airlines Arena hope these activities, along with the pregame show and other Ricky Charles exploits, will help keep the fans coming in this winter of Heat discontent.
"We really want to give our fans an entire entertainment package," says Doris Howe, the Heat's public-relations director. "So when they walk out of here at night, regardless if we won or lost, they always come away feeling and thinking, Wow -- I got to come back!"
A few weeks after the humiliating Jazz loss, coach Riley will come to admit the obvious: The Heat must start thinking about rebuilding for next season, rather than retooling to try to salvage this one. The soul-searching extends to all aspects of game day as Heat senior director of events Jeff Craney kills off Ricky's fire-breathing opening routine with no explanation -- other than a "need for something different. The entire opening is going to change," he promises, though he fails to say into what.
Still, as the Heat searches for answers on how to transform its play and keep its fans engaged, Riley's team could do worse than check the example of Ricky Charles, events coordinator for the Xtreme Team, a collection of halftime acrobats and entertainers. Born in Trinidad into a working-class family of Indian immigrants, Ricky's fierce determination has brought him to the apex of a dangerous and exciting profession, despite injuries and rejections along the way. He has the exact kind of exuberant spirit Riley is searching for in his players.
If anyone could qualify as an entertainment package all by himself, it's Ricky. Besides spitting fire, the 38-year-old can walk on wires, jump off a trampoline, and then, while in the air cradling a basketball, do a somersault and slam the ball into the hoop; he also can ride a unicycle, juggle, fall off tall buildings onto an air mattress, and dance. He sometimes even dons the comical costumes of Burnie and Sole, the mascots for the Heat and Sol, respectively. This season he developed an act whereby one of his teammates does a somersault dunk, and, right after liftoff, Charles blows fire beneath him, so it appears as if the dunker is passing through flames. They call it the Heat Dunk, and it's depicted on a postcard.