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.
"It's not a gift I have," Charles insists one recent afternoon while sitting in the plush comfort of the Heat family room at the Triple A. "I have a drive. If you show me how to cook something, I will do it until I master it, and not just master it but master it...."
Yet at first glance, there is nothing about Ricky that would distinguish him in a crowd. His skin is dark, though not exceptionally so. He appears to be bald, of average height and build, well muscled but certainly not with the physique of a bodybuilder. A closer look reveals that his head is not completely shaved. There is a wide, closely cropped triangle of hair that goes from back to front. As he carries on a conversation, Charles is constantly stretching his feet, legs, and arms in small ways. After a few minutes, his positive can-do attitude shines through.
Ever since he was five years old, he's been practicing tumbling and gymnastics. In 1981 he and his family moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Always trying to improve, he befriended a ballet teacher. She gave him free lessons in exchange for gymnastic instruction.
"It helped my gymnastics, because when you are self-taught, you have no technique," he relates. "So now I'm a self-taught tumbler, [but] I look like a natural gymnast."
The ballet teacher got Ricky an audition for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. Although he was accepted, Ricky decided he wanted to be an acrobatic performer instead. "Deep down in my heart, I knew that was what I wanted," he says.
He found a partner in a fellow gymnast, worked up a few routines, and set out to join the circus. His family took bets on how soon he'd return, but that only strengthened his resolve. He and his friend traveled with the big top, working with Ringling Bros., the Clyde Beatty Circus, and the Toby Tyler Circus.
Along the way he continued his education. "I wanted to learn as much as I could," Ricky recalls. "I'm always looking ahead. I learned wire-walking, juggling, trapeze."
But his circus career came to end in Virginia six years later while performing on a teeter-totter. Two performers jump on one side, and the person on the opposite end goes flying into the air. "I was filling in for a guy," he remembers. "No big deal, it's just a simple layout [a complete rotating flip during which the arms and legs are held together against the body]. But I over-rotated. So in midair I'm looking down, going, Yup, I'm either going to break my neck or my back.' So I had to sacrifice my hand to break the fall."
The resulting compound fracture of his forearm sidelined him. It's just one of a number of scars Ricky has on his body. They were the price of doing what he loved, and Charles is stoic about the injuries.
He returned to the Virgin Islands in 1988 to recuperate and never rejoined the circus. Instead he started his own gymnastics school and performed in community theater. A colleague at the theater knew how to breathe fire. Intrigued, Ricky convinced the man to teach him, too. "I thought maybe it would come in handy some day," he laughs.
The trick took work to learn. "First you have to practice spitting water as a fine mist," he instructs. "You blow like wind coming off a lake. The more mist, the bigger the flame."
After getting the hang of the water, the apprentice fire-breather graduates to something flammable. Ricky uses lamp oil because gasoline is too dangerous. "Of course don't drink it," he instructs, but inevitably some goes down the gullet. "When you first start, some of it is going to go down," he says. Some get sick when this happens, but not Charles. "It goes right through me. But if I do a lot of it, I have a little diarrhea."
The key to fire-breathing is to move the flame away from your body as you blow, he says. Still, it's not something Ricky encourages people to try at home, especially the way he does it: by lighting up his arms. The trick works because of special "thermostat sleeves," attached metal and leather that serve as a kind of wick.
But despite the success of his gymnastics school, Ricky still wasn't doing what he loved: performing. Through a friend in Texas, he enrolled in a stunt workshop in Seattle. "Most of it I already knew," he says, "except for precision driving and falling off horses and buildings."
When it ended, he moved to Dallas, Texas, to stay with a friend because he had spent all his money on the stunt course. He took on three jobs -- a server at Taco Bell, a gymnastics teacher, and a role at the Six Flags amusement park -- and soon had enough to afford a small apartment. For the Six Flags job he performed as the mayor of Gotham City during the day show and Robin (of Batman fame) in the night production.
"I had a 300-foot tower that Batman and Robin would rappel down," he says. "It was an eleven-minute show, but it was awesome."
After about a year of this, fate intervened when an acquaintance got an offer to audition in Tennessee for a Malaysian tour with the Budlight Daredevils. Ricky had seen the group on television doing their synchronized somersault dunks off trampolines. "I was glued to the screen," he says. "To be able to fly through the air and see the basketball rim down there -- that is just awesome."
He finagled an audition, and that same day bought a video camera and made an audition tape for both of them. It didn't take long for Ricky to learn how to jump off the trampoline, do the somersault, catch the basketball, and dunk the ball in the hoop. "That came pretty easy to us," he relates, "since we were [already] acrobats and gymnasts."
Even though the job did not pay very well, the apparent camaraderie among the Daredevils and the promise of traveling to Asia excited him.
"Now I had not gotten the job," he recalls, "but in my mind, I was already on my way to Malaysia. I was going to get it, no matter what it would take."
With no guarantee Ricky relinquished his apartment, sold all his possessions, and set out for Tennessee. Then he walked into the audition and saw his competition. "These guys were prime, college-educated performers," he recalls. "They did perfect triple twists and I thought, Oh my God. I'm not going to get the job."
To add to his difficulties, he had recently pulled a leg muscle and had a sore knee. Still he did his best. When the Daredevils offered him the job (in no small part because of his personality, he believes), Ricky broke into tears.
After a season performing in Asia, he scored a gig doing the Indiana Jones Stunt Show in Belgium. He played a witch doctor named Wahunda. The part required him to do a ritual dance and then breathe fire as giant torches above him spat twenty-foot flames. For the role Ricky gave himself the odd haircut he still wears. He lived in Europe for three years before coming to Miami to join the Heat in 1997.
For the Heat he, along with the team he's trained, mostly performs trampoline basketball. This season when he suggested the dunks be combined with his fire-breathing skills, the Heat laughed at him, dismissing it as a crazy idea and far too dangerous. Undaunted, he secretly performed the stunt before a professional photographer to show it could be done. Once the lawyers were convinced it was safe, the Heat got behind the stunt. Until very recently, that is.
Back in Miami, Ricky hopes his team will start to win again. He frets that Heat players don't have the proper team spirit. The lack of camaraderie could be a result of Riley's unwillingness to settle on a permanent starting five. "Riley goes with what works," notes Ricky. "It's definitely time for the players to step up. It's all about confidence, and they just don't have it right now."
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He contrasts the prevailing attitude on the team with his own positive outlook: "I guess I am just happy to be alive. I remember what it was like to travel in the Third World, and I think we should be grateful."
His bosses at the Heat are effusive in their praise for Ricky's prowess as an entertainer and person. "Ricky's unique background, coupled with his talents, skills, and rich island personality, add flair, spice, and richness to his feats that your performer next door could never re-create," extols Michael McCullough, Heat executive vice president and chief marketing officer. "He's a fearless daredevil with a Mohawk and ballet skills -- literally -- with a zest for life that pierces right through any costume -- even gladiator armor."
When performing, Ricky's outlook is contagious. Even as Burnie the mascot, he draws fans in, pretending to steal their belongings and doing anything to get a reaction. It's an attitude the Heat players could learn from. "They need to play the game like it's fun," he contends.