The Miami Heat has placed me on waivers. In their eyes I am the Rex Chapman of writers. The Rony Seikaly of columnists. The Alan Ogg of newsmen. Juwan Howard showed more loyalty to this team than I have, and as a result, I am about as welcome in their midst as NBA commissioner David Stern would be in Pat Riley's posh Coral Gables home.
They're disappointed in me. They are hurt and angry. How could I have insulted the team's owner, Micky Arison, by calling him a greedy corporate pig, week after week after week in this newspaper? How could I have impugned the honor of the team's architectural consultant by suggesting he was nothing but an Ivy League shill brought in to hoodwink voters on the eve of the arena vote? How could I have branded the Heat organization a traitor to Overtown simply because they reneged on a promise to build a youth center and have offered only token financial assistance to community groups in this blighted black neighborhood -- their neighborhood?
How I could have written these awful things about them? Haven't I seen their snazzy commercials? The ones that make it perfectly obvious that the only thing keeping Miami from being a world-class city is a magnificent waterfront sports palace. Don't I realize that if this arena plan is scuttled, Micky is threatening to move the team to some other city? Don't I understand that the Miami Heat is on the verge of greatness? Aren't I a fan?
Well, enough is enough, they declared. "From now on, we will only respond to your questions in writing," Heat spokesman Mark Pray told me recently. No more little chats on the phone. No more off-the-record discussions. If we communicate at all, it will be only via the written word.
So be it.
If the Miami Heat will only answer questions I put to them in writing, then I might as well publish my queries right here instead of faxing them over to their offices. Micky, in turn, can respond by purchasing a block of television time, just like fellow billionaire Ross Perot. He could get himself a bunch of pie charts and a pointer and go through each one of my questions. I'm sure it would be very enlightening.
1. Why does Micky want our money?
This I've been trying to figure out for some time now. Forbes magazine says Micky is the 65th richest man in the United States of America, worth at least $1.7 billion. And yet he wants more than $115 million in public money to subsidize his new arena, including a $20 million state sales tax rebate. The tax break is particularly irksome, because if politicians give the Heat that rebate, then those millions cannot be used in other ways, such as putting more police on the streets, maintaining roadways, or funding programs to improve the juvenile justice system.
2. If Micky doesn't have enough money to build an arena on his own, how is it that he does have enough money to sign Alonzo Mourning to a $100 million contract, and to offer Washington Bullets star Juwan Howard $98 million at exactly the same time?
As I understand it, Micky needs a new arena -- with all its corporate skyboxes and increased seating capacity -- in order to make enough money to cover the ludicrous salaries being demanded by players. But that will only work if someone builds the arena for him. Enter the suckers ... I mean the taxpayers. In effect, because Micky and the other NBA owners can't hold the line on salaries, the public is being asked to subsidize his basketball team and build him a new, more profitable arena. And that is the only reason he needs a new arena -- to increase profits. After all, there is nothing truly, seriously wrong with the existing arena. Remember, it's only eight years old.
3. Why does Micky hate parks?
This is a weird one. Maybe he was attacked by squirrels as a child. Micky refused to consider the city's offer to renovate the old arena to meet his demands for skyboxes and court-level luxury seats. He refused to consider building a new arena on the west side of Biscayne Boulevard, even though developers in the area were eager to work with him on such a project. The only thing Micky found acceptable was a 32-acre parcel of waterfront land the City of Miami purchased in 1972 for $23 million. The city raised the $23 million through a referendum in which the public was promised that the land would be converted into a park. But it never was. Now Micky wants to drop a ten-story arena on the site. And he hopes critics -- who believe the city should keep its word to the public and turn the land into a park -- can be placated by rolling out some grass around his basketball warehouse.
4. Why does Micky hate democracy?
More than 48,000 people signed a petition asking for the right to vote on the county commission's decision to commit more than $115 million in taxpayer money to build an arena on public waterfront land. The county commission accepted the petition and placed the question on the November 5 ballot. But Micky apparently hates the democratic process. He filed a lawsuit in an effort to cancel the referendum and thereby deny the people of Dade County a chance to vote on this project. Unfortunately for Micky, his attorneys failed to make their case and the Third District Court of Appeal ruled last week that the public should be allowed to vote.
5. If Micky weren't rich and didn't own the Miami Heat, and he were instead a woman in Kendall with a husband and two kids, a woman who had never been to a basketball game and who probably couldn't afford to take the entire family to a game even if he/she wanted to, would he/she vote to build a new arena?
Tickets for Miami Heat games range from $15 for a seat in the nosebleed section of the arena to $29 on the floor. Plus it costs ten dollars just to park, and then of course you get gouged for soft drinks, hot dogs, programs, and souvenirs. Which is why most families in Dade County have never, and will never, attend a Miami Heat game. And which is why Micky the Kendall housewife would have to be out of his/her mind to vote in favor of spending millions on a new arena.
6. Because the public is putting up most of the money for the proposed arena, and because it is being built on public land, why does Micky get to sell the naming rights to the new arena to any company he wants? And more important, why does MIcky get to keep all that money instead of sharing it with the city and the county?
As we saw just a few months ago, Wayne Huizenga sold the naming rights at Joe Robbie Stadium to Fruit of the Loom for $20 million, which promptly renamed the place after a brand of underpants. And though the general public might think Pro Player Stadium is an embarrassing and idiotic name, at least Huizenga was within his rights to make a fast buck since he owns the damn stadium. He bought it with his own money from the Robbie family, which built it in 1987 with their own money. Evidently this concept escapes Micky's grasp.
7. Would any of the Miami Heat dancers go out with me?
8. Does Micky have a conscience?
I'm also curious about this because Micky has spent more than $900,000 on an advertising campaign to persuade voters that they should build him a new arena. By next week's election that figure will almost certainly climb above one million dollars. Rather than wasting that money on television commercials, why doesn't he spend it on constructing a new arena? At least he could save the public a million bucks.
9. True or False: Micky has spent more money in three weeks on television commercials promoting the idea of a publicly financed new arena than he pledged to donate in the next five years to county parks.
I'll give you a hint: True. When Miami Heat officials were trying to convince the county that they were good and thoughtful corporate neighbors, they said they were willing to offer a gift to the county's parks department, hoping that would allay the concerns of park activists who believed that putting a commercial sports arena on waterfront park land was insulting. When County Commissioner Javier Souto suggested that the Heat should donate at least $500,000 to the parks department, arena supporters gasped in horror. How could the county possibly ask the Heat to donate so much money? Didn't Souto understand that the team was strapped for cash? Finally an agreement was reached and the Heat grudgingly agreed to donate $500,000 to the parks department -- but only if the payments could be spread over five years and only if the arena is actually built. This poor, cash-starved team then turned around and began its nonstop and exceedingly expensive television blitz.
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10. Multiple choice: What makes a city world-class?
a. Honest and visionary local politicians who place the needs of the people ahead of the needs of special interests.
b. A proven public-private commitment to see that all children are properly educated and that the health and welfare of underprivileged citizens are protected.
c. A strong and competent police force that is able to provide security to the city's residents.
d. A new waterfront arena.