PHILADELPHIA IS NOT an NBA town. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a million times. The Sixers' annual struggle with attendance is about the product more than the people, I am repeatedly told, and that includes the now trite use of pyrotechnics and general loudness that attack the senses far more than anything that happens once the ball is jumped.

Philadelphia is a basketball town, I am told. Big 5, Palestra, Catholic League, Sonny Hill on Sunday mornings talking about back in the day. Philadelphia is about playing the game right, about team defense and selflessness and giving up the ball. Some of the city's most revered stars played by these staples and leagues and buildings are named for them.

All this is a way of introducing an appreciation of the Miami Heat, which, after a season in which their stars spent too much time holding the door open for one another, are slamming it on the fingers of their Eastern Conference contenders, to the consternation of decent, hardworking NBA fans everywhere.

But why, really? Because the Heat took advantage of the rules last summer, stacked the deck by adding two superstars to the existing one? Kind of the way the Los Angeles Lakers somehow managed to pick first twice in the late 1970s and early '80s, adding Magic Johnson and James Worthy to a team that already had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Or kind of the way the Boston Celtics acquired Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish inside the same time frame?

At least one of those teams appeared in every NBA Finals of the 1980s.

Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end. Right? These two teams reclaimed the NBA, swatted away teams that dared to compete against them with just one star: the Knicks with Bernard King, the Hawks with Dominique Wilkins, the Bulls with a young and still unsavvy Michael Jordan.

The Lakers were "Showtime," the Celtics liked to beat you up, and the rest of the league tried to measure up. The Sixers added Moses Malone and won a championship. The Bad Boy Pistons became the Celtics' bastard child. The Rockets drafted Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon in consecutive years.

How did that happen?

The point: For those who think what the Heat did last summer was distasteful, immoral or some other haughty description, well, it's nothing new. For those who will never forgive LeBron for that televised announcement or the Heat for an over-the-top ticket-selling event, well, you might not have liked Magic's act too much back in the day. Or that of Jabbar, who asked to be traded out of Milwaukee because it did not fit his cultural needs.

What can't be overlooked is this: After that uneven regular season, Miami's three musketeers are playing inspired, unselfish and tough-as-hell basketball. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are every bit the unselfish superstars that made watching those dynasties of the '80s so much fun. They defend, especially in big spots. They hit big shots. They grind, they persevere, they demand your respect.

In Game 2 of the Eastern finals, they win a fourth quarter against a Bulls team known for its defense, 14-10. They survive Tuesday night's Game 4 with big stops at big times, with Wade searching for his shot, with James bullying Bulls star Derrick Rose into a scoreless final 17 minutes.

"I love the situations like that, where we're tested and we have to overcome something," Bosh said after the Heat prevailed, 101-93, to take a 3-1 lead into tonight's Game 5. "Because it's not easy staying in the game when you're having a bad one."

Said Rose, "Everybody on their team - well, all the stars on their team - are playing at the same time."

Someday Rose may have the kind of cast the Heat does now, may be able to win despite an 8-for-27 shooting night.

Right now, though, he's feeling real Bernard King-like.

Like 'em, hate 'em, the Heat has created a fresh Kobe-less story line that the public is consuming at a greater rate than in recent springs. Ratings for the postseason are up 30 percent, almost all of that increase attributable to Miami's presence. The Heat entertains. It dazzles and gets dirty.

The reason most often given why a town with basketball in its DNA rejects the NBA is that it's not basketball, not the way it's been taught and nurtured here. Well, what the Heat is putting out there is. Three stars, unselfish, smart, driven.

Remember that as you root against them tonight. Hate the way they were assembled, envy them even, but at least appreciate the way they play.

The right way.

The Philadelphia way.

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