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Miami Heat: Why Justise Winslow Is Key to Team’s Return to Top of NBA

In his second year, Winslow is a big part of the team’s new look in the post-Dwyane Wade era

Justise Winslow Miami Heat

Justise Winslow in Miami's Roberto Clemente Park in the Wynwood neighborhood.

Jason Henry for Rolling Stone, Styling by Calyann Barnett

It’s a misty August afternoon in Miami, and Justise Winslow has been dunking for the last 45 minutes.

Yet, this isn’t under the sheltered roof of the American Airlines Arena with its air conditioning that’s a must in any enclosed space in South Florida. No, Winslow is at Roberto Clemente Park in the heart of Wynwood (Miami’s trendiest neighborhood of the moment), throwing down his best slams for a dedicated audience of four: his manager, a photographer, an assistant and myself. That’s life for the 20-year-old Miami Heat centerpiece now: a photoshoot here, an interview over ceviche there, all under the burning spotlight that comes with being the future and the present of one of the 21st century’s most storied NBA franchises as they look to rebuild after the Big Three era. On this particular Friday, we’ve met up during the hottest and muggiest part of the day for an outdoor photoshoot, so the spotlight is burning both metaphorically and literally; the sun beats down on a shirtless Winslow going through his dunks, while the humidity makes everything hazy with the smell of sweat. It’s the type of heat that makes water a more precious commodity than gold, and turns white t-shirts into towels for perspiration, but Winslow is all smiles as he throws down to the sounds of rap blaring from portable speakers.

“How’d you know I liked Young Thug?” he asks while “Harambe” plays off of the Atlanta rapper’s recent mixtape, Jeffery. “This is my jam!” After a little dance and some warmup dunks, Winslow follows up with questions for the photographer, checking out each shot as it’s taken and commenting on the makeup of each photos composition. It’s his passion for culture and, especially, art that seems to light up the spark in Winslow’s eye throughout our three hours together; whether it’s checking out his own photos, talking about the street art of Banksy and Basquiat or posing for photos at the nearby Wynwood Walls (a collection of graffiti across a handful of city blocks), he’s most animated when talking about visuals.

“It’s hard to not get into art, living in Miami,” he says when we sit down for a quick lunch of ceviche doused in lemon, chips with chili powder and Peruvian corn. “Being here, there’s all the graffiti, all the street art. I’ve even gotten into sculpture recently, ice, clay, sand, different weird stuff.”

If you’re wondering how and why a 20-year-old millionaire basketball player is talking about art instead of full court presses, you need to understand a bit of Winslow’s recent past. As a student at Duke University, he says that he would grow tired of the full-time basketball culture that sometimes overwhelms the campus, what with the year-round fixation on the Blue Devils basketball squad and the fever pitch that would hit come gamedays. So, to catch his breath, he would duck out and visit The Church, a student house run by a group of eight friends that had an artistic bent. It was there that he was first exposed to the art of one of the housemates, specifically a painting that would change how he viewed visual arts: “It was a panda breathing a rainbow, and it struck me. It was so cool. That was the piece that got me really into art.”

Justise Winslow

Whatever the gateway, his passion for art fits perfectly with Miami’s current cultural moment as the art capital of the United States. And so, you’re just as likely to see Winslow at one of his favorite hotspots around the city (he loves Fooq’s, a French spot in the bustling heart of Downtown Miami) as you are to see him checking out Art Basel, the world-famous expo that brings over seventy-thousand art lovers from across the globe to South Florida every year. And while he does keep a low profile while out and about (“I wear a hoodie, or change up my hair a bit, to stay a bit secret”), he hasn’t shied away from meeting local business owners and shooting the shit with fans, like the gentleman who stopped by to lovingly clown Winslow for his first pitch at a Miami Marlins game the night before.

It’s that immersion that has made Winslow’s time in Miami already so successful, and he’s adopted the city as his third home (Houston, his first and most nostalgic, Durham, North Carolina, his second and most relaxed) as strongly as it’s adopted him. “They’ve all embraced me, and I’ve tried to embrace the culture. For example, I love Spanish, so whenever I go places, I bust out the Spanish. Of course.” He pauses and follows up with a laugh, “They usually tell me they speak English.”

Just to drive his point home, an hour earlier, the steamy and oddly therapeutic repetition of the photoshoot is broken by a gaggle of third graders, giggling from across the basketball court.

“Are you Justise Winslow?” asks one of the brave boys with the starstruck eyes that only a child can muster up. Upon receiving a yes, the entire group bursts out into giggles and autograph requests. To Winslow, this isn’t an annoyance or even an obligation, a part of the job he goes through; from his smile and his offers to take as many photos with the kids as they want, you can tell he lives for this. “I really enjoy the interactions with people, the way they go crazy, especially kids,” he says afterwards. “Without them, we’re nothing. Any way I can give back and give that support to them, whether it’s a donation or my time or whatever, I try to do it.”

That mutual embrace will be especially important as the Heat enter their most uncertain period since Dwyane Wade was drafted in 2003. Along with the departure of the best player in franchise history, the news that Chris Bosh will almost certainly not play another game for the Heat (news that broke just hours before our lunch-time meeting that he had failed his physical) injects even more turmoil into what was going to be a rocky season. And so, maybe more than ever, the city is ready to throw itself behind a new superstar, and with Winslow on deck, they may not have to look far for a worthy candidate. The fact that he has already settled in like a local doesn’t hurt, either.

Justise Winslow #20 of the Miami Heat handles the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers on October 21, 2016 at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida.

Winslow doesn’t just see Miami as his newest home, however; he also sees a bit of himself in the growing city by the ocean. “I feel like this city, people know about it but just from an outside point of view. When you actually live here, when you talk to people, we all understand that there’s so much more growth that this city has to offer.” A quick pause follows, he’s contemplative. “That’s how I feel about myself and my game. People think I’m good, but my teammates and coaches and myself, we see so much more potential for me to grow, and to grow here. I’m excited to grow as a player and as a person in a city that still has so much growth itself.”

It’s clear from our talk that Miami already holds a special place in his heart. This city, with its oppressive heat and sometimes controversial reputation in our country’s pop culture mindmeld, takes on a life of its own to outsiders, but to people who live here, there’s nowhere else they’d rather be. As Winslow himself says, “It’s hot and humid, but I like that. I like to sweat.” And so, Miami has morphed from a swamp at the edge of the world to a haven for those who prefer their city vibrant and their temperatures high. While the sports culture can be hit or miss here (even if it’s more hit than mainstream sports media likes to admit), Miami fans are fiercely loyal to their guys. Like the aforementioned Wade, or Alonzo Mourning or even Dan Marino (holder of the title of best quarterback ever south of West Palm Beach). If he puts in the work, Winslow’s sweat and passion won’t be overlooked here.

That passion and spirit of competition was born out of being the youngest of five siblings, which made him bust his ass for fear of being left behind. “Being the youngest of a very athletic family was tough. A lot of tough love, a lot of bruises and tears and temper tantrums,” he says with an idyllic reminiscence in his tone. “I just had to figure out a way to keep up with my siblings, athletically, and watching them grow helped me out a lot.”

The feeling of family also extends to his current, professional family; if there’s one outsider’s perspective on the Heat franchise, it’s that family that takes care of its own (for better or worse). So when Winslow mentions that most of his time is spent with his teammates, either at the beach or at the park playing soccer or playing FIFA at someone’s apartment, it’s not just an anecdote. It’s a way of life that recalls simpler times. “I say that we’re at a summer basketball camp, it’s just really long, we’re stuck with it,” he says before smiling. “But hey, we get paid for it.”

Justise Winslow, Miami Heat

When I ask him about the challenges that will face the Heat this upcoming season, Winslow looks excited for the unknown. “You don’t know what to expect,” he begins. “I’m just trying to prepare myself, but you don’t know how something will be until you do it, you know? I don’t know how to be the face of the franchise. Or the star on the team. You don’t know how that will be until you’re the star of the team.”

That’s exactly what Winslow will have to be; even though he’s only in his second year, he’s going to be one of the more tenured members of the new-look Heat (Miami added veteran talent like Wayne Ellington, Luke Babbitt, Derrick Williams and James Johnson over the summer). Don’t call this a rebuild, however; with the pieces in place, Winslow believes they’re close, even without Wade or Bosh and with LeBron a distant memory. “I think we have the tools to make a lot of noise in the playoffs. If not this year, then a year or two down the line. We’re maybe a couple of years, a couple of plays, one guy away from making a lot of noise in the Eastern Conference,” With a confident shrug, he leans back and finishes: “I’d like to be the leader of a team doing just that, on and off the court.”

As our conversation wraps up and the ceviche is down to just the last dregs of lemon juice, Justise finishes up an earlier thought about what he wants out his career, and out of his time in Miami. “I want to be a man of the people, for the people. I want to be an All-Star, to win a title for Miami and still be able to go to Publix and get my groceries. I don’t see myself as better or worse than anyone else. I just want to be a regular person who happens to be good at basketball.” Aside from the fact that name-dropping Publix (South Florida’s most-beloved supermarket) will earn him kudos with the local fanbase, it’s that desire for community and belonging that should endear Winslow to Heat fanatics in search of a new Mr. Miami. 

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