MIAMI (AP) - Udonis Haslem's braids, physique, tattoos and nearly omnipresent scowl tend to give the impression that he's someone who should be feared.
Deep down, he's got a gargantuan soft side, one he lets few people see.
Chosen again as a co-captain of the Miami Heat, Haslem was the only player who spoke at a team meeting Monday before players scattered to catch the flight to Tuesday's highly anticipated opener in Boston against the Celtics.
The message from the power forward who arrived in Miami with Dwyane Wade back in 2003 was simple: Everyone there was hand-chosen to be part what the Heat hope is a march to the 2011 title, and that the only people they can now count on is each other.
"There's only one way we're going to be able to get this done, and the way is together," Haslem said afterward. "It's not going to be a perfect season. And regardless of what people want to say, this team is going to go through its ups and downs. That's part of being an NBA team and NBA basketball. What I want guys to understand is, it's not just about basketball for me."
Otherwise, he would have taken $14 million more over the next five years and played somewhere else.
Haslem had the option of signing for bigger dollars with other clubs and, as he revealed four weeks ago on the eve of the first training camp practice, he was at the team offices this summer to say some tearful good-byes. That was the moment the Heat _ with Wade, the other co-captain, doing some serious urging _ changed course and found more money to keep Haslem in his hometown.
An hour later, the deal was done.
"He's our heart and soul," Wade said.
Which he put on full display Monday.
Other players were thinking about speaking in the meeting; LeBron James, for one, had plenty of things he wanted to share as motivation for the team. But Haslem went first, and nothing else needed to be said. He told the room that the roster was assembled during the final days of his mother's long fight with cancer, then spoke even more passionately of how her battle still drives him.
"I'm one of those guys that never holds my tongue so it was kind of difficult not to say something today," James said. "But what U.D. said, I just couldn't follow up with anything after that."
There are times when Haslem is one of the jokesters in the locker room, too, another reason why James and Wade say he was the perhaps the most vital piece of the roster-building puzzle after they and Chris Bosh got their contracts with Miami completed.
Haslem might have played college ball at Florida, but the Miami Hurricanes are part of his DNA. So when the Hurricanes and Ohio State _ James' team of choice _ played last month, he bet the NBA's two-time reigning MVP $100 on the outcome.
True to his word, Haslem paid up afterward.
He didn't reach into his wallet for a picture of Benjamin Franklin, though. Instead, he went to his bank and withdrew 10,000 pennies, putting them in a shoebox.
"I handed it to him personally," Haslem said.
It wasn't a surprise that Haslem kept his captaincy, even after being cited for marijuana possession _ the charges were dropped _ this summer. The Heat say he's their toughest guy, and even James says Haslem and Wade deserve the role.
"These guys are the only two standing from the (2006 Heat) championship team, from D-Wade's and U.D.'s rookie year," James said. "It's not about what they've done on the court. It's about what they'll continue to do on and off the court and what they mean to this franchise, so I'm all for it."
Here's the truest indicator of what Haslem means to the Heat: Not only is he considered a bargain with an average salary of $4 million a season for the next five years, he's a leader without even starting.
Haslem gave up his spot to Michael Beasley last season, and instead of pouting, took the forward under his wing. Beasley's in Minnesota now, and now Bosh takes over as Miami's power forward.
By year's end, however, no one would be surprised if Haslem is among the team leaders in minutes. He'll play a ton, as always. And as he told teammates Monday, his mother will be watching.
"I definitely didn't want to lose her," Haslem said. "But I'm at peace, because she can rest now."