- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I took the wife and kids downtown Sunday night and we really enjoyed the show, especially the elephants, the acrobats and the flying trapeze.

But Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey doesn’t have anything on the circus playing Verizon Center tonight. The Miami Heat is back in town with its star-studded act that sizzles against basketball clowns. At least the Washington Wizards can expect plenty of electricity in the building, even if they shock no one and suffer another numbing loss.

Thank goodness LeBron James took his talents to South Beach and formed “Super Friends” with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Otherwise, tonight could be just another dreary date with another ho-hum visitor, a mandatory-but-uninspiring blip among 41 home games. Instead, we’re treated to a visit from the NBA’s leader in road attendance and outright contempt.

Sure, Wade alone was good enough for Miami to draw above-average crowds on the road last season, when the Heat trailed only the Lakers, Celtics and Cavaliers as gate attractions. But when two of the league’s top five players joined forces after conspiring to do so, Miami became sports’ most irresistible eye candy and the NBA’s most loathed outfit since Detroit’s “Bad Boys.”

Commissioner David Stern’s face must be in pain from his perpetual smile as he watches coverage and interest soar. The NBA’s ratings at the All-Star break were up 32 percent on ABC, 26 percent on TNT and 15 percent on ESPN, undoubtedly a Heat-fueled surge. Miami’s storylines have included a terrible start, calls for Erik Spoelstra’s firing, a torrid stretch, struggles against winning teams and its own version of “The Crying Game.”

“Friday Night Lights” can’t compete in the category of best sports drama.

The Heat haven’t been good for the league, they’ve been great. And the level of passion Miami generates won’t wane any time soon, whether the team routinely wins championships or suffers first-round exits.

Critics made way too much of James‘ choice to play with Wade instead of against him. Basketball aside, Miami - with its sun, sand and nonexistent state income tax - easily out-polls Cleveland as the more desirable place to reside. Given an opportunity to compete for multiple championships with another great player only made the choice simpler for James.

If Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, say they never would’ve played together, they’re just showing their age. The current generation grew up differently and has no such hang-ups.

I know fans and owners of small-market teams might be worried, afraid that the best players will eschew them, allowing the large markets to dominate and perhaps drive teams out of business. But that’s a Chicken Little mindset for franchises that are scared, incompetent or both.

Major markets such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago will always be more attractive to some stars. But others will prefer the pace of an Oklahoma City or Portland, which are doing fine in building competitive teams.

The lure of tax-free income gives teams in Florida and Texas an unmatched advantage, but that hasn’t stopped Atlanta or Denver from accumulating talent. And talent often draws more.

Miami’s Big Three is in its prime, a stark contrast to Boston’s current version (Pierce-Garnett-Allen). In the earlier model, the Celtics’ trio (Bird-McHale-Parrish) was among the best at their respective positions, and the same could be said of the Bulls’ threesome (Jordan-Pippen-Grant), although Jordan made his teammates much better than they would’ve been otherwise.

However, the Heat represents a grand experiment in team engineering that is fascinating to observe. Other high-wattage pairings were the result of management’s astute drafting and/or trading. Conversely, Wade, James and Bosh created the equivalent of a self-directed IRA.

There’s no guarantee of high returns. But high theater is a certainty.

On Sunday, they became the first teammates in 50 years to finish with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds in a non-overtime game. James has retained his throne as the game’s most amazing player, averaging 26 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists. Wade has remained one of the most fearless slashers, and Bosh is asserting himself after demanding a larger role.

Whether you love the Heat or despise the Heat, it’s hard to not watch if you’re an NBA fan.

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