It's an hour before tipoff on Christmas day at AmericanAirlines Arena and I'm chatting courtside with Jason Alberti, a Miami native and former Staff Sergeant with the United States Air Force. The game is a big one -- a rematch of the 2012 NBA Finals with the HEAT hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder. Alberti and his family are part of a small contingent of military families invited to participate in an on-court gift exchange with players and coaches from both teams.
Alberti, a disabled veteran and a father of four, can hardly contain his enthusiasm. His eyes dart nervously across the length of the court and back again as he surveys the pre-game activities: cameras setting up, assorted players practicing their shots, HEAT president Pat Riley about to walk past us. Alberti's right leg is bouncing up and down uncontrollably. He stands up to greet Riley, extends his hand and vigorously shakes Riley's hand. Alberti's eyes are brimming with pleasure and nervous excitement. He sits back down to continue our conversation apologizing profusely for the interruption.
At this point, we've only been talking for three minutes but it becomes crystal clear to me that Air Force Staff Sergeant Jason Alberti is a Miami HEAT superfan -- unlike any other I've ever encountered in my 14 seasons working in the NBA. The jittery leg, the anxious eyes, the über-passionate disposition underscore a bona fide love for team HEAT.
I ask him to tell me about his military service, which began in December of 1999, and took him to Arkansas, Alaska and Missouri, and culminated in tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Alberti has trouble communicating the details of his deployment without pausing frequently to hold back tears. His face is somber, his eyes glossy. Daily bomb threats, he says. Eight- or nine-year-old children with bombs strapped to their chests.
When I ask him how a father of four copes with such a terrible situation, he tells me "it definitely messes with your psyche, but to be honest with you, those were dark times and I didn't want to live."
And then, he quickly shifts the conversation to the HEAT, eager to tell me how Dwyane Wade saved him.
"A lot of people don't know what Dwyane Wade has done for me and for my family. And he doesn't even know that he's done it."
I ask him to elaborate.
"Sports helped me. I'd watch the HEAT as often as I could," he says. "I read Wade's book; I watched [Wade's] YouTube videos, the stuff he does in the community -- that's what helped me persevere. And the way he handled his family situation and custody battle."
Alberti spots HEAT forward Shane Battier take a corner three and points to him. "The way all these guys go about their business is an inspiration. It's amazing."
And then the Staff Sergeant says something that completely stuns me.
"It pales in comparison to what I've done."
"It pales in comparison to what you've done?" I repeat.
"I'm sure they would say different," Alberti concedes, and I agree, insisting most of us would say differently, not just the players.
"Basically, you'll hear LeBron James [say it]. I've heard D Wade say it. That he thanks us for what we do for them. But I can tell you, how many -- not just me -- how many people they help by doing what they do for us. Just going on the court and playing."
Alberti's words remind me of a metaphor Riley frequently invokes to contextualize the importance of military service.
"I don't say this with any disrespect to my job because I love what I do, but we are in the toy department. We're playing games," he said.
A five-time NBA Championship coach and Hall of Famer, Riley has an intense admiration of and profound respect for the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. You can see it in his eyes when he speaks to soldiers one-on-one. You can hear it when he greets them in Championship Alley as he has before every home game for the past six years. You can sense it in his body language -- his relaxed hugs and firm handshakes -- like the one he gave Staff Sergeant Alberti just a few minutes ago.
Riley is the architect of the HEAT Home Strong initiative, an on-going series of events involving the military, such as tonight's on-court gift exchange. It is a cause he has championed both personally and professionally. Since 2006, members of the military who have returned home are saluted during every HEAT home game. The mission of the program is to give aid, support and recognition to members of the military who have served in combat and been in harm's way during their service. Home Strong participants are usually residents from the South Florida area.
Alberti suddenly eyes former HEAT player and current Assistant Coach Keith Askins, who has just taken the court to lead some drills. He identifies former trainer Ron Culp on the sidelines. He praises HEAT owner Micky Arison, whose image is projected on the video board. He cheerfully shares with me some of his favorite memories and clutch plays from the early days of the HEAT. The breadth of Alberti's knowledge is expansive and impressive.
"Your passion is contagious," I say.
"I don't know many people that can sit there and watch 82 games and every minute of it -- even if we're losing by 40. I don't miss a game. I feel like I'm part of the team. I make my schedule based on their schedule. I'd give both my arms to be able to be a part of the HEAT organization."
Spending a few minutes talking to this incredibly courageous soldier is not only a blessing I won't soon forget, it's a reminder that those who serve and protect our great nation give us a gift all 365 days of the year.
"I'm a disabled veteran, I can't work. I can't do what I used to do," Alberti says. "But I'd do anything for this organization. And I'd do it for free."
You already have, Staff Sergeant Jason Alberti. And all of us are forever indebted to you.