I'm sitting in a cozy corner of the makeshift VIP area inside a ballroom of the Eden Roc Renaissance Hotel on Miami Beach watching the entire roster of Miami Heat players prepare to sing. It's January 21st -- Martin Luther King Day, as well as President Barack Obama's second inauguration. It's also a perfect night for karaoke.
Mind you, this is not your average Monday night karaoke. It's "Battioke"-- Heat forward Shane Battier's fundraising sing fest, now in its second year here in Miami. The event is oversized in terms of personalities and humor.
The theme of South Beach Battioke 2013 is "The Love Boat," which would explain Battier's dapper maritime getup: white slacks and shoes, a double-breasted blue blazer topped off with a captain's hat and a giant grin, quite the dead ringer for Captain Merrill Stubing.
Battier takes the stage, welcomes the 300 guests by belting out his off-key rendition of the popular 80s show theme song, adding emphasis every time he sings the word "love." It's totally cheesy, it's terribly fun and it's absolutely hysterical.
The evening gets underway with emcee Jason Jackson's introduction of the reigning champion of Battioke 2012 -- Heat guard James Jones -- who can actually croon with the best of 'em. Jones pleases the crowd by periodically pointing to his wife, Destiny, whenever he sings a particularly romantic line from Bobby Caldwell's "What You Won't Do For Love."
That's an apt song title for the entire evening, I soon learn, because this audience of charitable Heat fans subject themselves to a variety of auditory indignities -- all for the love of the team and the cause at hand: Shane and his wife, Heidi's Take Charge Foundation, which funds college scholarships.
The Battiers, who are incredibly easy-going and accessible, firmly believe in the value of higher education. "It's the key to life," Shane tells me, "so we charge ourselves with the task to send as many kids who need help going to school as possible. With events like this, Battioke, we've been able to touch so many lives. And there's always more work to do, so that's the challenge, but also the fun part."
He's not kidding about the fun, which takes the form of HEAT forward Mike Miller and the team's newest roster addition, heavily tatted Chris "Birdman" Andersen, as they tackle Vanilla Ice's hip hop anthem, "Ice Ice Baby." A minute passes before they get in rhythm. But once they do, the audience begins rapping with them, including actor Christian Slater, who I see mouthing the words perfectly. I get the feeling Birdman chose to rap because earlier he confided that he doesn't even sing by himself. "It hurts my ears, and my dog's ears," he says.
And then, the subsequent lineup of vocalists goes down in an amusing blaze of tone deafness.
Take Dwyane Wade and LeBron James -- who join voices to "sing" to a brave woman selected from the audience. She takes her place on a large chair at the center of the catwalk. She can't help but giggle as the two Heat superstars take turns serenading her, each turn more exaggerated than the previous one. Throughout the ballroom, cell phones are raised, flashing incessantly, capturing this fantastic spectacle of silliness.
Meanwhile, over in the VIP, players are hooting and hawing and back-slapping one another with gusto. Heat guard Ray Allen is prepping for his act, which includes an enormous black wig, which he purposely wears crookedly -- making his appearance all the more outrageous. Allen selects Michael Jackson's "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," and he and his wife, Shannon, give their best breathy impression of the late megastar.
Second year guard Norris Cole is a spot-on throwback to the 1990's by donning his flattop and warbling his rendition of Cameo's "Word Up." Heat President Pat Riley -- who Head Coach Erik Spoelstra affectionately refers to as a "Springsteen groupie" -- entices Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations Andy Elisburg (wearing dark glasses) to pay homage to The Boss by singing "The Rising" much to the delight of the entire room. Even Christian Slater, an avid Heat fan, takes his turn toward the end of the night with the Glenn Frey classic, "The Heat Is On."
But it's Chris Bosh who takes the cake (and later, the official title of Battioke 2013 champion) with his over-the-top impersonation of Barry White complete with a shortly cropped afro, a fuzzy goatee and some extra girth in his midsection (courtesy of a small pillow). I'm amazed that Bosh can keep a straight face during "My First, My Last, My Everything" even as the audience is guffawing heartily throughout his act. Teammate Miller chides Bosh saying, "he has an old man body, so he killed it!"
Subpar singing is a prerequisite for Battioke -- a stark contrast, to be sure, for these world-class athletes who are defined and redefined so often and so relentlessly by their on-court performances. But being silly for a cause strikes an obvious chord among the players, who see themselves as part of a brotherhood of support. Says LeBron: "I love supporting my teammates. I'm happy to be here."
"Karaoke is something you normally do at home in front of your friends," Wade admits, "but this one we're doing for a great cause and we are making fun of ourselves outside of our comfort zones."
I'm with Wade on this one. Making fun of oneself is usually uncomfortable, but given the bigger picture, given the purpose of the evening, it seems, well, silly not to be silly.
"The thing I'm most proud of," Heidi Battier says, "is the fact that people can come and get a little bit of a glimpse into what the locker room's like in terms of the guys letting loose, having a good time, and being silly with each other. By putting on stupid wigs and singing and heckling each other and bringing that energy to the whole room, everyone is able to get in on that--which is so great because people are used to very serious, hard-working professionals on the court. I think it was just a great dynamic and it was fun for people to see it. I hope they enjoyed it."
As it turns out, these arbiters of cool playing the fool raise a lot of money -- over $100,000 for the Battier Take Charge Foundation, whose mission is to assist under-served youth who display leadership qualities and want to take charge of their futures through higher education.
That translates into approximately seven or eight college scholarships--seven or eight young lives forever impacted.
As outgoing Battioke champ James Jones relinquishes his title to Bosh, he waxes poetic about the entire affair: "We had a chance to get away from basketball for a little bit but, more importantly, we're going to help some kids fulfill their dreams. That's what it's all about because we've been blessed and our goal, our mission, is to bless others. That's what Shane and Heidi are doing."
For more information on the Battier Take Charge Foundation, please visit www.takechargefoundation.com.