MIAMI — This is the home of the Dolphin Expressway, the Dolphin Mall, the Dolphin Bar & Lounge, Dolphin Termite Services, Dolphin Used Auto Parts and Dolphin Bail Bonds.
That's the way it has been in Miami for decades: Dolphins, Dolphins, Dolphins.
No more. Now it's LeBron, LeBron, LeBron.
Turns out a 6-foot-8 NBA superstar can cast a pretty long shadow.
Miami's NFL team has long dominated the affection of South Florida sports fans, but with the Heat's signing of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Dolphins suddenly find themselves fighting for attention.
"If the Heat are bigger, that's cool," Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell says. "With the names they've got – LeBron, Wade, Bosh – I guess we'll be overshadowed when their season starts. But until then, we're still the big dogs in town."
The Dolphins' opener is Sunday at Buffalo, while the Heat are enjoying the last part of their offseason.
"We get the first at-bat while they're partying," linebacker Channing Crowder says. "We get a chance to play some games and impress some people down here in South Florida, which we will."
The Dolphins benefit from deep roots. They became the state's first franchise in a major professional sport in 1966, and their popularity soared with back-to-back Super Bowl championship seasons in 1972-73.
Despite the arrival of the expansion Heat in 1988 and the expansion Marlins and Panthers in the 1990s, the Dolphins remained South Florida's most beloved team. That didn't change when the Heat won the NBA title in 2006, nor when the Marlins won the World Series in 1997 and 2003.
The Miami Hurricanes made temporary inroads with three national championships in a five-year span from 1987 to 1991. But even then, the Dolphins had Dan Marino, which made them the biggest game in town.
The Heat knew it: They retired Marino's No. 13.
The Dolphins have yet to retire LeBron's number. But his oversized celebrity might be enough to eclipse the Dolphins' rich tradition, especially since they haven't added much to it in recent seasons.
It has been 10 years since they won a playoff game, 18 years since they reached the AFC title game, 26 years since they made the Super Bowl and 37 years since their most recent NFL title.
They went 7-9 in 2009, their recent exhibition season was uninspiring, and their early schedule is rugged, which makes it tempting to look ahead to hoops. And Dolphins coach Tony Sparano knows it.
"With all due respect to what the Heat have done – it's obviously exciting for our town, they've done a great job – but I have to believe this is football season," he says. "We know we have to care of business and start fast. You're not telling me the problems there; I've got it. There are some things we have to do to make sure our fans are excited. We're excited about that challenge."
So now the Dolphins are competing not only with the Patriots and Jets, but with the Heat. And when it comes to star power, the Heat win in a blowout. While they have James, Wade and Bosh, the Dolphins' most famous player is Ricky Williams, a 33-year-old backup.
Even Dolphins players gush about the Heat's power trio.
"I'm definitely going to make it to a few games," Bell says. "That's three guys you don't want to miss. They're going to put on some shows, and a lot of our guys will be watching."
Dolphins newcomer Brandon Marshall agrees. He was already on the Heat bandwagon last April, attending a game the night he was traded to Miami.
Rookie linebacker Koa Misi wants tickets, too.
"I've never been to an NBA game, although I went to a Harlem Globetrotters game when I was younger," Misi says.
The Heat are expected to win like the Globetrotters, while the Dolphins are widely projected for another season around .500. If that happens, they'll be buried in the AFC East standings, and perhaps also in the local sports section.
Miami's no longer just a football town. But that doesn't guarantee the Dolphins are consigned to second place in their own city.
"We'll be back on top," Crowder says, "if we go out and win the Super Bowl."
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