No current athlete in American sports deals with the scrutiny and animus James has the past two years, and there was a team meeting earlier this season, a moment, when he revealed himself to teammates.
“For the first time, I heard LeBron James open up, and he kind of let us in on what it’s like to be LeBron James,” Wade recalled. “None of us really know. I said, ‘Wow, I don’t deal with that, and I deal with a lot.”
James said the one thing written or said about him the past two years that bothered him the most was that he was selfish. It was never true. Athletes who want to win, to be a champion, are allowed to chase that dream without borders.
“LeBron gives everything and sacrifices and does everything for the team,” as coach Erik Spoelstra put it.
As much as James and Bosh put team first with their evolved roles this season, though, neither sacrificed the way Wade did.
This was the season he turned 30, the symbolic age when athletes first hear their career clock ticking, and the season he made quite clear that he was no longer the best player here — that this was LeBron’s team now.
That took a self-awareness uncommon in athletes.
All the while, personal tumult was visiting Wade’s life, with a bitter court battle with his ex-wife ending in Wade being granted custody of their two young boys. On Father’s Day, right in the middle of the NBA Finals, his lawyers sought to revoke her visitation rights after she failed to return the boys to Wade’s custody on time, leading to her arrest.
All of this swirled in Wade’s mind when he was asked to compare his first Heat championship to this new one.
“Winning the championship in 2006 was amazing, but I didn’t go through nothing yet,” he said. “Now six years after that I’ve been through a lot in my personal life, and I’ve been through a lot in my professional life, and this means so much more.”
Wade calls his two boys “the reason I can wake up in the morning and look myself in the mirror.” Dealing with the custody issues was “indescribable in a sense.”
But the professional issues demanded soul searching, too.
Year 1 of the Big 3 was, well, awkward. Especially as James and Wade tried to coexist playing the same role, both too worried about deferring to the other.
“Last year, it was just too many questions in our mind, in our head, looking at each other and not wanting to step on each other’s toes,” Wade said.
This year, Wade stepped back. Allowed James to step forward.
It’s funny. After that sideline tirade against Spoelstra in the Indiana series, during the frustration of that five-point game of his in a loss, Wade was roundly criticized, called selfish. This in the season his most unselfish gesture of all regarding James’ emergence.
“The evolution of a champion,” Spoelstra called Wade’s sacrifice, “to have the maturity and the perspective to accept a different role than he was used to. He had to step aside to an MVP player who was going to drive us in so many ways. But Dwyane had the maturity to lead us in voice, lead us on defense, and still be the heartbeat of the team.”
Wade was acknowledging his own career mortality in letting James past, but all the while he was proving that something bigger than himself was in play.
“It was hard for me to do it, and no one will understand, but it was easy for me to do it for this team,” Wade said. “At the end of the day, we all had one common goal.”
From that common goal, a most uncommon accomplishment.
Champions for life.