It’s not that everyone has a Dwyane Wade story. That wouldn’t have made Miami, and surrounding South Florida, such a staggering, stuttering mess this week. It’s that everyone has Dwyane Wade stories, so many stories, more stories than Aesop, more stories than the Sears Tower, which he can still scale on his spriest nights, and now is much nearer where he’ll play his home games. That’s why this is such a struggle, not only for his supporters, who for 13 seasons have shared the title of Miami Heat supporter, but also for those who have chronicled his NBA career from its innocent inception, and are charged with encapsulating and eulogizing a rich, full, complex basketball life in a single solitary column.
So, where to start, now that everything is at its end, after 13 seasons, 12 All-Star selections, 11 postseasons, five NBA finals and three championships?
Not the slightest clue.
But here goes, anyway, as there he goes away.
There he goes, the most meaningful athlete in South Florida history, when his contributions are measured through some combination of individually, collectively, longevity and culturally.
You remember the beginning, right? “The innocent beginning,” as Pat Riley dubbed it, gleam in his eye and off his rings, confident that, after two seasons breathing the stale air of irrelevance, after 15 years since his last NBA championship anywhere, the young man from Marquette might be the one to make more magic for him. For the Magic City. You remember how shy and stiff Wade seemed, so shy you could never imagine him wearing cacophonous shirts and capri pants, never imagine him someday shedding all of his clothes for the cover of major magazines, never imagine him taking stands on social issues. You remember that first game, against an idol named Allen Iverson, the 0-7 start, the surge throughout the season, playing out of position for the scruffy, stomping, screaming, stressed-beyond-belief but growing-every-day Stan Van Gundy? You remember the stutter right against the veteran Baron Davis, the cross behind-the-back left, the hard dribbles toward the basket, the confident release, the anxious wait, the happy spin, the joyous bounce?
You remember when you knew? Maybe it was then. Maybe it was in the next series, when he slammed his arrival upon the crown of Pacers star Jermaine O’Neal, one of more than 100 men who would someday be his teammates, from Wang Zhi-Zhi and Kasib Powell to LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Maybe it was when Eddie Jones, longtime NBA veteran, told you he was special. Not special like All-Star like Jones had been. Special in the rarest sense, the all-time sense. Maybe it was when Wade was the one piece with whom Riley wouldn’t part, to acquire Shaquille O’Neal. Maybe it was when Wade didn’t need O’Neal to sweep the Wizards in the second round in 2005, or when the Heat needed him so badly in the one game he missed in the conference finals against the Pistons, losing instead by 25.
Maybe it was a little later. Maybe it was that next season, after he had been certified as a superstar, when he was a constant amid the turmoil, after Riley had rolled the dice on a bunch of renegades. Maybe it was in those NBA Finals, when the Heat didn’t seem so “15 Strong,” not down 2-0 to the Mavericks, not with Dallas already planning a parade, and one man, one voice rose above any of the rest: “I’m not going out like this!” Maybe it was when he made Mark Cuban madder than any human’s ever been, so mad the Mavericks owner can’t let it go 10 years later, by subleasing the free throw stripe, by averaging 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.8 steals and 1.0 blocks, by dominating to a degree that no player his size ever has on that stage, and might never again, by standing tall as the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.
Maybe it still didn’t sink in. Maybe you forgot. He certainly thought many of you did, after the injuries hit, after the first round sweep the next postseason, after 15-67, after others passed him in prominence nationally. When he had to tell you that his belief was stronger than your doubt. That he would fall down seven times, but get up eight. When he had to give you in 2008-09 what, until James’ 2012-13, was the most spectacular statistical season in Heat history, and might still be. When he had to nudge a nondescript team to overtimes, and to the playoffs, and to the next part of the plan, when Riley might get him more help. When he had to stand on the scorer’s table and scream this was “His House,” just in case there could be any dispute. When Riley was calling him “BIW,” for “Best in World,” and it sounded about right.
Maybe you arrived later, after the reinforcements did, the reinforcements he helped recruit, knowingly giving away some of his shots and spotlight while making the Miami Heat the greatest spectacle in sports. Maybe you arrived when he wasn’t the Heat’s singular star, but the steadiest member of the Big Three, when he was the one who held the microphone at the opening press conference at the University of Miami, while Chris Bosh averted his eyes and James edgily tapped his fingers — the one who played flawlessly through most of the 2011 Finals as the other two faltered. Maybe you became irritated by his absences, as his knees ached and creaked, as he tried not to let the world in on how much he was hurting, as he was earning the nickname of “3 for 1” from Erik Spoelstra for putting in three hours of off-court work for every hour on it. Maybe that reminded however, of how much he mattered, how much the Heat required him still, even with James, as was true in the second round in Indiana in 2012, when he was playing and acting as poorly as he ever has — even ordering Spoelstra to get out of his face — before consulting with his college coach Tom Crean and returning to combine with James for the most devastating two-man show, over three games, that many basketball observers had seen: 197 points, 56 rebounds, 35 assists, on to the conference finals.
Maybe you realized his place in history after his second championship, and especially his third, the one that meant the most, since he had struggled so much just to participate, his joy and relief unleashed as — an hour after the champagne celebration — he sprawled out near center court, covered in confetti.
Maybe you were upset when James left, upset even that Wade didn’t do more to keep him, but you still had the mayor of Wade County, still had the #HeatLifer, so it would all eventually be all right. Even after missing the playoffs in 2014-15. Even after Bosh got sick, not once but twice. Even after the Heat stumbled into the second half of last season at 29-24. And it was all right, all right enough. No, there wasn’t a championship. But there were more of the “moments” he seeks. There was the save of Game 6 in Charlotte, the flurry of threes, the critics answered and surprised again.
There was Purple Shirt Guy, speechless.
There was Spoelstra, proven right when he declared he would “go to my grave with Dwyane Wade making the decision at the end of the game.”
Maybe that’s coming back to you now. Maybe everything is. Events and terms and endorsements that, for many, won’t require the slightest explanation. Gallinari. Varejao. Pavlovic. Perkins. Flash. Three. Vintage. Father Prime. Bag of Tricks. Note to Self. WoW. BandWades. Stance. Fave Five.
Maybe if you can close your eyes and see some of it. Maybe all of it. The pre-game rituals, hanging on the hoop, racing around the arena to salute every side. The in-game sneering, scowling and, yes, sometimes smiling. The post-game interviews, trying to keep his poise and patience even when things weren’t perfect.
Maybe you can see that first day, back in June 2003.
“Sitting at that press conference, I was holding [baby son] Zaire like this, his suit was too big on him,” Wade said Saturday, at his camp in Miami at Jose Marti Gym, before he heads to China and then Chicago. “Now if he were standing here, he’d be at my height, looking at me in the eyes. It seems like way longer than 13 years. It feels like I’ve been here forever. The memories before me getting to Miami are starting to fade a little bit, that’s how long I’ve been here. When I came here for that first press conference, I had no idea what was going to transpire. I had no idea what kind of career I was about to embark on. I had no idea what kind of player I was going to be. I had no idea what kind of man I was going to turn out to be. I was green.
“I came here ready to play basketball, and look what that’s done with me,” he continued. “I came here to play basketball, work my butt off and get to it. And I’ve gotten to it for 13 years. It’s not all been great. It’s been some amazing years, some in here years and for our team, some down here years. But it’s been a special journey. But as I sit here and look back today, I wouldn’t do nothing different. There was some moments I wish I wasn’t hurt this time or wasn’t this or that. But I wouldn’t do anything different. This is a story. This ain’t the ending of this book. But we’ve gotten through a lot of chapters of this book. But this is a best-seller for sure. I wouldn’t do much different at all.”
Yes, this was a story.
The greatest sports story Miami’s ever told.
His legacy is how much this hurts.