Dwyane Wade watched Kevin Durant against Memphis, and it was like watching a flailing man drown, wave after wave crashing upon him until he had no breath to give. Durant averaged 29 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists per game in the series that ended his season. Those were not merely better than the averages Durant posted in this, the best regular season of his young life. Those were not merely better averages than the ones that just won LeBron James his fourth NBA MVP award. Those were better averages than the ones that represent Michael Jordan’s entire career. But Durant’s season is over now, and Wade watched it happen through what felt like a rearview mirror.
“That was me,” he says.
He nods across the gym over to LeBron.
“That was No. 6, too,” he says.
A knowing laugh.
“Why do you think we did what we did?” he asks. “I told myself a long time ago: ‘Never again.’ ”
Wade is the biggest winner in all this winning. We will never know if LeBron could have or would have done this somewhere else, too, morphed into a master and monster with or without Wade’s help. But we do know that an aging, hurting Wade would have had to jump over James if No. 6 did not happen to be at his side. Instead, as Durant lost his stars, Wade aligned with his so he would no longer feel as overwhelmed and behind as Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul and Durant must feel today.
Can you imagine Wade trying to topple James for supremacy in his present condition? Wade might not move exactly the way he did, but that move he made three years ago is still serving him. Makes you wonder if he’ll be the one choosing to take the biggest discount again to keep this together beyond the current contracts.
“When you are younger, there are things that you want from the game,” he says. “Make a name for yourself. Set your family up. Individual stuff. But now all I want is the mountaintop. That’s it. The mountaintop is all that matters.”
He heads toward it on a bruised knee that cooperates inconsistently, doubt surrounding him like clouds along the climb.
“I don’t mind having to prove myself,” he says. “I’ve always had to do that. I’m used to it. Once people come to expect something, they expect it all the time. I understand that. Sometimes I laugh at the doubts. Sometimes I use them as fuel. And sometimes it pisses me off. God gave me the gifts for this. I’m special.”
There is no ego in the way he says “I’m special,” incongruous as that might seem. It is delivered more like a fact than an opinion. He believes in himself, and he cloaks himself in that belief while wearing things others won’t and in doing basketball things others don’t. That belief has carried Wade out of poverty and desperation and an upbringing that included a mother addicted to drugs, and it has served him as he has climbed out of and over the rough neighborhoods fighting with literal hunger for those basketball dollars. He has spent a lifetime overcoming all manner of obstacles with that belief, and so now he believes in belief with a religious fervor, and he treats it as blasphemy if you don’t believe as fervently as he does.
“Wouldn’t the doubt piss you off?” he asks.
Well, no. If you are 100 percent confident in something, anything, the doubt of others does not tend to bother you much, rain sliding off a waxed car. Anger is for the defensive, when an intruder gets too close to a sensitive truth, and the people wondering about Wade are noticing a decline in his health, not his game, though it can be hard to separate those things for the wounded. In other words, it is not personal, and the critics on the outside are doing what Wade himself is doing on the inside.
No doubting ability
Asked about doubting, this is what he says: “Of course I have doubt.” Then he clarifies: “But it isn’t about doubting your ability. Never, ever. Never, evvvvvvvver. It is only doubting the injury. It is never, ever doubting the ability.”
So he uses belief and these holy gifts to conquer, but the other day he had to go back to the locker room to have his kneecap put back in place with tightened tape before coming out to finish the Chicago Bulls’ season. And there was a defiance in him after that, wondering aloud if one day doubters would correctly appreciate his game. There was ego in that because you will always find ego and greatness residing in the same neighborhood, but the don’t-you-dare-doubt-me was unusual given that it was obvious to any eye that Wade wasn’t himself in the Bulls series, unable to get to the free-throw line with his usual breakneck style. Part of that was the way the Bulls always defend him; part of that was the knee limiting him in a way that makes you wonder as the games, opponent and climb get harder.
Too much of sports coverage is absolutely extreme and extremely absolute. Less than a year ago, LeBron James was allegedly a fragile choker; now Alonzo Mourning says Scottie Pippen told him that James would have kicked Michael Jordan’s butt. Extremists can’t be found in the middle. So it can’t be that Wade is a still-great player who is also injured/diminished without the person wondering about his game and health being dismissed as something between a doubter and a hater. Regardless, Wade has tilted all the math in his favor because, in his words, “I didn’t ever want to be in that position again, where you always, always have to be 100 percent and even that might not be enough.”
He isn’t 100 percent.
He doesn’t have to be.
And that feels a lot like winning before you have even won.