This moment has been building for four months, since the Fourth of July, his independence day, when Dwyane Wade knew he was leaving.
This moment has been building, really, though, for 13 years, since the 2003 NBA Draft, when Wade and Miami first met, raised three beautiful championships together, and were happily married until they weren't.
His new Chicago Bulls teammate Bobby Portis said to Wade earlier this week, “Thursday's gonna be crazy. You ready?”
“Nah, I ain't,” Wade told him. “I don't know what kind of emotions will come over me. I don't know how I'll feel. What it'll look like...”
It will feel and look like this Thursday night when Wade makes his first return to the Heat's bayside arena since he left unexpectedly in free agency:
Love. And appreciation. For everything. A city and a fandom saying thank you to perhaps the single most towering figure to ever represent us in the history of South Florida professional sports. A city and a fandom saying, “Welcome home.”
The Heat will show a tribute video of Wade at some point. It'll be nice, but unnecessary. We don't need it. We don't need to see the highlights, because we lived them. They are a part of our collective memory, embossed, gold-gilded.
What does Wade, 34, expect in the way of a reception?
“You never know,” he said.
But you do. In this case, you do. You want to chisel a Mount Rushmore of Miami athletes who have meant the most and been the most loved in our history? Start with Dan Marino and Wade – and the order there is alphabetical, or chronological, not based on accomplishment.
Argue all you want who the other two might be, but there is no debating Wade and Marino, only one of whom had an indispensable hand in not one, not two, but three Miami championship parades.
There will be none of the acrimony Thursday night that we felt with LeBron James' first return to Miami after he left, a mostly warm reception but one tinged in controversy, and with some booing. Wade was not just passing through Miami. His roots here grew deep, and strong.
Also, we know well that Wade signing with Chicago was complicated, that he felt disrespected by the Heat – no, by club president Pat Riley. In the ovation for Wade Thursday will be the intermingling sound of understanding, of Miami fans not begrudging Wade or resenting him for what he did.
Plainly, Wade, the centerpiece of this franchise's “Heat Lifer” campaign just two years ago, never thought he'd leave or never wanted to until this past summer, when Riley made an afterthought of Wade by taking a stab at his “whale,” Kevin Durant, and prioritizing the maximum contract to keep Hassan Whiteside llong-term.
Miami low-balled Wade with a $10 million offer before, too late, offering a two-year, $40 million deal, $7 million less than Chicago offered. “By the time [that offer] got to me,” said Wade, “my heart was somewhere else.” Florida being a no-sales-tax state made the competing offers close to equal, but, by then, it wasn't about the money. Wade didn't feel appreciated. He'd been hurt.
Riley, it is fair to say, does not lead the league in smooth goodbyes. Hard feelings surrounded LeBron's departure. So, too, with Chris Bosh's estrangement over his medical situation. Even Wade was not immune. It can be cold, cold business from Riley and the franchise that preaches family.
To this day Wade and Riley have not spoken since last season ended. There are no hard feelings, outwardly. The fists are wrapped in velvet gloves.
“Life is too short to be holding grudges,” Wade said. “At the end of the day, Pat has helped me become a very rich man. Me and Pat have won championships together. We've both helped each other’s legacies. I love that guy. I know how he is. He's stubborn just like I am.”
Riley swears he has penned a long and loving email to Wade, adding, “I just have to hit 'send.'” He said that almost two months ago.
To Comcast SportsNet Chicago this week, Wade said: “I've kept in touch from everybody there [with the Heat] besides Pat. From the owners on down. I understand what Pat is, he's a competitor. I've been knowing him 13 years so I expect no different. People might not believe me, but I have no hard feelings toward Pat. Everything happens for a reason, so I'm fine.”
In Atlanta Wednesday, where the Bulls played that night before heading to Miami, Wade said of Riley: “I know who Pat is. It's no secret to me. I've seen a lot of players come and go. If you're not with him, you're against him. I've seen a lot of video tributes.”
Thursday won't be about Riley, though.
It will be about Dwyane Wade and his biggest fans in the arena that helped raise him.
“My message to them is what it's been all summer,” Wade said this week. “Thank you.”
Thursday night, Miami finally gets to say thanks back.