Miami Heat

Dwyane Wade’s remarkable journey from a top pick to South Florida sports icon

More from the series

Dwyane Wade: One Last Dance

Dwyane Wade’s final regular season home game at AmericanAirlines Arena against the 76ers on Tues., April 9, 2019 marks the end of a legendary 16-year NBA career that included three championships, an NBA Finals MVP award, 13 All-Star appearances and many more honors. A look back at an iconic career.

Expand All

For those who were a part of the Heat organization when Dwyane Wade was drafted in 2003, it didn’t take long for them to realize there was something different about the 21-year-old rookie.

For then-Heat assistant coach Erik Spoelstra, it was the 24th game of Wade’s rookie season. Wade finished with 32 points in a win over the Hawks.

“It just felt like he was exploding onto the scene,” Spoelstra said. “At that moment, everybody in the franchise knew this guy was our best player, and he made it look so easy.”

For then-Heat head coach Stan Van Gundy, it was Wade’s first summer league action.

0312171962 (1).JPG
The Heat’s Dwyane Wade drives on the Hawks’ Jacque Vaughn during Miami’s 97-79 win at AmericanAirlines Arena on Dec. 16, 2003. Wade led with 32 points. Miami Herald file

“We thought we were getting a guy with great potential,” Van Gundy said. “But by the end of summer league, we knew we had even more than what we had hoped for.”

For then-Heat forward Caron Butler, it was a practice during Wade’s rookie season.

“They put the ball in Dwyane’s hands where he was playing as the point guard and dribbling the ball up, and in a pick-and-roll set,” Butler remembers. “Once you saw him just weaving through traffic, it was over. It was just like, ‘You know what, wow.’ It was like, damn, you can’t stop him.”

They all had a feeling Wade would be special, and they were all right. But his résumé is even more extensive than any of them could have imagined.

As Wade’s 16th and final NBA season comes to a close, he will enter retirement as the Heat’s all-time leader in categories like points, games played, minutes played, assists and steals and leave as one of the top shooting guards in NBA history. Among his most impressive accomplishments: Three championships with the Heat (2006, 2012, 2013), a Finals MVP award in 2006 and an NBA scoring title in the 2008-09 season.

“It’s the culture that me and [Udonis Haslem] were brought into, that we believed in,” Wade said when asked what role the organization played in his individual success. “Some people don’t buy in. You see certain teams, you see certain guys who just don’t buy all the way in. We bought all the way in.”

0310224231 (1) (1).JPG
At Flamingo Park on Miami Beach the Heat’s first round pick in the NBA draft Dwyane Wade signs autographs for waiting fans after one-on-one with Caron Butler during “Street Heat” match-up on Sept. 12, 2003. Miami Herald file

Ask Heat president Pat Riley when he knew Wade was a superstar, and he will point to the 2006 Finals. In one of the greatest Finals performances in NBA history, Wade averaged 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.7 steals to lead the Heat to its first NBA championship.

“He had shown tremendous promise and greatness already, but I think when he led us to the championship, it was above and beyond,” Riley said. “Bringing us from disaster to winning four games in a row. At that time, he was the best player in the world. I don’t care who was in the league at the time.”

Then came the 2012 and 2013 Finals, when Wade teamed up with LeBron James and Chris Bosh to lead the Heat to back-to-back NBA championships.

With all of those highs came lows for Wade and the Heat, though. From dislocating his shoulder in the middle of the 2006-07 season, to a 15-67 record in 2007-08, and losses in the 2011 and 2014 Finals, Wade had to overcome injury and defeat on the biggest stage during his career.

Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are introduced as they walk toward the Larry O’Brien trophy at their celebration of their 2013 NBA Championship at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, June 24, 2013. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. Miami Herald Staff

But the most turbulent time in the Heat’s relationship with Wade came in the summer of 2016. Free agent contract negotiations between the organization and Wade turned ugly, and he opted to leave the Heat after 13 seasons to sign with the Bulls.

When Riley looks back at that time, he says not offering Wade a max contract in the summer of 2014 was his biggest mistake. With James leaving Miami to join the Cavaliers that offseason, the Heat opted to sign Bosh to a five-year, $118 million max deal and Wade to a two-year $31.1 million contract.

“The biggest mistake that I made was not to just recommend that we sign Dwyane and Chris to max contracts as soon as LeBron left, and let’s build around them,” Riley said. “What we wanted to do and what I wanted to do was not to use Dwyane, but to use the opportunity to pay him and at the same time bring in another superstar.

“We should have just bit the bullet. He was our franchise guy. We had just been to the Finals four years in a row. They had already played the give-back game, Chris, LeBron and Dwyane to keep Mike Miller and to keep Udonis Haslem. So this was the time now to pay both of them. And we paid Chris and we did not pay Dwyane. If we had done that, he would have been here. He would have never left. This would have been his last year [on the contract], his fifth year.”

000 Miami Heat Camp Day 3 D.JPG
Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade speaks with the media after the third day of the Miami Heat training camp at FAU Arena on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, as the team prepares for the 2015-16 NBA season. David Santiago

Instead, Wade spent the 2016-17 season with the Bulls and part of the 2017-18 season with the Cavaliers.

“I think at times, you do take your greatest player for granted and that he’ll do this and sacrifice more for the team,” Riley said. “And at times, that player might feel dismissed, taken for granted, all of that. … It was like the abyss. It was. It was the abyss of our relationship.

“All the words that were said, it’s all part of business and all that crap. This was personal. I think he took it personal. And again, I feel horrible about that because I love Dwyane.”

That chapter did eventually end. On Feb. 8, 2018, the Cavaliers traded Wade to the Heat.

“I’ve always said it and I said it when I left [the Heat in 2016], I love that guy and I appreciate him for taking a chance on me and seeing something in me and giving me the platform and opportunity to take off,” Wade said of Riley. “... To bring me back, to move on from that situation and to be able to have this ‘Last Dance’ in a Heat uniform, it’s only right. So I’m glad that everything worked out.”

The possibility of trading for Wade emerged during exploratory trade discussions between Heat general manager Andy Elisburg and Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman.

But it wasn’t until trade deadline day that it became real.

“I got a call from Koby and he said, ‘That thing we had talked about before, is that something you’re really interested in?’” Elisburg recalls.

The answer was pretty simple. Heat owner Micky Arison, CEO Nick Arison, Riley and Elisburg all agreed they wanted to bring Wade back to Miami, and most importantly Wade wanted to be back in Miami.

The Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade takes off his jacket as the team prepares to play the Boston Celtics at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, April 10, 2012. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. Miami Herald Staff

What came next is something Elisburg still remembers vividly.

“Before practice, Pat, Spo and I sit in a room and we’re going through the things we have on the table that day,” Elisburg said. “We’re going through all the various machinations and different things that were available. At the end of the long list that we were talking about, Pat said, ‘Do you want to get Dwyane back?’

“Spo’s reaction was, ‘Dwyane who?’ It was almost like he was not processing it. Then he went, ‘D? Get D back?’ His reaction was like, ‘Yeah. Yes!’”

There aren’t many who are happier that trade was made than Riley. Because if Wade had never returned, Riley would have forever regretted letting him go.

“I’m happier than hell that he’s back in a Miami Heat uniform,” Riley said. “I think if he had never come back to the city of Miami and just stayed somewhere else for the rest of his career, I don’t think I would have ever forgiven myself.”

This is how it’s supposed to end for Wade. “One Last Dance” in a Heat uniform, with fans and tribute videos awaiting him at almost every visiting arena, and his peers around the league left wondering why he’s even retiring.

It has been a season Wade will remember forever, and one his teammates and coaches don’t want to end.

406 Cavaliers Heat DEP DS.JPG
Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade during a timeout in the fourth quarter of a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Thursday, Dec. 25, 2014. It was LeBron James’ first game back in Miami after leaving the Heat to go back to Cleveland to play with the Cavaliers. The Heat defeated the Cavaliers 101-91. David Santiago El Nuevo Herald

“I wish it could keep on going. I really do,” Spoelstra said. “I’ve told him this before and I mean it. I’ve been able to coach him for 14-plus years. Three of them as an assistant, 11-plus as a head coach. All the things that we’ve experienced together, the successes and the tough years, I literally have enjoyed this last year and a half more than all the other years.

“Just because it’s been so much more about the collaboration, the relationship, the friendship, the partnership and so much less about the head coach and player relationship. I’m treasuring it. I just don’t want it to end.”

But it will end because not even great things can last forever. Wade, 37, will end his career as the greatest player in Heat history based on sustained success with the organization and, arguably, the greatest athlete in South Florida sports history.

“Dwyane is always going to be our iconic player,” Riley said. “We had [Alonzo Mourning], Tim [Hardaway], we had [Shaquille O’Neal], you add LeBron and Chris. We had a lot of very, very good to superstar players here in Miami. But he’s the one iconic figure that’s going to stand above everybody. He just is.”

Alonzo Mourning, one of four Heat players who has their number retired by the organization, agrees.

006 Thunder vs Heat DS (1).JPG
With Miami Heat championship banners hanging in the background, Heat guard Dwyane Wade listens to the national anthem before the start of a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Feb. 1, 2019. DAVID SANTIAGO

“Just all of the different milestones that he’s accomplished, he will go down as the best player in franchise history,” Mourning said. “… It was fun to watch him evolve, mature and just grow up.”  

Since Wade was drafted on June 26, 2003, the Heat has controlled the South Florida sports scene. While the Heat has won three NBA championships and has appeared in five NBA Finals during Wade’s 16-year career, the Dolphins haven’t won a playoff game, the Marlins won a World Series in 2003 but haven’t made a playoff appearance since, the Panthers haven’t won a playoff series and the Hurricanes have four bowl wins during that time.

“His legacy is going to live on in this city forever. He is the face of Miami sports,” Spoelstra said. “It’s even bigger than our franchise. But his personal legacy will also continue to breathe and live on in all of my future teams forever because I’m going to continue to tell Dwyane Wade stories all the time.”

What’s next for Wade? More time with his wife, Gabrielle Union-Wade, more time with his son Zaire during his senior season of high school basketball, more moments with his son Zion and more diaper changes with his months-old daughter Kaavia.

And more free time in the city he has become forever linked to.

“I think kids that are probably 12 or around that age, they think I’m from Miami,” Wade said with a grin. “When I was young, I thought Michael Jordan was from Chicago. That’s a great thing. I definitely think that when you think about Miami, anyone around the world whether it’s sports or not, I think my name comes up.”

Gabrielle Union and her husband, Dwyane Wade, serve at the 23rd annual Heat Thanksgiving Celebration at the Miami Rescue Mission on Monday Nov. 24, 2014. WALTER MICHOT Miami Herald Staff

Wade’s long list of accomplishments will eventually earn him a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame and get his No. 3 jersey retired by the Heat.

Wade’s career might even warrant a statue in front of AmericanAirlines Arena one day.

“I think he’s statuesque, there’s no doubt,” Riley said. “The question would be if there is one, what’s it going to look like? That’s going to be the fun thing about it. You do that with your franchise guy.”

When asked to reflect on what Wade has meant to the Heat and the community, Riley brought up legendary athletes such as Bill Russell, Mickey Mantle and Muhammad Ali.

“I grew up in that time,” Riley said. “I’ll never forget them. I think this is what’s going to happen with Dwyane.”

South Florida will never forget him.

Sports Pass for $30 per year

Get unlimited access to all Miami Herald sports stories and videos for $30

Anthony Chiang covers the Miami Heat for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and was born and raised in Miami.