Dwyane Wade’s wife feels betrayed. Her stunned husband, Miami’s favorite son, finds himself somewhere between hurting and haunted. And warrior legend Pat Riley is wounded, having morphed with his fan base from The Godfather to Tony Montana in a way that feels reckless and bloody. Something so big and strong exploded at the center of what used to be their basketball family, and now they all limp away from each other with the scars.
There was no good way to do any of this without conflict and blame. None. The Miami Heat got the breakup wrong because there was no good way to get it right. Maybe letting Wade go was a good business decision, and maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was a good basketball decision, and maybe it wasn’t. But it was, no maybe about it, a terrible emotional decision. And that’s where interests clash and people get hurt in this kind of collision, at the intersection of sports as a business and sports as a relationship.
Champion Bill Belichick will let players go coldly a year too early. You just saw what happened when the hijacked Lakers let champion Kobe Bryant go a year or two too late. The Heat landed somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, as if there is ever any right place to land when breaking up what used to feel like love, and now everyone involved feels hurt and damaged by the iciness of it all. We don’t want to be reminded that these things are literally transactions. We want to keep having our romantic, candlelight dinners on the floor of the bank.
It is very easy to have good relationships when interests are aligned, but you don’t really find out about love and loyalty until they aren’t. The Heat-Wade marriage felt like a honeymoon for more than a decade, aligned interests as the winning glue, but this transaction wasn’t loving at the end, as evidenced by all the fractured trust and the thudding finality of the heartbreaking exit. Wade and the fan base were considering things that are priceless, such as nostalgia, while the Heat were doing the calculator math on future basketball value that you must do as stars age in a salary-capped ecosystem.
It makes LeBron James, power broker and paradigm shifter, all the more breathtaking with the clarity of retrospect. He Pat Riley’d Pat Riley before Pat Riley could Pat Riley him, flying the old warrior across the country for a cold courtesy meeting as a legendary pawn. That has to hurt Wade all the more today, that his mercenary friend cost him $10 million and was right about loyalty in sports largely being a lie disguised as a fairy tale.
Ultimately, Miami made enough of an effort to appear like it was making enough of an effort. Riley didn’t get where he is doing negotiations with his heart. So the breakup had to kinda, sorta feel like Wade’s choice when swallowing more pride didn’t seem like much of a choice at all to this proud icon, public relations an awkward mask for all the blemishes that had developed in the private relations. Nearly $42 million? A lot of us would like to be insulted like that. But f they really wanted to keep him, they obviously would have found a way to keep him. Instead, they made a fair and reasonable offer, offering even more than they probably would have liked because of the emotion and the public relations and the fan base and the past and goodwill and reputation and that statue that will go up one day. And then they watched other franchises start valuing Wade more than the one that should have valued him the most. And watched Tyler Johnson, with all of five career starts, get offered $10 million guaranteed more than Wade.
The Heat likely didn’t want to deal with two more years of unhappy, disrespected, hurt Wade. They would have, but only at their price. Perhaps a smitten man will tolerate a diva’s behavior in her prime. But patience might grow thin in a more superficial relationship once the beauty queen’s age no longer disguises her flaws. And these two sides couldn’t agree on much of anything at the end. Not on who put together the Big 3. Not on how much the sacrifices were worth. Not even on how to make a damn phone call.
You know how it is sometimes before the worst breakups. The fights aren’t really about the fights; they’re about all the resentments collected on the way to the fights.
Wade thinks he, his talent and his relationships built the Big 3. But he also told people in 2009 that James would never, ever leave Cleveland to come to Miami, and Miami cleared the cap space for the possibility of James anyway. Can they both be right? Wade couldn't figure out why he was always the one making the financial sacrifices. The Heat can counter that those discounts also helped Wade … and that they never requested those discounts of him … and that they paid for themselves with winning and endorsements … and that LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Goran Dragic, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier and Ray Allen also gave back dollars (and even Hassan Whiteside offered up a chunk of contract for the possibility of Kevin Durant). Can they both be right? Wade is reportedly hurt because Riley never once reached out to him by phone during these past few weeks; the Heat is hurt because disgruntled leaks kept springing from his camp for two years and too much of the repairing dialogue had to go through his many agents. Can they both be wrong?
“Relationships are important, people,” Wade tweeted in the middle of negotiations, about the time he realized that this one was no longer what he once thought it was. Wade didn’t trust Riley with his money anymore. That is clear now. The Heat would have liked to use his Bird Rights to keep working with Wade and compensate with the possibility of a one-year, $37 million max payment as a gold-watch parting gift a few years from now. But Wade obviously didn’t believe that was ever coming or he would have done what discounted Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan have wink-wink done with their employers in exchange for having some control over the roster. When Wade is done being classy and professional in public, maybe we’ll find out where and how this trust broke.
Riley coined the phrase “the Disease of Me” in his best-selling book The Winner Within. He might have discovered the illness, but he is not immune from it. He has an earned ego, too. He is about doing his job, no matter how cutthroat it must be. Ask his protegé Van Gundys. It is Riley’s way or the highway, and sometimes loyalty can be a one-way street on that highway. Riley’s résumé is bejeweled, but it now has the blemishes of losing LeBron and Wade. The first could be blamed on James; this one won’t be. Together, they are damning. And, given how cold this business can be, a messy fight with Bosh over his illness and salary-cap space might be next. These past six years, the rise and fall, are going to make for one hell of a 30 for 30 in a decade.
Riley’s daughter knows her father is hurting today. He has always been a philosopher-poet moved by writing and music. He owns more than 2,000 vinyl records. But she sent him a song he hadn’t heard Thursday, Inner Ninja, a happy tune to help her father heal. She really knows the old man, and she knows the game that is his life’s work, and she knows that his game is a business, and she knows how that business can wound. Here are some of the lyrics:
I read the rules before I broke ’em
I broke the chains before they choked me out
Now I pay close attention
Really learn the code
I learned to read the map before I hit the road
Hey, yo, I know you never heard this before
But I’d rather lose a fight than miss the war
I go hard and I ain’t makin’ up no excuse
I’m overdue, I don’t do what I’m supposed to do
Cause you can think about it, man, we’re supposed to lose
It ain’t all picture perfect, ocean views
Hey, yo, I’ve been high and I’ve been real low
I’ve been beaten and broken but I healed though
So many ups and downs, roughed up and clowned
We all got problems, but we deal though
I’m trying to do better now, find my inner peace
Learn my art form, and find my inner chi
When my back’s on the wall, I don’t freeze up
Nah, I find my inner strength and I re-up
Never dwell in the dark cause the sun always rises
But gotta make it to the next day
It’s a feeling that you get in your lungs when you run
Like you’re running outta air and your breath won’t come
And you wheezing’, gotta keep it moving
Find that extra (uhn) and push your way through it
I climbed the highest mountains
I swum the coldest seas
There ain’t a thing I’ve faced that’s
been too much for me
It is a really nice song. The godfather who runs the Heat’s family business vows to keep fighting. But he read the rules before he broke them, and he learned the code, and he knows the basketball business ain’t all picture perfect, ocean views, even though he and Wade went from climbing the highest mountains to now swimming the coldest seas. He knows this, too:
Letting Wade go might turn to out to be a mistake.
But it sure as hell can't be considered any kind of accident.