This felt like home: Dwyane Wade walked into the Miami Heat’s downtown bayside arena Thursday evening, two hours before tipoff, and dozens of waiting arena workers broke out into applause as he approached, a few offering hugs. He smiled big and easy, like you do seeing old friends.
This, though, did not feel like home: Wade left the warmth of that little welcome he didn’t expect, and was suddenly lost. For 13 years he had only made the turn to the home lockerroom, a luxurious, roomy expanse of dark cherry wood and wide leather seats.
“It felt normal ‘til I walked to the opposite side of the building,” he said. “I honestly did not know where to go.”
He was directed to the visitors’ lockerroom, a small, cramped enclave of Spartan decoration.
“Yeah I think the NBA gotta do something about the visitors lockerroom,” he said later, smiling. “It’s not up to code. I think I got taped in a storage room. It was very tiny. Hopefully there’s good showers after the game.”
Welcome home, Dwyane. Maybe the accommodations left something to be desired, but you sure felt the love.
Thursday night marked Wade’s first return to Miami for a game since leaving the Heat in free agency this past summer and joining the Chicago Bulls. It will be his only time back this entire NBA season. Miami would lose 98-95, a third straight defeat dropping the Heat to 2-5. But that wasn’t the story on this night.
Wade was given a full introduction beforehand, to an ovation louder than that of any Heat player. The volume grew in the midst of the first quarter, during a timeout, when a tribute video was played and afterward he stepped onto the court and waved his thanks to the standing, cheering crowd. Somebody waved a hand-drawn sign that read, ‘This Will Always Be Wade County.’
When Wade scored (he had a modest 13 points on 5-for-17 shooting), the cheer was at times as loud as if he’d scored for Miami. Force of habit, maybe?
“I thought I’d shoot better,” said Wade. “I been knowin’ these rims awhile.”
Wade hoped there might a moment on the court together with old friend Udonis Haslem, his Heat running mate for 13 years, but Haslem never got in the game.
“I kicked myself for that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra admitted afterward. “There’s really no excuse. I wish I would have.”
A sub-theme of Wade’s highly anticipated return had been his strained relationship with Heat president Pat Riley. That was not overstated. But this is true, too. The frost is thawing. Time is doing its good work. Both men can look in the rafters and see three championships banners that one man would not have won without the other.
Riley, striding in a halfway before the game, paused to acknowledge he finally had sent to Wade that long-saved, heartfelt email he had penned.
“It’s nobody’s business!” he said first, but playfully, chiding the big deal that had been made of their supposed falling out. “There has been a reach-out on my part. I had [the email] for six weeks and I didn’t send it. I had my wife read it first. But I sent it. I won’t tell you when.”
Riley said he seldom communicated with Wade a lot after a season, saying, “I’d send him three letters: ‘Is your ass in shape/,’ ‘It better be in shape,’ and ‘Get your ass in shape.’”
Wade acknowledged, “I got emails from him. I haven’t had time to read them. I’ll take time on the plane [leaving Miami] to read them.” If that sounds a bit cool, Wade also emphasized, “There is nothing to squash in my eyes,” meaning s controversy in their relationship. “I am appreciative of what we created together. I have nothing to squash.”
It’s plain that Wade felt Miami did not try hard enough to make him feel wanted, to keep him. Riley admits second-guessing if Wade should have been offered a maximum contract after LeBron James left. It’s done, though. You can’t put the smoke back in the cigar.
Wade is convincing when he says he has left any regrets behind. He still follows and supports the Heat, saying, “I want to see how Tyler [Johnson] does. I want to see how Justise [Winslow] is growing. I want to see Hassan [Whiteside] be a beast on the floor. I want to see UD [Udonis Haslem] get in...”
Wade was born in Robbins, Ill. and went to Marquette, so joining the Bulls felt like a homecoming for him. But Miami is home, too. Miami raised No. 3, the man and the career. He still has a place here. Slept in his own bed last night, albeit briefly, after a flight from a Wednesday night game in Atlanta.
“Walking in my house, smelling the air freshener in my house,” he described it. “Ah, it’s home!”
An arena full of Heat fans made it feel like home for him Thursday night, too. There will be future events, perhaps upon his retirement. He’ll have a tribute night devoted to him. His number will be retired. But Thursday was the first opportunity to demonstrate that, although the relationship did not end perfectly, this franchise and its greatest all-time are still on good terms. And that is important.
Wade sounded like a man content, and at peace.
“All the good of everything that happened in my career here in 13 years — I wouldn’t change it for the world. It was spectacular,” he said. “When I was a kid, I couldn’t have gotten on my knees and asked God for a better pro career, start to finish. And I’m so proud of it.”
The appreciation was flowing both ways Thursday night, and in equal measure.
Dwyane Wade thanking Miami, and a city and its fans giving all of that love right back.