Every story line connected to this champion Heat team seemed to start or end with LeBron James, the vindication, the King finally getting his crown, and you can’t argue much with that narrative considering James had a season comparable to Dan Marino’s record-setting 1984 for the Dolphins — only better because he put a ring on it.
Quietly, though, it was Dwyane Wade who made all of this happen.
There was this snapshot the night all of the burdens lifted, and in it LeBron held the NBA championship trophy in his right hand and his Finals MVP trophy in his left. He wore a champagne-soaked champions T-shirt and a little-boy grin.
It was his moment. He had earned it.
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But D-Wade allowed it.
Two years ago, Pat Riley had the forethought and audacity to dream what happened, and it’s fine to credit him as the master architect as long as you realize none of this ever would have happened in the first place if Wade was not here as the magnet that drew James and Chris Bosh to him, to Miami. It was Wade’s friendship with LeBron and his salesmanship and convincing, without which The Decision would have gone differently. Mostly, it was Wade’s willingness to set aside ego and welcome an even bigger star onto his team, into his town, all in the name of winning.
Miami’s biggest star
I wonder what athlete has meant more to South Florida professional sports than Wade? And more and more I think the answer might be, “No one.”
Wade delivered the Heat’s first NBA championship in 2006 by dazzling as the Finals MVP. Then he did more than anyone, even Riley, to bring together the Big 3 that just won the franchise’s second title.
I think Marino probably still owns a bigger piece of our collective heart, partly borne of longevity and partly of the Dolphins dominating what unequivocally was a football town for so long. But if anyone can surpass Marino, it would be Wade. I doubt even James, for all his unparalleled greatness, will ever top D-Wade when Heat fans are discussing their most beloved players.
Nobody wants to hear about sacrifice in sports. We are hardened to think that to players making $15 million a year it must be about the money first, right?
But it wasn’t to the Heat’s Big 3, and it especially wasn’t to Wade this season.
The rest of America’s notion that this was a dislikable team, easy to boo and even hate, always seemed strange to us because we were closer. We saw differently.
We saw Bosh step comfortably down to the unaccustomed role of third scoring option because helping a team win a title trumped his own stats. Then this season we watched him agree to the unaccustomed role of playing center without a trace of objection.
“It was all in the sacrifice of winning,” he said. “I wanted to do whatever it took.”
We saw James’ willingness to leave the comfort zone of his hometown team in Cleveland, where he was the star, to join a team where he wouldn’t be the only star. Then this season, especially in the playoffs and even more so in the Finals, we saw LeBron become the low-post presence that isn’t his favorite role but was the one his team needed him to play.
Doing dirty work
So James, the superstar with zero “diva” in him, began to do all the dirty work, pounding the paint, drawing elbows and bruises, rebounding, earning trips to the free-throw line, dealing assists, playing defense everywhere, never wanting to leave a game.
No current athlete in American sports deals with the scrutiny and animus James has the past two years, and there was a team meeting earlier this season, a moment, when he revealed himself to teammates.
“For the first time, I heard LeBron James open up, and he kind of let us in on what it’s like to be LeBron James,” Wade recalled. “None of us really know. I said, ‘Wow, I don’t deal with that, and I deal with a lot.”
James said the one thing written or said about him the past two years that bothered him the most was that he was selfish. It was never true. Athletes who want to win, to be a champion, are allowed to chase that dream without borders.
“LeBron gives everything and sacrifices and does everything for the team,” as coach Erik Spoelstra put it.
As much as James and Bosh put team first with their evolved roles this season, though, neither sacrificed the way Wade did.
This was the season he turned 30, the symbolic age when athletes first hear their career clock ticking, and the season he made quite clear that he was no longer the best player here — that this was LeBron’s team now.
That took a self-awareness uncommon in athletes.
All the while, personal tumult was visiting Wade’s life, with a bitter court battle with his ex-wife ending in Wade being granted custody of their two young boys. On Father’s Day, right in the middle of the NBA Finals, his lawyers sought to revoke her visitation rights after she failed to return the boys to Wade’s custody on time, leading to her arrest.
All of this swirled in Wade’s mind when he was asked to compare his first Heat championship to this new one.
“Winning the championship in 2006 was amazing, but I didn’t go through nothing yet,” he said. “Now six years after that I’ve been through a lot in my personal life, and I’ve been through a lot in my professional life, and this means so much more.”
Wade calls his two boys “the reason I can wake up in the morning and look myself in the mirror.” Dealing with the custody issues was “indescribable in a sense.”
But the professional issues demanded soul searching, too.
Year 1 of the Big 3 was, well, awkward. Especially as James and Wade tried to coexist playing the same role, both too worried about deferring to the other.
“Last year, it was just too many questions in our mind, in our head, looking at each other and not wanting to step on each other’s toes,” Wade said.
This year, Wade stepped back. Allowed James to step forward.
It’s funny. After that sideline tirade against Spoelstra in the Indiana series, during the frustration of that five-point game of his in a loss, Wade was roundly criticized, called selfish. This in the season his most unselfish gesture of all regarding James’ emergence.
“The evolution of a champion,” Spoelstra called Wade’s sacrifice, “to have the maturity and the perspective to accept a different role than he was used to. He had to step aside to an MVP player who was going to drive us in so many ways. But Dwyane had the maturity to lead us in voice, lead us on defense, and still be the heartbeat of the team.”
Wade was acknowledging his own career mortality in letting James past, but all the while he was proving that something bigger than himself was in play.
“It was hard for me to do it, and no one will understand, but it was easy for me to do it for this team,” Wade said. “At the end of the day, we all had one common goal.”
From that common goal, a most uncommon accomplishment.
Champions for life.