Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Dwyane Wade’s unselfish attitude allowed the Big 3 era to happen for Miami Heat

All of this started with Micky Arison, the franchise owner, and his checkbook, his willingness to put his money where his dream was.

All of this started with Pat Riley, the club president and builder, and his vision, his audacity to conceive this blueprint and then go get it.

All of this started with LeBron James, the incomparable player, and his sublime excellence, then his decision to take it “to South Beach.”

This, in many ways, is the Heat’s real Big 3: The moneyman, the architect and the singular talent. You could argue that these are the three most indispensable men in the grand plan that has fashioned two championship parades in a row so far.

And you would be right, to a point.

Except there was a fourth man without whom none of this would have happened.

Working the deal

Not Arison’s riches nor Riley’s recruiting would have landed LeBron if not for the willingness and sacrifice of Dwyane Wade.

His mind-set, around this time in 2010, was the seed from which all this grew — a fact worth celebrating right along with the championship parades that Wade, in effect, allowed to happen.

He could have blown up all of this before it ever materialized, if he let his ego get in the way, if his main consideration was himself, not the greater good.

“If I was selfish, then this team would never have been assembled,” Wade admits. “Then, with this team assembled, if I was selfish, it never would have worked.”

It worked — famously — because Wade was able to see that championship rings and parades were more important than his own status as the unequivocal face of the franchise. He understood that James was the one player in the NBA who was an in-his-prime megastar, a bigger national star than Wade himself.

Wade had been the 2006 Finals MVP. He had won a league scoring title. He had made All-NBA first teams. He had established himself individually in a certain Hall of Fame career to a degree that proved his talent, his brand. Had he not, perhaps his welcoming LeBron would not have been as easy — not that it was easy.

It took Wade that first year to get to the point of acknowledging the new hierarchy, of adjusting to it. Once he did, and stepped aside so LeBron could step forward, the championships started coming.

Close friendship

Magic Johnson, in town with the ABC broadcast crew for the Finals, last week called Wade “the most unselfish superstar I’ve ever seen in my life,” adding, “No superstar would do what Dwyane did.”

Riley has said the same.

Wade’s personal friendship with LeBron that predated their becoming teammates made Wade’s sacrifice easier. So did the fact Dwyane knew LeBron was all about winning championships, too.

When James said the night of Finals Game 7, “Coming through for my teammates and not letting them down makes me more satisfied than anything in the world” — that was the LeBron that Wade had known all along.

At some point great players understand that championships ultimately distinguish them more than individual statistics.

That’s why Wade began his postgame news conference on that champagne-kissed night by jokingly saying he wanted to be referred to from now on not as Dwyane, but as “Three” — not for his uniform number, but for the number of his NBA championships.

Earlier, without the crush of media on him, Wade — Three — had been on his back making snow angels in the confetti on the court. Later he had been sitting on the floor outside the locker room, cigar in hand, not speaking, simply ruminating.

“We go through life so fast. The championships I’ve won seemed like they went past me so fast,” he would say later of that solitary interlude. “I wanted to take a minute, take a moment and just soak in being a kid from Robbins, Ill., from Marquette, and now having three championships. To get to the Finals three years in a row and win two is unbelievable.”

Special victory

Championships are like children. You are supposed to love them all equally, but each is special in its way.

“This is the sweetest one by far because of everything we’ve been through, everything I’ve been through individually,” Wade said.

Three deep bone bruises in his right knee had been treated with plasma therapy. The other knee was injured during the Finals, requiring seven hours of treatment — including a fluid-drain prior to Game 7.

His right knee had been hurting a month before the postseason even began, and playing continually aggravated the injury. He wouldn’t talk about it. It was there as a crutch for him, an excuse, but he wouldn’t use it.

Bulls star Derrick Rose, medically cleared to play, cautiously sat out the entire postseason, babying his knee.

Wade could have done the same, but didn’t.

Instead, for much of the playoffs his scoring was down, and the critics were out. Was he past his prime? An article even suggested he should be benched.

“They tried to bury Dwyane, but he kept pushing open the coffin door,” said teammate Shane Battier. “And that’s Dwyane Wade. You can’t really define him by stats. He’s a competitor, a fighter. When it counts most, he’ll be there.”

Wade would score 23 points with 10 rebounds and two blocked shots in the ultimate Game 7, including important late baskets that padded Miami’s leads to 81-75 and 90-85.

“He was in attack mode,” described LeBron. “At that point you knew this was the D-Wade we’ve all wanted to see.”

Wade ran to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich seconds after the game ended to congratulate him on the season. He said “Pop” told him, “You were Dwyane Wade tonight.”

Only the men in his own locker room knew how limited Wade had been by the knees.

“We knew what he was dealing with,” coach Erik Spolestra said. “Really, he should be commended for being out there at all and doing whatever it takes, putting himself out there for criticism because he wasn’t 100 percent. It was a selfless effort for two months. Some players wouldn’t have played.”

Time to shine

Wade said he felt better during the Finals than in previous playoff rounds. Come Game 7, he knew he had to be his old self.

“I’m about gutting it out,” Wade said. “I talked to my knees. We had a conversation. I told them, I said, ‘Listen both of you guys, if y’all can give me one great game, you’ll have a great summer.’ So I’m going to treat my knees very well this summer and rest them.”

Wade could not help but revel a bit in satisfaction after his 23-point Game 7 had helped secure the franchise’s third championship.

Strong believer

He had earned the right.

“My belief is stronger than your doubt,” Wade had said, of his critics and doubters in general. “I’m always going to believe. When it’s a big game, I don’t care what I’m going through, No. 3 is going to show up. He’s going to do something to help his team win.”

Ten years after he first appeared here, drafted out of Marquette, it might be time to finally wonder if Wade has surpassed Dolphins icon Dan Marino — or should — as our single greatest professional athlete.

Hall of Fame credentials and 10 seasons of growing into a beloved local figure make a pretty good argument.

Maybe the argument ender, though, is the sacrifice Dwyane Wade made — personally and professionally — that allowed the Big 3 era and these championships to happen.

Related stories from Miami Herald