Greg Cote

He had only 3 points in his Heat return, but Dwyane Wade still owned the night and fans’ hearts

Miami Heat fans show their support as Heat guard Dwyane Wade enter the game during the first quarter of the NBA basketball against the Milwaukee Bucks at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018.
Miami Heat fans show their support as Heat guard Dwyane Wade enter the game during the first quarter of the NBA basketball against the Milwaukee Bucks at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. dsantiago@miamiherald.com

Plumb your memory for the greatest moments ever in South Florida professional team sports. Go wherever you wish. Include the championship parades. Include everything.

Save a little room room for Friday night.

For what Dwyane Wade gave us.

For what we gave him back.

I've been writing sports for some 45 years, and can count on two hands (plus a few toes, maybe) the number of goosebump occasions -- times I've felt grateful to have been an eye-witness to something.

This was one of those: Wade's homecoming game, his first time in a Miami Heat uniform in two years. Well, in 635 days, or 1 year, 8 months, and 25 days, but who's counting?

It was an event night. Tickets to the game on StubHub were quadruple the typical price. No. 3-driven Heat jersey sales have risen by 8,000 percent since Thursday, when the trade was announced.

Wade did not start against the Milwaukee Bucks after Thursday's trade from Cleveland, but it took the adoring crowd all of 3:03 into the game to start chanting, "We want Wade!" When he entered 5:19 in, the ovation was sonic. It was what everyone had come for. Waited for.

"The fan base I grew up with," Wade said appreciatively.

Fighting to make the playoffs and after five straight losses, the game and result were big for Miami. The Heat overcame an early 7-0 deficit and held on late to win 91-85, fueled by James Johnson's terrific defense much of the night against the Bucks' great "Greek Freak," Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Wade would score only three points off the bench on 1-for-6 shooting in 22 minutes, but, no matter. His return owned the night. This was not a basketball game. It was a love-in.

“It is a beautiful moment for us, for the city and for the fans," as club president Pat Riley put it.

We say goodbye to great players all the time in sports. "Welcome back" is a rarity. Especially when the player happens to be the most accomplished of any who have ever worn a pro uniform here. I'd call it even with Dan Marino for greatest or most beloved, except three championship rings is one hell of a tiebreaker.

The reunion is a perfect symbiosis of the needs and desires on each side. "Perfect timing for both parties," said coach Erik Spoelstra.

"I am over-the-moon excited," said Wade, the 12-time all-star now 36. "The jersey and the colors fit. My eyes and heart were always here. Who I am at the core in my heart was always here."

No. 3's role will grow. He is no longer in his prime, but South Florida loves him anyway. We all are aging at exactly the same rate. It is the ultimate thing we all can relate to. It makes Wade no less beloved. Maybe the opposite. Because he is what we aren't used to. He is the underdog of sorts now. We don't expect the acrobatics or the 35-point games. We're fine with flashes. Glimpses. We wait for those.

100+Bucks+Heat+DS
Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade reacts after scoring his first basket of the NBA basketball against the Milwaukee Bucks during the first quarter at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. David Santiago dsantiago@miamiherald.com

There was one of those in his homecoming, late in the first quarter, when his first shot of the game was a 3-point swish that lifted the arena. There was another in the final minute, when Wade’s block helped secure the win.

This is a boost we need right now, as a community. Wade's return is well-timed. The Dolphins are coming off a 6-10 season and treading water. Again. The hockey Panthers seem headed for another non-playoff season. Again. The Marlins are all but guaranteed of that after a depressing Derek Jeter fire-sale that has turned the baseball team minor-league as spring training nears.

Wade to the rescue! Putting a smile on our faces. Channeling the best of our past. Bringing what the Heat hope is a surge -- emotional and on-court -- that locks down a playoff spot and maybe helps lift Miami back to the top-four Eastern spot that would mean home-court advantage in the postseason's first round.

Wade 2.0 may only last the balance of this season. Maybe the reunion will extend into next season. Maybe it will see him finding a career tailwind and maybe it won't.

No matter what happens from here, though, Wade is back where he belongs. He's home, and Heat fans let him know it, hear it and feel it Friday night. (After all, the 3-0-5 starts with what number again?)

Wade leaving the Heat in 2016 was frosty, but the thaw that led to this week's trade occurred last month when both Riley and Wade attended the Chicago funeral of Wade's longtime agent, Henry Thomas. The men embraced.

"The hug was all we needed," said Wade. "We both needed that."

There was another embrace Friday night. It was a group hug from 20,000 fans saying thanks, and welcome home.

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