Greg Cote

Wade’s legacy should be safe in Miami despite ugly ending

After 13 seasons and three championships, a Miami Heat franchise prepares to begin a season without its all-time greatest player as Dwyane Wade heads to his hometown Chicago Bulls.
After 13 seasons and three championships, a Miami Heat franchise prepares to begin a season without its all-time greatest player as Dwyane Wade heads to his hometown Chicago Bulls. MIAMI HERALD

The way Heat fans feel about Dwyane Wade — the love and appreciation: Is it bulletproof? Is his legacy as a Miami sports legend cast in bronze and safe no matter what?

Now we find out.

I think the answers are yes. I hope they are. They should be. But the questions were thrown unexpectedly into debate Wednesday night when the news broke that broke Miami’s heart:

Dwyane Wade is leaving. After 13 seasons and three championships, Miami’s No.3 is leaving the Heat, at age 34, and headed to his hometown Chicago Bulls.

It stuns us as a community. Even if we had a day or two to brace for the impact, it socks us in the gut, and the heart. Wade. Gone.

Wade was a driving force in three championship parades. He was D-Wade. This was Wade County. Astonishingly he never was the Heat’s highest-paid player and some years not its best player, but consistently Wade has been the face of the franchise, a steady and beloved presence. Only Dan Marino merits the company of Wade among pro athletes who have meant the most to South Florida.

Now, though, even as we hoped from habit until the very end that Wade still would end up re-signing with Miami as always, he seemed closer to leaving and signing elsewhere than at any time since he arrived as a rookie out of Marquette in 2003. Worse, the parting was not on good terms. The long, good marriage would end badly, with Wade feeling neglected and angry, and with Heat fans cast as the children stuck in the middle, the victims of love lost.

The knee-jerk reaction of many Heat fans now and in the coming days may be to begrudge Wade leaving them.

What the reaction should be instead is gratitude and thanks.

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No equivocation. Just, thank you.

Wade was courted Wednesday by the Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks, but it was the Bulls he grew up cheering who stole him by beating the Heat’s two-year, $40 million offer. No formal meeting with Miami was announced, further indication of the acrimony that festered into the longtime partnership, although Heat owner Micky Arison did swoop in to make a late, failed pitch.

Wade is scheduled to be a guest host on the Live With Kelly morning show Thursday in New York. Is Miami ready for the sight of him in a Bulls cap?

There had been unfounded yet somehow logical speculation that Wade also might have ended up in Cleveland, reunited with LeBron James. Turns out the idea James might take a severe pay cut so the Cavs could afford Wade pushed the friends-for-life narrative a bit too far.

It was that possibility, though, that seemed to be where Heat fans drew a line. Wade returning to Miami in a Cavaliers uniform was the one scenario in which Wade might be booed by his own longtime fans. We asked this week in a blog poll: Is there any circumstance under which Wade might leave and be booed upon his return? It was 41.4 percent “yes, if he rejoined LeBron”; 33.9 percent “no, he’s welcomed back for life”; 16.7 percent “yes, if he signed elsewhere for money comparable to Heat’s offer”; and 8.0 percent undecided.

That’s almost two-thirds of fans who were willing to entertain some feeling of resentment toward Wade if he left. But is there a villain here? What would the divorce lawyers argue?

Miami’s sweetened offer to Wade was fair and reasonable, but not the best he got. Plus, Chicago offered the sentimental pull of being Wade’s hometown — the same situation that caused LeBron to leave the Heat for Cleveland two years earlier.

Heat fans hoped Wade simply was using competing offers as leverage to pressure Miami to up the ante, and that he’d re-sign here like always.

But it wasn’t all about money first this time, which made the damage in the Heat-Wade relationship harder to repair.

This was about ego and pride, too. About respect. It was about a man tired of sacrificing for the Heat and feeling taken for granted. The feeling is understandable — and was magnified by an offseason of crazy spending in the NBA, seeing lesser players getting much bigger deals.

Wade watched Pat Riley identify Hassan Whiteside as “our No. 1 priority, period” in free agency and lavish upon him a four-year, $98million contract. Then he watched Riley swoon over and pursue his “whale,” Kevin Durant, only increasing his initial offer to Wade after Durant chose Golden State.

Can you blame Wade, coming off his healthiest season in years, for not feeling great about being no better than the Heat’s No.3 emphasis in free agency? After a career in which he has left an estimated $20 million on the table so Miami might get other players including LeBron and Chris Bosh? But, even so, was Wade angry enough that he’d really finally leave?

Yes, apparently. Not to a losing ship such as Denver, where the Nuggets have had four coaches in four years. But to the city near where he grew up and idolized Michael Jordan, yes.

Some will now surely blame Wade for leaving, for abandoning the Heat.

Others may blame Riley and the club for abandoning Wade, for not matching outside offers to keep him.

That’s what happens in divorces. Somebody needs to be the villain, right?

I would blame neither side.

I’d not blame Riley. He was protecting the franchise’s salary-cap situation and immediate future to allow further whale watching by not overspending for an aging Wade. What he let happen seemed cold, but might prove to have been smart business.

I’d not blame Wade, either. He did what his pride told him he must.

I hoped there might be a compromise; that the Heat would bend a little more, maybe offer that third year, and that Wade might elect to stay for the fans here, for Miami. I hoped that this worked out, somehow, and that this man stayed where he belongs.

But now that he is going?

Circle the date on the calendar when he first returns to Miami in a different uniform. Then stand and cheer that night, and don’t stop until Dwyane Wade knows it down to his bones that he never should have left.

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