Greg Cote

Heat and Wade didn't manage perfect ending, but the 13 seasons before it were a delight we may never see again

Sitting next to the Larry O’Brien trophy, Dwyane Wade answers questions after the Heat defeated the Spurs in Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Sitting next to the Larry O’Brien trophy, Dwyane Wade answers questions after the Heat defeated the Spurs in Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena.

We give sports too much credit, ask too much of our games, athletes and their careers, if we expect happy, perfect endings all the time or even most of the time. Oh, they do happen, occasionally, those times that let us believe in fairy tales for a minute. Just five months ago didn’t Peyton Manning feel Super Bowl confetti falling on him in what would be his final NFL game?

But mostly the endings aren’t perfect even when they seem to be. Didn’t Michael Jordan end it spot-on right for Chicago in 1998 only to decide a couple of years later he’d look good in a Washington Wizards uniform?

The endings that aren’t perfect fade, though, replaced by the good stuff we’d rather recall, and so it will be for South Florida with the way it ended for Dwyane Wade and the Heat. The phenomenon has already begun, the “messy” fading, the “missing” taking its place.

The narrative this week has skewed far too negative, in words written and spoken and feelings felt, since Miami quaked Wednesday night as Wade — our guy, D-Wade of Wade County — announced he’d be leaving his only NBA home and signing with the Chicago Bulls.

You looked for “why” first, for “what happened?” You wanted a villain. Blame had to go somewhere, because nuance is not the forte of sports, or of being a fan. We take sides. We deal most comfortably (easily) in absolutes because deciphering in the gray is harder.

So we’ve done a week-long autopsy on the breakup. Was it Micky Arison, Pat Riley and the Heat, ultimately disrespecting the legend? Was it Wade himself being disloyal or wanting too much?

No, it was just life (of which sports is a part) playing out naturally, warts and all. We don’t always stick the landing.

Dan Marino left the Dolphins the worst possible way after the 1999 season. In his final game he lost 62-7 in Jacksonville, in the playoffs. Jaguars fans heaped derision on him unbefitting his stature as he limped off the field toward Canton, old, bulky braces on his knees. I was there. It was one of the saddest sights I’ve ever witnessed in a long career doing this. Marino kept his helmet on as he walked through the shouted garbage.

Miami didn’t want him back but Marino didn’t think he was done. As those playoffs ground toward the 2000 season the Dolphins’ No. 13 elicited outside offers. The Vikings and Steelers put out feelers. There was a chance, a small window, when it seemed likely Marino would end his career in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Sound familiar?

The point? Marino ended his career with a 55-point defeat, ended with no Super Bowl rings. He might well have ended wearing black and gold. Doesn’t matter. Because when Miami thinks of Dan Marino it recalls first the heroics and charisma, that epoch in the 1980s and into the ’90s when the Dolphins had the best player at the most important position and the offense was electric, thrilling — things the franchise has spent more than 20 years trying to recreate.

Willie Mays ended his time stumbling in center field for the New York Mets. It’s a footnote, not how history remembers him.

Most endings aren’t finished with an exclamation point but with a question mark or an ellipsis, yet that sense of something left unfinished fades by degrees, overwhelmed by the entirety, by the body of work.

Dwyane Wade and I had a cordial, business-like relationship. Professional. I’ve not been one to get chummy with players I cover the way many younger journalists seem to. For me there should be a line. Anyway, Wade called me once and only once over the years, unsolicited, to thank me for something I’d written.

It was a column off the 2012 championship parade, the first of what would be two such celebrations in the Big 3 Heat era of Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. LeBron had been Finals MVP. To most, it was “his team” by then.

I wrote about how Wade had made it all happen, sacrificing financially (and not a little) to bring the Big 3 together — an alliance that was his idea and doing, though Riley tends to get credit for it. I wrote that Wade had sacrificed otherwise, acquiescing, letting James take over.

That he bothered to reach out and thank me struck a chord with me as it must have with him. What led him to leave the Heat for Chicago this week — the feeling of neglect, of being underappreciated — was not new. It was in him like a slow-growing seed.

I don’t blame him. He was a newly minted rising star coming off a big rookie year when the Heat acquired the bombast and braggadocio of Shaquille O’Neal, introduced as “The Diesel” on a honking flat-bed truck.

It wasn’t long after Shaq left that LeBron stunned the NBA and electrified South Florida by announcing he was taking his talents to South Beach.

It wasn’t long after LeBron left when the franchise pivoted and offered the big bucks to Bosh, not Wade.

It was just this summer when those big bucks found Hassan Whiteside, and when Wade only finally got a decent offer at all after Kevin Durant turned Miami down.

Wade, his greatness, his loyalty, always has been assumed but too easily eclipsed, taken for granted in deed even as the franchise spoke of its appreciation. I cannot blame him for leaving.

Again, though, back to the larger point: Laying blame is pointless; it is a cousin of regret, the most corrosive emotion. How it ended isn’t ultimately how Heat fans will remember Wade, or how Wade will remember Miami, even as the acrimony and what went wrong is what’s visceral and comes to the surface as any relationship ends.

Maybe Wade did not feel appreciated all the time by Riley or the franchise, but there should be zero doubt of the mark he leaves on South Florida. There should be no doubt that the roof will raise from the arena with the ovation and love he feels the first night he comes back home in a Bulls uniform. There should be no doubt the Heat should cast Wade in bronze, in a statue slightly larger than life, so fans are reminded constantly of who mattered most every time they file into that building.

The Arisons founded this franchise. Riley gave it heft, made it matter and led it to greatness. LeBron electrified everything, made Miami the epicenter of the NBA, and, for a time, of all of sports.

Don’t get it wrong, though. Don’t harbor a single doubt.

Wade leaves us as the single greatest figure in the Miami Heat’s 28 seasons, beloved and appreciated to the rafters by the fans he lifted.

What city knows what it is getting, right? We were introduced to a 21-year-old kid from Marquette who spelled his first name weird. Thirteen seasons and three championships later, it breaks our hearts to see him go.

He is going home to Chicago but, to us, it feels as if he has left home instead.

The author Thomas Wolfe famously made a catchphrase of the saying “you can’t go home again” with the title of a novel of his.

He was wrong. And South Florida will prove it the first time Wade comes back home as a visitor.

There aren’t many perfect endings in sports, no.

But we’ll make that night feel like one.

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