MIAMI – As a man rode his bicycle about a mile from American Airlines Arena on Monday afternoon, he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a familiar rallying cry from these parts: “We Want Wade.”
With Dwyane Wade(notes) and the Miami Heat set to begin their second NBA Finals appearance, it’s easy to forget that a little less than a year ago the locals were nervously wondering whether Wade had already played his final game for the franchise. After Wade entered the league’s most-celebrated free-agent market, not everyone was certain he’d return to Miami. His hometown Chicago Bulls offered an attractive alternative. And the thought of Wade luring both Chris Bosh(notes) and LeBron James(notes) to Miami was just a dream for most Heat fans.
“It was a little bit harrowing for everybody involved in the free-agent process [last] summer simply because we hadn't experienced anything to that magnitude since I've been in the league,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “While you feel confident – and we feel that we have a first-class organization that's a championship-proven organization – … still at the end of the day, there was an element of the unknown.”
While most of the attention nationally was focused on whether James would stay in Cleveland, Miami was equally nervous about losing Wade. The Heat launched the “We Want Wade” campaign almost two months before Wade officially became a free agent. Fans sent tweets, emails, voice-mail messages and uploaded videos on a Web site encouraging Wade to re-sign. The team also distributed bracelets, placards and stickers supporting Wade. Miami-Dade County commissioners declared on June 25, 2010, that the area would be known as “Miami-Wade County” during Wade’s first week of free agency.
Despite all the love, Wade still met with other teams and made a visit to Chicago to speak with Bulls officials.
“I was a little nervous about it,” said Heat forward Udonis Haslem(notes), who also was a free agent. “I knew his decision would affect my decision. I was more so watching what he was going to do before I made my decision with what I was going to do.”
Haslem wasn’t alone. Donovan Campbell, a local TV sports anchor who grew up in Miami, said Wade didn’t give many clues about his intentions.
“I remember seeing him out one night and saying, ‘You want to leave this? C’mon, this is Miami. You don’t want to leave this,’ ” Campbell said. “He just smiled and didn’t say yeah or nay. The city of Miami was nervous.”
To no surprise, the Bulls emerged as Miami’s biggest competition for Wade, a Chicago native who grew up as a Bulls fan. The Bulls also offered Wade the opportunity to play alongside Chicago native Derrick Rose(notes) – and they had the salary-cap room to sign another prominent free agent like Bosh. Wade held a second meeting with the Bulls, which made Heat fans even more nervous.
“Going home is always attractive,” Wade said. “And there was the possibility of not knowing what guys were going to do. I didn’t know what ’Bron wanted to do at first and what Chris wanted to do.”
One team Wade didn’t consider: Cleveland.
“That’s one of my best friends right there,” Wade said of James while laughing, “but he wasn’t selling me on that one.”
Wade decided on July 6 to re-sign with the Heat after Bosh said he’d join him. Two days later, James announced his intention to move to South Beach, instantly transforming the Heat into a championship contender.
“It was just about putting myself in a position to be obviously on a good team but to be in a great organization for me that cared about me and my family,” Wade said. “All the things I’ve been through here, it was hard to leave here because of that fact. Wearing a Bulls uniform was a dream I had when I was a kid. But that was just a dream.
“This was the best place for me to be.”
Wade swayed Bosh and James by telling them about the organization – and letting them know they could win together.
“Those guys are starting to see now what it’s going to be for them,” Wade said. “This is family beyond the game of basketball. Obviously, winning sells it. We understood the opportunity we had as a unit and a group to get together and do something special, do something amazing.
“There wasn’t much selling that had to go on. It was just about, could we put our pride and egos aside and go out and do something special?”
Wade is now on a short list of current NBA stars that have been on one team for at least eight seasons, joining the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant(notes), the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki(notes), the Boston Celtics’ Paul Pierce(notes) and the San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan(notes). And there’s no denying how much he’s meant to the franchise, already delivering a championship in 2006 and helping lead the Heat back to the Finals five years later. Even former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, whose jersey has been retired by the Heat, might not be as popular here as Wade.
“He’ll probably go down as the greatest athlete Miami has ever embraced,” said Heat forward James Jones(notes), a Miami native. “That speaks volumes since Marino is a Hall of Famer and Miami has always been Dolphin town.”
By the end of his career, Wade hopes to be able to say he did something not even James can match: He played for just one franchise.
“It would be an honor for me,” Wade said. “I would love to stay here my whole career and retire as a Heat. It would be something most players haven’t done.
“But it doesn’t always work out that way. As of right now, I’ve been blessed to be in one city for my career and hopefully it can end that way.”