MIAMI – Pat Riley made sure Dwyane Wade(notes) would go last in pregame introductions, that the longest, loudest cheers would still be for the captain. When posing for pictures, the Miami Heat would flank LeBron James(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) to the captain's sides. It's still my house, Wade would say. I've just got new roommates now.
Yes, Wade … James … Bosh. All three walking together onto the floor for a preseason game on Tuesday night, all together for the Miami Heat. As they shot on the far end of the floor hours before tip, Wade caught himself staring like some little kid sitting in the rafters.
"Wow," he thought to himself. "These are my teammates."
For everything Wade gains with James and Bosh, for everything he has done and meant and represented for this franchise, something was lost on Tuesday night: His team. He's the heart and soul, yes, but the Heat will no longer play through him. Three minutes into the preseason, Wade limped to the locker room with a pulled hamstring, and soon the ball would go to James. Wade may never truly get it back. He's an extraordinary talent, but LeBron James is a force of nature.
Talent takes over, and James promises to fight back on his beleaguered brand with the most devastating weapon at his disposal: the two-time MVP's staggering, surreal strength and skill.
"I can't defer," James said Tuesday night. "I'm never in defer mentality."
James isn't just chasing championships but a validation of his greatness. Wade has a title, and already the elders of basketball have suggested to James that winning a title, or two, of his own won't elevate him the way it would someone else. This is too easy, they suggest. This is a stacked deck, a rigged game, the manifestation of the AAU travel team generation.
For all the semantics about a partnership, about James fitting into Wade's world, the truth made itself apparent on the opening night of the preseason. The Heat gave the ball to LeBron James and just watched him go, and they'll never look back. He didn't mind. After a summer of getting beat up, rehabilitation would come with every ferocious dribble drive and feathery jumper.
James goes back to getting judged where he can't lose: On dominating regular season games. After the way he bailed on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs, quitting in a Game 5 loss to the Boston Celtics, judgment on his ultimate success and failure is still a long way off. Never has an athlete come into a season with pressure like this to win a championship.
With the way in which James played – 18 points, four assists and three rebounds in 27 minutes – his urgency was unmistakable. They didn't have the athletes in Cleveland to run with James, to let him do his damage in the full court. He always did hate the way he had to grind it out with the Cavaliers. They played Big Ten ball, three yards and a cloud of dust.
"On the break, he is dynamic," Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said. "That is a unique talent to be able to move that fast, to make decisions and handle the ball at that speed. It really is remarkable. We need to get used to playing at that pace."
Before the game, James stood outside his locker with his uniform folded neatly on the floor like he always did in Cleveland. So far, no one has witnessed the nasty treatment of officials that became common with Cleveland and USA Basketball. Everyone's watching so closely, judging so harshly, they say he's determined to undo the damage of the summer. His business manager, Maverick Carter, was nowhere near America Airlines Arena, off to Boston to discuss James and Nike to a class undertaking a case study at Harvard Business School.
"Humble and deferring," said a source who was briefed on the class. Carter didn't try to inflate his marketing acumen, as much as he name-dropped his network of Warren Buffett to Jay-Z. Whatever. He wasn't shadowing James' every step at AA Arena, and that wasn't such a bad thing for him.
As it turned out, the hamstring would make Wade a spectator – perhaps for as long as seven to 10 days. Wade won't rush back at the risk of worsening the injury, but don't think it wasn't a little unsettling to see these Heat still so frighteningly dominant without him. Yes, he desperately needed the help. Yet, they had come to take Wade for granted here, and James is the shinny, sparkling new toy.
"You saw what LeBron can do with his playmaking ability, with his ability to attack the basket," Wade said.
Attack the basket, leave it for Bosh, and this could be so easy for the Heat. Bosh will live off those baseline jumpers and offensive rebounds, never burdened with much else. He had to understand he was no franchise player, that life as Robin beat the burden of Batman. Now, Bosh is the third man and he's fine with it.
Bosh marveled over how many open shots he had, about how that seldom happened with the Toronto Raptors. Yes, James changes everything for these Heat. Opening night of the preseason, Wade was pushed to the side and everyone saw they could leave him the captain, the spokesman, the last man introduced to the laser light show. They could leave everything in place for Dwyane Wade except for the fact that the Miami Heat no longer belong to him. A force of nature showed on the shores of Biscayne Bay, grabbed the ball and never looked back.
Maybe this is still D-Wade's city and franchise, but this is LeBron James' team now. King James doesn't do deferential.