DETROIT — All the love is a bit uncomfortable for Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, but he’s welcoming of it and embracing every moment of his farewell tour that he dubbed “The Last Dance.”
Every night there’s a jersey exchange with an opposing player, and in some cases, he’s handing his shoes to a lucky fan or two.
Recent visits to Detroit and Chicago, places that once booed him mercilessly, saluted him in different ways and solicited emotions from the 37-year-old.
Even though all the signs are there, that the end is coming — an ending of his choosing, it should be said — he’s not concerned with what’s coming beyond it, what’s next, or more germane to the day, his place in history.
“Not really,” Wade told Yahoo Sports, “because it don’t matter. From the standpoint of numbers, ‘You’re the top third,’ or whatever, it’s always gonna be so many players. It’s always gonna be a player, ‘Oh, he’s the next, oh, he’s the top this or that.’”
He’ll only allow himself a moment to fantasize about what it would be like to come into this new NBA as opposed to leaving it.
“If I was those guys’ ages, with the way I played, the speed I had, my knowledge of the game? Yeah, I can score now,” Wade told Yahoo about today’s inflated numbers. “And they can’t touch you [because of the rules]? I take pride in being one of the players who created the style. The pick-and-roll style. The guys coming in with the usage rates so high and having it at the top of the floor and I feel pride in being one of the players who did it. If my mom and dad weren’t so freaky and they would’ve held off for a couple years …”
Wade chuckles but comes back to reality, not wanting to indulge in the notion that only Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are superior at his position, perhaps with Jerry West being in the conversation as well.
“It’s humbling,” Wade said. “But at some point it’ll be someone else. What about Allen Iverson, though? For me, it’s hard for me to say this.
“I know I’ve been a good player.”
A good player?
“A great player in this league,” Wade said, allowing himself a smile. “And I know I have a good résumé. I know I did my career the way I wanted to do it. And wherever I end up in people’s conversations, honestly it doesn’t do anything for me. I gave everything I have to the game and I’m OK with that.”
Dwyane Wade’s legendary status
It’s difficult for some to evaluate Wade in a historical context, despite the three championships and the stamp he’s put on this generation with performances as a leading man and co-star during four transcendent seasons with LeBron James, years that shaped the NBA landscape.
The conversation around individual accomplishments and being “The Man” have filtered down in recent years, but it started with Wade’s well-known sacrifice to cede space to James, resulting in Wade’s last two titles.
That period and the roaring start to his career in which he was Finals MVP in his third season after leading the Heat back from a 2-0 deficit against the Dallas Mavericks have been spoken about ad nauseam.
But the most important segment of his career, individually and from a team standpoint, is often glossed over. But it’s perhaps the period he cherishes more than any other.
It could be the reason Wade is so comfortable in his skin now, deftly able to alternate between participating in locker-room conversations with Justise Winslow and Tyler Johnson — players more than 10 years his junior — and watching them from afar, taking in these last moments.
Perhaps Wade knows without the summer of 2008 and the subsequent two years, there would be no retirement tour, that he’d be just another good player waiting on the sunset. “I had to try out for the Olympic team,” he told Yahoo Sports, almost incredulously. “A lot of people don’t know that. I had to try out a couple times that summer.”
Following the 2006 title, Wade played only 102 games over the next two seasons because of injuries. The 2007-08 season was especially difficult, with the Heat plummeting to 15-67 and Wade undergoing knee and shoulder surgeries.
USA Basketball was at a crossroads following the forgettable 2004 Olympic bronze-medal experience, and Wade was, too.
“He was out for an extended period of time. We didn’t know where he was physically,” USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo told Yahoo Sports. “And then we started monitoring him physically. He was with [trainer] Tim Grover in Chicago. I went to see him practice, and he still wasn’t 100 percent. And we had to make a decision and we went with him.”
Colangelo said Wade technically never had to “try out” and that the events are a matter of recollection, but Wade used the doubt as fuel to re-establish himself on the world stage and among his peers.
“It just drove me, man. It was so many question marks and rightfully so,” he told Yahoo. “ I wasn’t the same player. They questioned whether I would get back to that level, that Olympic level. And I wanted to prove that and show them. I did that the whole summer. I carried that chip on my shoulder the whole way.
“You can ask anybody on that Olympic team. I really wasn’t the giddy, outgoing D-Wade. I was really to myself, really focused on, ‘I’m in this mentality and I’m not getting out of it for nobody at no time.’”
That “Redeem Team” put USA Basketball back on track, and even on a team with a prime Bryant and James, Wade was arguably the best performer, helping clinch the gold with critical plays against Spain.
“He was electrifying,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Yahoo Sports. “It wasn’t about being the best player. He stole the moments. He was must-see TV. The moments you remember, with his plays and the bald head, it was all of it.”
Spoelstra was headed into his first year as Heat coach in 2008 after years as an assistant under Pat Riley, and he watched Wade intently that summer.
“Even on that team with a bunch of megastars, he had every right and had earned the right from camp to start on that team, but one of those guys needed to come off the bench and, of course, it’s Dwyane,” Spoelstra said. “Whether he volunteered or he was just open to it, ‘Whatever you guys need, I’m gonna do it.’”
The road to the Big Three
Wade’s Olympic success set the stage for the summer of 2010, when the Heat cleared enough cap space to pull off the biggest coup in NBA history, signing James and Chris Bosh in free agency. The previous two seasons, Wade had to drag the Heat back to relevance, sacrificing what could’ve been legacy-altering prime years in the process.
“At that time, I felt I was the best player in the game,” Wade said. “My confidence was out of the roof, I felt that what I brought to the game was different than other guys. Even though LeBron was LeBron and Kobe was the best of our generation, I felt for those couple years I was dominant and if I had the team around me, I could’ve did it for us. I would’ve been fighting with Boston and Cleveland to get to the Eastern Conference finals.”
He was a terror, averaging 28.4 points, seven assists, 4.9 rebounds, two steals and 1.2. blocks those two years, leading the league in scoring (30.2 points per game) in 2009. But with the chance to make James his teammate, he advised Riley against acquiring Amare Stoudemire or Carlos Boozer, moves that would’ve brought the Heat closer to contention.
“If we make the move [to bring in talent before 2010], it could be good for us, but will it take us where we really want to go? When we all talked about it, it wasn’t,” Wade said. “We didn’t feel it was, so we wanted to be patient and not make a move that would take us out of that window when we got the Big Three era. I had to be patient.
“It sucks from the standpoint that you don’t have many great, great years, right? Of health and explosiveness. And two of them went to individual performances. But it helped me when I got with the Big Three era because I was done with all those individual performances.”
Spoelstra says Wade should’ve been league MVP in 2009, the one individual accolade that has eluded him.
“It was so important that we were a playoff team. Both years. The second year we lost to the Celtics in the first round and they were the Celtics,” Spoelstra said. “It created a buzz. If you don’t do that, you’re not realistically gonna recruit LeBron James and Chris Bosh. That doesn’t happen unless you stabilize, have some success and have the league watch. And they were watching because of Dwyane Wade.”
Easing to the end
The championships followed, and Wade’s road eventually took winding turns that led him back to Miami after stops in Chicago and Cleveland. He’s endured marriages and divorces, an ego war with Riley and a custody battle in the middle of a playoff run that he called “[expletive] draining.”
“I grew up very poor, my mom was in jail, all these things. I’ve talked about it, watching my mom shoot up and do drugs,” he said. “But when I became an adult and going through my own things, it became tougher. My family, my kids, my DNA. It was tough. We got through it. Sunshine was at the end.”
The last year has seen Wade welcome a daughter, Kaavia James, with wife Gabrielle Union, and lose a confidant with the death of his agent, Henry Thomas. As the one-year anniversary of Thomas’ death approaches, it’s the one thing that puts Wade in a sentimental mood.
“I know myself and U.D. [longtime teammate Udonis Haslem] wish he could be here through this last journey through the league. He was there every step of the way,” Wade said. “The great thing that’s come out of this, we’ve gotten very close with his family, we’re extended family, we all keep in touch.”
Thomas’ death affected Wade greatly, and he wears a necklace containing some of Thomas’ ashes.
“It was tough. Hank was, even to the end, never worried about himself,” Wade said. “He never played the ‘poor me’ card, never wanted to talk about him being sick. He only wanted to talk about you and how you’re looking and all these things. He’s an angel of mine.”
Wade recently celebrated a birthday and it presented a time for reflection on his journey to immortality. On a snowy day in a Michigan suburb, he finds humor.
“I guess the biggest thing, you gotta go through the [expletive] fire to get to the sunshine,” Wade said. “As much as we want to see sunny days, you gotta go through Detroit to get to Miami.”
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