Grace under pressure

The Vertical
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MIAMI – Finally, Dwyane Wade had disappeared off his college coach's television set on the night the basketball world would belong to the Miami Heat's star. Marquette's Tom Crean watched his former player take the NBA championship and the Finals MVP award and watched him take it all with a grace and genius the sport hadn't witnessed since No. 23 flashed across the sky.

Maybe Crean should've stayed up past 12:30 a.m. that late June night, trusted his instincts that Wade wouldn't let such a monumental moment pass without a gesture of gratitude. Nevertheless, Crean turned off his cell phone and went to sleep.

Somewhere between the arena in Dallas and the Heat's hotel, with a world coming faster, coming furiously, with the whole sport suddenly spinning on his finger, Wade called his coach at 1:30 a.m. and left a voicemail – the kind every teacher dreams of getting from a student.

Mostly, Wade wanted to say thank you. Wade told the coach he loved him. Crean is sheepish talking about it, but a friend of his would reveal that Wade thanked him for the toughness that Crean instilled within that shy, under-recruited kid whom the powerhouse programs passed over.

And as Crean listened to the message on his drive across Highway 43 into Milwaukee that next morning, it was hard for Marquette's gifted young coach to feel too tough with the way he had cried and cried and cried.

This is Wade's way of touching people, his way of making them feel like they're way up there with him, arm and arm, dancing on stars.

So before the Chicago Bulls embarrassed the Heat 108-66 on opening night Tuesday, before Pat Riley would proclaim, "Welcome back to reality," Wade stood outside the dressing room in flip-flops, catching up with his old coach. And while Crean wanted to hear all about Wade's new sneaker and cellular phone commercials and about those ostentatious championship rings, it was easy to overhear Wade asking about Marquette's prospects for the season and about his coach's fabulous top-20 team.

After a summer of Letterman and Team USA basketball, of GQ and Sports Illustrated covers, of a celebrity born of his brilliance and grace, there has to be something reassuring for Miami's players to know that Wade has returned to his old, unimpressed self.

"His circle has always been what it is," Crean said. "He has never gone away from his relationships."

Along the way, this stopped being Riley's franchise and stopped belonging to Shaquille O'Neal, and Wade, doing it with deftness and respect, made it his own. This would be an opening night when the world would be reminded how desperately the Heat will need Wade to be the anchor again, to be the conscience and core of a champion desperate to fight complacency, to fight that feeling of ultimate destination a season ago for so much of this roster.

For too many of these Heat, you must fear the idea that committing to the championship chase lost its allure once commissioner David Stern handed them the most gaudy 10-carat rings Jostens ever created.

With those magazine covers and commercials that are forever framed opposite LeBron James now, people ought to remember something about them: Wade willed himself there. He pushed and pushed and pushed, and he comes back now, promising that he's going to be pushed harder than ever.

Remember, Wade has something on James. "Nah, it's a friendly thing with them," his cousin, Antoine Wade, said Tuesday night. Friendly for the world to see, but don't you think for a minute that Wade didn't take a greater measure of satisfaction in beating LeBron to a title.

Remember too, the third Sports Illustrated coverboy, Carmelo Anthony, won the Final Four that Wade brought Marquette in 2003, just the way LeBron won endorsements on the way into the league. Wade was never the Chosen One, and that's something that's important to remember when you're trying to understand why Wade is forever playing that internal Jordan game of counting all the slights – real and perceived – and transforming them into fuel for his ferocity.

"The process never really spoiled him," Crean said. "He didn't go to the shoe camps. He wasn't a highly recruited player. It's the mindset that goes along with that. There's a hunger to prove. There's a hunger to get better.

"There's just a will that's incredible. The report card for great players is championships."

On opening night, the Heat looked like they had spent the summer partying on South Beach. It isn't far from the truth. For Miami, this 42 point ass-kicking wasn't the start of this season, but the end of the last. If nothing else, the Heat's suspicions that Ben Wallace's Bulls could now be the fiercest, most determined suitors for Miami's Eastern Conference title are real.

So no one wants to hear that Wade's breathless summer has left him dragging because Riley can't afford to have him coasting through the regular season the way the rest of this roster could dare to do.

"Maybe, he had three weeks to himself this offseason," Antoine said. Over the summer, there was a moment that Antoine remembered with Dwyane, in Las Vegas for the Team USA training camp, when his cousin took a verbal inventory of everything that had happened in his life. It wouldn't be long until Dwyane snapped back to reality, stopped looking back and started looking ahead again.

And that's kind of how it went on the shores of Biscayne Bay, where when Dwyane Wade would be so smitten with the jewelry that he ultimately fit for his coach and teammates' fingers. He called the ceremony "the best feeling in the world." And then said, "I want to get that feeling back."

This time, it's truly on Wade to make it happen again. Shaq is running a far distant second to him, and Old Man Riles' motivational genius won't be nearly worth Wade's greatness on the floor.

Crean never did delete the voicemail. He had it transferred to tape and promises, "I'll save it forever."

Marquette's coach is thinking this June that maybe, just maybe, he'd be wise to stay up a little later at the end of the NBA finals. Dwyane Wade is still Dwyane Wade. In his biggest moments, he's still determined to lift everyone with him. As much as ever, the Heat are desperate for this to stay the essence of him. The repeat rides on it.

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