As LeBron James sat on that American Airlines Arena stage six years ago, rattling off the number of championships he planned to win with the Miami Heat – "not one, not two, not three …" – Dwyane Wade was right there next to him, guffawing and nearly falling from his seat in jubilance for the super team he helped create. James was the game's biggest star and a two-time MVP at the time, but Wade sat center stage – James on his right, Chris Bosh on his left – on the day three NBA players flexed their powers in ways unprecedented and league-altering.
For that free-agent coup to come together, for Pat Riley to convince James and Bosh to leave behind their own teams and come to South Beach, Wade didn't just have to be a pestering, persuasive recruiter; he had to sacrifice. Like the perfect party host, Wade took the lowest salary of the trio to accommodate his guests. But Wade incurred another expense that often gets overlooked while remembering the team that gave Miami two more Larry O'Brien trophies – he also surrendered two years of his athletic prime to make it all possible.
Wade is gone now, leaving behind the only organization for which he played, abandoning that overused phrase, "Heat Lifer," to return to his hometown Chicago Bulls. On a scale of one to Kevin Durant, Wade's departure obliterates the surprise meter in an NBA offseason that continues to provide fascinating, eye-popping fodder.
The Bulls shipped out one homegrown talent in Derrick Rose, to get another more accomplished one two weeks later. Before the Super Friends decided to embark on that four-year fling, Wade flirted with going home but couldn't pass on a dream union in Miami. This time around, Wade was jilted and left with little choice but to seek refuge in any place that showed him the love he desired. The Denver Nuggets stepped up first. Then the Bulls. The Heat did not.
While it's easy to look back on the money that Wade consistently surrendered to Riley and Heat owner Micky Arison so that they could field a competitive team – including that $10 million giveback in 2014 that was used to retain Bosh with a max contract while James fled for a return to Cleveland – the frustration that made the negotiations between Wade and the Heat so contentious goes deeper than his pocket books.
Wade almost single-handedly delivered the Heat's first championship 10 years ago but was part of a lottery team two years later. For the next two seasons, Wade went 2006 Finals mode for the franchise – exerting two of his healthiest and most productive seasons in the league on teams that got eliminated in the first round – as every decision Riley made was about preserving that precious salary-cap room in 2010.
James played on a team that tried to win, overspent and inevitably failed. Wade was certainly rewarded for his patience with two more championship banners being raised at American Airlines Arena. He eventually had to momentarily cede command of his franchise, accepting a slightly diminished role so that James would flourish and the Heat could stunt on their haters. But after playing 76 games in that first year with James and Bosh in 2010-2011, Wade missed at least 13 games the next four seasons until a resurgence in good health allowed him to play 74 in his 13th season.
At age 34, Wade's best basketball is behind him, but his most recent playoff run showed he is still capable of brilliance. Riley's decision to prioritize Hassan Whiteside in free agency and gallivanting up to the Hamptons in a failed pursuit of Kevin Durant let Wade know exactly where he stood with the Heat. After giving so much of himself, of his money, to make the Heat one of the league's most envied franchises, his former team was preparing for a future without him.
When Wade's frustration became public for the second straight summer, the leaks were initially dismissed by many as the Heat and their most important player in franchise history doing the same old salsa dance with different merengue music. But those close to the situation recognized that this situation was different. Wade had lost all trust in the organization. His pride was wounded beyond repair. And, for all of Riley's talk about loyalty, the NBA is a business and the Heat had limitations on how far they would go to keep Wade.
Letting Wade leave wouldn't be the first time Riley chose the betterment of the future over clinging to a past that'll never be duplicated: Alonzo Mourning found himself suiting up for the New Jersey Nets after his first stint in Miami failed to produce a championship. Mourning's departure paved the way for Wade to carry the organization to heights previously unseen.
Giving Wade a retirement gift also known as a Kobe deal – a two-year contract in the $50 million range – made sense from the standpoint of sentimentality and because the market proved that teams were willing to pay that amount to a three-time NBA champion. But the Los Angeles Lakers benefited only at the gate after giving Kobe Bryant that exorbitant deal, with the franchise posting the two worst records in its storied history. Riley had too much ego and competitiveness to take that route and prolong the rebuild around Whiteside and Justise Winslow that has suddenly become a necessity with Bosh's uncertain future with recurring health problems and the departures of veterans Luol Deng and Joe Johnson.
No player wore a Heat jersey longer and more triumphantly; no exit feels more unfathomable for South Florida. Dan Marino, arguably the area's most beloved professional athlete before Wade arrived, never left the Miami Dolphins to suit up for the Minnesota Vikings or Pittsburgh Steelers. He retired instead. Wade doesn't have to play another game for the Heat to maintain that hold on the community, to have his jersey eventually hang in the rafters, or to possibly have a statue built outside the arena in his honor.
But this was a separation that, unfortunately, had to happen for Wade and Riley. Wade had done too much for the organization to engage in more resentment-filled, leverage-seeking, hostage-style negotiations. Riley shouldn't have to make half-hearted offers that will only infuriate a future Hall of Famer. And Arison shouldn't have to come in from a cruise ship, make those two play nice and save the day. With Wade gone, and Udonis Haslem's future in Miami also in doubt, only five other active players with at least 10 years of experience have spent their entire careers with the same team – Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Nick Collison (and Duncan is leaning toward retirement).
Six years ago, sitting on that stage, Wade was too giddy pondering the possibilities for his franchise. Not one. Not two. Not three. Wade brought the best player of his era to Miami, the payoff for two empty seasons he'll never get back. As time moved on, Wade expected to be compensated on the back end of his career, that the Heat would remember what it cost to his body and his wallet to get those rings. But today, Wade is a Bull, angered but fully aware that Arison, Riley and the Heat didn't really owe any more than he's already received.
Wade had to get the $47.5 million he wanted from somewhere else, but he will always have those parades down Biscayne Boulevard. And, no matter what uniform he wears, Wade will always take center stage in the arena he called an infinite number of times, "My house!"