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LOS ANGELES -- Friendships are never formed totally by choice, because fate demands a say-so in the process by creating the time and the place and in the curious case of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the basketball court.
It was in Chicago, June of 2003, site of the NBA’s annual Draft combine, the meet market for young players gathered to someday change the game, when Wade and LeBron had each other at wassup.
In some ways, it was an unlikely pairing. One, a teenaged phenom from Akron, Ohio, fresh from the cover of Sports Illustrated and the high school prom who already had a national following. The other, an overlooked underdog from the Chicago suburbs who only became an acquired basketball taste weeks earlier after a searing run through the NCAA Tournament.
That day, Wade and LeBron went through the checkup lines for height and weight, vertical leap and whatever else the combines put rookies through and then during a break came the only measurement that counted, when one future Hall of Famer sized up the other.
LeBron said: “Some things you can’t explain. Sometimes it’s just chemistry.”
Wade said: “When you’re young and coming into the league, you find guys you have something in common with, then you continue to link and that’s what we did. It’s organic how we built this friendship.”
Some 15 years later, the bond will endure, likely forever. The basketball part, however, ends Monday night after the game when Wade, who’s calling it a career after this season, peels off his sweat-soaked Heat jersey and swaps it for a Laker top belonging to LeBron. It might qualify as the best trade of the NBA season, or at least the most emotional.
"It's sweet and sour,” said LeBron, anticipating the moment at Staples Center. “The sweet part about it is I've always loved being on the same floor with my brother. And the sour part about it is that this is our last time sharing the same court.”
Brother? How many folks with different blood can call each other that? True friendship is answering the phone at 3 a.m. instead of letting it ring, and reaching for the tab with longer arms, and above all, becoming a mattress when the other guy falls. Those tests were aced throughout the LeBron-Wade bromance that stretched through two Olympic teams, four years in Miami, two NBA championships and even 46 games in Cleveland together but of course was always put on hold whenever they were on opposite benches.
This is best placed into proper context by Gabrielle Union, the actress and wife of Wade, who says ever so delicately about her husband in those friend vs. friend moments: “He wants to kill him. Drop three-balls on him.”
Perhaps so, because as Wade says, “you always want to beat your best friend,” yet their competitive spirit is confined within the baselines and between the jump ball and buzzer. Then the teasing and bragging rights begin by text or call, almost instantly. This arrangement irked the old-school basketball culture, long cringing at the chummy ways of a new generation, believing that most if not all interaction should cease until the offseason, or even better, when careers are done.
Wade and LeBron then turned up the volume on that subject when they linked up as teammates with the Heat in 2010, angering the purists and creating, at least initially, a team to be despised as well as respected. Not that Wade and LeBron regret that experience at all, or the noise that followed; this was, as Union observed, “far bigger than basketball.”
They’re silly and goofy together. When they’re around each other it’s like a never-ending sleepover. That’s what it feels like when you’re in their orbit. They have an unspoken language and jokes and it’s like a show and everyone’s watching.”
The chance to be neighbors and watch their kids grow up together and celebrate championships on South Beach until well past sunrise was a priceless part of the bonding process, something neither will be able to duplicate as they begin a new phase of their relationship.
The chance to let their hair down (well, Wade anyway) and loosen up, away from the crowds and the media, is something they could keep to themselves. Although: Mrs. Wade spilled a few friendship secrets the other day, with an ohmigod and a roll of the eyes.
“They laugh a lot,” she said. “LeBron is silly. Dwyane is silly. They’re silly and goofy together. When they’re around each other it’s like a never-ending sleepover. That’s what it feels like when you’re in their orbit. They have an unspoken language and jokes and it’s like a show and everyone’s watching.”
It helped that, in addition to being in the same sport, both LeBron and Wade became all-time greats, because like-minded and like-talented people tend to magnetize. It was LeBron who collected MVP awards and a huge social media flock at first, then Wade followed up by winning a championship first, and this created a mutual respect for each other’s abilities.
It also allowed them to walk through the same exclusive doors together, for example, making a pair of Olympic teams and a batch of All-Star Games, therefore putting them in close company even before the Heat experience. From those moments, a relationship tightened. And when life threw airballs in their direction, one was there to help the other.
“When I was going through the custody of my kids and that battle, he was someone I talked to constantly and told him what I was going through,” said Wade. “And vice versa, when he was going through things family-wise, I could talk to him and try to relate. You lean on guys who have similar stories and have gone through similar things in their lives to help with advice or just be there to listen.”
Curiously, one of their few awkward moments happened when they became teammates in Miami initially. The transition, Wade admitted, was friction-free but not totally smooth. Superstars have egos. Adjustments were needed and were done and this was made possible by LeBron’s game, which is built on unselfish play.
“It would’ve been easier if we went to a neutral site,” Wade said. “But because he came to Miami, it was my team before he got there. It was a little hard because of that, but once we got through the first year it was easy. He can play with anybody. He can go out and score or he can get 17 points and 20 assists. He knows if a guy hasn’t shot the ball in a while and how to get him going.”
Their on-court chemistry was astonishing to witness at times, the best entertainment in basketball back then. They knew each other’s tendencies, spots on the floor and how to mesh. How many times did Wade toss a lob to a streaking LeBron for a dunk, or vice-versa? Along with Chris Bosh, this was one of the most productive link-ups in NBA history. Four years and four trips to the NBA Finals don’t lie.
And true friendship is following your pal to Cleveland in winter, as Wade did last year in an awkward attempt to re-create the past. To this, Wade shook his head and laughed: “Yeah, yeah, you right about that.”
While Wade is putting a bow on this retirement season, he marvels at his friend’s staying power and salutes LeBron’s decision to sign up with the Lakers and take on Los Angeles.
“I think it’s great, something he wanted to do,” Wade said. “For a player to be able to map out his career the way he has been able to do, he’s doing it his way. This is the way he wanted, to end it here in L.A., on and off the court. His career is not over, but this is the last layer of his career.”
And LeBron, reflecting on Wade’s NBA imprint, said: “D-Wade has definitely had a helluva career, obviously. A first-ballot Hall of Famer, a three-time champion and so on and so on. I mean, it speaks for itself. But what he's done for that franchise and what he's done for that community since he's been drafted has been a pretty good story.”
LeBron is one of my closest friends so this one will mean a little more, because of the paths that we both went down as competitors against each other and as teammates. We’ll be linked together forever.”
This is curious timing, how the NBA schedule has Wade making his last trip to Los Angeles and against LeBron not long after Wade and Union, who have a home in L.A., recently welcomed a newborn daughter. The families spent Sunday together at the baby shower, then the farewell game tips 24 hours later. Union calls it the “end of a basketball brotherhood but the beginning of a real friendship with basketball gone” and Wade agrees.
“When we first came into the league people couldn’t understand how we could be friends during the season," Wade said. "When I was in Cleveland for a game I’d go to his house the night before, we’d go to the movies and hang out and then we’d go at each other in the game. We’d laugh about that. We enjoy having a different relationship than what was done before us, but then going out and playing against him, I’d always want to whup his you-know-what. And vice versa. Just the times we shared. The moments when it’s not all been great, but to be able to have somebody to talk to and run things by. A lot of people don’t have a LeBron James to call up and say, 'Hey, I’m thinking about this, what do you think about it?’ That’s special.”
What will also be special Monday night is when Wade, as has been his routine after every game this season, swaps jerseys with an opposing player; this will be the 1,001st game of Wade’s dwindling NBA career.
“Obviously this is something I wanted to do in my last year,” Wade said. “But of all the players in the league, LeBron is one of my closest friends so this one will mean a little more, because of the paths that we both went down as competitors against each other and as teammates. We’ll be linked together forever.”
And what might be said between friends and competitors caught up in that moment? Wade offers this:
“We’ll look at each other and say, 'Yo, this is it.’ It’s crazy that it happened so fast. We remember the night we got drafted like yesterday. But it comes fast. Just an ending of a chapter in both of our lives.”
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