He’s perhaps the most perplexing figure in sports, the aging superstar, the man whose resume reveals excellence and championships, but whose reality finds that in a photo album. He can be the hope and anticipation for a franchise, though more often it’s tumult and turmoil.
It has been for so many, and not because they had any ill intent, other than being unable to overcome time as they had opponents.
No one else could defeat Michael Jordan, defy Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing, wall after wall, room after room of them from the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Dwyane Wade is going there, though not quite yet since he still has plenty of basketball work to do, and it could again require a starring role Wednesday with the Bulls playing the Golden State Warriors. Wade is coming off a brilliant close to save Monday’s win over the Sacramento Kings, and the Bulls list Jimmy Butler—along with Cristiano Felicio—as questionable for the Warriors with a heel injury.
Wade was up to the challenge Monday as much as he wasn’t Friday in a last minute loss to the Houston Rockets. But amidst all the roster roulette and coin flip Bulls season that now stands at 26-26, there remains the question of who Wade is: Historic savior or a man playing out futile memories?
“I’ve done it before in Miami with LeBron (James),” Wade said after Tuesday about accepting a supporting role. “I had practice already. To me it was different than what those guys (like Michael and Kobe) went through; it wasn’t a shell shock for me. I’ve had to (adjust) when I was in my 20s. I am Dwayne Wade; I’m a different Dwyane Wade. If the coaches and players put the ball back in my hands, I want to succeed. I want to give us the best chance, so yeah, I wanted that moment (in Sacramento) because I want be flawless in those situations. But it is not the game of basketball (to do so all the time).”
The Bulls are 2-1 on this last Western Conference road trip of the season with the most difficult assignment Wednesday against the league leading Warriors. It will be more so if Butler misses his third straight game. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said after practice Tuesday the Bulls will decide Butler’s status after shooting practice Wednesday, though Hoiberg said Butler didn’t scrimmage with the team and only did some shooting Tuesday.
Without Butler, Hoiberg indicated the team would start the same way with a hot Michael Carter-Williams for Butler. Even if Butler returns, it make sense to use Carter-Williams coming off consecutive 20-plus scoring games with Butler and Wade in a ball handling big wing lineup that would put pressure on Stephen Curry defensively. In any case, with Warriors’ big man injuries, they’ll likely play their so called small lineup that, nonetheless, includes seven foot Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, who defends centers.
It’s still inspiring and a challenge for Wade, who acknowledged his failures with a pair of late turnovers in the Houston game and then remedied them with his brilliant play on both offense and defense against the Kings with 31 points on 12 of 18 shooting. The Bulls did have two off days before that, so it is some factor with the 35-year-old Wade. But it also raises questions about how much either side, the Bulls or Wade, should expect from an all-time great player in the September of his career.
“It’s just life,” says Wade. “It is what it is; you play this game long enough you understand you are going to get older. But you want to. That means you had longevity. You also understand you don’t stay the same person, so you have to in your mind, yeah, you at the end of the game want the ball. Yeah, I feel I can make those shots. But for the majority of the games it’s physically impossible for you to do it. Some guys, Jordan at 39, 40, he was amazing; but he still wasn’t the Jordan he was in Chicago. You have to understand that.
“I’ve seen players before me understand it can’t be done that way,” said Wade. “So you have to figure out a way it can be done and try to be your best in that.”
Wade seems to have a pretty good grasp on who he is, though it’s always tenuous when you were once such a star. Remember, Wade led the league in scoring, carried the 2006 Heat in the Finals as much as any one player has his team, become one of the game’s most revered and popular players.
Rarely can players—heck, people in any profession who reach those heights—understand and accept the limitations. Especially the great ones because their stubbornness, in part, in refusing to accept defeat or lack of faith often is what propels them and enables them to reach heights not imagined for them.
That was, frankly, the risk the Bulls were taking with Wade. Could he adjust, adapt, or as Jordan did in Washington even as the Wizards improved dramatically, block out the growth of everyone else?
Wade seems to have an unusual perspective, and which is why my personal opinion is he’ll remain with the Bulls through the second year of his contract. Wade has said, as expected, he would review his options after this season.
I’ve often wondered with all the speculation about Carmelo Anthony being traded to Cleveland for perhaps Kevin Love, though LeBron says no way, why Wade’s name never came up. He’s a better friend of LeBron’s and, frankly, more of what LeBron has talked about in a reserve playmaker and better defender, at least when Wade’s engaged on the defensive end.
The Wade and Love salaries are close, but I also suspect Wade has let LeBron know he’s content and satisfied where he is because of who he is.
Because Wade made arguably the most unusual acceptance of a diminished role in Miami, though more after the first year, than any superstar player arguably ever has.
“In the city of Miami, that was probably the only place I was more popular than LeBron,” Wade said with a laugh. “When it came onto the basketball floor I still had to (know) that it was his show. We had to feel our way around it, but it’s not a bad thing when it’s the greatest player in the game today. I had to do that and I was still in my 20s when I did that. Now coming here at 34, it’s not easy (to have the responsibility). I know I can’t do it for 40 minutes like I used to. I know I want to play 30 minutes. I know in my 30 minutes, I want to be efficient. But I know you need someone like Jimmy, young guys to carry the heavy load. That makes it easier what I need to do.
"It hasn’t been difficult here. I’m a realist. I understand what needs to be done, how it needs to be done. I’m hard on myself because I want to be better in whatever role I have. Understanding this game we play, it’s a team game at the end of the day. A lot of things I’ve done in my career I’ve done to have team success; the individual things just came from my play. It wasn’t anything I sought out or was born into; it just came from the way I played the game and tried to win through team and I got all the other things."
“I’m different,” reminds Wade, a Marquette late recruit, eventually moving up to No. 5 in the NBA draft. “I wasn’t deemed to be the next great winner or anything like that. I knew my team success would get me what I wanted. I didn’t know this was going to come individually. I always believed in what team can do. I had a different route than other guys.”
Which is why it’s also not surprising Wade is in Chicago. Yes, it’s home, but it’s also where he can have a social and community footprint, where his message can have an impact in the community. He’ll surely return to Miami someday. They’ll erect a statue, as they should. Though given his unusual understanding of the superstar-in-decline status, he perhaps remains the exception to the coach’s nightmare, how to direct someone who has accomplished so much more but has less than many others. Other than will, drive, force of personality and standing in the community.
Wade perhaps fits better than most as a bridge to elsewhere, the resolve to compete combined with the understanding when it’s OK to spend some time with the chorus.
“Yes, you want to deliver,” says Wade. “You’re not going to deliver every time. You had games like Houston when you didn’t do it, but then you challenge yourself to see if you can come back and do it the next time. When you get a chance to redeem yourself that shows a sign of mental toughness to guys.
“When I’ve been out Jimmy took it to another level, scored 40, 50 points,” noted Wade. “Then when I come back he doesn’t do the same thing; you have to understand it’s what you need to do for the team. If Jimmy comes back (for Golden State), I know the touches I’ve been getting the last two games will go down. But I understand I will still get the ball, be a part of it and there are ways I can help my team. It’s a lot of years of experience. I’m not caught up in the me part of the game; I’m caught up in the we part of it. I’ve always been and I feel that’s why I’ve been successful in my career.”