Dwyane Wade will be an immortal in the game, though he’s not quite finished yet. The 12-time All-Star, three-time NBA champion, Finals and All-Star game MVP, all-defensive team player and Olympic gold medalist is in many ways the beating heart of this 4-3 Bulls team. Wade at 34 years old still is the team’s second leading scorer at 16.9 per game in 28 minutes, first in steals, third in assists and shooting an impressive 44 percent on three pointers.
Yet when Wade returns to Miami Thursday in the nationally televised TNT game in the league’s latest in a series of former players going home again, his story is perhaps the most instructive, if discouraging, for the rest of us about one of the most important, if lamentable, lessons in life. Sorry to break the news, but no matter how good you are, how important and how accomplished, you are replaceable.
If they can do it to Dwyane Wade, whom can’t they do it to?
“No,” Wade said late Monday night when asked if fans in Miami understood why their greatest player ever was basically let go. “I don’t think a lot of people understand. If you’re not in this business it’s hard to understand. I don’t really want them to understand. I want them to appreciate what we accomplished together. I want them to cheer for the team they have now, support those players who are giving their all. Support the future of the organization and be thankful we were able to experience an unbelievable ride together. That’s all you can do.”
Wade returns with as much class and dignity—and a pretty darned good game—compared with when he starred in South Florida, led the Heat to championships and helped sustain the success with the addition of buddy LeBron James.
But when Wade’s contract expired last summer and Miami was ousted in the second round of the playoffs, the Heat basically assessed their balance sheet: It looked like the end for Chris Bosh with illness. Take a run at the star of the day, Kevin Durant. When that failed, well, how many years did Wade have left? And what was the good of paying all that money to a player who was good, but no longer exceptional, who could help your team but not lead your team, who, yes, provided for the greatest era of Miami Heat basketball. But those fans are not paying for what was. They’ll pay for what’s next.
So Wade joins other greats of the game who suffered similar fates, Oscar Robertson traded at age 31 but still good enough to support Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for a championship. Other Hall of Famers like Dave Bing, Lenny Wilkens, Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier, Dominique Wilkins and Nate Thurmond moved on under similar circumstances. Yes, it is a business. But it’s a business everywhere. Just not with as much public angst and sentimentality.
It is yet to be determined if Miami will be better off.
Should the Lakers have dropped Kobe Bryant and tried to use the approximately $50 million for other players? Would they have been better off than with Bryant’s nostalgia tour and home fan fest? There will be arguments on both sides. No one, not Wade and not the Heat or team president Pat Riley, has said much about Wade’s departure. The generally accepted version is Riley made the tough choice, the famous Branch Rickey maxim that it is better to trade a ballplayer one year too soon than one year too late.
Riley has done well, very well, for the Arison family in Miami. They let him make the basketball decisions. Knowing Riley, I know it’s not something he enjoyed doing. Not quite like the explanation in the Godfather movies that it’s just business, nothing personal when they eliminate you. But it’s more than metaphorical in sports. Fans develop a relationship with players.
But does it become more important than the next success? Would we rather celebrate what we did than get on the way to the next cause for celebration?
Riley took what many would say is the cold hearted business approach.
Unfortunately, most of us experience it at some point in our lives, in our professions as well.
Thanks for everything you’ve done and your contributions to the organization. But we’ve decided to go in a different direction. You’re going that way? No, our way is the other way.
It found the great Dwyane Wade last summer.
He was a free agent and the Heat wasn’t in love anymore. Like, sure. Public relations demanded some sort of offer, and reportedly $40 million over two years isn’t the complete insult. But more money was out there for immortality, way more. More for others as well. The Heat took care of young Hassan Whiteside, who’d won them nothing, with about $25 million per season. They offered Durant everything but Arison’s cruise line. Could you please wait, Dwyane.
It turns out the Denver Nuggets were offering the most money, but, c’mon, no offense, but Denver. Wade had flirted with the Bulls before. Yes, the Wade narrative has been the desire to go home to Chicago. But also to be paid. Wouldn’t make sense otherwise. Could the Bulls get close to what the Nuggets were offering? The Bulls said they’d try. When Mike Dunleavy became a Cleveland Cavalier they could. Dwyane Wade now could go home for about $47 million over two years.
Perhaps the Heat’s only disappointment would have been if Wade had accepted their offer.
What do we do now?
But Wade also understood. You know when you are no longer wanted. They loved Wade; I’m sure they still do. But business and life moves on for all of us, even those who seem more special. That is the true definition of being humbled.
So now the journey to Miami begins.
The Bulls are in Atlanta Wednesday and then Thursday to Miami, where Wade will be welcomed warmly, enthusiastically, lovingly. Not Derrick Rose coming back or Durant or Kevin Love in the NBA free agency diaspora.
Wade knows it will be.
He was the one basically served the divorce papers. If there is a loser in this—which there really isn’t in these sports breakups—it’s Wade. Or at least the one rejected.
Will he be emotional?
Wade doesn’t fall for the media sob story so easily.
“Emotional in what way?” he asked with a smile. “Tear emotional or goose bumps emotional? What kind of emotional are we talking about?”
I’m going for lump in the throat.
“I think I’ll definitely be appreciative,” said Wade. “I think it’s going to be cool to see familiar faces, to see love and support and just being thankful for what you did. Unless you are just cold blooded everyone will feel something about that. At the same time, it’s not like it’s my retirement ceremony where I could get real emotional. I’m trying to come in there and beat their butt. They’re going to try to beat our butt, so you have to get to the competitive part of the game as well.”
Yes, there will be a game to play and after the bows and applause and tributes Whiteside is going to try to throw Wade’s shot into the seats. And while Wade won’t be booed, no one will be rooting for his team to win the game.
“I am looking forward to it,” said Wade. “Obviously some of those guys I played with. I’m looking forward to playing in the environment I played in for 13 years and even coming off a back to back. If my team doesn’t have energy for that night there’s going to be a big problem. I expect us to come in and give whatever we have. I want everyone to enjoy the environment, enjoy the moment. It’s going to be a great environment to play in. I want our team early in the season to experience playing in that environment. I’ll try to seize it.”
Wade isn’t as done as perhaps the Heat feared, though they’ll likely acknowledge it’s more the year too soon thing. They know he could be beating them in this season’s playoffs. It’s OK; they say they have a plan. But Wade also is the effective eminence for this Bulls team, the only one who’s carried a team to a title, who’s performed the greatest under the biggest pressure. He understands those moments. He also understands his team needs to embrace those moments better than they have in the past. This is a baby step.
In a perverse way, it was Wade taking over as well when LeBron James made that first trip back to Cleveland.
“It was negative,” Wade recalled. “Very negative because of the big three coming together and people didn’t like it. We knew there were a lot of emotions. My job was to come out and kick butt early. I took it upon myself to be aggressive early and allow him to get in the game and then once his teammates came out and did the job he took over from there. I think he had like 39 in three quarters. We did our job coming out so he wouldn’t have to be amazing right away and then let him get in and once he got into the flow it was a show.”
It’s going to be a show of a different sort in Miami, bright lights and TV analysis and everyone looking for a sign. For Wade, it’s a testimonial both ways.
“I want to see Tyler (Johnson) and Justice (Winslow),” said Wade of his recent acolytes. “Are they going to take that next step? I want to see how Hassan (responds), everyone saying this and that about how much he got paid. So I watch as someone who knows them. Then I watch as a fan and then I watch as a competitor. I’m not wishing anything bad on the organization. I have nothing but love for everybody in the organization and I want them to be successful. Just not when they play the Bulls.”
But he’s also not Gandhi. He probably wants to beat them a little bit like you do your last boss or employer, make sure when he turns the other cheek the scoreboard shows his guys ahead, those guys missing him at least a little. That’s normal. It’s also normal what happened. Thanks for being one of us, Dwyane. We do understand. Enjoy your evening. Few of us get those.