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Win or lose, Wade savoring final NBA season

Dwyane Wade is 'enjoying the process' as his legendary career winds down

MILWAUKEE – Erik Spoelstra could pick up the phone. He could call or text his peers in the Eastern Conference with a gentle nudge in Dwyane Wade’s direction for when they flesh out their All-Star ballots later this month in choosing the East’s seven reserve spots.

The Miami Heat coach could do that.

But he won’t.

“I’m not that kind of guy,” Spoelstra said Tuesday morning, before his team faced the Bucks at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. “It would come across so shocking and probably disingenuous. When I receive those emails that are not written by the coach, just cookie-cutter letters, I kind of roll my eyes.”

If Spoelstra, who loves Wade, can’t get sentimental over his veteran player’s prospects to play in the 2019 All-Star Game, he’s not about to lobby the other 14 who’ll hold power over Wade’s 13th selection.

Especially since Wade isn’t feeling it, either, in what he’s announced as his final season.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” the 12-time All-Star said. “One last hurrah is not going to make or break what I feel about my career. I’ll be down there anyway.”

There still is a chance that Wade could be voted in as a starter. He ranked second among East guards through the second week of fan voting results, behind only Kyrie Irving. Fan balloting, which will account for 50 percent of each player’s total, ends Jan. 21. NBA players (25 percent) and media (25 percent) also will contribute to the selection of starters, to be announced Jan. 24. Then the coaches’ choice of reserves will come Jan. 31.

“I think it’s cool from a fan perspective who love this game,” Wade added, “that they have so many favorite players that they always want to see ‘em on that stage. [But] when it comes to the All-Star, you want the guys that deserve to be an All Star, the best first half of the season, to be able to go and live out a dream. I had that opportunity multiple times.”

The dream Wade is living out now is about the 40 games left on Miami’s schedule, plus any postseason. When this is over, it’s over, Father Prime cleaning out his desk and clocking out for Father Time.

This last lap through the league has been a season unlike any other for Wade, and for those inside and outside the Heat organization who admire the 6-foot-4 guard and the career he’s built over the past 16 years.

“A lot of guys in this locker room are going to be as sad and emotional as him on the last game,” teammate James Johnson said after Miami’s 124-86 loss to the Bucks. “The fight’s still there. It sounds crazy, but I’m not the only one who notices it – his want to still get better. And help everybody else get better at the same time.”

The native of Robbins, Ill., south of Chicago – and arguably the greatest pro athlete in south Florida’s history – has crafted highlights and memories everywhere he’s gone in this league. But Milwaukee, if not first among equals, ranks near the top for him as far as NBA opponents’ venues and crowds.

It’s where he went to college, at the Marquette University campus that’s a Steph Curry 3-pointer to the west. It’s where he played, sort of; the Bucks and the Golden Eagles shared MECCA till 1988, then Bradley Center through last season and now Fiserv.

Wade never had competed at the city’s new downtown arena before Tuesday, but as he spoke courtside with reporters in the morning, a banner with his No. 3 Marquette jersey hung in the rafters directly overhead.

“I always talk about coming to Marquette – many years ago now – with a hope and a dream,” Wade said. “Hoping to become good enough to play at the next level, and I was able to accomplish that.

“There’s a lot of memories coming back. Played in the Bradley Center a lot, a lot more memories [there].”

Wade played just two seasons at Marquette, but left his mark. Especially in 2002-03 when he averaged 21.5 points and led the school to its third Final Four, and first since Al McGuire’s 1977 championship “last hurrah.”

The program had produced some solid professional players during and immediately after McGuire’s heady 13-year run, including Maurice Lucas, Jim Chones, Dean Meminger and Doc Rivers. But in the 20 years after Rivers was drafted in 1983, only five Marquette players got a sniff in the NBA.

Starting with Wade, who was the No. 5 pick in 2003, eight players from the program have been drafted, including Wesley Matthews, Jae Crowder and Jimmy Butler, and 14 have drawn NBA paychecks of some duration.

“It was really cool early in his career when coach [Tom] Crean was still at Marquette,” Spoelstra said. “He’d come to our shootarounds and our practices, and you could just feel the legacy that Dwyane had created.”

In years past, the Heat often would hold practices on the Marquette campus in a nod to Wade’s roots and as a moment for his younger teammates. “For guys to see that connection,” the Miami coach said.

This time, Wade got to town the day after the demolition of Bradley Center went public with an impressive implosion of the building’s roof. Wade watched video of it with Johnson. Imagine your old grade school being razed, or seeing your favorite playground turned into a shopping mall.

“It was a little emotional,” Wade said. “There was a lot of memories go in that explosion for me, y’know?”

Wade and his team won’t like the memory they made Tuesday in the new place. In the final game of his 36th year – Wade turns 37 Thursday – he entered to a loud cheer midway through the first quarter and stuck around for 10 minutes, then came back for the final 94 seconds. He played another 11 minutes after halftime, but it was hopeless.

“An onslaught,” Spoelstra called it, as the Heat fell to 21-21.

Wade finished with nine points on 4-of-7 shooting, with three rebounds and four assists. (He came up empty in the one stat that still intrigues him: Wade needs 28 blocked shots in the final 40 games to match Michael Jordan’s record for guards of 893.)

That’s the side of the ball that speaks to Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer.

“He does amazing things on the biggest stages,” Budenholzer said. “Be it a postseason game or a regular season game, when he dials it up defensively. It’s amazing some of the things he can do. Whether it be blocking shots or getting into the passing lanes and getting steals. His athleticism, his anticipation … I’ve been on the wrong side of those steals too many times.”

Wade is averaging 13.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 25.3 minutes, shooting 42.2 percent overall. His per-36 numbers have been solid – 19.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists – but his efficiency rating is low for him and his days of dominating games by getting to the line are over.

He plays now more in the service of the other Heat players, running dribble handoffs for the big men, spacing the floor as much as he can as an average 3-point shooter. He’s no longer what Johnson called “the always-aggressive D-Wade.”

“The thing is playing a different role, playing with different guys,” Wade said. “I’m not necessarily always playing to my strengths. I’m playing to their strengths.”

The Heat and the Bucks play twice more this season, including March 22 in what looms as Wade’s final regular-season game in Milwaukee. Given the uncertainty of injuries and playoff seedings, though, the teams might meet several more times on the Bucks court. Or the game Tuesday could have been his last there. He swapped jerseys after the game, as has become his custom, with Bucks veteran George Hill.

Wade will be back at Fiserv Sunday, when Marquette – at current coach Steve Wojciechowski’s urging – honors their greatest hoops alumnus. After Miami plays at Detroit Friday and at Chicago Saturday the entire team will bus to Milwaukee for the school’s 11 a.m. matinee against Providence. Only after a ceremony saluting Wade will the Heat head to Boston for its game Monday.

“I was flattered,” Wade said. “Just to be able to come back here and create another memory, another moment, with a total different group of guys, with a different student body. So I’m humbled and appreciative of the opportunity on Sunday to say ‘Thank you’ once again for all the support.”

Miami hasn’t been happy with its record, weighed down by wasted opportunities against mediocre foes. Wade has had his moments, but mostly he has looked like a soon-to-turn-37 perimeter player.

Will this farewell season be memorable?

“I dunno,” Spoelstra said, “but I’ll be telling Dwyane Wade stories for the rest of my coaching career. And how he was willing to sacrifice and do different things for the betterment of the team.”

Wade said that, even on such a moribund night as Tuesday, his commitment to see this through hasn’t wavered. For 22 minutes, he was able to lose himself in the game that largely has defined him, certainly brought him most of what’s good in his life.

“There are other guys in there who are going to carry this loss, and coach is going to, more than I will,” Wade said. “I’m on the downside now. There’s only 40 games left in my basketball life. For me, I’m just enjoying the process.

“This is probably our third one like this. It’s going quick. We’ll be at the All-Star break before we know it, and it’s downhill from there.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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