Dwyane Wade, sitting on a backbench inside the practice court at the Air Canada Center, peers out at the gym, at men clad in black Heat practice hoodies folding up mats, collecting stray bags and basketballs, rearranging weights in the training room.
After almost two years and two stops in Chicago and Cleveland, he’s back in Miami. The struggling Cavaliers played Extreme Makeover: Team Edition on the day of trade deadline, offloading Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, and a first-round pick for Rodney Hood, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance. General Manager Koby Altman presented Wade with the option of staying in Cleveland in a reduced role or engineering a deal to send him back to Miami.
Asked if he would trade the potential to win a championship for more playing time, he pauses for a moment, and laughs. Once a return to Miami was on the table, every calculation fell away. “It was easy,” he tells SB Nation. “It was an easy decision.”
Wade’s return has induced a pleasant sense of déjà vu in Miami, emanating good vibes within the organization as well as the man himself. The two entities share an inextricable bond.
It was here in Toronto, on May 15, 2016, that he last wore a Miami Heat jersey before the standoff with President of Basketball Operations Pat Riley that sent him packing for Chicago. The creaky legend had just finished invoking terror like he was Flash again, averaging 24 points, six rebounds, and nearly four assists in Miami’s seven-game series defeat. The last three-pointer he hit in the regular season was in December. Against the Raptors, he shot 50 percent from beyond the arc, many of them daggers. At 34, Wade could still deliver what the moment called for, proving his grace was more permanent than his athleticism.
“I don’t even know how to say the word,” Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra tells SB Nation. “I just know it when I see it. Panache. That’s Dwyane Wade. He has panache.”
The Miami Vice iteration of Wade’s jersey sold out within 24 hours after his return. Donning it prior to the game, Wade is once again a civic emblem, the sole sheriff of Wade County. ”Down here,” says Spoelstra, “he’s as impactful as the mayor.”
This will be the last chance fans will see him in it. For the first time in his career, Wade didn’t know if he’ll have it in him to play another season. After Miami’s loss to Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs, Wade waited all summer before announcing his intention to play one last season. The question now becomes whether Wade’s return to Miami can be more than nostalgic.
“He’s always about the moments,” says Spoelstra. “He rises to the occasion.”
After 15 seasons and so many more unforgettable moments, will he be able summon one more?
In Miami, it’s not about the uniform, but the amount of sweat that pours out of it.
After being traded, Wade indulges in his last unhealthy meal of the season with LeBron James, and upon arriving in Miami, gives a chunk of his personal wine collection to Spoelstra. Heat GM Pat Riley tells Wade, who rented out a Waffle House on National Pancake Day last year, that the pancakes and syrup era is over.
It’s Feb. 12, and Wade, participating in his first practice back with Miami, finds himself on the business end of the blows he used to deliver to Josh Richardson, who he mentored two years ago as a rookie. Richardson is the brightest spot in Miami’s youth movement, and standing at 6’6, his instinct for spiking the ball out of his opponents hands channels prime Wade, widely considered the best shot-blocking guard of all time. After practice, Wade hops on an exercise bike next to a couple of teammates.
Miami’s players are administered body fat tests twice a week. When Wade first weighs in, he passes the maximum nine percent body fat threshold, but he is at the bottom of the list. That mark was good enough to be a solid contributor on the Cavaliers, a team with championship aspirations. In Miami, it meant he was the least conditioned guy on the team.
Seven weeks later, Wade’s body fat percentage has dropped to the middle of the list, which is impressive given who else is on it. Udonis Haslem, who barely plays, is chiselled to the bone. He only takes a week off in the summer. “It’s not a job,” Haslem says. “It’s a lifestyle.”
The Heat are seen as an enviable institution, merely a cut below the Spurs and Warriors in terms of organizational culture. But they’re reluctant to participate in their own myth-making. Wade references an aura about the Heat, but he can’t pinpoint specifics. Spo’s go-to response: “We’re not for everyone.”
Working within those confines — where only those who are willing to cede themselves wholly in service of the team survive — filters out those who don’t fit and breeds familiarity among those who do. Teammates, to a man, will tell you it feels like Wade was never gone. The only difference, according to Tyler Johnson? “Uh, he’s older.”
”It’s not for everyone is about I’m not for everyone,” says Wade. “I’m for Miami. I might not be for everyone in Chicago or Cleveland.”
Wade concentrated that single-mindedness into a four-day adult fantasy summer camp in South Beach that he held from 2011 to 2015 for like-minded men over 35 years old. Participants included Young Jeezy, Will Smith, and Kevin Hart, but it wasn’t a mere celebrity showdown. The camp drew in middle-aged businessmen, “Type-A, competitive people that still wanna play basketball, to be coached by real coaches and then have an avenue to express themselves competitively against other really successful guys,” explains Spoelstra, as he accidentally summarizes the Heat’s mission statement.
Together with Wade’s inner circle, which included high school coach Jack Fitzgerald (a Heat employee since 2006) and college coach Tom Crean, Spoelstra put the participants through an open gym tryout and a series of drills. At the end of the day, the coaches would draft their favorite players, marking the beginning of the tournament.
Wade’s father, Dwyane Wade Sr., was always one of the first picks. He’s a dead ringer for his son: a wing scorer who likes to bring the ball up the floor and mix it up down low. When Wade was in high school, he came home from a game after scoring 30 points and notching a victory, ready to bask in his own glory. His dad didn’t give him the reaction he wanted. A few games later, his stat-line was peppered with rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. “My dad was so proud of me,” he recalls. It was a formative moment. “I realized, OK, this is what I need to do.”
”Everybody doesn’t have the same mentality,” he continues, his eyebrows wrinkling together in odd disbelief. To him, it’s self-evident. “If you want it to be all about you, you can go play tennis, where you’re the only one out there. You go play sports like that. This is a team sport.”
Even when Wade was in Chicago and Cleveland, rarely a week would go by without Spoelstra integrating Wade into some sort of lesson. “You wanna talk sacrifice? How about this?” he says, referencing the fact Wade recruited LeBron James, the only player who had the heft to usurp Wade’s place as South Beach’s most important star, to play essentially the same position as him, while taking a pay cut and accepting the internal struggle that accompanies deference.
It wasn’t always easy.
“As a competitor, your most logical way to impact winning is with your own force of will,” Spoelstra says. “Dwyane had to make a decision: I’m going to have to temper my force of will and sacrifice and learn how to impact in different ways, and still be one of the top five players in the world.”
After taking turns ball-handling their first season together and losing in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, Wade realized the best way for Miami to be better than the sum of their parts was for him to cede control to James.
Over the course of 13 years and many more battles, the worldviews of Wade and the Heat have become securely fused.
”I was always kinda lookin’ over like this,” Wade says, looking over his shoulder. “I know what’s out there now, I don’t need to look.”
It’s June 9, 2017, and the Warriors are taking on the Cavaliers in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Wade is watching the game from courtside, but he might as well been sitting on the Cavaliers bench. He is animated, springy, calling out Golden State’s actions as they develop, cheering James on from the sidelines.
The moment harkened back to Wade’s first season at Marquette nearly two decades ago, when the only way he could impact the game was from the sidelines. When the NCAA deemed Wade academically ineligible to play his freshman year, he only had three scholarship offers. He chose Marquette, essentially redshirting for a year. For the first time in his life, basketball, his escape hatch from reality, was taken away from him. In Crean’s eyes, from that moment on, “I don’t think he’s ever not totally been immersed in whatever it takes to win.”
Wade possesses “the gift of honesty,” according to Crean, not just about others but about himself and what to do to put himself in a position to win.
“He didn’t have the background, the accolades, the camps, the rankings,” Crean continues. “He did have humility. He did have awareness. He did have intelligence.”
As a result, for three years, Wade’s self-confidence grew concurrently with the results. His grades progressively improved. He built himself into a top-five draft pick in the most loaded draft class of the decade. In his final year, he led Marquette to the Final Four. Today, No. 3 hangs in the rafters.
When the Heat defeated the Dallas Mavericks in the 2006 NBA Finals, Wade wasn’t satisfied. Instead, he spent the rest of his career chasing that feeling. Even after he signed with Chicago, his inability to keep his mind off the action followed him. That’s what attracted him to Cleveland.
”I’ve went to every Finals since I played in the Finals, as a fan,” says Wade on Jan. 10th, as a member of the Cavs. “And it’s just a feeling, you know? Knowing that that’s what I want. I wanted to be a part of that. So I tried to put myself in that position.
“I came here to compete,” he continues. “Before it’s all said and done, you just wanna give yourself a chance. One day, I’ll never have this game again. I wanna get it all out when I have it.”
That meant leaving his hometown, taking an $8 million pay-cut on the buyout agreement, and accepting a reduced role on the Cavs.
In the preseason, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue approached Wade about whether he’d be open to coming off the bench. Wade wanted to begin the season as a starter and assess where things went from there. Lue ultimately bumped J.R. Smith to the bench, which negatively affected Smith mentally, according to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin.
But playing another shot-creator next to James, as it almost always has, delivered diminishing returns while the starting lineup sorely missed Smith’s ability to space the floor. After getting blown out by Orlando in the third game of the season, Wade told Lue he was ready to join the second unit.
With Wade at the helm of the second unit, prowling in the lane, breaking weaker guards down in the post and finding open shooters, the Cavs’ bench outscored teams by an average of eight points per 100 possessions. It was the first time since James’ return to Cleveland that the Cavaliers weren’t noticeably worse when he rode the pine.
”He is not even remotely a guy who is playing on a string,” Crean says. “If he wanted to control his legacy and play it safe, there would have been a lot of different things to do other than going to Cleveland. The risk was not nearly as important to him as having a chance to win a championship.”
But even with Wade flourishing in his new role, the Cavs continued to struggle. On Jan. 8, they were blown out by the Wolves by 28 points. A few nights later, Toronto drubbed them by 33. So they swung for the fences, and though Wade was offered the option to stay, their trade moves revealed a blueprint that didn’t require him.
Wade always sensed he would end up back in Miami, but not this way. He figured he’d try to win another championship, spend a year in Miami and then retire. He and Udonis Haslem, a Heat lifer, used to envision it when they’d see each other on the road. Despite how distant his relationship with Riley had become, they both had a sense — a hope, really — destiny would somehow interfere.
“Family works things out,” Haslem says. “I figured they’d work it out.”
Destiny, it turns out, emerged in the form of tragedy. When Wade and Haslem’s long-time agent, Henry Thomas, passed away while Wade was still playing for Cleveland, Riley showed up at the funeral to pay his respects. He and Wade barely exchanged a word, but upon seeing each other, they immediately embraced.
“We see it in movies all the time,” Wade recalls. “The family has problems but sometimes it’s an embrace with a father and a son. Both of us needed it, we hadn’t talked in a while, just to see that love was there. I definitely feel that’s why I’m back here, why I said yes to being back here.”
It’s Feb. 27 at the American Airlines Arena. The Heat are taking on the 76ers, who they’ve been trading places with in the standings for weeks. The Heat trail by one point, and with a full shot clock, Wade dribbles up the floor and surveys the action.
“I’ll go to my grave with the ball in Dwyane Wade’s hands with the game on the line,” Spoelstra says. “And that’s it. That’s how I feel.”
Twenty-eight feet out, Whiteside sets a screen for Wade, but rookie sensation Ben Simmons easily recovers to pick him up. Wade crosses over to his left and brushes shoulders with Kelly Olynyk and Whiteside, who set baseline stagger screens. Olynyk catches Simmons, only for Robert Covington, who has five inches and nine years on Wade, to check him.
Wade goes back to his right, attempting to run a pick-and-roll with Whiteside, and slice into the middle, the product of so many lobs. But the 76ers switch again, and Simmons is back on Wade. He surveys the situation. This moment, he decides, is his.
“I’m not as good as I once was. But I’m as good once, as I ever was,” says Spoelstra, quoting country singer Toby Keith while referencing Wade. “I truly believe Dwyane is every bit who he used to be in those iconic seasons. Those moments just may have to be a little bit more compact.”
With the clock dwindling down, Wade steps back to his left, and hesitates as though he’s about to pull up. That gets Simmons to bite just enough that he can step back one more time and create enough separation to get off a clean jumper. With six seconds remaining on the clock, the ball falls through the basket.
Wade skips away, jaunting around the same scorers’ table that he jumped on in 2009, after picking John Salmons’ pocket in an overtime game against the Bulls and hitting a running shot for the win. By some measure, nine years fall away. As though the gravity-defying dunks never gave way to the deceptive pump-fakes, and power never gave way to positioning, as though Flash never gave way to flash-in-a-pan, he exults, “This is my house.”
For a moment, you forget he ever left.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on April 4, 2018, and was updated after Wade announced he would play one last season.