MIAMI -- Before Dwyane Wade and LeBron James faced off against each other as regular-season opponents for the first time in 58 months on Thursday, Wade set up his former teammate with an assist after the Miami Heat’s practice on Christmas Eve.
"It's tough in this league,” Wade said when asked about all the scrutiny James received for his initial decision to leave Cleveland and then all over again, albeit to a lesser extent, when he decided to return there. “When a player makes a decision, there's always backlash. But when an organization makes it, it's [perceived as] the right thing for the organization to do. And it's fine. Josh Smith got cut by the Pistons, and it's fine. It's the right thing for the Pistons to do. But LeBron James makes a decision in free agency, then it becomes a different situation."
James and the Cavaliers arrived in Miami on Wednesday not long after Wade made that statement. A reporter asked James what was the one thing on his agenda he “had to do” when he returned for a visit after four years living in South Beach.
“See D-Wade,” James responded before the Cavaliers’ 101-91 Christmas Day loss to the Heat.
Wade must have made the same point to James that he did to the media when they hung out on Wednesday, because during James’ postgame talk Thursday, he offered up an unprompted diatribe that was nearly word-for-word what Wade had to say.
“The question I have that’s kind of been bothering me sometimes is that when a player decides to decide his own fate, there’s always questions about it and why this guy did that, and do that and do this,” James said. "And when an organization decides to go elsewhere for a player, it’s they did what’s best for the team. Figure that out sometime.”
Both Wade and James were right to point out the double standard that exists, but they are asking for fans to set aside their blind passion and become better critical thinkers.
It’s more fun to support the team you root for than criticize it. It’s more convenient to turn your back on a player who used to play for your team than continue to back him, because doing so dilutes your allegiance.
But if Wade and James can teach fans anything, it’s that it’s OK to be nuanced in your fandom. It’s all right to recognize that not everything is black and white. It’s human to acknowledge the layers.
Coming off an embarrassing loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, when the Heat squandered a 23-point lead in the third quarter, Miami needed to win Thursday’s game. Wade played like that was the case, scoring 31 points to go with five rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block.
And coming back to Miami, James and the Cavs needed a win just as bad, in their mind, as they are still in shaky territory with every game becoming a referendum on the status of the team as a whole. And again, James played like that was the case, racking up 30 points, eight assists and four rebounds.
They might be genuine friends, but they’re also very real competitors. They’ve figured out how to wear both hats.
It’s OK for James and Wade to hang out the night before the game. It’s OK to see them sitting next to each other on the sideline, conversing as they wait for the second half to begin. It’s OK that James lingered on the court a solid five minutes after the game ended as Wade was finishing a walk-off interview with ESPN’s Doris Burke, just so he could talk to Wade again, hug him, say so long to his friend.
It doesn’t cheapen the rivalry or make either of them any less of a macho man because he does it. It’s just real.
“Coming into the league, I haven't had really a rival opponent, and the closest thing I've had to that is the years when we went against each other when he was in Cleveland the first time,” Wade said after the game. “Our four years was amazing [together in Miami], and we won't take anything away from it. But it was good to see him on the other side of the court, as well, because he's going to bring out the best in you. And you hope you do the same, so it was good.”
That’s what it will be from now on between the Heat and the Cavs, and Wade and James -- the two greatest players in each of those franchises’ histories playing for pride when they go up against each other, but also playing with the empathy that comes from all the shared experiences they’ve had. Not just Olympic medals and championship rings, but marriage, fatherhood and the wisdom of age, too.
“It brought back old times and the battles that we had,” James said afterward. “Once again, we put up 30 again against each other, and it’s always fun competing against such a great friend.”
While James covered his face with his jersey when he met Wade on the court postgame, like a pitcher covering his mouth with his glove during a meeting with a catcher to shield lip-readers from discussions, Wade was more open about it.
“We always talk,” Wade said. “We're two guys that enjoy the moments that we get on this stage, and to look around us at that moment and see how everybody was kind of looking down on us, it was like, 'Look at the moment we've been a part of creating, whether we've been together or apart.' And it's just being thankful for it.”
They’re thankful for each other, thankful to be able to understand where they’re both coming from. Maybe their example will get more fans to understand athletes in general. They’re performers, but they’re people. They’re competitors, but they’re friends. They’re human.