A MONTH AFTER Dwyane Wade and LeBron James signed with the Heat in the summer of 2010, I crouched in a roofless all-terrain vehicle deep in the bush country of the Madikwe Game Reserve just along the South Africa-Botswana border. It was dusk, and a cool breeze rustled the brush as two male African lions woke from their daylong slumber. They were both huge, in excess of 400 pounds, with full black manes that indicated their maturity and vitality. A few minutes later, they let out simultaneous roars that vibrated the truck and signaled their dominance to the rest of their pride -- and to any other males within earshot.
Our guide, a South African who lived on the reserve, had been monitoring the duo. The lions were brothers and had recently forced out an older male to take control of the pride. These two were in their primes, and the battle scars on their faces mapped the history of all they'd survived to reach their lofty rank.
But this did not follow The Lion King script. Can two lions, both near their physical peak, share a pride? Can there be more than one alpha male? Won't they eventually have a power struggle? "Maybe they will watch each other for weakness and then decide," our seasoned guide said. "Lions can turn on each other. But they all have their own personalities. It could keep working."
It's not natural for two alpha males to coexist -- in the wild or in the NBA. Eventually they look for vulnerability in each other. This is why the James/Wade pairing remains so scrutinized, even within the team. For three years, they've fought nature and won. But they have also had stretches when they've struggled together, when Wade's frustration about his role has been written on his face and when LeBron (and everyone else) could see that the Heat sometimes played better with one alpha on the floor. Now they have reached what could well be the saturation point, a fourth year at the top of the food chain, after which they can opt out of their contracts at season's end. Over the next eight months, their every move will be dissected. Will one set himself up to pursue his own pride? Will one try to push the other out? Or will it all somehow keep working?
NEAR THE END of a training camp practice in the Bahamas in early October, coach Erik Spoelstra watches as his cast of future Hall of Famers, shirtless and shooting at the same hoop, sings along with Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier" wafting through the muggy Caribbean air. The vibe is laid back. Yet with James and Wade coming off a postseason run in which their on-court relationship became noticeably strained for the first time, it's hard to forecast whether the run galvanized or scarred them.
During the Eastern Conference finals, bone bruises in Wade's chronically cranky right knee were hampering him. His shot was flat, and his lift was all but gone. As the series with the Pacers tightened, James appeared to shut Wade out. In Games 5 and 6, James took 47 shots and Wade had only 19. James said he felt he was in "Cleveland mode," an ominous reference to his pre-Wade days. Wade sniped back, "We've got to try to help each other out in this locker room and not leave it up to the individual to self-will it." That was the closest their relationship has come to cracking. Once they survived the Pacers, the most glaring stat in the first six games against the Spurs was that the Heat were minus-56 on the scoreboard with James and Wade playing together and plus-48 when James played and Wade didn't.
Wade and James often refer to themselves as friends, but those close to them say that's not exactly accurate. They are friendly. More important, though, they have shown a commitment to working with each other. That was ultimately why James made the decision to trust Wade in Game 7 against the Pacers. Wade took the first shot of the game and put up four before James fired his first. Wade ended up with 21 points, his best game of the postseason to that point; James finished strong and had 32 points. Miami ended up in the Finals, where James again helped a struggling Wade come through in Game 7 -- with 23 points and 10 rebounds -- while he authored one of the greatest series-winning performances in NBA history. Once again, they had navigated the key moments, under outrageous pressure, and held the partnership together.
Yet the dynamic had clearly shifted. And in the Bahamas, everyone senses it. James now feels and acts like the leader of the team, and Wade has accepted his lesser role. "I'm the second option on this team," Wade had said at the team's media day in Miami. "Point-blank. Let's say it." Given that one of Wade's first orders of business during the Big Three's initial training camp in 2010 had been to announce that he would no longer answer to "Flash" -- the sidekick nickname Shaquille O'Neal bestowed on him nine years earlier -- this is a big, if obvious, admission.
Yet the situation is far more fluid than his "point-blank" analysis indicates. Even as Wade, 31, seems ready to acknowledge that mileage and circumstance have taken their toll, he does not accept that he's too diminished to lead. LeBron would agree that Wade is still an alpha. But as long as he's still around, LeBron makes clear that his older teammate will always be the one who needs to be nurtured, bucked up and led.
"One of my biggest leaps, as far as my leadership," says James, his voice echoing through a cavernous, nearly empty resort ballroom the Heat have transformed into a makeshift gym, "is me understanding and sensing things. I sense it, I know it.
"Sometimes I see it on D-Wade's face," James says of Wade's chagrin in seeing his shot attempts decline. "I'm so aware of the game that I know when it's time to get him a look or I need to get him an easy bucket because he's been struggling or he hasn't gotten a touch in a while. It's letting him know that I know it's not easy. It's saying: 'I know sometimes there's a lot going on from the outside, and you get frustrated. But we wouldn't be in this position without you. You're going to make plays to help us win.' It's about letting him know who he still is: 'You're still D-Wade, and no matter what people say, you can still get it done.'"
As last season's playoffs showed, when Wade can't get it done, both of them become frustrated. But Wade also gets peeved sometimes simply because the two stars still rub against each other on the court -- and he, not LeBron, must step down. In January, during a nonchalant media session, Wade was asked whether he missed the days when he took 20 to 25 shots a game. His answer -- "Every day" -- raised eyebrows.
"I see frustration on Dwyane's face all the time during games," says TNT analyst Steve Kerr, who was a teammate of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Bulls. "He overcomes it. Winning overcomes it. Losing pushes it to the surface." In December, as James spoke after it was announced that he'd been named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, Wade lingered in the background, jumping up and down like a child trying to get attention. He later tweeted congratulations to James -- along with a photo of his Sportsman of the Year cover from 2006, just in case anyone had forgotten that he'd earned the honor first.
In other words, Wade's alpha game and hunger won't change this season or next. He is a force. "Sometimes it's frustrating because I know I've got more," Wade admits. "I've totally changed my game. I tried to do it for what I feel is the best for this team. Was it the best for me individually? Maybe not."
Throughout his 10-year career, he's played with reckless abandon, driving into the paint and finishing through contact. He has battled chronic knee issues, and his physical style of play has only added to the wear and tear. Wade has grown weary of discussing his health and, in typically dogged fashion, is trying to outwork the wear on his body. He reported to training camp in excellent condition, thanks largely to a grueling six-week program with trainer Tim Grover. He often scheduled midnight workouts with Grover, even when he had practiced earlier that same day. "He's extremely fit. He's had a great camp," Spoelstra says of Wade. "He's trying to win every drill."
LeBron loves that. He loves how, when the stakes were the highest, in the three Game 7's the Heat have survived to win the past two titles, Wade averaged 22 points and eight rebounds. He cherishes the two 2012 Eastern Conference semifinal games in Indianapolis, when they combined for 139 points to squash the Pacers' upset bid, and the must-win Game 4 in San Antonio in June, when together they scored 65 and saved the season. This was the stuff their 2010 dreams were made of. But whether that good will can survive another season is anyone's guess.
HISTORY SUGGESTS IT'LL be very hard to keep the pride intact. The 2013-14 Heat are trying to do something no franchise has done since the Celtics of 1984 to 1987: reach a fourth consecutive Finals. Other so-called dynasties have dulled after three years for a variety of reasons, but most of them were natural: Players were worn out mentally or physically; they got old; or stars started fighting among themselves or with management. The Kobe Bryant/O'Neal struggle undercut a chance at a historic run. Jordan and Pippen might've been able to four-peat, but by 1998 Pippen had tired of the lesser paycheck, and his trade demands became the domino that knocked down the whole dynasty. The Bryant/Dwight Howard partnership never got off the ground because injuries prevented them from hunting together.
"What is going on in Miami I don't think has ever happened in the league," says sports writer Sam Smith, a Hall of Fame honoree who chronicled the Jordan/Pippen era. "Scottie came second and never had to step back to accommodate Michael, and Michael never accommodated anyone. Wade had been a better player than LeBron, more celebrated and more successful. When they came together, Wade really had to step back. If Wade has remained friends with LeBron, he's a better person than I already think he is."
Heat president Pat Riley brought James and Wade together and might find himself in the position of having to re-recruit them next summer. He can't predict their mood if the Heat don't win a third title or, as Kerr says, some of their deep-rooted compatibility issues surface. But he sounds confident that both players understand the stakes.
"Dwyane realizes that he's playing with the real deal and that in the biggest moments the ball will be in LeBron's hands," Riley says. "And he realizes that doesn't make a difference. If they keep winning and make sure that's [priority] No. 1, they'll go down as one of the greatest in history. The challenge is to stay that course and keep becoming the godfathers to each other's children."
Kerr is not convinced they're up to the challenge. "It's hard for teams to keep their edge," he says. "You get mentally fatigued from dealing with the pressure. The questions start to wear on you, and it starts to piss guys off." Riley puts it another way: "We have a little hump to overcome in the next year."
For now, James and Wade continue to fight nature. "If I was a selfish guy, then this team never would have been assembled; it never would have worked," Wade says. "Myself and LeBron are both alphas, and we've learned to share."