"The Next Michael Jordan"--My Case for Dwyane Wade

This past August I wrote an article about Dwyane Wade, which was the cover story of the first HOOP of the new season. Now that Pat Riley's back in the saddle in Miami and everyone's going to be watching lots of Heat games on TV let me offer up a little background on the man you will see dominating those Heat games: Dwyane Wade.

P.S. There's total irony in the fact that the article's headline makes a big deal about the unusual spelling of his name: in the early days of TrueHoop, I totally misspelled his name and got busted doing so by an alert reader.If you only learn one thing about the NBA…
Learn how to spell D-W-Y-A-N-E W-A-D-E
By Henry Abbott

The analogy is not just tired. It's exhausted to the point of lifelessness. First it was Harold Miner. Then it was Grant Hill. It has been, at various times, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, LeBron James, and perhaps a dozen other athletic perimeter players. Through it all what we've learned is that really, there is no such thing as "the next Michael Jordan."

But if you put a gun to my head and begged me to pick one from today's NBA players, I would not hesitate. I'd choose Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade.

It's not a perfect analogy. There are big differences in their games and in their biographies. Michael Jordan at this age was a dominant personality and scorer on a losing team. Wade is a good scorer who shares the spotlight on a team that sniffed game seven of the Eastern Conference finals in just his sophomore NBA year.

Jordan became a fearsome defender who could control the game at both ends of the floor, while Wade will have to improve significantly to make the league's all defensive team.

There are also physical differences. At 6-6, Jordan had a height advantage over a lot of 1990s NBA shooting guards. Barely 6-4 in two pairs of socks and thick-soled shoes, Wade plays at a near-constant size disadvantage in an era of shooting guards who are often 6-7 and taller.

Made famous by his ability to "fly," Michael Jordan now established a legacy that is muddied with the notion that his greatness was one of simple athleticism. In fact, as extraordinary as his leaping ability was, it was among his most replicable traits. Boston rookie Gerald Green, Golden State guard Jason Richardson, Milwaukee swingman Desmond Mason there are a lot of great dunkers these days. As a biological specimen, Jordan would find plenty of rivals in today's NBA.

What's more, Jordan's training innovations including early morning yoga, specialized diet and stretching, a full-time personal trainer have all been widely replicated and profoundly improved in the intervening years.

Others, including plenty of current NBA players, interpret Jordan's legacy as one of transforming celebrity: eye-popping shoe deals, massive beverage endorsements, and starring roles in major motion pictures. Those factors simply don't fit in my calculus of picking the most dominant wing player of a generation.

But where it counts, Jordan and Wade have their similarities. To my way of thinking, the qualities that made Michael Jordan a legend were as follows: a hundred different kinds of relentlessness, ceaseless tinkering and improvement moment to moment and year to year, scoring at the rim, taking and making game-winning shots, and winning.

In those terms, Dwyane Wade is the best MJ impersonator yet.

Champions overcome trying circumstances. Most people who meet Dwyane Wade assume he hasn't really had the chance to do that that yet in his life. He has "golden boy" written all over him.

Wade doesn't drink, smoke, or use drugs. He talks about God, he tithes, and he'd rather be seen in a suit and tie than a tattoo. After playing for a respected division one college program at Marquette, Wade was the high pick of an NBA team with playing time, a great coach, a talented roster, and a willingness to spend. He married his high-school sweetheart, whom he has known since he was nine. He is a doting father. He says please and thank you, even to reporters.

This, it would seem, is not a man who has had it so hard. Unlike so many young Americans, Wade displays no ready signs of the urban poverty struggle. Those who gloss over his background can be forgiven. EA Sports executive Sandy Sandoval, who recently pulled the strings for Wade to be on the cover of a popular NBA video game, for instance, explains his decision by saying Wade "comes from a great family."

The truth is, Dwyane Wade hardly comes from a family at all.

"Whatever I do in life, I just do the opposite of what I saw growing up," he explains. "I do everything not like it was in my neighborhood. No question, that makes it tough. You got to be mentally strong. It's easier to have a positive role model. But I did it another way, saying I can't be like that."

Over the last half-century, the south side of Chicago has taken a beating. First the meatpacking industry departed, followed through the years by the once-booming steel industry. By January 17, 1982, when Dwyane Wade, Jr. was born to a welfare mom and a broken home, the predominant local industries were that sad trifecta of gangs, drugs, and violence.

"I grew up seeing all of it. People selling, people using drugs, guns, shootings… I saw it all on the street every day. All you can do is just keep moving."

Wade gives his older sister Tragil credit for raising him. When she was 13 and he was eight, she told him to get on a bus with her to go see a movie. In fact, Tragil was removing young Dwayne from the bad neighborhood by delivering him to their father and his new family in the suburb of Robbins, Illinois leaving the hectic life of their mother behind.

"It was so bad," remembers Wade, "that when I moved to Robbins, which is one of the worst suburbs, I thought it was like heaven."

Thankfully, life in Robbins had room for more than shootings and drugs. But it wasn't paradise for an eight-year-old either. "My dad had three older sons from another relationship," explains Wade "and they were all living there, so I got beat up a lot."

Wade kept his head up by believing in God, in basketball, but mostly in his own future. It's something he still does. "I picture a lot of great things," he says. "Growing up in Chicago, I pictured playing with Michael Jordan all the time. I pictured playing on a great team with great players like Shaq. I've got plenty of dreams about winning championships. I picture myself kissing the trophy. I've hugged it plenty of times in my mind… If you don't dream, how are you ever going to know what you want?"

Wade went to Richards high school where Coach Jack Fitzgerald and Wade's teachers fell for the talented young kid, tutoring him in their spare time for free to help him pass the necessary tests for college. When Dwayne's father's marriage got rocky during his senior year, Darlene Funches, who is now Wade's mother-in-law, let Wade move in. Eventually he earned a ticket out, when Marquette University offered him a scholarship.

Marquette Coach Tom Crean is unrelenting. "Every single day we worked hard," remembers Wade of his three years on campus. "Our practices we called them wars. Every day someone was bleeding. A lot of times we wouldn't even use a ball. We were just diving on the floor, taking charges, boxing out. It made us tough."

It has been too much for many players. It was almost too much for Wade. "At the time, my freshman year, I was thinking this ain't worth it.' But then I found myself getting better. The program started to get attention. We started winning. We made the tournament. Then it was like: All this work? We need it."

Wade started smiling, and it has become a habit. Despite his upbringing, teammates, friends, even Wade himself confirm that Dwyane Wade is "nice." It's a word that's positive in most contexts. But among elite athletes, it's just a half-step this side of "soft."

No one ever said Michael Jordan was nice, for instance.

But no one who has seen Dwayne Wade play up close thinks he's the slightest bit soft. He's still a veteran of Tom Crean's practice gym. He's still from the south side of Chicago. And, as former teammate Keyon Dooling says, "he has that dog in him."

"Off the court, that's one thing," explains Wade. "But on the court, that's what I do. That's my passion. That's my profession. It's totally different when I go to work. So, yeah, I've got a little dog in me."

The other people who toughened him up during his college years were the members of the immediate family he has built. "Siohvaughn went to Eastern Illinois University, about five hours away," Wade says of his now-wife. "So we did the whole long-distance thing. We dealt with all that. Then my child Zaire was born in February of my sophomore year. When he was really young, that was a trying year. Siohvaughn transferred to Marquette with the baby and we lived off campus. People say having a kid is unsettling. It had the opposite effect for me. I just wanted to spend all my time with him. I couldn't wait to get home from practice every day, just to see him. My last year of college, I hardly went out at all. We were doing the settling down thing. That started when he was really young. It's tough, of course. It's also a blessing. It's like the NBA. It's like it's a gift and it's a curse. The NBA is a gift because of all the wealth and the fame and the game, but it's a curse because of all the things you have to do. It's the same with the child. It's a dream come true, but it comes with some work."

Those tough college years built a player who relishes contact, smiles after getting knocked to the floor, doesn't cower from pain, believes in year-round work, and is always happy to go to his modest suburban home to spend time with his wife and child.

This off-season, for instance, started with making sure the ribcage injury that derailed Miami's playoff hopes "never happens again." Michael Jordan's notoriously tough trainer, Tim Grover, put Wade through grueling stretching and strengthening sessions in Chicago. At the same time, he has dedicated himself to extending his shooting range and improving his already strength in every way.

The time in Illinois was also dedicated to showing young Zaire where daddy and mommy grew up.

"I take him there, to bring him back to earth some. He goes to [Miami teammate Shaquille O'Neal's] house. He goes to all these NBA people's houses, and he thinks that's the way life's supposed to be. I don't want a house like Shaq's. It's too big for me. But Shaq does everything big. His house in Orlando is 60,000 square feet. I'm happy with something a little smaller."

The thing that makes Wade most like Jordan is his relentless quest to adjust and improve minute by minute, month by month, and year by year. For instance, then-Pistons Coach Larry Brown managed to slow Wade for a time with the taller defender Tayshaun Prince in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. A few quarters, later, he called for Richard Hamilton and Lindsay Hunter to spell Prince, because Wade had found ways to adjust and get hot.

To keep defenders guessing, Wade experiments constantly in practice. "If you don't try it, you'll never know if you're good at it. I'll try anything. And if it works in practice, I'll do it in a game. I remember my rookie year, I shot with my left hand from around the free-throw line," says the right-handed Wade. "I got fouled and made the free throws, but of course coach hated that."

When he lets his imagination run wild, it almost always runs to game-winning shots. In his third year in the NBA, he still has a habit typical of an eighth grader: he says that every single time he releases a shot in warm-ups, on the practice court, at a shoot-around he imagines that the clock is ticking down and the game is on the line. "I even do that when my son shoots," he says. "I count it out every time: five, four, three, two, one… You have got to know the clock. You just have to look at it once, and then count in your head. Over time, you learn to do it more under control. I'm more aware of my surroundings. I want it every time. I want the ball every time. I know I won't always get it. But I want it, even though it's not easy to miss one. You can feel like you lost the whole game for your team. That's when you have to be mentally strong. I love that commitment."

There are a lot of fancy ways you can prove that Dwyane Wade is already a top player in the NBA. For instance, one of the most sophisticated and respected modern statistical measures of a player's value is sportswriter John Hollinger's PER rankings an amalgamation of numerous statistical categories weighted in various clever ways. Hollinger reports that last season, Wade ranked eighth overall, just ahead of Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O'Neal, league MVP Steve Nash, and Tracy McGrady.

Then there's this: In last year's playoff series against New Jersey, Wade joined Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, Bob Cousy, and, yes, Michael Jordan as the only NBA players to average better than 25 points, eight assists and six rebounds while shooting at least 50% from the field in a playoff series.

Most importantly, despite a gimpy O'Neal, who missed several games and underperformed in others, Wade carried his team deep into the playoffs. According to many he would have carried them all the way to the finals but for a severe ribcage injury.

These numbers and achievements do little to prove Dwyane Wade is a great winner in the mold of six-time champion Jordan. But knowing that he has already done these promising things, he's smart, he has a lot of character, he keeps himself in top shape, and he is dedicated to improving until he's the very best in my mind, that makes Wade a great bet to soon be the most important name to know in basketball.

"Dwyane's a guy who works extremely hard," says former Marquette teammate, and Orlando rookie Travis Diener. "He can get to the rim with the best of them, he can avoid contact, he can draw contact and still finish. But he's still working. Because come playoff time, teams tend to take that away. So now he's working on this three-point shooting, to add that dimension to his game. I know his jumpshot isn't where he wants it to be, and you can bet he'll be making it better. He works as hard as anyone I have ever played with, if not harder. And you can tell he's still working on things."

"I know he wants to be the best player in the NBA. He deserves everything he gets. He's a good teammate, he's a good friend, and I know he's a good husband and father. He's a great guy. Some people might think it's not for real. But I know the guy and I know it's for real."