You know what I remember?
Back before he made basketball matter in Miami, catapulting the Heat from a regional team to an international one. Back before he became Michael Jordan in the 2006 Finals, carrying Shaquille O'Neal to a championship. Back before he put together the most interesting sports team South Florida has ever known, LeBron Bleeping James producing a TV show just to announce that he'd be coming to him.
I remember the very beginning of his Miami journey. I remember how Dwyane Wade treated the janitors.
The ushers, the parking-garage attendants, the locker room security, the public relations interns ... this is where Miami first felt Dwyane Wade's touch. Back then, as he started to appear more and more in playoff games and news conferences and commercials and photo shoots on his way to global fame, Wade would walk through the bowels of the arena and reach out to the people who prepared the stage before his performance.
Basketball is ballet for giants, bathed in lights and noise, but Wade's grace extended beyond the court, to all those quieter places where truth and treasures are hidden. Over and over, as they saw him getting bigger, the little people in and around his growing Miami wake would say the same marveling thing aloud, and it was something between plea and prayer:
Please don't change.
Special from the start. Special to the end. Wade has lived a very public and accessible life over the past decade and a half, but try to find a journalist who has a bad word to say about him.
He did change, of course, but only in the ways that growth and fatherhood and heartbreak and learning require.
He went from taking out a loan so he could afford diapers while at Marquette to writing a book about fatherhood. He went from his first marriage falling apart messily in public to marrying a Hollywood starlet, and taking a paternity leave this season to help her become a mother through a surrogate. He went from being the other guy in the LeBron-Carmelo draft to one of the four best shooting guards the sport has ever known ... and the greatest symbol for athletic excellence in the history of South Florida sports.
Chicago birthed him, but Miami watched him grow up, becoming a made man in godfather Pat Riley's culture cartel. "This will be my last first-round exit for a while; I can tell you that," he spit after averaging 33 points per playoff game in 2009 against the Celtics of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. And then all he did that summer was build the superteam that would end them.
"Basketball is ballet for giants, bathed in lights and noise, but Wade's grace extended beyond the court, to all those quieter places where truth and treasures are hidden."
By the time he was standing on a scorer's table, shouting, "This is my house!" after a buzzer-beater against Chicago, it had already long been a noisy redundancy in these parts. The basketball arena in Dade County, sandwiched between the cruise ships and the all-night dance warehouses, had long since been renamed Wade County by locals because Wade hosted the noisiest parties in our fun-fueled city. Wade's greatness and grace combined to turn Miami from a football town to a basketball town during his time. As one sports generation passed away and another was birthed, Wade supplanted Dan Marino as the local sports legend with the most emotional connection to the city. No small mountain, that one. Marino, you should know, used his platform to build a hospital for children in the area.
Miami is a city of shiny things, a place of few attachments, filled with tourists and transients, so the connection between Wade and this place doesn't have a lot of precedent. But here's how it grew: Since Wade's very first game in Miami, the Dolphins have had nine coaches, swallowing even Nick Saban, and don't have a single playoff victory to show for it. For the Marlins -- 10 managers, zero playoff appearances. The hockey Panthers haven't won a playoff series since Wade arrived, either. Even the once dynastic University of Miami football team has failed to win the ACC so much as once since he got here.
During the formative years of sports fandom, South Florida youngsters became teens and then adults with Wade as their only guide and teacher on how to get to winning ... and how to behave once you arrived there. Never mind the Heat and basketball. Wade is the reason many South Florida kids came to love sports. Our city is filled with people in their 20s who know how good winning can feel only because Dwyane Wade taught them.
So, as his career comes to a close, how do you explain what he meant in ways that can be felt? Miamians can argue that Wade was more efficient than Kobe Bryant throughout his career, and better over a five-year run. Wade had more blocks than any guard ever. Made 13 All-Star Games. Won three championships. But résumés are cold. If what you want to do is remember, scrapbooks are better.
So there he is in his younger days, dunking on Jermaine O'Neal and Anderson Varejao in ways that still echo with kids who are now adults. There he is at the very end of the jubilant 2006 season in Dallas, tossing the ball to the heavens after dominating a Finals like almost nobody ever has. There he is at the start of the swaggy Big Three era, tossing the no-look pass over his shoulder to the swooping-in LeBron in Milwaukee, Wade spreading his arms like airplane wings and veering off to the runway's side because he knew before anyone what was about to land behind him in a way you can see spread across his face even in stills.
And there he is with his teammates in the middle of America's racial tension, head bowed in a hoodie, using his platform to remember Trayvon Martin as adulthood and fatherhood called him to activism.
Wade had three leaders in Miami, and he has imprinted them as much as they have imprinted him. Erik Spoelstra began as a video coordinator with him, chasing down his practice jumpers, and still spent this season 15 years later telling anyone who would listen that he'd "go to my grave" letting Wade close games for him even at 37 years old. Stan Van Gundy says there is no player -- not Kobe, not LeBron, not Michael -- he trusts more with the ball at deciding time. And it is poet-philosopher Pat Riley who puts Wade's voice at the center of the Heat's culture, in a quote on the hallway mural that leads to the practice court. They're the only words you'll find on a wall filled with championship photos.
"I ain't going out like this," is what it reads.
It's from 2006, long enough ago to feel like misty nostalgia now. The Heat were down 2-0 in the Finals and trailed by 13 at home in the fourth quarter of Game 3. Riley wrote the word "Season" on the dry-erase board, and he remembers how Wade emerged from that huddle spitting the words "I ain't going out like this" through clenched teeth. Miami won the next four games and its first championship, of course, Wade averaging an absurd 35 points (shooting 47 percent) and eight rebounds in the Finals. "Where there's a will, there's a Wade," is something you hear a lot around the Heat. And you have felt the echoes of "I ain't going out like that," even in this, an emotional farewell season stuck in the purgatory at the middle of the standings. Ask the champion Golden State Warriors. At 37, Wade ended even them at the buzzer.
We rarely allow our heroes to age with grace in the cruel ecosystem of professional competition. Younger legs and sharper teeth emerge to chase down the aged when the fight is for glory and money. Even in the age of player empowerment, you often don't get to choose your ending. It is hard to let go -- confidence is the last thing to go, and the mirror is the last to know -- so there is a desperation to how tightly even legends can hang on. Vince Carter is in Atlanta, and Tony Parker is toiling in Charlotte, and Carmelo is in street clothes. Older now, slower now, Wade spent this last season rising above that cruelty in his adopted city and from arena to arena around America, accepting gratitude and tributes at every last stop, a Miami ambassador from the very beginning 'til the very end.
So, thank you, Dwyane Wade.
For everything you represented while wearing our city's name over your heart.
You carved a forever space on our sports landscape.
You left us better than you found us.
And sports relationships don't get much better than that.