'I wanted a chance to say goodbye': The evolution of Dwyane Wade's jersey swaps

How D-Wade's jersey swap took on a life of its own (0:47)

From rookies to seasoned vets, Dwyane Wade explains how the phenomenon of his jersey exchange has taken an unexpected turn in his final season. (0:47)

Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 10, 2019. Watch "D. Wade: Life Unexpected" anytime on ESPN+.

MIAMI -- There was one swap Dwyane Wade had always planned to make.

Actually, there were 13 of them.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock Tuesday in a 122-99 Miami Heat victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, Wade -- followed by all 13 of his teammates who were on the bench -- strode to center court, with every one of them holding up his own signed Wade No. 3 jersey.

"The jersey [swap] with my teammates was something I wanted to do all year," said Wade, who ended his night with a special swap with his oldest son, Zaire. "I was just waiting for the right time, and I knew the last [home] game would be it.

"I appreciate them for this. I am exchanging jerseys with all these guys that I don't really spend every day with, and I got a couple, 'So, hey, what's up with me?'

"I was planning something for [my teammates]."

It was a fitting conclusion to the slow dance Wade has done from coast to coast over the past several months, one that has had some of its most memorable moments come from an idea sparked in a group text conversation over the summer.

"He put in our fellas' group chat," Chris Paul said. "When he decided that he was going to keep playing, he said, 'When we all play against each other, we'll swap jerseys after the game.'"

As simple as that, one of the staples of this NBA season was born. It quickly evolved into a nightly highlight after every Heat game.

Over the past six months, all sorts of guys -- from rookies to elder statesmen, stars to journeymen, close friends to players he barely knew and even Benny the Bull -- have posed for what has become the postgame photo: two men standing next to each other, smiling for the cameras, each holding the other's jersey.

"It's been great," Wade said. "Coming into this year, [I was] a little uncomfortable trying to do a [retirement] tour. A little narcissistic of me. But I kind of wanted to give the fans an opportunity to say goodbye, and I wanted a chance to say goodbye.

"But the tour has kind of taken on a life of its own."

CHRIS PAUL WAS simply happy that he was on the court for his moment with Wade, given the hamstring strain that sidelined the Rockets point guard for more than a month earlier this season.

But after their plans to swap after a December meeting in Miami were scuttled by Paul's injury, they were able to do it in late February when the Heat and Rockets squared off in Houston.

"It's been great to see," Paul said. "There's a saying, 'Give guys their flowers while they can still smell them.' Know what I mean? And [Wade] is a guy who is unbelievably deserving of that. I think it's been cool."

Paul, of course, is one of Wade's closest friends. So it stands to reason that Wade would single out swapping with Paul and LeBron James as two of the most meaningful moments of the season.

"Yeah, of course," Wade said when asked if certain swaps stood out to him. "Obviously, the one in L.A. with [LeBron]. That was pretty cool. That was a moment for me and him. Obviously, the one in Houston with CP.

"These are my friends. These are guys I have close relationships with. So the close relationships stand out."

While Paul, James and Wade have shared a strong connection spanning more than a decade, other players, such as Nikola Vucevic, had no prior relationship with the Heat star. That didn't stop the Orlando Magic big man from laying the groundwork early to land his piece of history.

"You sort of have a little hatred for the opponent you play. But I think we moved on a long time ago, and the respect overweighs everything."
Dirk Nowitzki, on Dwyane Wade

During the preseason, Vucevic sought out Wade and asked for one of his iconic No. 3 jerseys, nabbing it after Miami opened the season in Orlando with a loss.

"I just have a lot of respect for his career and what he's done for the game of basketball," Vucevic said. "I like collecting jerseys for certain players that I like and respect, and he's one of them."

Collecting jerseys is a longtime passion for Vucevic, a huge soccer fan whose stash includes several big-name stars' jerseys, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Francesco Totti and Gianluigi Buffon.

Vucevic also made sure he wouldn't miss out on another highly coveted jersey: Dirk Nowitzki's, which he got his hands on last season.

"I wasn't sure if [Dirk would] come back," Vucevic said with a laugh.

The night Wade swapped with Nowitzki was one of the most notable of this season, as the duo famously had a chilly relationship for quite some time.

Given the future Hall of Famers' shared history -- Wade's Heat beating Nowitzki's Mavericks in the 2006 Finals, followed by Nowitzki returning the favor five years later in 2011 -- it is fitting that the two have been tied together all season, including both being placed in the All-Star Game as honorary selections by NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

For a time, it would've been hard to imagine Nowitzki and Wade sharing a moment like they did when they swapped jerseys earlier this season. But as both reached the respective twilights of their playing careers, they've managed to put their differences behind them and appreciate the battles they've shared.

"It was a sweet moment, obviously, for the stuff that we've been through, that our competitive nature has been through, that our relationship has been through," Nowitzki said. "There was some ups and downs, but I think at the end of the day, we're both now grown men. We've been through a lot.

"It's not easy to be friends or to like your competition. I always say that -- I wasn't friends with the Spurs there when we faced them every year in the playoffs -- it just comes with competing at the highest level. You sort of have a little hatred for the opponent you play. But I think we moved on a long time ago, and the respect overweighs everything.

"Now I see that jersey at home, and it reminds me, obviously, of some good memories and some bad memories."

KEVIN HUERTER WEARS No. 3, having grown up idolizing three players who all donned it: scoring guards Wade and Allen Iverson and ... four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace.

"I used to love Ben Wallace because of the hair and stuff like that," Huerter said with a smile.

But the 20-year-old Atlanta Hawks rookie never got a chance to play against Iverson or Wallace. Wade was a different story. Being in the same division as Miami, Atlanta faced off with the Heat several times in the preseason and regular season, meaning there were multiple opportunities for Huerter to try to swap jerseys with one of his childhood heroes.

Wade swapped with someone else each time.

Forty-two-year-old Vince Carter, whom Wade played against his whole career, got one. Rookie Trae Young, who is friends with Wade's son Zaire, got another.

After the final game between the two teams -- one Miami emerged from with a 114-113 victory on March 4 -- Huerter assumed he'd never get his chance.

Little did he know what was about to happen.

"It seems like the [other players] he swapped with kind of knew beforehand," Huerter said. "I had no idea. That was the fourth time playing them, so I literally -- the way the game ended -- I turned and walked off the court kind of pissed off that we had lost and didn't realize that it was the fourth time, so I turned back, like, 'I should probably, like, sit by these guys.' Like, whatever, be a good sport about it.

"And I turned back to the court, and he was right there, and it kind of clicked."

The moment for Huerter was caught on camera, and it became a viral hit -- one that Wade noted made it one of the more special swaps.

"One of my coolest ones of the year was the one with the young kid in Atlanta, Kevin Huerter, just because of the surprise factor for him," Wade said. "I could see how much that meant to him."

For as much as it clearly meant to Huerter, he said it was even cooler to have the opportunity to face off against one of his idols during his last trip around the league.

"It was so crazy to be on the court with him, playing against him," Huerter said. "As crazy as it was, like, talking to him, I think it was crazier getting the chance to play against him.

"And saying one day to my kids, 'You know, I played against Dwyane Wade and played against him five times.'"

BRADLEY BEAL ADMITTED that he wasn't exactly sure how it all worked.

Beal found himself standing on the court next to Wade with the clock winding down in a 115-109 Washington Wizards loss on Jan. 4, and he wasn't leaving it without that No. 3 jersey.

"I said, 'I need your jersey,'" Beal said. "[Wade asked] 'You want this?' And I said, 'Damn right. The one off your back. That one.'"

It was an important moment for Beal. He also wears No. 3 and wanted to make sure he honored a player who, Beal said, has paved the way for players such as him in more ways than just on the court.

"I'm not a big person on being starstruck or being a fan of everybody," Beal said. "But I was a fan of D-Wade and what he brought to the game as an undersized 2. I feel like [he was] one of the first to really make a name for himself.

"A lot of people said he couldn't shoot, he couldn't do this, and he wound up winning three championships. He had an unbelievable career and went down the path I hope to one day as well.

"So for everything he's done, from basketball to the fashion we have off the court now, it's all because of him. It's amazing."

Beal made sure to relay those sentiments to Wade -- something the future Hall of Famer said meant a lot to him, too.

"[There have] been some cool ones along the way," Wade said.

Whatever the connection, whatever the meaning, each swap has provided the opportunity to thank one of the game's greats one last time before he leaves the stage for good.

"It was a big moment for me," Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said of his postgame swap with Wade. "I had a chance to talk to him a little bit. I thanked him for everything he did for the game. Hall of Famer. Three-time champ. One of the best players to ever play the game, and just him giving me his jersey and me giving him my jersey, it's big.

"After basketball, you're always going to remember those moments and tell those stories to your kids."

Wade's story as a player might be coming to an end, but a final season full of jersey swaps has given players and fans one more unique way to honor everything No. 3 has meant to the league.

"Everyone has been great along the way," Wade said. "The NBA has been great. Everyone has been great, and [it became] even bigger than probably I thought it ever would be."

As Wade was preparing for his final jersey swap with his teammates, he spent time thinking about what jersey he wanted to be holding up. After all, it wouldn't make much sense for him to hold his own.

So after swapping his game-worn jersey Tuesday night with fellow Marquette product and former Chicago Bulls teammate Jimmy Butler, Wade made that trip to center court with the rest of his team, holding up a No. 11 Heat jersey with "HANK" on the back.

It was a reference to Wade's longtime agent, Henry Thomas, who died last year. No. 11, Wade said, was Thomas' favorite number.

"For me, when I thought about what jersey I was going to hold up, this season for me was dedicated to my agent," Wade said. "It was dedicated to Hank.

"I just wanted to represent him. As we tried to do all year, we tried to carry ourselves and do things the way we know he would approve of. I know he is up there shaking his head, biting his lip and biting his tongue, and he is proud.

"I just wanted to continue that."

All of this raised a rather obvious question: Wade just added several more jerseys to an already massive collection. Where will they all go?

As the question was posed, his 5-month-old daughter, Kaavia, began to make noises as she sat on his lap as if she already knew her father's answer.

"[Kaavia] said I can't put them up around the house," Wade said. "She is speaking for her momma."

Additional reporting by Tim MacMahon, Ian Begley and Malika Andrews.