Mar 21, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade (3) on the court during a time out in the second half of a game against the Memphis Grizzlies at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 91-88. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

The Underappreciated Legacy of Dwyane Wade

When Dwyane Wade opted out of the final two years and $41.5 million remaining on his contract prior to free agency beginning July 1, many assumed it was to take a more team-friendly deal to play alongside LeBron James once again. When James turned his back on Wade and the rest of the Miami Heat organization by returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Wade suddenly found himself in a difficult situation.

Wade is clearly past his prime and has been struggling to produce at the level we are accustomed to seeing him play at due in large part to injuries. The nearly $42 million guaranteed that Wade opted out of had an average annual salary ($20.75 million) that Wade will certainly never play for again.

Now a free agent, Wade had to decide whether or not to return to the Miami Heat in the post-LeBron era or to seek another championship run in a different uniform for the first time. The Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks were two of the teams who openly flirted with the idea of signing Wade. Not only are the Bulls a legitimate championship contender, but Wade was originally born and raised in the city of Chicago as well. Consider that Wade met with the Chicago Bulls organization multiple times during his last stint as a free agent in 2010, and suddenly Heat fans had to seriously question where his future in the NBA would be.

Ultimately, Dwyane Wade did what Dwyane Wade has done his whole career – he showed commitment to Pat Riley and the rest of the Miami Heat organization by resigning on a two-year deal that’ll pay him roughly $16-17 million for next season and gives him a player option for 2015-2016. Wade took to twitter to express his feelings on returning to Miami. Attached to the tweet is a picture of Wade standing pregame with the three Miami Heat championship banners (2006,2012,2013) that he helped bring to the city in the background.

The decision to return to the Miami Heat and remain a “Heat Lifer” as he described is just the latest example in a career that has been filled with loyalty and sacrifice both on and off the court. Dwyane Wade is a surefire Hall of Famer but for reasons unclear, has never truly been appreciated nationally the way a Tim Duncan has. This lack of appreciation for what Wade has meant to the game of basketball goes well beyond his Miami Heat days, all the way back to his high school and college careers.

The High School Years

It’s hard to believe that someone who went on to have a Hall-of-Fame career in the NBA would struggle to get minutes in high school, but that is what Wade experienced during his time at Harold L. Richards High School. Wade eventually grew (both physically and mentally) into the team’s star player and unquestioned leader his junior and senior year on the squad.

Helen Bibbs, a neighbor of Wade’s father during the high school years, shared her experience of what it was like living next to the soon-to-be superstar in the NBA with the Washington Post during the Miami Heat vs. Washington Wizards Eastern Conference semifinals in 2005. She claimed that the father-son duo would be out practicing at the crack of dawn and go until late evening on a daily basis. “They had that basketball going all of the time” she said.

For any young man who has dreams of playing professional basketball, their high school experience is usually the make-or-break point in fulfilling that goal. Wade began his high school career as a benchwarmer and ended a local hero in Chicago’s South Side. Although Wade was recruited by only three colleges (Marquette University, DePaul University, and Illinois State) due to poor academic standing, he found a new home in Milwaukee when he officially declared to Marquette. Wade proved to his friends, family, coaches, teachers, and most importantly himself that he was able to overcome the obstacles that high school presented.

The College Years

Orlando, FL, USA; General view of basketballs on the NCAA logo.

Despite steady improvement, Wade’s academic issues from high school followed him to his freshman year at Marquette. He was declared ineligible to play with the men’s basketball team because he was in violation of the NCAA’s Proposition 48, which states: “before a high school student can be eligible to play in Division I sports, he or she must meet academic requirements in high school.”

Colleges take academic standing very seriously so for Dwyane, this was surely a gut-check moment in his life. He had to decide if he was willing to commit himself to his studies or risk being kicked off the basketball team and out of the school all-together. Wade spent endless hours that freshman year seeking tutoring and additional extra help in an effort to return to the team the following season.

Wade’s dedication paid off when he was declared eligible to join the Marquette University men’s basketball team as a sophomore. Wade led the Golden Eagles to a combined 53-13 record the following two years including an improbable upset over top-ranked Kentucky (83-69) during the Midwest Regional Final of the 2003 NCAA Tournament. In that game, Wade recorded only the fourth triple-double in NCAA history at the time when he lit up the Wildcats with a 29 point, 11 rebound, and 11 assist effort (oh, and four blocks). To this day, that game still ranks amongst the all-time historic NCAA men’s basketball performances and one that is not recognized nearly as much as it should be around the country.

The Pre-Draft Analysis 

Nov 8, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; A detail of a NBA basketball during the first quarter of a game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Los Angeles Lakers at New Orleans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the 2003 NBA Draft, Wade was quoted as saying “Nobody knew who I was. Nobody knew who Marquette was. I had to work hard.” Wade’s hard work not only elevated his draft stock, but also helped put Marquette University on the map nationally (something he would later do in the NBA as well).

Opinions on how Dwyane Wade’s game would translate to the NBA differed tremendously. Some scouts argued Wade had one of the quickest first steps they had ever seen. He was viewed as an athletic freak of nature who was an unselfish, team-first player with maturity well beyond his years.

On the other hand, Wade did have his fair share of non-believers. Among the most repeated criticisms of Wade was that he was “too small to be a shooting guard and did not possess enough point guard skills to run a team offensively.” Many also doubted Wade’s ability to ever consistently shoot the ball from 10-plus feet. The collective consensus was that Wade would go somewhere in the top 10 but was far from an elite prospect.

The 2003 NBA Draft 

dwyane-wade-rookie-card

 

To say that the Miami Heat lucked out on Dwyane Wade with the fifth pick in the 2003 NBA Draft would be an understatement. The surprise of the draft came when Detroit Pistons selected foreign big man Darko Milicic – this essentially opened up the possibility of Miami selecting Wade three picks later. After Carmelo Anthony (Denver) and Chris Bosh (Toronto) went third and fourth overall, the Heat were next on the clock.

It’s easy to look back at drafts and question certain picks and take others for granted. Miami Heat President Pat Riley has reflected on more than one occasion over the years how torn the organization truly was with who to draft in that moment. The NBA gurus felt as though the Heat were in an undesirable draft position at No. 5 overall because the thinking was after the top four picks of LeBron James, Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh, the drop off to the second-tier prospects was significant.

Riley has admitted he was leaning towards taking a big man (specifically Chris Kaman) with that pick. After speaking to trainers and scouts who worked with Wade throughout the NBA Draft Combine process, Riley was pushed to instead draft Wade. The thinking was that a big man (Kaman) may be a “safer” and “less risky” pick but Wade had the potential to be a superstar. Thankfully for Heat fans, Riley trusted those who urged him to go against his gut instincts.

The Professional Years

Jun 10, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat lineup announcement prior to game three against the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

I truly believe that Pat Riley decided to gamble and draft Dwyane Wade because the franchise was in desperate need of a savior. The organization had recently lost the best player to ever put on a Heat jersey in shocking fashion when Alonzo Mourning was forced to retire following the 2001-2002 season after being diagnosed with a serious kidney disease.

The Miami Heat were still a fairly new franchise to the NBA that had only been around since the 1988-1989 campaign. They were trying to build a winner in South Florida, an area that had always been football crazy. With Wade, the hope was that Miami could transform into a basketball city.

It didn’t take long for Heat fans to realize they had something special in Dwyane Wade. He averaged a 16-4-4 as a rookie and showed flashes of greatness immediately in the NBA. He helped lead the Heat into the playoffs his rookie year, something that was an accomplishment in itself given how poorly the team was constructed before Wade was drafted.

Wade was selected to be a part of the 2004 USA men’s basketball team following his impressive rookie season in 2003. Wade, 23, was part of an extremely young core that earned a bronze medal in Athens. The third place finish was a major disappointment for Wade and the rest of his teammates who had dreams of gold.

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The Olympic experience seemed to have a positive impact on the progression of Wade’s game. He transformed from a very good to flat out great player seemingly overnight. In just his second year in the league, Wade was not only the face of the franchise, but he had the organization legitimately contending for championships.

Dwyane Wade found himself on top of the basketball world when he led the Miami Heat to the 2006 NBA Championship. Wade posted per game averages of 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.7 steals, and 1.0 blocks while shooting .468% from the field.  Wade also got to the free throw line a ridiculous 97 times in the six-game series – 42 more times than the next closest player (Dirk Nowitzki).

According to ESPN’s John Hollinger, Wade had the greatest Finals series since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976. He recorded a Finals record 33.8 PER (player efficiency rating), a statistical performance tracker that determines how impactful a player is in all phases of the game.

Despite Wade’s heroics and unworldly play, he never truly received the respect he deserved for that moment in his career. People wanted to focus on the Dallas Mavericks going up 2-0 then dropping four straight games in the series instead of Wade willing his team to victory on the biggest stage under the brightest lights. The 2006 Miami Heat were sandwiched between the years of Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs dominance and the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers renewed rivalry. That Miami Heat team, particularly Dwyane Wade, is the most overlooked and underappreciated championship team of the last decade.

Wade was once again a part of the Olympic roster for Team USA in 2008. Now 27 and in the prime of his career, Wade was a more polished overall player and a better leader to his teammates – factors that ultimately helped capture gold medal honors in Beijing.  Wade came off the bench but was arguably the most important player on the roster as he led the team in scoring all tournament long. He saved his best for last in the gold medal game when he lit up Spain for 27 points in 27 minutes in a dominant performance in Olympic basketball.

By the start of the 2008-2009 season, Wade was already well on his way to punching his ticket into the NBA Hall-of-Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. That year he went on to average 30.2 points per game, the most in the NBA and the title of “scoring champion.” When thinking back to Wade’s journey in the NBA over the years, one thing many people forget is the scoring title that season. Wade has always been an unselfish player in a league filled with selfish stars, so this accomplishment should not go unnoticed.

The summer of 2010 may forever be known as the wildest NBA free-agency season in the sport’s history. The Miami Heat stunned the basketball world when they landed LeBron James and Chris Bosh to team up with Dwyane Wade. The sudden turn of events that no one saw coming left people wondering how this was possible.

Jun 20, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade (left), LeBron James (center) and Chris Bosh (right) celebrate after game seven in the 2013 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena. Miami defeated the San Antonio Spurs 95-88 to win the NBA Championship. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Dwyane Wade not only sacrificed millions of dollars, but more importantly his legacy in the NBA when he (and he alone) made this possibility a reality. In a sports world filled with greedy athletes who tend to put their paychecks above everything else, it was Wade who stepped back and looked at the bigger picture. Already an NBA Champion and perennial All-Star year after year, Wade had nothing to prove to the city of Miami or the rest of the NBA. Still, Wade wanted to do more.

It’s almost unheard of for superstar athletes to willingly take a backseat to another star in the prime of their career, but Wade did. It’s even more rare for a superstar to take a backseat for a new member of his organization (LeBron James), the place he put on the map (Miami), for the franchise that he made relevant (Heat), but Wade did.

Wade’s unselfishness was rewarded with four straight trips to the NBA Finals from 2010-2014 – something that was only done by two other franchises (Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers). Interestingly enough, history proves that four straight conference titles is harder to achieve than three straight NBA titles, as the three-peat has been accomplished five other times in NBA history.

Yet in the eyes of a majority of fans around the world, the Heat were “only” able to capture two titles in the four-year run with LeBron James alongside Dwyane Wade. There has never been a team in sports where the “title-or-bust” theory applied more so than it did with the Miami Heat the last four years. There has never been a group of players that had more pressure on them to win at the highest level, but Wade and the Miami Heat won and won often.

As we stand today, Dwyane Wade is a three time NBA champion (’06, ’12, ’13), a NBA Finals MVP (’06), and a 10-time NBA All-Star (’05-’14). I could go on and list every other accolade that Wade has earned over his years with the Miami Heat but the list would be never ending.

These accomplishments have been earned through hard work and dedication to be one of the best in the business. Wade has overcome numerous knee/shoulder surgeries, groin strains, stitches, cracked ribs and broken bones throughout his time in the NBA. Not only has Wade overcome more injuries than any superstar in recent memory, but he has also sacrificed more money and role within an organization as well.

Dwyane Wade is a once in a generation athlete. The city of Miami and Heat Nation as a whole are well aware – it’s time the rest of the world realized this too.  

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