Twenty years ago, before the three championships, Hall of Fame induction and plans for a statue outside the Miami Heat’s arena, Dwyane Wade was just starting his NBA career.
It became clear early that the No. 5 pick of the 2003 draft had the potential to change the Heat’s franchise. After being selected out of Marquette, Wade joined a Heat team trying to make a leap after a lottery-bound season. The 22-year-old joined All-Star Eddie Jones and that summer’s big acquisition Lamar Odom as the Stan Van Gundy-coached team made an improbable run to the playoffs.
“My rookie year, Eddie Jones was starting two guard, we brought Lamar Odom in from the Clippers – that was the coolest dude in the NBA – and it was his team,” Wade said on the first episode of his new podcast “The Why with Dwyane Wade.” “We maxed him out and we [were] building around Lamar…so I was just supposed to get those guys the ball and cut through and get out of the way, that’s all Stan [Van Gundy] had me doing.”
After losing 15 of their first 20 games, the Heat finished the season 37-20 to earn a spot in the playoffs. By then, Wade had earned All-Rookie honors as he averaged 16.2 points, 4 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game as Miami’s starting point guard.
It was in Game 1 against the New Orleans Hornets that the keys were handed to Wade. With the game tied at 79, the Heat had the final possession. Rather than draw up a pindown for Jones or a post-up for Odom, Van Gundy called 3’s number.
“He decided to drop a game-winning play and give me the ball. So in my mind I’m like ‘What? What? He’s about to give me the ball with all these guys on the court, you’re going to give it to me?’ I’ve been practicing this my whole life, okay.”
We all know what happened. Wade took Baron Davis off the dribble, got to his spot near the foul line, stopped and popped a mid-range jumper for the improbable Game 1 win. The Heat went on to beat the Hornets in seven games.
“After that game the responsibility shift[ed] to: you’re the go-to guy,” Wade said. “I can’t say I was prepared for it. Like you [Dirk Nowitzki] I was very quiet, I was shy, I wasn’t a leader. But when you do stuff like that, you become the guy, you become the leader.”
The rest is history. That summer, the Heat traded Odom and Jones to the Los Angeles Lakers for Shaquille O’Neal who, along with Wade, delivered the franchise’s first championship in 2006. Wade won two more with LeBron James in 2012 and 2013, and finished his career as the greatest player in franchise history.
But it was in that moment, against the Hornets his rookie season, that Wade became the franchise player.
"The Why with Dwyane Wade” is a co-production of iHeart Podcasts and Wade’s 59th & Prairie Entertainment.