On the basketball court and in the corporate arena, Dwyane Wade‘s potential appears limitless. As the perennial MVP candidate and newest Air Jordan pitchman confronts off-court distractions and constant speculation about his future, he’s not close to giving up his spot on the medal stand as one of the undisputed top three players in the game.
Earlier this season, Wade posed for the cover of Dime #54 (on newsstands now) and sat down to interview for this story.
Somewhere along the way, Dwyane Wade went Hollywood.
But not in that big-headed, “Don’t you know who I am?” insufferable diva kind of way. No, six years since he entered the VIP room that is the NBA — with a championship and Finals MVP and Olympic gold medal and League scoring title and tens of millions in salary and endorsements under his belt — D-Wade is still the same surprisingly humble guy he was when he came out of Marquette via Chicago, when he introduced us to a young husband and father just trying to give his family a better life. The ultimate embodiment of the American Dream realized through this sport we love.
Rather, D-Wade has gone Hollywood in the sense that he knows The Show must always go on. He’s come through personal adversity to develop a shell of concentration. Despite any negatives in his life, despite any perceived distractions, Wade can put on his armor and perform at a level higher than just about any basketball player in the world.
“All that stuff people were talking about in the offseason, D-Wade did a great job of putting it to bed this summer to focus on the season,” says Miami Heat teammate Jermaine O’Neal. “He’s shown a lot of maturity, especially for a guy that’s been in the League only six years. I knew him from playing against him in Indiana and on the All-Star team, but I didn’t know him to the level I do now. His focus is incredible.”
It’s an early-November afternoon in Miami, typically sunny and seductive around the city. In a clandestine gathering of media, sneaker executives, security and two of the NBA’s definitive athletes over the past 25 years, Wade is the center of attention at the launch of the Air Jordan 2010. The night before, he dropped 41 points on the Wizards — and later tonight he will give the Cavaliers 36 points and one of the highlights of the season with his dunk on Anderson Varejao. (Look it up.) For now, Wade takes the stage alongside Michael Jordan to talk about the newest release in the sneaker game’s iconic line.
Here, Wade is at ease.
He tells jokes that, told years ago, would’ve landed him on blast in MJ’s Hall of Fame speech. (“I think Mike retired the year before I came in the League … strategically,” Wade says with a grin while everyone laughs.) Stepping in front of Dime’s camera lens to shoot his fourth cover for the magazine, he is all smiles. But like an experienced actor/model, he can throw on expressions on command: the ice grill, the intense look, the pensive look, the Thinking Man look. Without prompt, he even gives a “blue steel” Zoolander face to draw more laughs.
Seeing him like this — crisp tailored gray suit, hairline so tight it would make Steve Harvey cry, diamond earring and salesman’s demeanor ready at the snap of a finger — you’d never know D-Wade’s life was so complicated. You would never know he’s been recently involved in a messy divorce with the mother of his two children, or in a pair of lawsuits with a former business partner. You’d never know that he is possibly playing his final season in the only professional home he’s ever known. You’d never know that part. And that’s exactly how he’d prefer it.
“I would like to say I’ve grown up a lot,” Wade says, asked to go back to 2006, when his fame initially exploded following his first NBA championship. “You know, a lot of things in my life have changed from 2006 going into 2010. There’s a lot of things that make you grow up. There’s a lot of changes in life, my kids get older — I’ve had another son since 2006 — so just a lot of different things.”
One of the most overused words in sports is “distraction,” but in Wade’s case, it’s a question that needs to be asked. Last season he played through distractions well enough to average a League-leading 30.2 points per game, along with 7.5 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.3 blocks, finishing third in MVP and Defensive Player of the Year voting, respectively. This season, at the time we got up with Wade, the Heat had one of the best records in the NBA through the first three weeks of the schedule and Wade ranked second in the League in scoring.
“You know, I deal with [the free agency questions] when I come to the arena, but outside of that I really don’t,” Wade says. “I understand that it’s exciting for fans. I understand that it’s a big story and I play into the story sometimes, and sometimes I don’t. So I like to have a little fun with it.”
Fun like later that night at American Airlines Arena. With fellow 2010 free agent and close friend LeBron James on the court with Wade — and Jordan and Scottie Pippen just happening to be in the stands — one couldn’t help but envision a future with Wade and LeBron playing together. Otherwise, conventional wisdom says Wade’s options break down like this: Stay in Miami and carry his own team, go to New York and become an even brighter star, or go home to Chicago and fulfill the prophecy set when he donned a Jordan jersey for his Dime #13 cover shoot in 2004 and signed with Jordan’s imprint earlier this year.
“If things go the way I want — and I’ve said it from day one — I want to be in Miami,” Wade says. “I want to make sure that we can continue to add to our team and I hope Miami is the main attraction city of next summer. I hope a lot of people want to come down here. But at the same time, I’m gonna take my time with LeBron, with (2010 free agent) Joe Johnson. All of us are going to sit around a table together and chop it up and see what guys are thinking and what guys are doing. Ideally for me, everybody wants to come to Miami. That would be ideal. And we could have that option.”
Rank these four in order of preference: Winning, money, location, and mass appeal.
“Well, winning is one,” Wade says. “There’s no question about it. Location might be number two. For me, mass appeal. And then money is last.”
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If our fantasies about celebrities are anywhere near true, Dwyane Wade is swimming in it like Uncle Scrooge. He’s flicking it around in the sky like Lil Wayne. He’s having it hauled into the bank in body-sized sacks like Tony Montana.
Wade will earn a little more than $15.7 million this season in NBA salary, plus a few extra million from his endorsement deals with Jordan Brand, T-Mobile, Gatorade and Lincoln vehicles, among others.
The path has been moving as quickly as a movie montage for D-Wade, from the South Side of Chicago to sitting out his first year in college to get his grades straight, to becoming a superstar on the court and an icon off it. The money is the easy part; the fame is a whole other monster. Along the way he’s learned what Jordan and Kobe and A-Rod and De La Hoya had to learn: how to tune everything else out and focus on the business of winning.
“You know what? It’s actually gone better than I thought it would. You never know how your career can go,” Wade says. “When we think of our career real close, we all think of success and we think of winning. Even the downfalls I’ve had have made success and winning that much better. And there’s a lot of things in the process that have made it great. I wouldn’t change it. You know, from winning a championship to winning 15 games or whatever it may be, all that has made me the person that I am and I’ve learned from all of it.”
Finding focus was easy just a year ago. In the summer of 2008, Wade had something to prove. Coming off two injury-plagued seasons — including the aforementioned 15-win, 67-loss debacle — his status as one of the game’s elite was suddenly in doubt. New stars like Chris Paul and Dwight Howard and Brandon Roy had risen to prominence, and Wade’s ’06 title seemed like a long time ago. Facing legions of doubters, not to mention a troublesome knee and shoulder, he enlisted the NBA’s foremost trainer, Tim Grover, to help rebuild his body. He got back in shape, and had his rebirth at the 2008 Olympics while helping lead Team USA to a gold medal. He followed it up with last season’s run that included a return to the playoffs and a return to the royal class alongside Kobe, LeBron, Dwight and the rest.
Wade had motivation to workout like a madman then. But what about now? What would push him in ’09 to make 2010 another memorable one?
“Like every summer, you approach it to get better,” Wade says. “This summer I didn’t have to rebuild my body because I wasn’t coming off an injury, but I still worked on assets of my game that I wanted to bring into this year — my post game, more of my mid-range game, my three-point shooting. To get better. And I continued to strengthen my body, so it was actually better this summer because I was able to build off of what I did last summer. Continue to fine-tune the parts of my game, but also to make sure that this year I’m even stronger for my body to be able to take on an 82-game season plus playoffs and hopefully don’t break down. So just continue to keep building your body stronger.”
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The last time I saw Dwyane Wade before this, he was being screamed at by teenagers and elementary-school kids, gawked at by grown men and women, and pulled in four or five different directions by an ever-present team of handlers. That was during All-Star Weekend in Phoenix, for a T-Mobile event at the NBA’s Jam Session fan fest.
Wade was supposed to have about 10 minutes beforehand to do a one-on-one interview. Maybe four minutes in, he was being whisked away by people in suits into the delirious crowd, even having to shout his last answer to me over his shoulder.
Not much has changed. At the Jordan Brand launch, Wade is being pulled in more directions than he has limbs. Somebody over here wants an interview; somebody over there wants a photo; somebody needs him for this; somebody needs him for that. Everything is on the move, each stop timed to the second. Being able to stand still and not talk for a few moments is a rare gift.
Wade is the newest and perhaps most high-profile member of the Jordan team, one that includes Derek Jeter, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. Acquired from the Converse imprint that he carried for years, Wade was, like every Jordan endorser, hand-picked by MJ himself. He is also the first pitchman other than MJ chosen to be the face of the actual Air Jordan sneaker. He will debut the 2010’s on the court at All-Star Weekend in Dallas — the city where he won his championship and Finals MVP in ’06 and set the wheels in motion for this coronation.
“I really don’t look at it like becoming the face of the brand with so many guys that have been here before me — especially Chris and ‘Melo and Derek,” Wade says. “I just want to come and add to the brand. It’s an unbelievable honor for me and I’m excited. This is one of the biggest accomplishments in my life to be able to see Michael say, ‘I want him in my brand.’ It’s really amazing.”
And why shouldn’t he be the chosen one? While Kobe seems to have taken ownership of the “Closest thing to Mike since Mike” title, Wade may be the more accurate depiction of Air. It begins with the Chicago connection, but extends to an on-court style that is more explosive than smooth, even lacking that deadly jumper, akin to Mike’s early work. Then you look at Wade’s role on the Miami Heat. Like Jordan’s pre-title days, Wade, 27, has a supporting cast generally considered not good enough to put him in position to carry them all the way. Like Mike once did, Wade is doing it all in a way other superstars in the League don’t have to.
“You can’t stop him,” says Knicks assistant Herb Williams, who played in the League during the reigns of Jordan, Magic, Bird and Isiah. “The only thing you can do is keep him off the free throw line as much as possible. If he’s making his jump shot, he’s impossible to stop. You got to hope he’s missing his shot and try to guard him with more than one guy … You have to get the whole team to guard him.”
Ronnie Brewer, defensive stopper of the Utah Jazz and the man charged with guarding the Wades, Kobes, B-Roys and Ginobilis of the League, saw Wade go off for 50 on him late last season in a triple-overtime thriller. “I think he improves his game every year,” Brewer says. “He can get to the basket at will and finish at the rim. But he keeps getting better at shooting, three-point shooting, two-dribble pull-ups, post-up game. He’s a good rebounder, good passer and good defender, so he’s got a lot of things going for him. When you have to guard him you have to prepare yourself for a long game because he can do so many things well.”
Brewer is right. This D-Wade is not the one we’ve seen in years past.
“I’ve taken more of a leadership role now,” Wade says. “I’m better on the defensive end of the floor, and I understand more that my team needs me to assert myself defensively. In 2006, I didn’t have to stick the other team’s best player, I just did the offensive stuff. So now I think I’m a more complete player.”
O’Neal, a six-time All-Star center who was traded to Miami in the middle of last season, sees the changes.
“Sometimes guys in the League have a hard time when another player comes in, thinking he might demand more touches or demand a different style of play,” says O’Neal. “It was never like that with D-Wade. His first words to me were, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’ My first words were, ‘I’m glad to be here.’ We know that we need each other to win a championship. I’m trying to get one, and he’s trying to get another one.”
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In sports, a championship is the ultimate elixir. Reputations can change, personality clashes can disappear, tensions can dissipate. D-Wade never had to deal with the, “Can he win the big one?” phase, unlike Kevin Garnett and Steve Nash and Tracy McGrady. He’s certified in that respect. At the same time, he won his title three, going on four years ago, and his team hasn’t seriously contended for a chip since then. Ask Kobe: Put a long enough gap between rings, and people start to forget things.
“That title (in ’06) is always gonna count, no matter what no one says,” Wade says. “But there’s always going to be a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ mentality for the world. That’s just the world we live in.
“I think for me, until other guys like LeBron and Carmelo, if them guys win a ring, then it’s really gonna be like, ‘Alright, D it’s really your turn again.’ I think what I’ve done by winning one so far, kind of taken that off me, I’m still good. But no one wants to win a ring more than me. I expect they build a team around me that we can do that, and if we do that then we’ll have the opportunity.”
With each game — with each day — the pressure mounts.
Pressure on the Heat as an organization to prove to Wade that this is where he should be for the long-term. Pressure on Wade to prove he’s worthy of all the courtship certain to come his way next summer. Pressure on everyone to prove it’s all worth it: The distractions, the money, the hours, the sacrifice.
“He’s been a professional throughout the whole thing,” says teammate Udonis Haslem. “Whatever situations come up off the court, D always does a good job separating the two. I commend him for that, because a lot of times it’s hard for guys to separate those things.”
Haslem has seen Wade grow up. He was on the Heat in 2003 when Wade came in looking to make a mark, and he’s seen Wade tattoo his presence on the sports world’s consciousness. Looking back on his first days as a professional, maybe Wade didn’t see a man who would someday attain the balance of ice-cold focus and fiery work ethic done famously by idols like Jordan. Maybe he did. Back then he was just looking to survive in this new world.
“My goal was just to make a statement,” Wade says. “You know, to first of all play the game and to finally get to live my lifelong dream out. But also to go in there and make a statement and let it be known that I should be a top player in this League and I’m gonna go in there and prove it.
“I wanna say that the foundation of what I am will never change and will always be the same,” he goes on. “For me to say that things haven’t changed in my life, the way I approach things, it has. You know, because of the fame and because of the world that we live in today — the Internet world — there’s a lot of things you have to do to live your life differently.”