When his career is said and done however many years from now, there’s a good chance Dwyane Wade will be able to stake claim as the best all-around shooting guard not named Jordan or Bryant. Quite the feat, indeed; and to think, his introduction to America came on the biggest of stages exactly 10 years ago this month.
The spring of 2003 was a cultural transition period for basketball. The Lakers dynasty had already seen its best days. Michael Jordan was on his way out; for good this time. And there was a young crop of college kids (and one freakishly gifted high school phenom) on the horizon ready to carve their own identity into the game’s pedigree. Much unlike the college game in 2013, household names littered student unions. There was David West at Xavier and the tandem of Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison at Kansas. TJ Ford might’ve been my favorite player in college in 2003, despite his shooting serving as the biggest crutch to his game. Chris Bosh helped usher Georgia Tech into the national conversation. Meanwhile, Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony was the media darling and with each big jump shot, dunk and uncanny display of veteran savviness, the charge to select him #1 – not LeBron – gained a serious following.
Yet, Dwyane Wade’s season-long dominance was a coming of age campaign equal parts awesome and scary. Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated said about Dwyane in March 2003, “While several other stars played at a rarefied level this season, Dwyane Wade soared higher than any of them.” There’s truth embedded in that statement, too. Wade led his team in points (21.5), steals (2.1), blocks (1.3) while second in rebounds (6.3) and assists (4.4). Even as a wide-eyed 21-year-old who could jump out the gym, Wade’s leadership abilities stood out strong as he and head coach Tom Crean led Marquette to heights the university hadn’t seen over a quarter century (the Final Four) and its highest year-end ranking since 1977 (#6) – the same year Bob Marley released Exodus and the miniseries Roots aired on ABC eventually earning nine Emmys and a Golden Globe.
As it relates to Wade, my fondest memory is of him in winning time. Marquette captured the Conference USA title outright in the regular season, but was bounced in the first round of the conference tournament by UAB. From there, the legend of the man who soon became “Flash” and later (the “corny” as LeBron calls it) “W.o.W.” had me at hello. Here are three distinct memories I have as a 17-year-old watching D-Wade craft his legacy in real-time during March Madness.
1. I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but the backcourt of Wade and Travis Diener was awesome to watch live. Diener could run a half court set and ignite the break, both of which complimented Wade’s game. Go back and watch footage of 2002-03 Marquette highlights and witness Diener run the break. It’s almost as if you can see his eyes lighting up looking for D-Wade, as would any point guard with any sort of common sense. Diener wasn’t Steve Nash in the shooting department (39.6% that season), but he was a point guard in college I enjoyed watching in the vein of Steve Logan, Ed Cota or Dan Dickau.
Digging a tad deeper, a freshman named Steve Novak was on the roster, too. He only saw about half the minutes Wade did, but somehow New York’s current favorite shooter since Richard Kuklinski led the Golden Eagles in three pointers made and percentage (55-109, 50.5%!!). Robert Jackson – who I’m sure has been forgotten in Wade folklore since 2003 – was a dog in the post, too; just a scrappy transfer guy who blended in well with shooters and slashers around him.
What I’m really trying to say is, this Marquette team was dope as shit to watch.
2. The Elite 8 game versus Kentucky was one of those instant “holy-shit” moments we all knew we’d remember for years. Robert Jackson’s 24 points and 15 rebounds hardly gets mentioned, nor does Novak’s 16 points off bench. Both of which are victims of tough luck because Dwyane Wade played one of the few perfect college basketball games I’ve seen in my life. Not perfect in the sense he shot 100% from the field (he was “only” 11-16), but Wade played the game with such dominance, mastery, control and arrogance that within the span of literally two weeks, a good chunk of my high school friends went from saying “Wade’s aight” to “son of a bitch, this guy is going to be the next great shooting guard in the league.”
Wade reeled off 29 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists and four blocks against the #1 seed and heavily favored Wildcats. That “killer instinct” every has become so obsessed with over the past few years? Wade looked like a cross between Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. By mid-way through the first half, it was evident Keith Bogans, Chuck Hayes, Gerald Fitch and Kentucky had ran into a buzz-saw/pit bull with an extreme mean streak. Those pre-game predictions of the ‘Cats waltzing to the Final Four went to hell in a gasoline-drenched handbasket.
The win guaranteed two things. One, Wade had officially arrived on the national scene. He was a future franchise cornerstone. He was a killer, but one with the flair and confidence to package TV deals around; something David Stern has made billions of dollars doing over the year. And two, that brings me to the last point.
3. This wasn’t guaranteed as much as it was prayer, but we were one game away from a possible Marquette vs. Syracuse national title game – or in other words, Dwyane Wade vs. Carmelo Anthony. I’ve got a friend to this day who says Wade was the best college basketball player in 2002-03, not Carmelo. Melo – for as great an offensive threat as he was and still is – lacked the all-around game as the guy who would eventually be selected two spots before him later that summer. And he would’ve had the opportunity of grasp immortality with that statement had Wade and company not ran into Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison and Kansas.
For Wade, it’s safe to say it all worked out in the end. He was still a top five pick in 2003 and is now the owner of the unique distinction of being the best shot blocking guard in history (and one of the better perimeter defenders of his generation). There’s also his two rings (and counting); one as the unquestioned Alpha dog, the other as “Charlie” to LeBron’s “Maverick.” And he’s a pretty awesome father by all accounts who’s shacking up with Gabrielle Union in Miami.
Yeah, it’s been a pretty good decade for Dwyane Wade, all things considered.