Dwyane Wade was running out of places to play, running low on destinations that made sense for someone to continue — or perhaps close out — a career that will eventually find him donning an orange jacket in Springfield, Massachusetts. Wade went home to a hero’s welcome in Chicago only to discover that the team for which he grew up rooting for wanted to rebuild a year into a two-year deal. He then repaid the good friend who once nearly burnished his reputation in his home state to join Wade with a reunion in Cleveland. There, he accepted the limitations of his age, and changed his game and number for an awkward fit that never looked or felt right.
All along, Wade recognized that what he needed couldn’t be duplicated anywhere else but Miami. What he was missing wasn’t going to be found with a bigger bag of money or by rekindling magic that only worked with the organization where Wade had always belonged. But if a hissy over respect during a contentious contract negotiation led to their separation, a history of mutual respect during 13 years of success brought them back together. “I was birthed here,” Wade recently told Yahoo Sports. “This was all I knew. You might’ve heard Coach [Erik Spoelstra] or Pat Riley say, ‘This is not for everybody here.’ And it’s not. But it’s for me.”
Wade had never experienced being traded at the deadline until his 15th season in the NBA, but a midseason move is acceptable when it involves a return to the familiar. And he hadn’t realized how much he’d need the Miami homecoming until the loss of his former agent and longtime mentor, Henry Thomas, turned upside down the world of Wade.
“I think I had a little depression that last couple of days in Cleveland,” Wade told Yahoo Sports. “This definitely gave me a little jolt. I’ve never lost anyone close to me, that Ioved. So this definitely has taken a little time to get over. But being back here kind of helps that, being in my environment, my comfort zone with people that love me and that I love. That was a sad moment.”
At Thomas’ funeral, Wade received all of the confirmation he needed to believe that reconciliation was possible with the Heat. Though Wade and the Heat had publicly thrown bouquets of affection at each other during their time apart, and Riley had long ago sent Wade an email expressing his appreciation for the player who brought Miami its first championship and sacrificed money and prestige to bring two more, the hard feelings were settled in silence. Riley gave Wade a hug.
“It sounds simple. But it’s like, sometimes, as a kid, you just need that embrace from your father,” Wade told Yahoo Sports. “Him coming to my agent’s funeral, a very vulnerable time for myself and [Udonis Haslem, who was also represented by Thomas], meant a lot to me. Just that warm embrace meant a lot to me as well. You know the business can get in the way. I understand that. I made the decision I made [to leave], but at the end of the day, I know that guy [Riley] would run through a brick wall for me. And this organization would. It felt right. I think that had a big thing to do with this trade happening to bring me back at this time.”
Had the Cavaliers been in a better place, rather than staging a slow death march, Wade might still be doing the peanut butter-and-jelly thing with LeBron James. But what began as an odd, confusing collection of talent developed into an odd, confusing collection of incongruous talent that needed to be separated before it imploded. “I felt like I did everything that was asked of me there, but the team wasn’t working as a whole,” Wade told Yahoo Sports. “That’s basketball, man. That’s life. Things don’t always work out. You give it your best. … I feel like I did a great job there. I feel like, with my role, I did as good as I can. Unfortunately, we weren’t winning games and they had to make some changes. And that’s OK. It was time for them to make those moves.”
Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman wanted to do right by Wade and give him the chance to take his talents back to where it all began. “It was seamless as it could be,” Wade told Yahoo Sports of the trade that yielded a second-round pick for Cleveland. “It was the best trade deadline for me. Like I told the GM, I appreciate him for putting me in a good position. Sending me to a place where I should be and I wanted to be. But outside of that, everyone is happy, I think. After a while, everyone was seeing it wasn’t fitting. It wasn’t working. I think everyone is happy with their respective teams, where they’re at. We move on.”
The second time around rarely is an extension of that initial fairy tale, with nostalgia-seeking fans who want that old thing back and glory-seeking stars trying to prove what they still have left. Few remember, or rather choose to forget, how Scottie Pippen and Allen Iverson finished with Chicago and Philadelphia, respectively. Kevin Garnett’s return soured his relationship with Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. “I think I’m one of the best at making adjustments to my team, adjustments to my body, the years, the age, all these things,” Wade told Yahoo Sports. “I’m good at that. I look to come in here and play whatever role is needed on a nightly basis. Sometimes, it’s going to be more. Sometimes, it’s going to be less.”
Wade isn’t worried about how this second act will play out; he’s merely excited for the opportunity to have one. Fewer than three weeks into his return, Wade has felt the influence that he had on a community that playfully named after him the county where the Heat plays. If the emotional ovation upon his return weren’t enough, Wade learned that Joaquin Oliver, one of the 17 people killed in the Parkland, Florida, tragedy, was buried in his Wade jersey. Wade has dedicated the rest of the season to Oliver.
“Going out to different teams, for me, was something personally, I needed to do,” Wade told Yahoo Sports. “But also you get to see you’re missing some things that helped you become the player you have been. The place you can get it back is here. I definitely miss a lot of things. We talk about the culture. We talk about accountability. Structure. It’s everything. I missed that, because even though I went out there and got a little bit more freedom, from a basketball standpoint, I missed the things that made me successful.”
The Heat are trying to win a different way from Wade’s heyday, by not relying on one man’s heroics. Wade has missed potential game-winning jumpers against Philadelphia and New Orleans, but his value to the organization will come from the wisdom and leadership that a three-time champion can share to a younger group that’s eager to win. Wade feels fortunate that the decision to return was made for him, through a trade, rather than having to make another emotional choice in free agency this summer. The past year has been challenging, considering what he had to surrender to break free from Chicago (a giveback with a buyout that made negligible the difference in salary that led him to leave Miami), the struggles of a Cavaliers team that flopped, the loss of the man who guided him through his path to stardom, and an unexpected fence-mending that really had to happen.
“I always say, as long as you stay in this league, you’ll see stuff you never thought you would. It’s a little easier coming back to Miami. If I was going anywhere else, it would’ve been a little bit tougher,” Wade told Yahoo Sports. “I can’t wrap [the year] up yet, because it’s been ongoing. But it’s been a life experience, man, that I appreciate. Because it’s all about the journey of life. You see who you are when you go through times. I definitely learned a lot about myself. I definitely have appreciated people a little bit more, the ones who have been there for me in tough times.”
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