On Pro Basketball
The crush of bodies surrounding Dwyane Wade as he left an N.B.A. court for the last time as an active player had the effect of a small tidal wave, surging through the jammed Barclays Center tunnel, head-on into a pack of waiting well-wishers.
At the rear of the crowd stood Pat Riley, who brought Wade to Miami 16 years ago, nurtured him to stardom, celebrated three championships with him, let him get away in 2016 over a contract dispute and less than two years later welcomed him home with open arms.
“Whoa,” Riley said, hands on the shoulders of his wife, Chris, steadying her against the swell of humanity.
Now here, finally, came Wade, man of the hour. Wade and Riley, both standing 6 feet 4 inches, made eye contact. Riley raised his right arm forward. Wade reached above the security detail, clasping his hand with the team president’s. The linchpins of the Miami Heat franchise pulled together for a heartfelt embrace.
“One more,” Riley told Wade. “I’ve got a max contract for you.”
Wade snickered. Riley chortled. It was the self-mocking joke Riley could tell and they both could enjoy after Wade, having gone home again following unfulfilling detours to Chicago and Cleveland, was given the send-off he deserved.
After being traded back to Miami by the Cavaliers early last year, Wade talked himself into a last dance for the 2018-19 season, many nights of which he played younger than his well-worn 37 years. Properly feted before Miami’s home schedule closeout on Tuesday night, he scored 30 points in a victory over Philadelphia and topped it off with a playful triple double (25 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) as the Heat’s season ended 24 hours later with a 113-94 defeat to the playoff-bound Nets.
“I can retire and be happy about my career,” Wade would say, sporting a gold and black jacket in the interview room, on his way out to dance the night away with a guest list that included his N.B.A. “brotherhood” — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul.
However dapper at 74, with a fine head of combed-back gray hair, Riley was never part of that social scene, just the patriarch who landed Wade with the fifth pick of the 2003 draft, considered at the time to be a consolation prize after James, Darko Milicic, Anthony and Chris Bosh were the first four players chosen.
But Wade was more special than anyone imagined during his time at Marquette, a world-class gymnast in basketball footwear, with the uncommon calm of a cocksure gunslinger.
When Wade had moved on into the corridor leading to the locker room, I told Riley about a 2005 playoff night in Auburn Hills, Mich., when Wade, as a second-year player, was making life quite difficult for the defending champion, defensively stout Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals.
Taking a halftime stroll, I ran into Chuck Daly, who as the Pistons coach in the late 1980s had devised a defense specifically for Michael Jordan — the famous Jordan Rules.
“I’ll tell you what, he’s got some Jordan in him,” Daly said, dragging on a cigarette, when I asked what he thought of the young Wade. “He’s got all the things you can’t teach.”
Riley nodded. “Chuck was right,” he said.
Wade had other elite qualities besides the balletic ability to score from angles we couldn’t be sure actually existed. He could pass like a point guard when his team needed an assist. He was a solid team defender. He retires as the most productive shot-blocking guard in N.B.A. history, having last month nudged past Jordan.
Flashy as he was, Wade had some Tim Duncan in him, too. Until James arrived with Bosh in the summer of 2010, he was unquestionably the franchise star without having to broadcast it to the world, and his door was open to anyone who could give him a better chance to win.
Wade embraced Riley’s 2004 acquisition of Shaquille O’Neal when Kobe Bryant wanted no part of the big fella in Los Angeles. He recruited James while fully aware of how the self-proclaimed King was great at basketball, as well as sucking the oxygen out of an organization.
When James departed after two titles and four consecutive runs to the finals, Riley called it the most devastating blow of his time in Miami, but Wade insisted there were no hard feelings. It was business. He was still being paid to play basketball, live in Miami. How could life not be good?
Yet he wasn’t immune to wounded pride when Riley refused to give him a third contract year in 2016, citing Wade’s balky knees and declining stats. Wade left, reluctantly, one more divorce in a league of ever-transient stars.
There’s nothing wrong, nothing at all, with players maximizing free agency, leveraging their way to whichever location suits them at a certain career stage. James of course has been the pied piper of the paradigm. Kevin Durant is reportedly poised to again follow his lead, right out of Golden State.
But James’s presence in Brooklyn on Wednesday night, a convenient excuse to avoiding dealing with Magic Johnson’s sudden, stunning disappearance from the Lakers’ front office, was a reminder that the more moves a player makes, the better the odds he might eventually outmaneuver himself.
Meanwhile, Dirk Nowitzki, like Wade, was also demonstrating the currency in continuity, finishing a 21-year run Wednesday night with the Dallas Mavericks to widespread acclaim. Manu Ginobili and Duncan were similarly deified for staying the course in San Antonio. Wade will remain the toast of South Florida.
In the Miami locker room, a few young Heat players lined up for Wade to sign their jerseys and sneakers. The No. 3 jersey he wore was given to Anthony, a shooter without a squad after parting ways with Paul’s Houston Rockets this season after a mere 10 games.
Anthony did manage to scoop up a ball rolling out of bounds in the fourth quarter by the corner front row from where he, Paul and James were cheering on Wade. He took one dribble and, thankfully, resisted the temptation.
“I didn’t get a chance to play against Melo this season and exchange jerseys,” said Wade, explaining the gesture. “He was the missing piece.”
Throughout his career, wherever he lit up the scoreboard, Anthony seemed to miss the point, unwilling to — as former President Barack Obama said of Wade in a video tribute — “sometimes sacrifice your ego in pursuit of a title.”
If Anthony never plays again in the N.B.A., is there a moral to their divergent stories? Only if the most graceful departure possible is a priority, part of the plan. It apparently was for Wade. He left with a self-assured smile and, while indicating he would probably need therapy to deal with the time on his hands, he ruled out a potential return.
“I think everybody knows this is for real,” he said.