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First love


MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade is running up and down the steps of American Airlines Arena. Zigzagging around every section in the lower bowl, he finally pauses atop Section 118 and looks down onto the court. "No one can ever say I haven't seen every seat in the building," he huffs. "I love it."

There's a lot of love in Wade's heart on this day. As he takes a break from his personal tour of the arena, he sits down and opens up about a love letter he wrote this summer.

No one was supposed to see the letter but his stepbrother, Donny McDaniel. While the two were sitting down, passing time in a New York City hotel room in August, McDaniel, who played with Wade in high school, showed Wade a letter he had written to the game that shaped their lives. Immediately the competitive and creative juices in Wade started flowing.

"OK, let's see who could write the best letter," Wade told his stepbrother. "Let's see who can make it seem like it's not about basketball and then bring it back to basketball. I'm going to my room and write something."

Less than an hour later, Wade had written a heartfelt sonnet to the game that floored his stepbrother. It was a rare glimpse into the inner-most feelings of one of the game's best players that surprised even his closest friends and family members who read the letter.

It wasn't until Wade was back in Miami, sitting at the head of the table in a conference room, surrounded by executives looking to devise an ad campaign for his new shoe, the Converse Wade 3, where he actually read it aloud for the first time.

He hadn't planned on the impromptu poetry reading -- it just happened, three hours in, when someone innocently asked him about his love for the game. After trying to put his feelings into words, Wade soon went into his pocket and pulled out his letter and began reading his ode to basketball.

"In the summer of 2000-2001, high school had ended and it was time for college. I did everything in my power to take you with me, but you didn't wanna go. You said I needed to become a man and that I counted on you too much ... So you left me -- feeling unsure, unloved and confused. How could you not love me anymore?"

Wade still becomes emotional when he reads the words he wrote. While some athletes put their pain in the past and refuse to look in the rear view mirror, Wade understands that it's his past that has made him the player he is today.

"I wanted to talk about the year that I went without basketball," he says. "It's kind of like a long lost girlfriend. Like we split up for a while and then she comes back to you."

After breaking school records for points and steals at Richards High School in Oak Lawn, Ill., and leading his team to the title game as a senior, he was ruled academically ineligible for his freshman year at Marquette and was forced to watch his teammates play from the sidelines. Wade knew he would be leaving his friends and family behind when he went to college, but he hadn't planned on leaving basketball behind as well.

"That was tough. My last summer at high school I take the SATs and find out I'm not going to play next year because I didn't score high enough," he says. "I knew I was going to go to college and college is a different experience for me and anyone in my neighborhood. To go to college and to go to a school like Marquette is a big deal but I'm going without everybody, going without basketball. For the first time in my life I didn't have it to fall back on."

Basketball was more than a fallback for Wade. It built him up. It gave him a new identity and was his way of communicating with people he didn't know. Growing up, no one paid much attention to Dwyane Tyrone Wade Jr., the shy little boy from Robbins, Ill., who kept to himself and scribbled his thoughts into a journal. That all changed when he picked up a basketball.

"I first fell in love with the game when I was in the fourth grade," he says. "I started getting better than the people my age and I thought, 'I like this. I like being better then people at something.' I've always been shy. I was never the most popular kid growing up so the girls would never talk to me. So I needed something to put me over the top so people would start thinking I was cool and basketball was it."

Stripped of the game, Wade was forced to enter college without the game that had made him "cool" since grade school.

"You've had my heart since I first laid eyes on you. I woke up to the thought of you and went to sleep with my heart with you. You completed me and now you were leaving me. How? How could you?"

When Wade reads his words he smiles, admitting that as emotional as it may sound, he held back some, still hoping to appear "cool" when he knows he was far from it sitting alone in his dormitory as a freshman.

"I showed a little bit but I didn't really get into the nights that I was alone and I wanted to cry I didn't really go into the sensitive mode," says Wade. "I just wanted to give you the idea and let you go from there and let you think, did he cry? How did he really feel? I kind of wrote it so you didn't get too much insight. Maybe I can write some more someday, maybe turn it to something longer."

In the meantime, Wade wants to leave something to the imagination, something he perfected during game nights spent in solitude, miles from the rest of his teammates on road trips.

"You left me with nothing to do ... no one to turn to ... You helped mold me into the man that I am today. You were the one that understood me -- but I knew deep down inside you were gonna come back to me. So I practiced ways that I could love you more, and so you'd never leave me again."

As he looks back now, Wade can see that his year away from the game was the turning point in his career. The genesis of the player he is today. Before the Final Four run, before the NBA Finals heroics, there was an empty Marquette Gymnasium and his imagination.

"When you sit out a year, you're able to practice with the team but you can't travel with the team so I was the only basketball player left at the school when they'd leave," he says. "I had a lot of down time when my team went on the road to go in the gym late at nights and practice on my game and vision."

He would go there on game nights and play his own one-man game, serving as the play-by-play man and color commentator, praising every fade way jumper and three-point shot. By the time the real game would tip off, Wade had already put up career highs in the virtual game that had just wrapped up at the "Old Gym" on campus.

"I always went in late at night and worked on my game when my team was out playing," he says. "I would go in an hour before they would play and sort of play my own game. In my mind I said, 'I scored 35 tonight.' I played my own game in my head. I practiced so much so when I got the opportunity to get back on the court I promised myself that I will never leave the game of basketball again until I'm ready to leave it."

Before Wade could get back on the court there was something he needed to hear. A proclamation that he had arrived and was once again reunited with the game that he had been separated from.

"And then 2001-2002 came ... you said the words that I've always dreamed of hearing ... "From Robbins, Illinois, 6 foot 4 Guard ... Dwyane Wade."

The game was hardly a memorable one, an 80-70 win over Loyola (Ill.), but Nov. 17, 2001, will forever be etched into Wade's memory, at least the moments preceding the game when he finally heard the announcer -- not his inner voice -- introduce him to the crowd and the world.

"I'll never forget it," says Wade. "It was the first time I heard my name called. I was waiting for it. It seemed like forever. When you're in high school and you hear your name it's like OK, that's it, bam, but when you go to college and you hear it blasted throughout the arena it's something else."

As Wade reminisces about the game and how he had to remind the announcer he was from Robbins, Ill. and not Oak Lawn, Ill., he is reminded that he went nearly a month without hearing his name called in the starting lineup last season for Miami when he dislocated his left shoulder. Even when he returned, he was never fully healthy and the Heat were swept out of the playoffs by the Bulls less than a year after Wade had won the NBA Finals MVP.

"I've had that same feeling I had my first year in college from February to now," says Wade. "It's kind of like I'm going through the same thing all over again. I got to make a statement to the world. If you forgot about me for a second I'm coming back and I'm going to be even better than I was before."

"And we fell in love all over again ... To my first love ... The Game of Basketball ... I love you ..."