By Ian Thomsen
November 04, 2009

How much taller is LeBron James than you?

"About four or five inches," Dwyane Wade replied with a laugh. "They're all about three or four inches taller than me."

Even Kobe Bryant?

"He's listed at 6-6, but Kobe is [really] about 6-6½," Wade said. "I'm about 6-3½. So Kobe has some inches on me as well."

Seven years into a career that has overwhelmed all expectations, Wade -- who is listed officially at 6-4 -- was explaining how and why he continues to view himself as an underdog.

"Once I get done in this game and I can look back -- hopefully -- on the things I accomplished, then I can smile," he told me last Friday before a game at Indiana. "But right now, I try not to pat myself on the back. I feel like I have to work harder than any one of them because of my height, because I'm at a disadvantage that way. So I feel I have to work harder to get the things I get on the basketball court than the 6-8 LeBron or the 6-8 Kobe or the 6-8 Carmelo [Anthony].''

See how his mind works? Within a minute, he'd inflated Kobe by another two inches.

"At the end of the day, it makes it more gratifying to me that I can stand next to those guys at 6-4 and say I've accomplished some good things in this game," Wade went on. "But I want to continue to do that before the end of it."

Wade was facing down a career-long losing streak as he sat in the front row of the Conseco Fieldhouse after the morning shootaround. His Miami Heat had lost 14 consecutive games in this building, dating to 2001. But Wade responded that night with 32 points to go with four assists and three steals in 35 minutes for a 96-83 victory in which the Pacers never led. He held off Indiana with 11 fourth-quarter points by driving his way to the foul line and commanding the tempo like a shorter version of Michael Jordan, keeping the ball in his hands to break down the defense while steering his team out of harm. He wandered the perimeter with his dribble as patiently as a quarterback roaming right and left to change the play at the line of scrimmage.

"What we've seen Dwyane grow into is a complete leader," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Last year, he took a step forward when everybody wanted him to be the leader, and this year he's taking the lead in another step. Every timeout he's echoing what the coaches are saying; he's the one stopping practice and telling guys to focus and finish, and when guys are losing concentration, he's the one stepping forward. For a coach to have a player step in, it makes it all the more powerful. So it doesn't always have to be me who blows the whistle and says, 'Hey, let's get it together.' "

At 27, Wade has all of the qualities of a franchise leader. He has been around long enough to realize that he isn't invincible, that he must exploit his talent while he is able. And yet, he retains his athleticism and his youthful drive to prove that he belongs up there with the bigger likes of LeBron and Carmelo (even though he has a championship ring and they don't).

"I met with him this summer and I told him, 'These are the times of your life,' " Spoelstra said. "The next five or six years are the ones. When he puts his head down on his pillow 25 years from now, his thoughts before he goes to bed will be these years. And that's what it's all about: Make the most of it right now."

Wade finished third in the MVP voting behind James and Bryant last year by averaging 30.2 points, 7.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds while leading Miami to the No. 5 seed in the East. He and his teammates appeared to make the most of their abilities.

"It's going fast and I'm enjoying it, but as I sit back and look at it, I'm in my seventh season and it's zooming by," Wade said. "I was thinking the other day, I'm in my seventh year, J.O. [Jermaine O'Neal] is in his 14th year. That means J.O. was in his seventh year when I came into the [draft]. I'm thinking about a young guy coming into the league right now, and when they get into their seventh season, I'm going to be into my 14th year. And just to see how fast things are going, I just hope by the end of my career I've accomplished some great things.

"Of course we all want to win as many championships as we can. But at the end of the day, you want to be respected by the effort that you put out every night in this game, and that's what I try to go out there and give."

Last summer, Wade complained that the Heat made no moves to complement him with another star, comments that raised alarms he may leave Miami as a free agent in 2010. But his actions are those of a leader who is vested in growing the franchise rather than abandoning it. In this he looks to the Celtics' Paul Pierce, who improved his leadership skills while Boston was rebuilding with young talent that would ultimately be dealt for KevinGarnett and Ray Allen. The lesson from Pierce is that good efforts are never wasted.

"Never," Wade agreed. "No matter what's going on, if you feel like you've got a team that can win it or a team that can't, you've always got to go out there and represent the game right. You've always got to play it hard and get the most out of your talent that's out on the floor. Pierce did a great job of that in Boston, of getting his guys to play hard for him."

For Pierce, those guys included Al Jefferson, Delonte West and Ryan Gomes, who were packaged in the blockbuster trades that led to the Celtics' 2008 title.

"Even though they weren't there to celebrate the championship," Wade said, "it was because of those guys that Paul had a championship, the hard work they put in and what they showed to get a Garnett, to get an Allen. If they didn't show [their potential], then maybe those trades wouldn't happen, and then Paul wouldn't have a championship. So it's testament to his leadership for getting the best out of his guys."

The current Heat roster isn't going to win a championship, and there are going to be nights when Wade won't be able to orchestrate the final quarter -- such as Tuesday in Miami when Steve Nash's unbeaten Suns outscored the Heat 29-15 in the fourth to give Wade his first loss of the season 104-96. But Miami will have space for a max contract under the cap when O'Neal's contract expires after the season, and it will have promising young players in Michael Beasley, Mario Chalmers and Daequan Cook, who may either continue to grow alongside Wade or be packaged in trades for championship-ready talent. In the meantime, Wade will continue to deepen his relationship with Spoelstra, knowing that no contender can go far without a tight alliance between the best player and his coach.

"Certain teams in the league, when they break their huddle they say 'Championship!' on three," Wade said. "Then there are some teams, they're saying 'Together!' on three because we've got to make sure that we do it together, and then at the end of the year we see what we have.

"We're not a championship team. We're working our way to be an even better team than last year."

Someday, if the Heat should return to contention in the seasons ahead, Wade may look back on this developmental year with the most pride. Because any hope of winning another title will grow out of the relatively thankless work he puts in now.

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