Dwyane Wade couldn’t have imagined this.
After 16 years in the NBA, the Miami Heat guard is no longer surprised by much. He’s seen players come and go, championship teams rise and fall and devastating injuries end promising seasons. But sitting there on that cold January night in Milwaukee—seeing fans in gold T-Shirts bearing his name, watching Marquette lift his No. 3 jersey into the rafters on “Dwyane Wade Day”—all while inching closer to the end of his final season, his “Last Dance?”
“Damn,” Wade let out to The Crossover remembering it. “To think, 19 years ago, I was this young, skinny, shy kid walking on campus not having a clue what was next. And to come back after all of that and have my own day at the university, to be celebrated in that way, that was just the dopest thing.”
There was a lot to celebrate that night at his alma mater. Since being drafted by the Heat with the fifth-overall pick in 2003, Wade, who spoke with Sports Illustrated on behalf of BallerTV, has built himself quite the professional resume. He’s a three-time NBA champion and the 2006 Finals MVP. A 12-time NBA All-Star and a 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist. He’s the Heat’s all-time leader in points, games, assists and steals.
But the journey wasn’t easy. There were injuries. Following the 2006 title, Wade played only 102 games over the next two seasons because of them. The 2007-08 season was especially difficult, with Wade watching his Heat fall to 15–67 from the sidelines after undergoing knee and shoulder surgeries.
There were family issues, a custody battle in the midst of the 2011 playoffs that Wade said “changed his life in a huge way.” There were organizational feuds, a 2016 standoff with President of Basketball Operations Pat Riley that sent Wade packing for Chicago.
There were trials, setbacks, defeats—all of which Wade believes are further reasons to celebrate. None of this was guaranteed. It’s why Wade felt he owed it to himself to have one “Last Dance,” owed it to the fans to give them one last year to say goodbye, to cherish these moments.
And it’s why, even with the second half of his farewell tour underway, Wade’s not worried about dealing with any regret. This was his decision to make, and that’s something he can’t take for granted.
“I know how this league works,” Wade said. “The hardest thing in this league is dealing with the question, ‘What do you do with an aging superstar?’ I’ve watched so many guys come before me that did not end their careers the way they wanted to. They ended it with injury, or teams trading them and putting them in different places to try and move some pieces. For me, to be able to come back to Miami at the end of last year and make the decision this year that I was going to walk away from the game on my own, under my own will, it’s a good thing.”
Still, the decision took a while to come by. Even after long introspection and four months weighing his options, Wade wasn’t entirely sure what would help him make the call.
“I don’t know,” Wade said when asked how he finally decided to return in 2018. “Sometimes, you just wake up one day, and you make decisions. I made a decision that I felt was time to make. At the end of the day, I always had an idea of how I wanted to leave. I always wanted to leave with my head up high. I never wanted to leave the game with people thinking, ‘Oh wait… He’s still playing?!’ So for me, it was like, ‘Ok, I still have a little bit left in my tank. Even though I’m tired, even though I’ve done 15 years, I need to give it one more.’”
It took a lot of convincing, too. Wade spoke with several family members and friends who told him he had one more year left to give. Carmelo Anthony was one of those friends.
“Carmelo was actually one of the biggest influences on me coming back this year,” Wade said. “We sat down this year and went to dinner and I looked at him and said, ‘Man, Melo, I think I’m done.’ And he was one of the people who was like, ‘Bro, your fans need this. Your fans need one more year. I need one more year.”
Anthony, whose turbulent season took another turn last week after the Houston Rockets traded him to the Chicago Bulls, made sure he was a part of the final year he asked for, seeing Wade off during one of his last games at Madison Square Garden.
“I can’t say I know, but I have a sense of how hard it was for him to show up in that arena while he’s not playing and he wants to be on that court,” Wade said. “That shows you how deep our bond and brotherhood is. That was special that he took that opportunity to come out and see me play in the Garden. I appreciated that more than he knows.”
There are others who’ve played a part in helping Wade make his decision, one of them a 6’2”, 175-pound point guard who lives under his roof. Wade’s son Zaire is a junior in high school, an up-and-coming top prospect who Wade sees a lot of himself in.
“The DNA is strong,” Wade of the resemblance. “Just the way he plays the game, it’s very similar to how I played. He’s remixed my game and is better at his age because of everything that he has, but I see the way that he plays and how I played it. I played it with passion, with joy, with toughness. And that’s the way he plays.”
Wade doesn’t often get to see his son’s play in person, however. In season and on the road, Wade isn’t able to be physically present at all of Zaire’s high school basketball games in South Florida. That’s part of the reason he’s partnered with BallerTV—a sports media platform created to enable families to watch their loved ones play—as the venture’s first global ambassador.
“It’s definitely tough not being there, but in this technological world, I’m still able to follow him and go on the BallerTV app, and I’m able to watch his games like I’m there and then watch his games later with him,” Wade said. “And I love that.
"As a parent, you just want your child to do whatever it is they love to do and give their all to it. It’s a good feeling to know I can still be a part of it, even if it’s just electronically for now, until I can attend his games physically.”
Now entering his 49th game of the season, Wade may be able to do that sooner rather than later. The three-time NBA champion could soon be invited to his final All-Star Game and might shortly be playing in his final NBA playoffs.
His “Last Dance” may almost be over, but Wade isn’t thinking about that just yet.
“It isn’t going to hit me until we’re really winding down,” Wade said. “There are definitely certain moments where I’m like, ‘Wow, that was my last time playing in Chicago,’ or ‘This is my last time playing against LeBron,’ and those moments hit a little more. But when it’s over, over, that’s when it’ll really hit.”
For now, Wade will continue to help his team’s push for a postseason berth. The Heat are ranked seventh in the Eastern Conference with a 24–24 record and could realistically play through April.
He’ll continue to teach his teammates—players more than 10 years his junior—the lessons he’s learned during his time in the league.
He’ll continue to play the game he knows, in a place he loves, achieving things that were once, to 18-year-old Dwyane Wade, unimaginable.
“I could have never seen all of this coming, back then,” Wade said. “But this? This is the perfect way to end it, the place I started it. There’s no place I’d rather be.”