Even in sunny florida, anyone in the vicinity of the geo-structure known as Shaquille O'Neal is usually shrouded in shadow, which makes the light that's increasingly shining on O'Neal's Miami Heat teammate, Dwyane Wade, all the more extraordinary. On the court the 22-year-old guard (not shooting guard, not point guard, just guard) has the demeanor of a seminarian. Off it he is just as dynamic: His exciting life in this tropical paradise includes chilling with his wife and their two-year-old son and watching teammates play video games. "I'm no good at them," Wade says, "so why play them?" Let's see: No chest-pounding theatrics, no PlayStation2 jones--and nary a tattoo, either. This is the guy siphoning attention from the Diesel?
Believe it. The emergence of Wade, more than the arrival of O'Neal, has been the catalyst for the vastly improved Heat, who had won 16 of 18 games through Sunday to claim the best record in the Eastern Conference (27--9). Much was written about the degree to which Shaq, who draws double teams the way South Beach draws supermodels, would help his teammates. But it is Wade's combination of abundant skill and precocious will that has carried Miami. It has also enabled Shaq, who missed much of the preseason with a calf injury, to come to life slowly, like a bear awakening from hibernation. At week's end Wade was averaging 23.8 points (to Shaq's 22.1), 5.3 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 1.68 steals while playing 4.4 more minutes per game than the franchise player for whom the Heat gave up three starters over the summer.
It took only a few weeks for the Superman-obsessed O'Neal to give Wade a comic-book handle: Flash. Trail Blazers swingman Ruben Patterson, meanwhile, calls the twosome Batman and Robin, a label he applied last Friday night after Robin-Wade scored 25 points and had 12 assists and Batman-Shaq went for 28 and 10 rebounds in Miami's 103--92 victory at Portland. But the 6'4", 212-pound Wade has no plans to burn alightning bolt or an R into his skin to match the Superman logo on O'Neal's bulging left biceps.
For the NBA, Wade may play another costarring role: worthy rival to Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James. That part had been prematurely assigned to Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony, who, like Wade, arrived with James in the 2003 draft. Anthony might emerge a better young man if he learns from the recent self-inflicted wounds to his image--a feud with U.S. Olympic team coach Larry Brown, a fight in a New York City club, a marijuana possession charge that was later dismissed and a cameo appearance in a DVD that features alleged drug dealers in his hometown of Baltimore. But Wade would have to undergo a radical personality transformation to be anything but what he is right now: an unassuming type with unbelievable talent. "He's not just one of the guys basketball needs," says Heat coach Stan Van Gundy. "He's one of the guys all of pro sports needs. He acts the way you're supposed to act."
Immediately after the blockbuster trade that brought him from Los Angeles to Miami, O'Neal set the tone for a lovefest. He declared Wade a superstar before they had even met. Shaq did this partly because, as a jokester with a calculating side, he was determined to set up Wade as a foil to Kobe Bryant. But it's not as if the Big Valentine is alone on the Heat in his love for Wade. Just ask Wade's backcourtmate, Damon Jones, who's made more stops than a long-distance trucker. "Well, I've been a lot of places, as you might know," says Jones, who is suiting up for his ninth team in seven seasons, "and this is a special, special kid. The main thing overlooked about him is his knowledge of the game. With all his talent, he's always playing it the right way. Guys love to play with people like that."
O'Neal has already paid so many compliments to Wade that he'll have to come up with a fresh batch if the Heat makes it deep into the playoffs. "I got known worldwide in a short period of time just because Shaq said so many nice things about me," says Wade, almost in awe. "I'll never forget him for that."
Last week Shaq tried out a new tribute. "I knew Flash was good," he said with a big smile. "He's just gooder than I thought."
Gooder than almost everyone thought. "He's a special talent," says Memphis Grizzlies coach Mike Fratello. "Not only is he gifted, he's very mature and unselfish." Wade is bling but not bling-bling, a young man of quiet constancy. Since his first paycheck he has tithed 10% of his pretax salary--that'll be about $280,000 this season--to the Blood, Water and the Spirit Ministry in Chicago. He met his wife, Siohvaughn, 12 years ago when they were playing near his father's house in Oak Lawn, Ill., outside Chicago. "I didn't like her then," says Wade, "and she didn't care much for me." But they gradually grew close, and, after he broke up with a girlfriend during his freshman year at Richards High, he and Siohvaughn began dating. They got married in 2002. "It makes it special when you were friends first because you learn how to talk to each other," says Wade. "And she's smarter than me too."
Wade's game is without obvious flaw, though he has yet to become a three-point threat. Van Gundy (being a Van Gundy) finds fault with Wade's defense--"Like most scorers, because so many demands are put on him, he can lose his defensive focus at times," the coach says--but he acknowledges that Wade becomes a superior defender late in games and that he'll only get more consistent. Any weaknesses besides that? "I can't think of any major ones," says Van Gundy.
Seven months after leading overlooked Marquette on a magical run to the Final Four as a shooting guard, Wade was asked to guide the Heat from the point as a rookie. No problem. Nineteen games into this season, Van Gundy moved him to shooting guard, mostly to get Jones into the lineup. No problem. Frequently Wade has to shuttle between the two positions. No problem. He posts up, he penetrates, he splits double teams off the dribble, he stops and shoots, he turns the corner hard coming off picks ("When he sets his mind to get to the basket," says Charlotte Bobcats guard Keith Bogans, "he gets to the basket"), and he invariably does something productive when he steams into the lane.
"There are lots of guys in this league who can get to the rim, but Dwyane has the strength to finish," says Charlotte coach Bernie Bickerstaff. Plus, Wade already has a deadly step-back jumper, something Michael Jordan didn't develop until late in his career.
Although he usually wears a blank, little-boy-lost look on the court, Wade is a physical player. "He killed us with his toughness," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers after Wade torched Boston for 33 points in a 108--100 win on Dec. 21. Many of Miami's plays begin with Wade coming up from near the basket to set a hard screen on the outside, then bouncing off and getting the ball to initiate the attack. That's how the Utah Jazz offense often ran when John Stockton was at the point, and Stockton garnered a lot of respect because he wasn't afraid to give up his body. Ditto for Wade. "Even if he looks like a kid," says Heat reserve guard Keyon Dooling, who looks like a kid himself, "Flash has got the hard body, the grown-man body."
In keeping with his single-bling style, Wade rarely does a showstopping slam when he's in the open. But he's not averse to putting on a little show when he's in traffic. During a 102--94 defeat of the New York Knicks on Jan. 5, for example, he found his path to the basket blocked, so he threw a deliberate miss against the backboard and got in position for a dunk. (Alas, he missed it.) Another moment from that game better illustrates the kind of player Wade is: He went up high for a pass and, after barely missing a spectacular one-hand slam, retained his concentration, got the rebound and made the follow.
What his teammates appreciate most is that Wade's not a "volume shooter," the NBA euphemism for gunner. (Bryant and Allen Iverson are two examples of volume shooters.) Through Sunday, Wade was eighth in the league in scoring but 13th in field goals attempted. "He's not out there hunting shots" is the way Jones puts it. Among guards, only Phoenix Suns veteran Steve Nash was shooting with greater accuracy than Wade at week's end (51.3% to 49.4%). Keep in mind, too, that although Wade is by nature aggressive on offense--"He attacks, attacks, attacks," says Minnesota Timberwolves guard Sam Cassell--he rarely takes a bad shot and almost never breaks a play designed for Shaq or Miami's third option, small forward Eddie Jones.
So what the Heat has is a sweet kid with a sweet game. It also has three strong personalities--Shaq, E. Jones and D. Jones--who allow Wade to stay comfortable in his role as the quiet young star, the object of everyone's affection. "Being a leader is one thing I've never felt comfortable with," says Wade. "Even in high school and college I wasn't the guy firing everyone up. It's not in my nature, and I sure don't have to be outspoken around here."
Indeed, the Heat are cruising along with that rare mix of youth and experience, seriousness and exuberance. They've drawn comparisons with the Alonzo Mourning-- Tim Hardaway--Jamal Mashburn Miami teams of the late 1990s, but those guys had a hard edge; these guys are more Merry Pranksters. So while Bryant labors at rehabbing his image (there he is explaining himself on ESPN, there he is explaining himself to Larry King), Shaq says, believably, "I've never been happier in my life." Wade's stellar play has kept him from having to kick it into high gear--"That's coming," O'Neal says--but Shaq is on top of his verbal game. When Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas said in the preseason that Wade couldn't shoot and that he was no Bryant, O'Neal responded, "Proven nobodies should not be allowed to make statements about proven somebodies." Wade did his talking on Nov. 6, with 37 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds in Miami's 118--106 victory at Washington.
Whenever Shaq isn't available for a quote--and often when he is--Damon Jones, whom O'Neal calls his best friend in the league, is there. Wearing a T-shirt inscribed with trust me, i'm a virgin, Jones noted last week that Shaq is only the "second-most-charismatic player" in the league because "I'm the first." The great thing about Jones is that he believes it. He has infused the Heat with confidence and fostered camaraderie while, not incidentally, providing a perimeter threat: At week's end he was hitting 41.2% of his threes and scoring 11.2 points a game. Jones and Wade talk hoops all the time; more accurately, Jones talks, Wade listens. Before Miami played the Detroit Pistons for the second time, on Dec. 30 (Detroit had beaten the Heat 78--77 on Nov. 26), Jones's subject was pace and poise. "They try to make you play at a faster pace than you want to, and we fell into that the first time," said the 28-year-old Jones. "Dwyane listened to what I had to say, and we played our game. [The Heat won 89--78.] You only have to say something to this young man once."
There is still time for the Heat to unravel, of course. Perhaps Shaq, despite having slimmed down to a mere 330 pounds, will suffer the foot and ankle problems that plagued him in L.A. Perhaps Eddie Jones, the player who has sacrificed the most to make room for Wade, will begin to chafe at his lesser role. Perhaps we'll discover that Damon Jones is not really a virgin. But odds are that the Heat will stay hot and Flash will only get flashier. It's a good story, and it's likely to get gooder.
"He's not just one of the guys basketball needs," Van Gundy says. "He's one of the guys all of pro sports needs. He acts THE WAY YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO ACT."