Leap Year

Twelve months after his breakout performance in the postseason, Miami's Dwyane Wade has made an even bigger jump: to headline act of a star-studded NBA Finals
June 11, 2006

The trouble beganon the night of May 31, at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Dwyane Wade feltlethargic, out of sorts and hot, so very hot. The arena air pressed down onhim, its warm, sticky embrace unwanted. Later that night, after Miami had lostGame 5 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Pistons, he complained to hishigh school coach, Jack Fitzgerald, about the heat. Wade's comments struckFitzgerald as strange. "He's from Miami, after all," says the coach,who was in Detroit for the game, "so I suspected something was wrong."¶ Two days later Wade was in a bad way. He spent the dark hours of the morningvomiting and coughing before finally going to a Coral Gables hospital at 7 a.m.Pumped full of fluids and discharged at 3 p.m., he headed home for a change ofclothes, then drove to American Airlines Arena for Game 6. After the heartbreakof a year ago, when the Heat lost at home in the climactic game of the Easternfinals to these same Pistons, Wade was determined to play, G.I. tract bedamned. Sniffling and sweating as he took the court, he conjured in theassembled, white-garbed masses romantic visions of Michael Jordan and hisflu-racked 38-point performance in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals. What Wadecould not conjure, however, was a jump shot.

After five gamesin which he had seemed incapable of missing, Wade began Game 6 shooting 1 of 5with three turnovers, looking woozy at times. After spending halftime and thefirst three minutes of the second half tethered to an IV, he returned with theHeat up by 12. As he said later, "It was time for me to take over."First came a leaner, then a jumper, a fadeaway, another fadeaway, then asurreal pump-fake, turnaround. The fans roared: This was the Dwyane Wade whohad prompted Lawrence Frank, whose Nets had been dismissed by the Heat oneround earlier, to say, "I never want to hear that name again." This wasthe Wade who'd so embarrassed the Pistons' premier defender Tayshaun Prince,shooting 66% from the field in the first five games, that Detroit had resortedto a zone defense, like some overmatched high school squad. By the end of thequarter Wade had scored 10 points in less than nine minutes, the Heat was up by19 and the Pistons were finished.

Later that nightWade headed out to dinner with his wife, Siohvaughn; his agent, Henry Thomas;and Alonzo Mourning and his wife, Myka, to celebrate. The congratulatory callsflowed in: from his boys back in Chicago, from good friend LeBron James (hismessage: "You got one more [series] to go; don't get toooverconfident"). When there was finally a quiet moment, Wade turned toThomas. "Wow, we're going to the NBA Finals," he said. "We'rereally going to the Finals."

It was not thecool, superstar thing to say, genuine awe carrying little currency in suchcircles. But then the 24-year-old Wade is not particularly cool (at least inthe traditional NBA sense), and if he is a superstar, he seems oblivious to thefact. Rather, he's that unique NBA creature: a dizzyingly athletic guard whogrew up idolizing Jordan, yet who's humble, deferential and given to findingthe open man, something it took MJ the better part of his career to master.Call him the anti-Kobe, or perhaps LeBron Lite. Regardless, his stature, whichrose meteorically during the '05 postseason, has only ascended further duringthese playoffs. Says one Eastern Conference player personnel director,"[Our front office] did a thing amongst ourselves, the question being, Ifyou could take one guy in the league, [who would it be]? There was LeBron,Kobe, Shaq.... To me, it was Dwyane Wade. He embodies what you want in aprofessional basketball player, on and off the floor."

Already U.S.sales of Wade's jersey have risen to tops in the league, his number 3 worn bykids in pimped-out rides who are no doubt unaware that Wade chose the numberfor the very unpimplike reason that it represents the Holy Trinity. (Wadetithes 10% of his $3.03 million salary to the Blood, Water & SpiritMinistry, his Chicago church.) He presents an alluring combination: He attacksthe basket with an Iversonian disregard for life and ligament, plays withKobe's feral intensity and dunks like Vince (at Marquette, Wade once FredericWeis--ed 6'7" teammate Jon Harris, leaping over him spread-legged to throwit down). Yet he doesn't drink, has no body art and is prone to quaint phraseslike "bullcrap" in conversation. In other words, he has a street gamewithout the street personality, a marketing combo so league-perfect it's as ifhe were a laboratory creation of David Stern in the NBA version of WeirdScience.

That's not to saythat his path to basketball stardom has been entirely smooth. His story beginson South Claire Street in Robbins, a southern suburb of Chicago, where Wadelived with his father, Dwyane Sr., from age nine. Attached to the garage was aworn-out hoop with a wooden backboard. Starting early in the morning and thenagain in the afternoon and past sundown, Wade, his father and his twostepbrothers would play two-on-two by the light of a single bulb on the side ofthe house. The 48-year-old Dwyane Sr. is a proud man, so much so that he has astanding bet with Fitzgerald that he will be able to dunk when he's 50. (Saysthe son, "My dad is going to lose that bet.") To beat Dwyane Sr., youhad to earn it. So Dwyane Jr. would charge to the hole, carom off a shoulder ora hip and throw up leaners and runners--much as he does now. "It was rough,and there were a lot of bruises," says Wade, "but you got to do whatyou got to do to win."

Wade brought thisstyle to Richards High, in Oak Lawn, where he was so effective off the dribblethat Fitzgerald eventually made a rule in practice: Dwyane wasn't allowed toshoot layups. Still, Wade received none of the acclaim accorded phenoms likeBryant and James. He wasn't a McDonald's All-American, wasn't invited to themeat market shoe camps. "People weren't falling all over him," saysThomas. "That can drive a guy."

Seriouslyrecruited by only three schools, the result of low exposure and academiceligibility issues, Wade chose Marquette (over Illinois State and DePaul) aftercoach Tom Crean successfully lobbied the school to make Wade the first partialqualifier in its history. Crean began grooming Wade right away, even though hecouldn't play. He had the freshman sit with the coaches during games, takingnotes and charting deflections, always in the same white suit--the only suitWade owned--with the same cream shoes. At halftime Wade would stand with thecoaches and help them address the team. It was a tough position: a freshmancritiquing players with whom he had yet to play. "Once, one of our guyswasn't playing well, and I asked Dwyane [in front of the team], on a scale of 1to 10, how's this guy playing, and he said, 'A 2,'" says Crean. "That'snot easy to do, but Dwyane has this real gift of honesty. People don't take itthe wrong way."

At the same timeCrean forced Wade to expand his game beyond his slash-and-crash style. For twomonths Crean had Wade initiate the offense in practice to teach him guardskills. In advance of each opponent, Wade would take on the role of theopposing team's best player. One day he had to mimic a point guard, the next apower forward. "It meant I could shoot any shot I wanted, so that wasgreat," Wade says with a grin. "Playing all those positions addeddimensions to my game that I use a lot now."

It helps explainhow Wade developed into the hybrid he has become, neither a point nor ashooting guard but just a guard, as Jerry West and Earl Monroe once were. Thebiggest improvement in his game has been his jump shot. Never a pure shooter,he spent this season, and the playoffs in particular, working on his form andbalance with assistant coach Erik Spoelstra, who in practice hits him with padsas he prepares to shoot. "Now when I miss, I get mad even if I gotfouled," says Wade, "because I think, Man, I should make everyone."

How then to guardWade? Frank, the New Jersey coach, offers this advice. "You have to preventhim from splitting the defense on the pick-and-roll," he says. "In away he's like Barry Sanders. He finds the seam and is able to bump off otherplayers and get to the rim." Gilbert Arenas chooses a different comparison,one that is becoming more common. "His first step and explosiveness makehim more like Jordan than anyone else," says the Wizards' All-Star guard."Everyone thinks LeBron is like Jordan, but when you break down Jordan-likemoves, Dwyane has [a closer resemblance] because he can stop on a dime andredirect."

Though suchcomparisons aren't fair, Wade has deftly handled something MJ might havestruggled with: being the go-to guy on a team full of self-proclaimed go-toguys without rubbing any the wrong way. Former Heat center Brian Grant, nowwith the Suns, explains, "The first time I saw him was during a summerpickup game in Miami, and man, I wanted to kill him because he shot every time.I said to him, 'Young man, you have to pass the ball,' and he said, 'But I wasopen.' He said it so sincerely, you had to like him."

The days ofasking Wade to shoot less are long gone. "We understand our position, andlate in the game, there's nothing that he has to say," says Heat forwardUdonis Haslem. "We can see the confidence in him grow as the game nears theend."

Still, asrecently as March, when Fitzgerald visited him in Miami, Wade was conflicted."He wasn't really happy with his situation, and he was wondering about thedirection of the team," says Fitzgerald of the flurry of veteranacquisitions over the last two years. "I think Dwyane really liked it whenhe first got to Miami. He had Caron Butler and [Lamar] Odom, kids his age. Heloves Shaq, but all of a sudden his boys were taken away from him. He wasquestioning if they were the right moves, but obviously now they'reO.K."

Much of Wade'srenewed comfort can be traced to his tight relationship with the Diesel, who isclearly fond of his young teammate. "He's a two guard superstar who'sactually done it the right way," says Shaq. "Other guys at hisposition, because of who they are and what marketing they got out there, theirspot was kind of handed to them. But he earned it. He's the true definition ofa superstar."

If that is so,then the definition has evolved some over the years. Since when are superstars"very humble, very thankful" (Pat Riley's words)? Since when are theyunpretentious, if not downright goofy? Take last Sunday in Miami. At the end ofpractice Wade was shuttled down to the bowels of the arena to shoot some promosfor ABC's Finals coverage. You've probably seen such clips before: playersdribbling the ball while mugging for the camera. Wade added a little wrinkle.Without prompting, he began dancing (he actually asked for permission). Amazedat their good fortune, the ABC camera crew rolled tape as a boom box played."I'm a make it happen," Christina Milan sang. "I'm going to keep itgangsta."

There under theklieg lights, as a summer thunderstorm battered the roof of an empty arena, theyoung star of these playoffs swayed and grooved and clicked his fingers.Smiling to the beat, he didn't look to be a very gangster gangsta at all.Recovered from the flu, he was in the Finals, where he'd always dreamed ofplaying. If that's not reason to make a man dance, what is?


Complete coverage of the Finals, plus Fast Breaks andthe Playoff Blog, at SI.com/nba.

"His first step and explosiveness MAKE HIM MORELIKE JORDAN than anyone else," Arenas says of Wade.

PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoSICK As if he hadn't already kicked Detroit in the teeth with dizzying moves like this spinning layup in Game 4, Wade got up from a hospital bed to close out the Pistons in six. PHOTOBOB ROSATOBIG DADDY Wade's tight relationship with Shaq cushioned the blow of losing good friends Butler and Odom two seasons ago. PHOTOGREG NELSONO'Neal PHOTOGLENN JAMES/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESDiop PHOTOGLENN JAMES/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESHaslem PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHNowitzki PHOTOBOB ROSATOWalker PHOTOROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESGriffin PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (WADE)Wade PHOTOROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Howard PHOTOBOB ROSATOWilliams PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHTerry PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (POSEY)Posey PHOTOGREG NELSONStackhouse PHOTOJOHN BIEVERNO MATCH Wade so thoroughly shredded the Pistons that they were reduced to playing zone, like an overmatched high school team.

Eagle (-2)
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