Dwyane Wade: Circle of Life

Dwyane Wade doesn’t play for the Miami Heat. Hard to believe, but the evidence here is pretty damning. Wade is in Chicago for his introductory press conference at the Bulls’ practice facility. He is up on stage, next to the Bulls GM, with the Bulls logo plastered behind him. He is holding a mic—again, the Bulls logo—smiling, reminiscing about a childhood spent watching the Bulls a half-hour away. He is praising Jimmy Butler, he is dissolving the Heat into the past tense, and he is requesting that local reporters preface their questions by stating their names, so that he can get to know them, since, it seems, he plays here now.

It’s odd seeing Wade up there. This is Dwyane Wade, after all—Flash, No. 3, the leader of the Heat for 13 of the franchise’s 28 years. Some nostalgia flows for the NBA as it was a moment ago, so reliably maintained by Kobe, Duncan and Wade in their respective corners of the country. TNT double-headers. Pencil in Wade for the evening, maybe against the Knicks or these very Bulls. Fall asleep to Kobe and the late game. This transition has loomed for some time, and yet it still feels crude. Of course, one fact separates the 34-year-old Wade from the senior pack: his career booms on.

“It’s funny, everyone comments about my age, but I looked at my game from last year—what did I do that I can’t do again?” Wade says. The press conference is over. Wade leans forward from a black fold-out chair on one end of the spacious Advocate Center, just down the block from his new home, the United Center. His hands cup in his lap. His legs stretch out wide. He is wearing a black suit with a white shirt and striped tie—a nod to the outfit from his intro presser in Miami, back in ’03. No socks this time. “I’m not jumping over the backboard, I’m not zooming past people. I’m playing my game, to the capabilities of my body.”

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Wade has signed on with his hometown Bulls for two years, $47.5 million. He was born in Robbins, IL, about 25 miles from the Bulls’ home floor, and attended a local high school, Harold L. Richards. The Bulls eyed him as a draft prospect in 2003 and as a free agent in 2010, but were edged out by the Heat both times. In Miami, Wade accomplished it all, winning three Championships in five NBA Finals appearances while setting the career mark for almost every statistic in franchise history. But, all these years later, Chicago is once again the right place for Wade, and Wade is once again the right player for the Bulls.

In June, the team traded Derrick Rose to New York, ending what had become a messy, emotional roller coaster of an era. Chicago needs some fresh air, and, ironically, the aging Wade will supply it.

Critics wonder whether a Big Three of Butler, Wade and fellow Bulls free-agent acquisition Rajon Rondo can space the floor—indeed, none of the stars is a good three-point shooter. But, as Wade says, “I’ve learned that I can play with anybody—that I can figure it out and be successful.”

In 2004, when Shaquille O’Neal arrived in Miami, Wade became a star (and made nice with the Diesel). In the ’06 Finals against Dallas, Wade, the series MVP, averaged 35 a game. (No teammate averaged over 14.) In ’08-09—without Shaq—he led the NBA in scoring while becoming the first guard to reject 100 shots in a season. In 2010, Wade delivered LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami—the group only soared once Wade morphed into a hyper-efficient (and overqualified) sidekick. Last season, Wade brought the Heat to within a win of the conference finals—his best campaign in five years.

Wade is not the athlete he once was, but he never leaned solely on physical traits, anyway. He’s a thinker on the court, armed with size and strength, sure, but also a distinct cool control, like, Everybody calm down, I got this. If he needs a stop, he can get one. If he needs to get to the line, he can do that, too. Wade’s greatest asset has always been his savvy.

This summer, his patience and insight drew him away from Miami—and Cleveland, perhaps—and toward Chicago.

“It just came down to me being like, D, What do you want to do right now at this point in your career?” Wade says. “Once I talked to Jimmy and I seen, OK, Jimmy’s on board with me coming, I started looking at the roster: OK! You know what, this team is better than I thought it was! I look for basketball players and leaders, certain qualities. Once Rondo signed, I saw the direction that they’re going in. I started envisioning myself playing there, with those guys.”

There are two courts here. Wade is seated on one. Two of Wade’s sons—Zion and Zaire—are on the other, showing off their jumpers for Butler (who’s in town for a Team USA scrimmage). The signing affects the brothers as much as it does their father—they’ll soon begin studying at a new, midwestern school. Meanwhile, Wade and his wife, actress Gabrielle Union, sold a Chicago home back in 2013, and have not yet found a replacement. “So much is going on,” Wade says. “I don’t know. We’ve been looking at schools, looking at houses, and we’re gonna try to find the right one that fits our family.”

Wade is sharp and sincere. He is attentive, despite the busy day, and he’ll indulge any topic of conversation. He recalls his introduction to the NBA with ease.

dwyane wade bulls

“That first game, I have 14 at the end of the first half. I’m yelling, like, Man, I’m about to drop 20 in my first game! Like, This is cool! But that game I got a hip pointer, which I never had. I ended with 18. I was in pain, but I played the next game. I only scored 5 points [against Boston], and [Paul] Pierce talked a lot of stuff to me.”

He’ll speak to the NBA’s broadening fashion sense, which he sees as a throwback to past eras. “Walt Frazier, Dr. J—look at them back in the day—it was art, the way they dressed.” Wade’s own audacious taste helped to reopen the floodgates. “I was in the NBA at the right time—got into fashion at the right time—where I helped make it OK for the guys coming up to express themselves. We’re in a macho league, and guys can be a little iffy about that. But when you see guys you respect [dressing boldly], it makes it easy to do it.”

He acknowledges that, between Kevin Durant’s free-agency move and his own, this offseason was an especially wild one. “I made a decision that was like, What?! We was already like, What?! when KD made his decision, so it was like, What?! What?!—like a double What!” Wade says. “I’m happy that he made his decision for himself, and myself the same. If you’re a supporter of mine, then you’re happy that I made the decision for me. Doesn’t mean you love it, but you’re happy for me.”

Most importantly, he is forthright about the worst part of his breakup with Miami: leaving behind Udonis Haslem, with whom he entered the League.

“I’m gonna miss him on the court when I talk shit,” Wade says. “I’m happy that he gets to continue his career in his hometown, but I’m gonna miss him. I’m gonna miss the shit out of him.”

Sadly, UD couldn’t keep Wade in Miami. Neither could Pat Riley, though maybe “could” is the wrong word there—the team president made no effort to retain his star guard. Instead, Wade negotiated with the team owners, the Arison family, who offered a fair deal by market standards, but not by a hero’s.

Haslem wonders if that distinction made the difference. “Dwyane wanted to feel like he was loved and respected more—that was important to him, as it should be,” he says. “He never thought he’d leave Miami. Never. None of us could have envisioned it. Last year, he gambled on himself with a one-year deal and played really well. Going into this summer, he didn’t think it would be as much of a negotiation as usual. I think both sides expected the negotiation to be smoother.”

Wade insists that this is all about Chicago.

“For me, it’s as simple as, I got a deal in Miami for $41 million, I got a deal in Chicago for $47 million,” Wade says. “It didn’t come down to the money. I thought about Cleveland, but I didn’t fit there. You don’t just do something because, Oh, I could win the ring there. I have three rings. I don’t need to chase the ring. This is what I wanted to do. I couldn’t fight it. If you fight it, you’re gonna always be like, You shoulda, or, What could’ve—I don’t like to live my life like that.”

That much is evident—Wade is perhaps the League’s premier opportunist away from the game, too. In 2012, he left Jordan Brand to sign with the Chinese company Li-Ning. (There, he has his own sub-brand—Way of Wade—and the title of Chief Brand Officer.) The following year, Wade began designing socks for Stance. For $19.99, Wade Cellars offers a 2013 Napa Valley Red Blend, available online. A Wade-fashioned Hublot watch runs for about $20K. Wade will soon star in a reality TV show, on which he and Union will flip houses (though they should probably keep one).

Yes, Wade may be “Team No Sleep,” but the one constant has always been his day job: Shooting guard for the Miami Heat. No longer.

It’s never easy for a legend to relocate. In Miami, Wade’s name carried tremendous weight into each game. If he shot 2-12, he was still the dude with three Championships. If he missed a buzzer-beater, well, Remember that time he cookied John Salmons with four seconds left in a tie game, then dribbled down and drained a pull-up three for the win?

In Chicago, fans expecting a Hall of Fame slasher will have to settle for a wise old man with a sweet mid-range game. That might be a problem for some.

So while the stats and standings would probably register about the same in Chicago or Miami, there is still great risk for Wade in leaving the Heat—there is still his identity to protect. There is the concept of

Dwyane Wade, the winner, the man who carried his franchise to relevance and even glory. It is not that Wade’s legacy is on the line—he passed that checkpoint 10 years ago when he delivered Miami its first title. But, in the coming years, the bright image of Wade, the valiant champ, may dim in some way, or else just sort of freeze in time, as if his career really ended the day he switched uniforms. One considers the tenure of Allen Iverson in Denver or Dwight Howard in L.A.—prolific but empty—and wonders if they were ever really there. Wade will play well and be loved in Chicago, but it can’t ever be quite the same, or really even close, can it?

Hard to say. Maybe the hometown kid can pull it off. Everybody at the press conference is thrilled Wade is here. Local writers want to know how long he’s been dreaming of this day. A TV news reporter asks which restaurant he visited first upon returning home.

Today, nobody really cares whether Chicago has formed a “super team” around Wade, Butler and Rondo. Little attention is paid to how this team will stack up against Cleveland or Golden State. Who cares if Wade’s Bulls win games? Wade’s a Bull. That’s a win. Until opening night, anyway.

“I can’t wait to open up here,” Wade says. “First game here, hear my name called for the first time. I just wanna come out and hear the roar of the crowd. Then I wanna produce and give them something to cheer for. It’s like a new excitement. I’ve been in the city before, but it’s different now. I’m a Bull.”

Leo Sepkowitz is a Staff Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @LeoSepkowitz.