Dwyane Wade eyes his first ever SLAM cover and smiles softly at the sight of a 23-year-old version of himself.
“Man, I look way different,” he says.
He was just a kid in his second season in the NBA then, beginning to make his name and eager to write his legacy. Now that kid is on his farewell tour. He’s getting to smell his own flowers and trying to savor every moment.
Ovations in arenas he never expected. Tribute videos and jersey swaps and people traveling thousands and thousands of miles to see him take the floor. Crowds erupting whenever he checks in and chanting MVP when he’s at the free-throw line. Road games suddenly sounding like home games.
This—all of this—is way beyond anything that that 23-year-old envisioned. And yet, here he is.
“I just decided to come back and do one more,” he says. It’s a Tuesday afternoon in late-February and only a few months remain before Wade walks away from playing NBA basketball forever.
“I wanted to say goodbye to my fans, I wanted to say thank you and I wanted to give them the opportunity to do the same.”
So let’s begin.
“There are moments throughout my life, and especially throughout my career, that have just been, like, wow moments,” Wade says.
Just over 24 hours later, he’s sprinting triumphantly around the court at AmericanAirlines Arena, his teammates chasing close behind. He leaps up on the edge of the scorer’s table and bangs his chest emphatically.
This is my house. This is my city.
Wade has just hit an impossible game-winning three against the Golden State Warriors. After being blocked, he recovered the ball with just enough time to heave it toward the rim. It banked in.
Of all his game-winners, this one is particularly special. It’s the toughest one he’s ever made, no question. It also could be the last one.
“His raw, genuine emotion after that was my favorite one that I’ve seen in all the ones that he’s hit,” says Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “After 16 years of being in the League, just that raw joy—that’s what it’s all about.”
Wade will miss these wow moments, of course. The trip to the Final Four with Marquette. The 2003 NBA Draft. The crossover and tear-drop over Baron Davis. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The steal and 24-foot floater to beat the Bulls. The poster dunks on Anderson Varejao and Kendrick Perkins. The full-court lobs to LeBron James. The ’06, ’12 and ’13 championship runs. The 13 All-Star appearances. The return to Miami following his brief hiatus.
It’s what made this past summer so difficult for him. Should he come back? Should he bid goodbye to these moments forever? It was something he grappled with every single day.
“It’s something you think about when you wake up. It’s something you think about in the middle of the day. It’s something you think about before you go to bed,” he explains.
“I’ve played basketball since I was 5 years old. I’m 37 years old as I sit here, so this is all I know. To be thinking, When is that end coming and how do I want it to come? And just figuring out—it has to be on my time. I know everybody else had their reasons for why I should or maybe for some out there why I shouldn’t [return]. I had to be comfortable with my decision.”
No matter what, it had to be on his terms. Wade has made it clear over the course of this season that he can still play. The numbers—14.2 points, 4.1 assists and 3.7 rebounds in 25.5 minutes—are still impressive. The moves—pump fakes and Euro-steps and fadeaways—are still smooth. It isn’t about if he can play. It’s about whether or not it feels right to.
Just before he was traded back to the Heat in 2018, Wade dealt with a tragedy that changed his outlook on things. Henry Thomas, his long-time agent and someone he considered a father figure, passed away at the age of 64 from a devastating neuromuscular disease.
“It took a little bit away from me,” Wade says. “From the passion standpoint and the joy of the game.”
A couple of months later, he was sitting down with his good friend and teammate Udonis Haslem and just came out with it.
I think this is it. I think I’m done.
Wade was OK with where he was and what he’d achieved. He no longer had the same investment in the journey and the process. He was ready to set it aside and spend more time with his family. He took a while to ponder it all but ultimately knew the end was here.
There would be one last dance, one final opportunity to cherish the game he’s played for nearly his entire life.
It has been his constant. His obsession. His true passion ever since he was a little boy watching his hometown Chicago Bulls dominate the 1990s. As his career has unfolded, as the seasons have passed by, Wade hasn’t had the chance to wholly reflect on what’s transpired.
“Normally we got a game, we got practice, we got this, we got that. You just move on to the next one,” he says. “I’ve been able to stop and reflect a little bit [this year], so I’m enjoying certain moments.”
His last All-Star Weekend. His interactions with fans before and after tip-off. The matchup against LeBron at Staples Center. The miracle buzzer-beater to take down Golden State. This sendoff has been special for all who’ve been a part of it.
“This whole last dance thing will probably be a top-five basketball memory for me, and it’s not even about me,” Heat forward Justise Winslow says. “That just goes to show you how big of a basketball brand and name he is. He’s global—he’s one of those guys that’s bigger than basketball.”
“One of the best shooting guards ever,” adds Josh Richardson, Miami’s leading scorer this season. J-Rich has vivid memories from his childhood of watching Wade and striving to follow in his footsteps.
“I remember the ’06 Finals—I was at basketball camp in like seventh or eighth grade. And we all would go downstairs and huddle around this little TV and be like, D-Wade is playing! Seeing his highlights when I was growing up, it really inspired all of us.”
The response from players around the League has been incredible. For a lot of them, especially the younger guys, Wade was a major source of motivation. Nothing has embodied his impact more than the jersey swaps.
Wade’s original idea was to do the exchange on-court with three of his closest friends: LeBron, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. He hit them up prior to the season to discuss the plan. It’s a tradition that Wade has always admired when he saw athletes in other sports do it. He wanted something unique for his final year and it’s taken off, with countless others—Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Ben Simmons, Damian Lillard, Dirk Nowitzki and many more—now possessing the iconic Miami No. 3.
“I watched Kobe go through his last year; And I was like, OK, I want something that when people think about my last year, they think about XYZ,” Wade explains.
Bryant’s retirement tour in 2015-16 was similar to this—a powerful salute to an undeniable legend.
“He’s been one of the best players that we’ve had in our League. He’s been right there at the forefront for many, many years,” Bryant says of Wade. “I’m just happy for him—to see him get the credit he deserves during this one last dance.”
As for what Dwyane is going to do with his new jersey collection, that’s yet to be determined. He’ll eventually figure out a way to bring them all together. Maybe a framed plaque or two on a wall in his house, he considers, with the names of every player he swapped with—an emblem of this unforgettable last ride.
His message to the city of Miami—and to his supporters everywhere, really—is simple: Thank you.
“Thank you for a lot of reasons. Thank you for allowing me to grow in front of your eyes. Thank you for allowing me to make mistakes. Thank you for cheering for me when I wasn’t as good. Thank you for being there as well when I was. I think the support and the love that I’ve gotten from the fans of Dade County—thank you for allowing me to call it Wade County. Thank you for coming up with that name. Thank you for letting my family grow here. The love that we’ve felt here has just been unbelievable. So just simply, thank you.”
The bond between Wade and Miami is so strong that many believe he was born and raised there. Love from the city has helped fuel his career and Wade has paid it back in full. There were no championship banners hanging in AmericanAirlines Arena when he arrived. Now there are three. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in points, assists and steals, and ranks second in blocks and fourth in rebounds. To locals, Miami Dade County is better known as Miami Wade County.
Yet his influence extends far beyond that.
On a concrete court outside Schoolhouse Prep, a small private high school in Miami, teenagers on the basketball team try to emulate D-Wade’s style. They mimic his free-throw routine, which they’ve memorized, and recreate some of his greatest highlights. An off-the-backboard alley-oop, like the one he threw to Bron on Christmas in 2013. A right-to-left Euro-step, like the one he pulled on Kevin Garnett in the 2011 playoffs. Several of the kids wear No. 3 because of Wade. They take turns discussing his effect and delivering messages to him.
“He inspires me to be the best I can.”
“He’s a top-two all-time shooting guard for me.”
“Wade—for me, that man is the GOAT.”
“When a child is watching him, they can watch him and be like, Wow, I want to be like him. I want to get how far he’s gotten. He’s been a real big help to me my whole basketball career.”
“That’s what you work so hard for,” Dwyane says, “so you can inspire the next young kid that was like you that had a dream but didn’t know how they were going to get there and they used you as a vision board.”
He’s always understood the magnitude of what he’s been able to accomplish, but he still hasn’t fully grasped the impact. With this farewell tour, he is sensing it now more than ever. He hopes to be remembered as a winner—as someone who required everything of himself and his teammates and sacrificed it all to be successful.
“Understanding that I’ve been put in a leadership position and when you’re in a leadership position, there’s definitely teammates I’ve had that don’t like me because you demand so much,” he says.
“I want to win so my demand sometimes has just been insane. But I want to be respected for that because I’m trying to push people to be their best selves so we can get everything that we want together. And at the end of the day, that’s ’06, that’s ’12 and that’s ‘13. That’s raising that championship over your head and knowing that you did everything and gave it all and you’re the greatest team in the world. There’s nothing better than that when you play a team sport.”
The 23-year-old version of himself aspired to be Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson. His love for basketball began with MJ. His pose on the cover of that first SLAM was his best attempt to “swag it” like AI did on previous issues.
Now others aspire to be Wade. They follow the examples that he’s set on and off the floor. He is their MJ. He is their AI.
Wade will savor every remaining moment of this dance along with the rest of us. He knows that there is no preparing for the very end. He will approach the final game the same way he has approached all the others. He’ll try to enjoy the experience with his family and hopefully go out with a big performance.
“When it’s over, when that ball stops bouncing,” he says, “I’ll just look at it and understand that I’m very thankful for it, that I appreciate where it’s brought me from and where it’s taking me from here, and that I gave everything to it that I wanted to give and that I had.
“And it’s time to move on to something else.”
Alex Squadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.
Photos by Jeffery Salter and via Getty.