One of the definitions of the word icon is, “an object of critical devotion.” When you talk about Dwyane Wade, and the 15 of the 16 seasons he spent wearing No. 3 for the Miami Heat, the word icon and its meaning, is the perfect way to describe DWade and what he meant to the city of Miami. After being taken with the fifth overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft—a class that can make a strong and legitimate argument for the title of best ever—Wade turned a struggling Heat squad into a playoff team as a rookie and took one of the country’s smallest media markets and cast a light over it that was brighter and hotter than the South Florida sun.
And while Wade was on the fast track to establishing himself as one of the League’s most recognizable and marketable young stars on the court, off the court he was subtly and very quietly, establishing himself as a leader in the community he represented so proudly that they had to change the name—colloquially speaking, at least—of Dade County, to “Wade County.”
Wade’s presence and contributions to his adopted home city made him more than just an athlete. His works and his actions made him a native son. The year he was drafted, the “Wade’s World Foundation” was established with the purpose of helping at-risk youth excel and achieve beyond their circumstances, giving them hope and an opportunity to live their dreams and not succumb to the pressures of their environment. And even though the primary recipients of Wade’s philanthropy were the people of Miami, he never forgot children in the other communities he was a part of on his road to greatness.
Over the first three years of his career, Wade donated $195,000 to help launch the “Live to Dream” summer literacy camp for second and third graders in the Milwaukee Public School system. Wade played his college basketball at Marquette University and has never forgotten the city that helped launched his career to stardom and made him a household name. In his home city of Chicago (Wade was born and grew up , Wade also used his name and foundation to combat two of the city’s biggest problems: poverty and gun violence. His “3 Under the Tree” initiative in Chicago helped make the Christmas season a little happier for children during a gift giving event for the holidays.
He started the “Spotlight On…” campaign which aimed to not only shine a light on the issues plaguing his hometown, but to showcase the young people in their communities who are leaders in promoting change and actually doing something about the problems they face. The initiative encouraged them to continue being advocates for helping stop the violence in their communities, something that hit close to home for the NBA superstar when his cousin Nykea Aldridge was tragically killed in gang crossfire in 2016 while pushing a stroller across the street with her infant child in tow. Wade also fearlessly tackled many of this country’s social justice issues that have been discussed across all mediums in platforms, in some way or another. In 2012, Wade and his Miami Heat teammates, including LeBron James, stood in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Black teenager who was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida. The squad took a photo in their hoodies, as an homage to Martin who was wearing a hoodie at the time he was murdered.
Throughout his 16 years in the League, Wade has always been generous of his time and resources to give back to those who came from an environment not at all dissimilar from the one he grew up on Chicago’s South Side. The ways in which he’s given back are too many to name in such a small space, but if you’ve been paying attention to his 2018-19 NBA farewell tour dubbed #OneLastDance, the love and enjoyment that he’s given to fans—from the way he competed hard on the floor every night, to the way he went hard for people less fortunate than himself—was reciprocated in a way that anyone would take pride and joy in.
“[Dwyane Wade] cared about more than just basketball,” said Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich before Wade’s final game in San Antonio. “He had a ferocious attitude on the court, but it was matched with a wonderful smile and a great understanding of the world and community off the court. I think that’s what made him so special.”
“I know what you’re going through because saying goodbye to a career that you love is never easy. I’ve been there,” former president Barack Obama said in a video message to the retiring star. “Whenever you got knocked down, you always showed us how to get back up. You showed some Chicago spirit in you and you did us proud. So from all of us who are fans of the game, we just want to congratulate you on an extraordinary career.”
Even though it was known last summer that the 2018-19 NBA season would be his last, by the time the regular season began winding to a close, Wade’s performances throughout the season, had many of his peers wondering aloud if he was leaving the game at a time when it appeared he still had way more in the tank.
“Are you sure?” Steph Curry said he asked Wade after facing him for the final time. “I know you got a lot of stuff going on off the court with family and all that. Are you sure you don’t have a couple more years left in there?”
“He’s been really good as an older guy with all the younger guys in the League,” said Kevin Durant. “As a hooper from day one, I can appreciate that about D-Wade, especially battling him in the Finals and throughout my whole career. It’s good to see guys go out the way they want to.”
“I don’t want him to retire, man,” said his teammate Justise Winslow. “I was telling someone that he’s the second or third best shooting guard of all time, but sometimes I forget that and think, ‘He’s just old as s**t.’ But he can still take over games. He can still find his rhythm… I’d rather him not retire, but One Last Dance; it’s surreal.”
Budweiser, in paying homage to Wade, produced a “This Bud’s For 3” campaign commemorating his season-long jersey swap with select players from different teams around the League, brought Dwyane Wade face to face with some of the people he’s directly helped and encouraged throughout his career, so that they could give him a gift, the same as he’d given them. From the mother in Miami who’s family home burned down just days before Christmas and Wade took them on a shopping spree and helped them move into a new home, to the young girl whose brother was killed in the Parkland High School shooting and was a huge fan of Wade. All of the people who spoke during the spot, made Wade visibly emotional. But it was his mother, who surprised him with her participation, brought the biggest smile to his face. Jolinda Wade, who battles substance abuse addiction which led to a prison stay when Wade was young, but overcame all of that to become an ordained minister. When her youngest son became a multimillionaire basketball player, he purchased his mother a church on Chicago’s South Side.
“You are royalty in everybody’s life that you’ve touched,” Ms. Wade told her son. “I am more proud of the man you have become than the basketball player. You are bigger than basketball.”
Those words spoken by his mother, “You are bigger than basketball,” are words that she’s always told him and words that he’s always held onto, not just in his playing career, but throughout the course of his life.
“I can’t just let basketball define who I am and what I am supposed to become,” Wade said at the inception of his foundation. “Like my mother always tells me, my life is bigger than basketball.”
Judging players across eras is a tough thing to do because there’s always a measure of implicit bias that comes into play. But when it comes to judging players by position, and figuring out where they rank, things become a little bit easier. It goes without saying that Dwyane Tyrone Wade Jr. is without a doubt one of the greatest players of his era. He is Miami’s franchise leader in several key categories, including points, assists and steals. He was also a 13-time All-Star, a League scoring champ, a three-time All-Defensive player, three-time NBA champion and a Finals MVP. But there is one distinction in the midst of all that which stands out the most.
Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade are hands down the three greatest shooting guards in the history of the NBA. That’s pretty impressive company and an honor and distinction that can never be taken away. From his exploits on the court that made us all stand up on our feet and cheer as basketball fans, to his business ventures and community and social activist work that encouraged us to reach out and make a difference in our own neighborhoods and areas where we live, Wade was an inspiration to us all. And for that, we should all be grateful.
Goodbyes are difficult, especially when we sit back and reflect on what is being lost. But after the period of sadness and lamentation has passed, the focus shifts to an appreciation for all of the things gained as a result of the thing that has gone away. Wade’s #OneLastDance was a sad occasion for his fans who grew up watching him play and saw his career blossom. But when you think about “Fall Down 7, Stand Up,” or him hopping on the scorers table inside American Airlines Arena, boldly declaring, “This is my house!” you can’t help but smile at the fact of how fortunate it was to witness greatness, both on and off the court, happen in front of your face.