I first took notice of Dwyane Wade during his introduction to the collective basketball consciousness during his remarkable run in the 2003 NCAA Tournament. He recorded only the fourth triple-double in NCAA Tourney history on his way to locking up the Midwest Region MVP trophy and carrying his Marquette Eagles to its first Final Four berth in 26 years. These accolades alone cemented D-Wade’s place as best to ever don a Marquette jersey (despite what a rather deranged and otherwise comedically challenged Doc Rivers might have to say about the topic). Am I a little overzealous in bestowing that honor upon him? Not likely. Wade is the only athlete in Marquette history to have his jersey retired without first having graduated from the institution.
All of that is great, but none of it is what impressed me most about this kid. What impressed me most was an interview he conducted during a game that followed one of his own back in 2003. The commentators had already spoken about how Wade, just a junior in college at the time (despite having only played college basketball for two seasons due to a failure to meet eligibility requirements as a freshman), already had a son and was—get this—a married man. He then further impressed me by showing a huge amount of maturity while being interviewed. I didn’t know if his overall game would translate to a successful NBA career, but I knew that the young man from Chicago had my respect—certainly as a ballplayer—but more importantly as a human being.
Fast forward to present day, and Dwyane Wade is certainly about to get his due. Along with LeBron James, D-Wade’s decision on whether to remain a member of his current team or to try his luck elsewhere will shape the landscape of the entire League for the better part of the next decade. The second-tier free agents (including everyone from Chris Bosh to David Lee) will have to make decisions based on whether or not they want to try to build a Championship-caliber team with LeBron and/or Dwyane or if they want to try their luck elsewhere. These two megastars certainly have that in common. They also have in common six consecutive All Star Game appearances, increased scoring averages in each of their first three seasons, a Scoring Title apiece, multiple All-NBA and All-Defensive Team selections, at least one All Star Game MVP, an NBA Finals appearance, and a gold medal in the 2008 Summer Olympics.
For all there similarities, LeBron James has one thing D-Wade might covet (an MVP trophy), and Wade has two things the perhaps prematurely anointed "King" James certainly covets (a Championship Ring and a Finals MVP trophy). Prognosticators will cite the fact that Dwyane was teamed with a motivated and still somewhat dominant Shaquille O’Neal when he was fortunate enough to hoist that Larry O’Brien Trophy over his head and that LeBron has never had the luxury of a worthy running mate. Let me be clear: LeBron James willed the Cavaliers to the Finals in 2007 with a subpar supporting cast. Since then—particularly over the past two seasons—James’ teammates have been nothing to sneeze at. Let me also be clear about this: Wade benefitted from playing with a motivated (at the time) Shaq, but—and Heat fans remember this well—down 2-0 to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2006 Finals and seemingly dead in the water late in Game 3, Dwyane Wade took over that series. Wade had help, but without his performances, Shaq would have been swept out of the Finals for the first time in his post Orlando Magic career.
The two also differ in another all important area: Maturity. LeBron James is a special basketball player—perhaps the most special player I’ve seen with my own two eyes in my lifetime. I don’t take that lightly because I’ve seen the likes of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Kobe Bryant just to name a few, but James is a physical and athletic specimen who can dominate the boxscore as well as leave his fingerprints all over a game in areas that never show up on a stat sheet, but his maturity level and his professionalism have become an issue for the young star. From not shaking hands with Dwight Howard after the Orlando Magic derailed the hopes of a Kobe Bryant/LeBron James headlined NBA Finals matchup and subsequently shunning the media a year ago to his childish antics over this past summer with "Dunkgate" to him forcing an entire city and a franchise to hold their breath to see what he’ll do this summer in free agency, to flat out seeming disinterested in the pivotal Game 5 of his team’s 2nd Round matchup with Boston in these Playoffs, his recent antics have left major questions about his character.
I’ll cut LeBron a little slack because he’s still a kid. He doesn’t turn 26 until near the end of this calendar year. Had James gone to college a full four years, he’d only currently be in his third season as a pro. The problem with cutting him slack is that the two-time defending MVP of the League is emerging as the face of the NBA, and up until his rather abrupt exit from last year’s Playoffs, Lebron James had been a nothing if not a model citizen. Dwyane Wade, on the other hand, has been a different story. He has seemingly taken everything in stride. He got a taste of the Playoffs as a rookie and emerged as the unquestioned leader of that team. With the exception of the 2007-2008 campaign in which nagging shoulder and knee injuries caused the organization to shut him down for the second half of that season, he has led his team back to the Playoffs each year. The entire roster has changed around him—going from being chock full of talent to capitalize on an extremely small Championship window to being chock full of band-aid players needed to simply fill out the roster in anticipation of the upcoming free agent class—but D-Wade has remained the same. He has been a class act the entire way. The season Dwyane put together statistically a year ago was among the best in League history, but a lack of substantial help all but eliminated him from serious MVP consideration.
Knowing that this season was merely a formality in anticipation of the Summer of 2010, Wade could have easily taken his foot off the gas and made sure he was healthy for his big payday. Instead, he put up numbers that are only slightly less impressive than those of a year ago. Without his superhuman efforts, this Miami Heat team would have lost at least ten more games than they did—landing them in the Lottery yet again. After putting up ridiculous numbers against a Boston Celtic team that still bested him in the first three games of Round One, Wade could have packed it in. Did he? Not a chance. He dug deep and came up with an elimination game performance for the ages to will his team to an it’s-all-about-pride win in Game 4. Even though he was visibly exhausted in Game 5, you never had the idea that D-Wade wasn’t fully invested in any of the games or giving his all. Despite recent personal offcourt issues, Wade has never (that I have seen) handled himself in a manner that reflects badly on his character.
With LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers facing elimination tonight, his fans simply don’t know what kind of effort they will get from their star. For all the promise his athletic ability and skill James has, his performance tonight will be an unfortunate question mark until tipoff later tonight. Heat fans never have to worry about that with Dwyane Wade. Attribute it to Wade being almost three full years James’ senior. Attribute it to D-Wade not being on the NBAs radar until that Final Four run at Marquette in 2003. Attribute it to Dwyane appreciating the game because he has had the game taken away from him on several occasions. Whatever it can be attributed to, I’m appreciative of him for what he does on the court and for how he carries himself off it. Thanks, Dwyane Wade, for being someone we can be proud of—and for not being LeBron James.