Dwyane Wade, nostalgia, and going home again

by David Ramil

There was a brief moment before Thursday night’s showdown between the Bulls and Heat when Michael Baiamonte, Miami’s public address announcer, yelled out a name from the visiting lineup in a cadence that had become very familiar over the past 13 seasons. It sounded so natural, as it had for so many spectacular moments during Dwyane Wade’s career, that you could almost forget the past few months when a relationship that seemed likely to last forever was irrevocably changed, when the thin veneer of commitment and loyalty were peeled back to expose the harsh reality of the business we all try so hard to ignore when it comes to our appreciation of sport.

The thousands in the AmericanAirlines Arena cheered for Wade — it was his house, after all, as he had reminded them so often before — but there was still a game left to be played, one that provided much-needed context for why Wade was wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey.

Read More: The Golden State Warriors are heating up

Wade is no longer the superstar he grew to be in Miami, and it showed on this strange, surreal night — his first game in Miami since leaving the team in free agency this summer. He missed his first three shots and finished just 5-of-17 overall for a total of 13 points. Much has been made of his expanded shooting range this season but it wasn’t on display on Thursday when he missed all four of his 3-point attempts. If Heat president Pat Riley was the kind of man that needed external validation to justify his decision-making, this game certainly helped.

And yet there was evidence that Wade has, against all odds, managed to adapt his game as he embarks on his 14th professional season. The long-range shooting might be the most glaring change, even if his percentage continues to drop as the season progresses. But there was also a deference to Jimmy Butler in the fourth quarter, allowing him to take over in the game’s closing moments when Chicago needed a score to keep Miami at bay. Wade wasn’t prone to this kind of flexibility during his last two seasons in Miami and one can’t help but wonder if Riley would’ve been more inclined to re-sign him if he had made the changes sooner.

This game felt very much like a microcosm of Wade’s career, particularly its last arc in Miami. The early missed shots seemed likely to set the tone for the night, until he connected on his next two attempts, including a dunk set up nicely by Butler following a Heat turnover. There was the ultra-competitive spirit at work as he got into a brief scuffle with Justise Winslow. After he fouled Wade to prevent a drive to the rim, Winslow was shoved away by his former mentor; if Heat fans had learned to look past Wade’s overzealous approach at times, here was a powerful reminder of why he’s disliked by so many opposing fans.

There was the spin move on the baseline, where Wade, creaking knees and all, left Winslow in his dust and finished his drive with an acrobatic layup that somehow fell through, complete with the accompanying foul call.

There was a bit of karmic retribution in Wade’s performance, as well, particularly when he bit on a pump fake from Miami’s Tyler Johnson that was very reminiscent of Wade’s frustrating expertise in this particular area. Johnson signed a lucrative contract with Miami this past season and has since received blame from some who, erroneously, believe he got paid money that could have been allocated to Wade instead.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Wade, true to form, even earned a dubious foul call late in the game, something the Heat have benefitted from countless times during that 13-year career in South Florida. With Miami down, 94-92, and just seconds left in the game, Wade sold some minor contact from Winslow that sent him flailing out of bounds. The Heat faithful turned on the former face of the franchise and began to boo just as he’s been booed everywhere else he’s played. Wade’s response, of course, was to calmly sink both free throws to ice the game in Chicago’s favor.

Even months after Wade made the choice to sign with Chicago, it’s hard to say if anyone is at fault, or if Wade and the Heat might both benefit and suffer from the decision. Miami could have overpaid their franchise’s best player to keep him with the same team that drafted him, just as the Lakers did with Kobe Bryant as the aging star faced injury and inconsistency. Doing so may have made for some nice P.R. but could have cost them the opportunity to re-sign Hassan Whiteside and Johnson, not to mention stifle the development of a player like Winslow.

But who’s to say that the version of Wade that we see in Chicago — shooting from long-range and deferring in style of play — couldn’t have manifested in Miami? Perhaps the move to the Bulls to a team with an established star like Butler was the necessary impetus for Wade to acquiesce the power base he’d built for over a decade with the Heat? Sometimes a change of scenery can make all the difference.

Truth be told, there was something a bit anticlimactic about Thursday’s affair. It could be the reality that players rarely stay with the same team has left us desensitized. Or it could be that Wade doesn’t carry the same emotional weight as he once did. There’s something about Wade as an aging, complementary player that’s far less incendiary than a player in his prime playing for a new team. It’s a strange world where one of the best guards of all-time is rendered innocuous.

In this sense, the break from the Heat might have made the best sense. The pressure to be, as Baiamonte bellowed Thursday night, DUH-WANE WAAAAADE, is harder to manage especially as his skills decline. But in Chicago, he can be the humbled star content to help however possible, a consummate team player. More than anything he does on the court, it’s this shift in perception which may redefine Wade as his career comes to a close. Everything he did in Miami remains frozen in context of that 13-year career; that was another man, in another jersey at a very different time.

And if we see the occasional glimpse of who he was, as we did Thursday night, then it’s through a nostalgic lens that never distorts and, unlike Wade himself, simply gets better over time.

David Ramil is a credentialed writer whose words about basketball have been published at VICE, SB Nation, and several FanSided sites among others. You can read his observations on the NBA and life in general via Twitter at @dramil13.