Growing up in South Florida, my first memory of winning came in 2001. The Miami Hurricanes went undefeated and beat Nebraska in the national championship game. Look at this roster. Stacked. That was my first championship, but the last for the once-dynastic Hurricanes.
My next memory was only a few years later, in 2004. The Florida Marlins took an improbable group to the World Series and beat the New York Yankees. The Marlins were fun — a young, skinny Miguel Cabrera, a rocket-armed Dontrelle Willis, Juan Pierre stealing a base every time you blinked, Jack McKeon managing from a smoky dugout. I watched this season with my dad, crushing bags of sunflower seeds as we nervously mimicked these baseball heroes.
The Marlins traded Cabrera a few seasons later, dismantled the group in what became an almost-annual occurrence and haven’t been to the postseason since. The Florida Panthers went to one Stanley Cup, lost, and haven’t done anything of note since. The Miami Dolphins have been one of the lousiest franchises in the NFL for the last 30 years, inventing new ways to disappoint fans every season. My point is: the winning in South Florida was fleeting. A ship passing in the night. You had to be paying attention to catch it.
In 2003, that all changed.
The Miami Heat drafted Dwyane Wade: a kid out of Marquette who was mostly known for an impressive NCAA tournament run and not being LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony. I was 13 at the time, and I remember it being the first draft I paid attention to — mostly because of LeBron, but also because the Heat were picking in the top five and I was told that was a big deal.
Wade joined a Heat team that had just lost its face of the franchise, Alonzo Mourning, and included Lamar Odom, Eddie Jones and Brian Grant, coached by Stan Van Gundy. Despite being a shooting guard, Wade started at point guard because he was the best option Miami had.
The Heat made the playoffs that year and beat the New Orleans Hornets in the first round. The lasting memory: Game 1, only seconds left, the Heat needing a score, Wade handling at the top of the key, crossing over to his right before darting left (he always loved to go left) and pulling up for his first high-stakes game-winner in the NBA. The Heat lost to the Indiana Pacers in the second round. But it was clear. We really had something here.
Since that pull-up jumper, none of the other teams I grew up cheering for have won a single playoff game or series. Miami had championship football in the 70s and 80s. The Marlins have their blips in 1997 and 2004. I was born in 1991. Wade taught me and other 20-somethings in South Florida about sustained success. About the work and greatness it takes to be something more than a lucky strike.
Wade brought the Heat its first title in 2006. He was arguably the best player in the league between 2006 and 2008 — almost equally as incredible as LeBron but more accomplished. His run from 2005 to 2010 rivals any shooting guard outside of M.J. (Maybe I’m showing my homer colors here, but I’ll take that version of Wade over any version of Kobe.)
Then, in 2010, he brought LeBron and Chris Bosh to Miami. LeBron and Bosh came to play with Wade. They could have gone to Chicago or New York but, no, Wade had established something in Miami that didn’t exist in those cities. Pat Riley’s culture fizzles out in the early aughts if not for Wade. “Heat Culture” is as much Wade’s as it is Riley’s. On the Mount Rushmore of South Florida sports, Wade long ago bumped Dan Marino from the A-spot.
And as he wore the city’s name over his chest, he became Miami’s superhero. He spoke out for causes he believed in, memorably donning a hoodie after Trayvon Martin was shot down in 2012. More recently, after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last year, Wade supported the families of its victims. He met the family of Joaquin Oliver, a D-Wade superfan who was buried in a Wade jersey. Later, Wade would play with Joaquin’s name written on his shoes — symbolically returning the favor.
As Wade plays his final game in Miami tonight, fans will cheer for the city’s ultimate winner one last time and, in the end, he will walk off the court on his own terms. On Instagram a few days ago, Wade posted to his story a black-and-white photo of himself with the caption “I made everything I ever wanted happen!”
The underlying text?
So can you.
Dwyane Wade raised the bar in Miami.
Dwyane Wade set the standard.
Dwyane Wade showed us how to win, the right way, on and off the court.