It’s impossible to tell Dwyane Wade’s basketball story without including Chicago.
Though the 12-time All-Star, three-time NBA champion created a legacy in Miami, his hometown and the first organization he ever cheered for has been intertwined in that story from Day 1. From his early beginnings as child growing up in Chicago to Saturday’s farewell tour stopping at the United Center, Wade’s hometown has played an integral role in his journey from cheering on Michael Jordan to joining His Airness as one of the NBA’s all-time great shooting guards.
He's no longer Flash, the lightning quick, spry shooting guard with unmatched pound-for-pound strength. But the 37-year-old Wade saved some of his best for last in Saturday's win over the Bulls. He finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in 27 minutes. It felt like vintage Wade at times, as the Oak Lawn native scored on a few stepbacks, floaters and cuts to the basket similar to the ones that made him one of the game's best for more than a decade.
Wade's final United Center memory comes 16 seasons after his first one. A 22-year-old Wade was nursing a right wrist and had planned to sit out his first visit to the United Center in December 2003.
That changed when he saw his childhood hero Michael Jordan the night before the game.
“(Jordan’s) like, ‘I can’t wait to see you play tomorrow.’ And I was like, ‘Welp, guess I’m playing,’” Wade said prior to Saturday's game. “And then I end up being in a cast for like two months after that.”
Wade scored just 10 points in 36 minutes that night, but playing was never in doubt. Wade grew up idolizing Jordan, one of the millions of kids who grew up in Chicago watching the 90s Bulls hang banner after banner. He joined fellow Chicagoans like Quentin Richardson and Corey Maggette, and a young Derrick Rose, as inner city kids who looked up to Jordan as inspiration to get out of the city and make something of themselves.
"Growing up in the inner city, to make it out to be a vision of hope for the next generation, we take a lot of pride in that," Wade said. "And to come back and give back and hopefully give others opportunity to be successful,l but also just for people in the city of Chicago to see that it can be done, you can get out. A lot of us had a ball and a dream and that ball has taken us so many places."
After a successful career at Richards High School and a three-year stint at Marquette that included a Final Four run, Chicago basketball took Wade to Miami. Beginning with that first game at the United Center in 2003, the hometown kid became a thorn in the Bulls' side for the next 13 seasons. He knocked the Bulls out of the postseason three different times, including twice on the way to championships in 2006 and 2013, and the famous Eastern Conference Finals in 2011.
That stretch also included Wade spurning the Bulls in the infamous summer of 2011 when it appeared he and close friend LeBron James were close to signing in Chicago. Instead Wade opted to remain in Miami and bring James and Chris Bosh with him. The consolation prize for the Bulls was $76 million Carlos Boozer and a front row seat to Miami's four-year reign in the Eastern Conference that included four Finals appearances and two championships.
Wade signed on the dotted line four years later, inking a two-year deal with the Bulls that was as much financially motivated as it was a chance to play for the hometown team. Wade's fit in Chicago was always an interesting one for both sides that never really worked, and it ultimately ended in his buyout in the months after the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler and entered a rebuild.
But Wade's impact on his hometown team was evident.
In the 70-second video tribute the Bulls ran for Wade during the first quarter of Saturday's game, there was as much footage of Wade doing work in the community with the Dwyane Wade Foundation and Spotlight On as there was highlights of his time on the floor. Though Wade couldn't help push the Bulls to greater heights in his lone year in Chicago, his 18.3 points at age 35 largely go overlooked because of the chaos that went on in the locker room that season.
Wade latched on with James and the Cleveland Cavaliers after his buyout in 2017, and he returned to Chicago in unceremonious fashion, scoring 24 points in a December blowout victory.
That was nothing compared to what Wade experienced on Saturday, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd of 20,926 following the video tribute, and a chorus of cheers each time he entered the game. If not for cheering on a Chicago legend, the fans recognized one of the all-time greats that, for better and worse, has a chapter in the history of Chicago basketball.
Wade has made a dozen farewell tours this season, but none quite like what happened in his hometown. It was the fitting end to a career - a lifetime, really - that has featured numerous Chicago memories.
"I have more of a connection here than anywhere else," he said after the game. "It's my birth city. It's the place where my vision to become an NBA player started, watching my favorite team and watching my favorite players growing up. It definitely felt different than any other city but it was a good different. It was a joyous time for me to be here."
Wade has become the Michael Jordan of Miami. No one will ever wear No. 3 in a Heat uniform again, Wade will have a statue somewhere outside American Airlines arena and he’ll join the all-time greats in Springfield, Mass., as a Hall of Famer in 2024.
He’s created a legacy in Miami, but for so many reasons Chicago will always be part of his basketball story.
“This city, this Chicago Bulls name, it means a lot to me," he said. "It will always mean a lot to me.”