Dwyane Wade stood at his new space in his new locker room, focused on looking ahead as his recent past was getting ready to stare him in the face. A return to Miami, a place nobody in their right mind thought he would ever leave, is looming.
The former “Heat Lifer” chuckles at the campaign built around him a couple years back, seeing as how he left his kingdom once he found out it was never really his to begin with.
“I thought it was an opportunity I would be there forever, but s--t happens,” Wade said in an exclusive interview with CSNChicago.com after the Bulls’ 112-80 win over the Orlando Magic on Monday night “And when s--t happens, you gotta be prepared to (move on). I found out very quickly that this is a business.”
Wade is a Chicago Bull in large part due to the business end of basketball, as he left Miami in free agency over the summer when negotiations with the franchise he never wanted to leave went sour.
He insists there’s no hurt feelings with the Miami Heat franchise he became synonymous with, though he hasn’t spoken to Heat president Pat Riley since his departure — the only member of the franchise he hasn’t spoken with since free agency started, as one could say Riley is the sole reason Wade is wearing Bulls red as opposed to Heat red.
“I've kept in touch from everybody there besides Pat. From the owners on down,” Wade said. “It's nothing but respect, and I have no hard feelings. I understand what Pat is, he's a competitor. I've been knowing him for 13 years so I expect no different.
“People might not believe me, but I have no hard feelings toward Pat. Everything happened the way it was supposed to happen, everything happens for a reason, so I'm fine.”
Wade has added a level of maturity to the Bulls’ franchise, not just the locker room, since his arrival after an ugly divorce that left Wade feeling less of a priority and more of an afterthought to the Heat — a franchise with which he helped deliver NBA titles and bring a level of prestige to South Florida, which isn’t exactly a basketball hotbed.
How did it get here?
Well, as with all marriages that end abruptly, there’s complications and possibly misinterpretations all across the board. Wade and the Heat had different priorities headed into last summer as the Heat wanted to make a run at free agent Kevin Durant while keeping young center Hassan Whiteside in the fold.
Keeping that salary-cap space open for two max deals meant Wade had to twist in the wind a bit while the Heat tried to reload for a run at former mate LeBron James in the East.
“Definitely,” said Wade when asked if he felt a certain way about where he fit on the pecking order. “The biggest thing, is all about the way you communicate. I understand this business just as good as anybody. But it's a way, someone like me, a way you communicate what you're trying to do, and how you're gonna do it and what it looks like for me.”
The common courtesy and respect he felt he was due by the franchise — completely different from special treatment, he’s intimated on multiple occasions — went out the window, at least long enough for Wade to seriously explore other options.
“That's it. When you get respect, that's what you get back,” Wade said. “I've given nothing but respect. I feel like a lot of things in this world and this league are mishandled from the notion of communication. That's it.
“At the end of the day, I talked to those guys and I told them, 'It's free agency. I understand y'all have a job to do, and I have a job to do as well.' I let it be known I was going to be a free agent and I wasn't waiting by the phone for them to call me.”
At 34 years old, Wade feels like there was a middle ground that could’ve been found between what the Heat wanted to do externally and what should’ve been handled internally.
Each side had different priorities after being aligned for so long, with the Heat not wanting to be cap-strapped to a Kobe Bryant-like contract during his final two years with the Lakers, believing Wade couldn’t be a top-line player for a contender, while Wade felt he had to look out for himself.
It doesn’t make either wrong or right, but the relationship was headed in a different direction.
“And I did my homework because I understand Hassan was a priority, which he should've been,” Wade said. “I understood that they were trying to go out and get KD, because that's something they wanted to do. But I had to look out for myself and put myself in a situation that I wanted to be in, if things didn't work out the way I wanted them to work out and they didn't.”
Wade has become one of the more respected players in basketball not only for his play but his sacrifices and the way he helped James along when James came to Miami.
It’s not a stretch to say Wade made the biggest salary sacrifices in the history of basketball, turning down tens of millions of dollars in two contracts to help the Heat facilitate signings of James and Chris Bosh in 2010 while also keeping longtime teammate Udonis Haslem.
“You do things because you want to do them. All those things I did to stay in Miami was because I wanted to do them,” Wade said. “When I made the sacrifice, when I could've gotten $127 million and I took $110 million to make sure LeBron and Chris (come) but I also have UD (Haslem) stay, those were things I wanted to do. I didn't want to be in Miami and enjoy the success and not have UD there.”
Wade makes clear he wasn’t coerced or promised anything from the Heat franchise, and it sounds like if given the opportunity for a mulligan, he’d probably make the same decision.
Wade became a Chicago villain for spurning the Bulls but won two more championships in addition to winning Finals MVP in 2006 as a 24-year old.
“As a player, you know the saying, ‘all money ain't good money?’ Sometimes you make a decision to put yourself in a great situation more so than going to get the dollar,” Wade said. “I've been blessed to have a lot of endorsement money as well, and I've been able to make money up — you can't make money up, but I've been able to keep afloat (laughs).”
And unprompted, Wade addresses what he believes is the biggest misconception of the entire ordeal.
“So I never ...” Wade started, his eyes darting from his clothes to make strong eye contact. “There's this notion out there that I expected stuff on the back end. No, I've always wanted as a player what I was worth.”
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So the player who was never the highest-paid player on his own team despite being the best athlete in his adopted state (only Dan Marino compares) didn’t feel valued, seemingly by Riley more than Heat owner Micky Arison.
Contentious negotiations followed when Wade opted out from the deal he signed in 2010 to try to help the Heat retain James, only to see James return to Cleveland after the 2013-14 season.
“That's when things started changing,” Wade said. “They decided to max out Chris, which I was all for. And then it became a situation with me from that standpoint and I wasn't happy with it.”
Wade and Bosh shared the same agent at the time, Henry Thomas, but they all operated as separate entities compared to their initial partnership. Wade signed a short deal but clearly wasn’t satisfied as their long-term objectives begun to grow wider and wider as Wade got older.
“I ain't gonna say, oh, I was happy go lucky,” he said. “Then I opted out again and the next year I signed the one-year, $20 million deal because I never made $20 million in a season. I wanted multiple years, they wanted to be players in free agency, I understand that.”
Calmly and reflectively, Wade answered every query about a big change in his career and life without much bitterness. But the one thing that stumped the first-ballot Hall of Famer was when he was asked if the Heat’s final offer was their initial offer, would he have stayed?
Multiple reports from the summer stated the Heat offered Wade $10 million annually — which considering the salary boom last summer along with the way Wade nearly carried the Heat back to the Eastern Conference Finals probably felt like a slap in the face.
Their final offer was a two-year, $40 million deal, some $7 million less than the Bulls came to the table with, and factoring in Florida’s lack of state taxes, Wade would’ve broke about even.
“It might've been different. I don't know. It could've been. It never happened,” Wade said. “It's hard to say because it never happened. I was never put in that position, and I wasn't the first option. I'm not sensitive to say, ‘If I'm not the first option, I'm leaving.’”
But he felt more like the fallback option than the priority after the Heat inked Whiteside to a max deal and struck out with Durant — a prospect that didn’t seem too realistic in hindsight.
“Obviously I've done my job and duty and stayed there,” he said. “This time I knew it was going to be different. When I went into free agency, I knew it was gonna be different. I just felt it. That's why I did my best to communicate with the powers that be. And I told them what I was gonna do.”
The powers that be?
“The powers that be. The owners, yeah (laughs), because that's what I did the last couple years,” Wade said.
As in not Riley, the man who knew Wade played two of his best individual seasons on teams that couldn’t compete because Riley wanted to hunt for Big Game, as in James.
As in not Riley, the man who saw the sacrifices Wade made to get players to Miami and try to keep them together.
So when Wade says “all money ain’t good money,” it helped the Heat on the front end but came back to bite them last summer. One offer was presented with love and respect, while the other was tinged with resentment.
Making the decision to choose Chicago meant putting himself first, and he was asked if that was difficult.
“No. At this age and point in my career, it wasn't,” Wade said. “And that's why I tell everybody it wasn't a hard decision. It's tough to make a decision when you know you get a couple days to make this decision and it's not gonna be the most popular decision because of X, Y and Z.
“For me, I don't know how many more years I have left to play this game. It's about doing what I want to do at this moment. Not saying I didn't do what I wanted, I always did what I wanted, but it's continuing to have the ability to do that. And I did. I put myself first for once. I didn't say, hey, I waited on Miami to come to me. At the end of the day, I could've come back to Miami and made great money. The contract they offered me was good. By the time it got to me, my heart was somewhere else.”
His heart was north, back home in Chicago with a franchise that desperately needed the credibility Wade could provide while Wade needed the love the Bulls franchise was showing him.
In Miami, he saw teammate Caron Butler get traded when the franchise told him he wouldn’t get moved. He saw Shaquille O’Neal moved when that relationship went south.
Perhaps he always knew the term “Heat Lifer” applies to one person and one person only: Riley.
“It's his show,” Wade said. “For the most part, he's the one who's always there. The players come and go (laughs).
“I never carry myself, like, oh, I'm the Miami Heat, like I can never be traded. That's just not who I am, I've seen this business early on. I'm not that cocky guy like that. I knew it was a possibility, either they might've gotten rid of me or I may have gotten an opportunity to go elsewhere.”
The latter occurred, and coming from someone who saw Michael Jordan in a Wizards uniform, he never thought he was too good to have his ending somewhere else — though it would’ve been special to stay in one place.
“A lot of (great) players played with a lot of other teams. You can count on one hand, two possibly,” Wade said. “Not saying I didn't think I would be one of those guys. I did everything in my power to be one of those guys, and that's all you can do.
“That's why I tell the (Heat) fans, I did everything I could to make sure I stay here. And then it got to a point where, you know what, it was no more I could do. I had to go and do what's best for myself and my family and my future when it comes to my happiness. I want to feel wanted as well. Who doesn't (want to feel) appreciated?”
He said he felt like a voice was tapping him on his shoulder saying “Chicago, Chicago,” so chasing his childhood dream became a reality — but left plenty of questions he’s attempted to answer in the time since last summer as he approaches going to American Airlines Arena as a visitor for the first time.
When he does, he’ll see plenty of old faces, familiar ones that will evoke great memories and likely a feeling of wistfulness. If he sees Riley in a back hallway or on the floor while warming up Thursday, he won’t shun him.
“Life is too short to be holding grudges. At the end of the day, Pat has helped me become a very rich man,” Wade said. “Me and Pat have won championships together. We've both helped each other’s legacies. I love that guy. I know how he is. He's stubborn just like I am.”
Two stubborn men made history, and at the moment Wade doesn’t foresee a reunion in the way James went back to Cleveland. The man who makes a habit out of saying “live in the moment” believes he’s vested in Chicago with the Bulls franchise, not worrying about what will happen when he becomes a free agent again.
“Honestly, I'm happy here, and that's all I'm focused on,” Wade said. “I'm not focused on that. I wanna see those young kids grow. I'm focused on here and what I can do here. And talking to Gar (Forman) and Pax (John Paxson), what's next for me here? I'm not focused on anything else.”
But just as there was something tapping him on the shoulder saying “Chicago, Chicago” as a free agent, “Miami” is looming and he can’t put it off much longer. If he can keep his emotions in check, showing the Heat what they’re missing is likely top of mind.
“Bobby (Portis) just said it in the bathroom, 'Thursday's gonna be crazy, you ready?' I said ‘nah, I ain't.’” Wade admitted. “I don't know what kind of emotions will come over me. I don't know how I'll feel, what it'll look like. I'll get ready when it comes.”