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.”
The 2018-19 season was supposed to begin bringing answers to the Bulls’ rebuild. A healthy offseason for Zach LaVine, head coaching stability for Kris Dunn and a gym membership that Lauri Markkanen clearly made the most of was the lead-up to expectations of progress – if not a few more wins – in Year 2 since dealing Jimmy Butler on the night of the 2017 NBA Draft.
It was also the unwrapping of rookie Wendell Carter Jr. The Bulls selected the Duke center as a high-floor prospect, someone who could help complement Markkanen’s shortcomings, fill an immediate need and provide an anchor to a Bulls defense that had ranked 28th in efficiency the previous season.
Four months after a promising offseason the Bulls are 10-35, the second worst record in the NBA behind the post-LeBron-depleted, Kevin Love-less Cavaliers. Even the most ardent supporters of tanking must be at least somewhat concerned that the team has shown little growth under both Fred Hoiberg and, more recently, Jim Boylen. The Bulls really don’t know what they have outside of a volume scorer in Zach LaVine, a uniquely built Lauri Markkanen and a plus defender in Dunn.
And after news broke Friday, that Carter will miss the next 8 to 12 weeks – and presumably the rest of the season – after undergoing surgery on a sprained thumb, he can be added to the list of unknowns that is defining a lost season.
Carter had his bright spots to be sure – he finishes his rookie campaign averaging 7.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks – and despite his smaller build for an NBA center, proved he can anchor a unit. It’s unfair to dig in to his numbers too much considering he spent the majority of his minutes alongside Bobby Portis, Markkanen and Jabari Parker, who aren’t exactly Serge Ibaka replicas. The Bulls’ defensive efficiency was almost identical when Carter was on the floor (115.7) as it was when he was off it (115.6).
He was a fearless shot blocker – ask Russell Westbrook – with exceptional footwork for a 7-footer (and 19-year-old) who didn’t back down in a starting role while facing Joel Embiid, Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan in the first week of his NBA career (he also faced Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic in the preseason).
He was an above-average pick-and-roll scorer, showing off some chemistry with Zach LaVine the last few weeks that was clearly built up in the early part of the season when LaVine was a usage monster and Carter was being asked to be a second or third scorer.
That was the good. Carter also had a serious fouling problem, tied for fifth in the NBA in personal fouls per game (3.5) despite playing just 25.5 minutes a night. Those numbers had thankfully dropped off some in January, as he averaged only 2.6 fouls per game after averaging 3.8 in 29 games over November and December.
He had his offensive limitations but was working through them. Though he was featured less as a distributor out of the high post once Boylen took over, Carter showed a soft touch around the rim, averaging a team-best 66 percent from shots inside 5 feet; to put that number in perspective, Deandre Ayton and Jaren Jackson Jr. were at 71 and 70 percent, respectively.
The 3-point shot we believed would be part of his game never came to fruition. He was asked to do more offensively under Hoiberg because of the injuries, but he still averaged twice the 3-point attempts (1.0) as he has under Boylen (0.4). Then again, he connected on just 18.8 percent of his 32 triples.
That’s where the final 37 games really would have helped Carter. Boylen has shown some open-mindedness toward pushing pace and allowing his young core full of athletes to play at the style they’re most comfortable in. Carter would have been part of that.
There’s also been plenty of discussion about the time Markkanen, LaVine and Dunn have spent together on the court. Their net rating is a ghastly -20.3, no real leader has taken over among the three and there has been little progress as a collective group.
But Carter is part of that, too. It’s easy to lump the three together because they were the return for Butler in 2016, but the Duke product is just as much of the core as Markkanen and LaVine are. This was a critical period for Carter to play in pick-and-roll action with Dunn, and learn defensive tendencies playing alongside Markkanen. Instead, Carter finishes his rookie campaign playing just 312 minutes with Dunn and Markkanen on the court together.
It’s tough to truly give Carter’s rookie season a grade. Markkanen set the bar high for expectations from the No. 7 pick, and Carter gave us a handful of “wow” moments. There’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to progress and turn into the center of the future. He wasn’t going to post the raw numbers Markkanen did, and while the Bulls expect big things from him he was clearly low on the seniority totem pole behind LaVine, Markkanen and Dunn.
Now, like so many of the Bulls’ key figures in this rebuild, we’ll wait and see what happens. Even if Carter does return at the tail end of the season to give him some momentum, it won’t make up for the 12 weeks he’ll miss – both in game action and in practice. His rookie season ends as an unknown, much like it’s been in every facet of the Bulls’ season.