I remember the first time I met Dwyane Wade, during his senior year at Richards high school in Oak Lawn. Wade had just burst onto the scene as the latest Chicago area prep sensation with a series of dominant performances in a holiday tournament, scoring 40 points in a couple games. His athletic ability and creative scoring skills were incredibly advanced for a player of that age.
At that time, I was working at Channel 5 and we did a weekly segment honoring prep athletes. I made the trip out to Oak Lawn to interview Dwyane and his coach Jack Fitzgerald following one of the team’s practices. Wade couldn’t have been more polite, but he was painfully shy and spoke softly and modestly about what he had been able to accomplish during the early part of his senior year.
Wade had already accepted a scholarship to Marquette, and told me only two other Division I schools had shown any serious interest because of academic concerns. Being a Milwaukee native, I shared a few stories with him about the city and what he could expect at a tradition-rich program like Marquette. I really enjoyed our conversation and decided on the spot I would pay a little extra attention to see how Dwyane Wade’s career developed.
As it turned out, Wade had to sit out his first year after failing to meet the standards for eligibility under the old Prop 48 academic guidelines. But once he hit the court with the Golden Eagles (I always want to type Warriors) in the fall of 2001, the fans of Milwaukee quickly realized they had a new star to enjoy. Wade averaged 17.8 points during his first season at Marquette, led Conference USA with almost 2.5 steals per game, and helped the Golden Eagles to a 26-7 record, their best since the 1993-94 season.
Wade was even better the following season, leading Marquette to a Final Four appearance, averaging 21.5 points and earning first team All-American honors from AP. After declaring for early entry in the NBA draft, Wade was projected as a mid-1st round pick. The Bulls held the No. 7 overall pick and fell in love with Wade after an individual workout. They had him in for a second visit just before draft night, and basically told Wade he would be their selection if he was still on the board.
Unfortunately, Miami Heat coach Pat Riley won a draft room argument with the front office to select Wade at No. 5 instead of their consensus choice, big man Chris Kaman, and the Bulls were left to think about what might have been after drafting Kirk Hinrich at 7.
Wade became an instant star in the NBA, and in his third season, teamed with Shaquille O’Neal to bring Miami its first NBA championship. Shaq gave him the nickname “Flash” and it definitely fit. Wade was named Finals MVP in 2006, averaging 34.7 points per game as the Heat blazed past Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks to win the title in six games. The former Richards high school star had made it big on the national stage and I was happy to see him achieve so much success.
Then came a series of mediocre seasons with the Heat that required Wade to carry the franchise on his back. He led the league in scoring in 2008-09, but the grind of doing everything just to earn a first round exit in the playoffs started to wear on Wade, and as he approached free agency in the summer of 2010, it appeared he was ready to move on to a better situation. Count me among the many Bulls fans hoping Wade would come back home to play a starring role with a Bulls’ team on the rise.
Unfortunately, we remember all too well what happened that summer. Wade had two separate meetings with the Bulls on the first day of free agency, giving the front office hope he was ready to come on board and bring either Chris Bosh or LeBron James with him. Wade told the Bulls he wanted to go back to Miami and take a few days to think things over, but at that point no one really knew the formation of the Super Heat was already in the works, with both James and Bosh coming to South Beach to team up with Wade.
And, that’s where the disconnect came with Wade and many of his hometown fans. Why did Wade take two meetings with the Bulls if he intended to team up with Bosh and LeBron all along? Was he disingenuous, or even worse, spying for Pat Riley on the Bulls' free agent strategy? The soft-spoken kid I met at Richards high school had suddenly become the villain.
The cheers Wade used to hear at the United Center turned to mostly boos, with the Heat becoming the Bulls’ unconquerable foe during the Big 3 era. Wade still came back to the Chicago area every summer to run a basketball camp, but the feeling just wasn’t the same when he talked about his love for his hometown.
I have to admit I was extremely skeptical when reports started to emerge about the Bulls expressing interest in signing Wade this time around. Surely, he would just use other teams’ interest as leverage to extract a better contract from Riley. What I didn’t know is the bond between Riley and Wade had been irreparably damaged over a perceived lack of respect shown to the 12-time All-Star during a series of difficult contract negotiations. Wade was looking for a new home and Chicago was at the top of his list.
Give credit to Bulls’ executives John Paxson and Gar Forman for acting quickly when Wade let them know he was serious about a homecoming. The Bulls were able to shed the contracts of two older veterans who no longer fit — Mike Dunleavy and Jose Calderon — allowing them to make a big enough financial offer to secure a deal with Wade.
The Prodigal Son is coming home, and I can’t help but think about how much Dwyane Wade has changed since I first met him over 16 years ago. He’s now a multi-platform celebrity, poised and confident in front of the camera. He talked about his decision to join the Bulls on the nationally-televised "Live with Kelly" last Thursday morning, saying he always imagined himself wearing a Bulls’ jersey and being announced to the home crowd at the United Center.
Well Dwyane, you’re finally getting that wish. The soft-spoken kid from Richards high school is coming home, and I can’t wait to see how the next chapter of his career unfolds.